How this year's free agent excitement feels different for the Bears

How this year's free agent excitement feels different for the Bears

Every year around this time, NFL teams welcome their priority free agents to their new cities, and those free agents talk about how excited they are to be in their new city with their new team. It’s pretty standard stuff — of course everyone’s in a good mood after signing an eight-figure contract that gives them or adds to generational wealth. 

But something felt different about how the five players the Bears introduced on Thursday at Halas Hall talked about their new team. These weren’t general platitudes about being happy to be here. Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, Trey Burton, Chase Daniel and Cody Parkey all, in one way or another, easily offered specifics to their excitement. And for each player, those specifics had a common thread: Matt Nagy and Mitch Trubisky. 

“It was a good fit for me,” Robinson said. “When you look at the possible situations, once they hired coach Nagy, … You kind of see the offense that he runs, you know how everything gets run with the quarterback situation, being close to home, there were a lot of factors that played in my favor.”

“I had a few interests in free agency but about the Bears it was just Nagy’s offense, just his creativity and the things that he did when he was with the Chiefs,” Gabriel said. “I feel like for me it was a no-brainer, and coming from with Tyreek Hill and the things that he did with him to move him around and get him open, it was a no-brainer for me.”

“(Trubisky) did some really good things,” Daniel said. “I’m excited to dive in with him deeper and get started with him. From everything I’ve heard, everyone I’ve seen he’s a really great guy. So I’m ready to work with him.” 

Ryan Pace has previously tried to swing for the fences in free agency, only to come up with some big whiffs. Cornerback A.J. Bouye turned down more money from the Bears a year ago to sign with the Jacksonville Jaguars, for example. And his instinct proved to be right: The Jaguars went to the AFC Championship game, while the Bears languished in the basement of the NFC North and fired their coach on New Year’s Day. 

But the Bears proved to be a much better destination for free agents this time around, with a young, relatable head coach in place and a developing, well-thought-of quarterback running the offense. The money is important, but if these guys were getting relatively similar offers, that the Bears were able to effectively sell their upside and stability is important. 

Why else would Burton, a guy who threw one of the most famous touchdowns in Super Bowl history and has the ring to show for it, leave for a team that’s lost 10 or more games in each of the last four seasons? 

“You can never underestimate how important youth is and guys who are willing to learn and willing to get better,” Burton said. The oldest member of the Bears’ offense, it’s worth noting, is Daniel:

It’s one thing to take the money, and it’s another thing to truly want to be with a team for reasons more than dollar signs. The feeling at Halas Hall today was that these players wanted to be here not just because of the money, but because they genuinely can see a winning future on the horizon. 

And there’s another layer to this, too: Before Pace or any of the players filed into the media room, almost the entire Bears’ offensive coaching staff, as well as Nagy and special teams coordinator Chris Tabor, grabbed seats along the wall. That shouldn’t be a lost note, especially as Pace talked up how good the communication has been between the front office, scouts and coaching staff in this process.

“One thing that was good this year was our alignment with coaches and just feeling that,” Pace said. “Matt does an unbelievable job of painting a vision for the player and then it’s up to us to go find those guys with our coaching staff, and I feel very aligned in that right now and excited about this.

“… When we’re all united, our coaches and our scouts in our vision for the player and how we feel about the player, let’s go get that guy and give it our best shot. And we did that. If you would’ve told me two days ago that, hey, I’d be coming here talking about these five players, we all would’ve taken that. The whole building’s excited right now.” 
We’ll see if this excitement turns into wins — which have been scarce around these parts — come September. The most important factor in determining how successful the Bears will be in 2018 will be the play of Trubisky. But these five players are all here to help Trubisky grow, and they wouldn’t have signed here had they not had confidence in that growth under Nagy’s watch. 

“(Nagy’s a) smooth dude, man,” Gabriel said. “I like his swag a little bit. It’s nice. Just his offensive mind. Meeting him the first time, it felt like I knew him for a long time, not just meeting him for the first time. I feel like we’re going to gel together and create a lot of things.

“… I looked up a few of (Trubisky’s) highlights on YouTube as well, and the guy can sling it, man and when we signed the other day, the fist thing I asked him was ‘How’s your deep ball?’ So I’m excited to be with him and excited to get in and play with him.”

Three questions for Bears OL: What kind of an impact will Harry Hiestand make?

Three questions for Bears OL: What kind of an impact will Harry Hiestand make?

Pre-camp depth chart
1. Charles Leno
2. Bradley Sowell
3. Matt McCants

1. Eric Kush
2. James Daniels
3. Jordan Morgan
4. Will Pericak

1. Cody Whitehair
2. James Daniels
3. Hroniss Grasu

1. Kyle Long
2. Earl Watford
3. Brandon Greene
4. Jeremi Hall

1. Bobby Massie
2. Bradley Sowell
3. Dejon Allen

1. Can Kyle Long get and stay healthy?

The expectation is that Long will be cleared to practice for the beginning of training camp, paving the way for him to be part of the Bears’ Week 1 starting lineup (Matt Nagy said in June that Long will be “good to go” for camp, for what it’s worth). Long has played less than 50 percent of the Bears’ offensive snaps in the last two years due to a string of injuries, and the 29-year-old underwent procedures on his shoulder, elbow and neck after his season ended. 

Long’s toughness isn’t in question — that he still started nine games last year despite never being 100 percent is a testament to that — but the Bears need him to play more for their offensive line to be at its best. Long’s health, and if he gets any planned rest days, will be a daily storyline in Bourbonnais. 

The good news, though, is Long already impressed his new offensive line coach during OTAs and minicamp despite not being able to do much on the field. 

“He really wants to be good,” Harry Hiestand said. “He’s fun to be around, he comes in the meeting room every day with a smile on his face, looking forward to working. He’s very interested in helping the other guys. I didn’t know that about him. But after I’ll say something, the meeting will break and they’ll be walking out to get a break and he’ll be like, you know what coach was talking about there to the young guys. So that part’s been really good about him.” 

2. Where will James Daniels wind up?

The snap assumption — pun intended — when the Bears drafted Daniels in the second round was that he’d play center and Cody Whitehair would shift over to left guard, where he played in college. But the Bears quickly quashed that theory, with Ryan Pace telling the media shortly after drafting Daniels that the Iowa product would begin his pro career practicing as a guard and cross-training at center. 

Daniels, indeed, worked at both positions during OTAs and minicamp, and trying to read any tea leaves from non-padded practices for offensive linemen can be a bit of a stretch. So we’ll get a good idea of where the Bears envision Daniels’ long-term position during training camp practices and then, more importantly, in preseason games. 

Wherever the 20-year-old Daniels winds up, though, the Bears are confident they added a solid piece to protect Mitch Trubisky and pave the way for Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen. 

“The benefit of having a guy like James Daniels, he’s versatile, he can play different positions,” Nagy said in May. “So (we’re) able to let him come in here and play guard and see what he can do, learn from the other guys, let Harry teach these guys the technique.”

3. Can Charles Leno keep growing under Harry Hiestand?

Pro Football Focus ranked Leno as the 15th best tackle in the NFL in 2017, while Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 rankings slotted him 20th among left tackles. Somewhere in that range probably seems right — Leno is a solid player but not among the best tackles in the league.

And here’s the thing: That’s fine. Leno’s four-year contract carries an average annual salary of $9.25 million, which ranks 16th among tackles. Ryan Pace believed in Leno’s upside when he signed him to that deal last August, and if Hiestand — who never coached a game without a future first-round pick at left tackle in six years at Notre Dame — can help Leno realize that potential, the Bears will have an absolute bargain at left tackle for years to come. 

“He’s going to push us,” Leno said. “He’s going to make sure we’re working every single day. Everybody’s coming to work every single day grinding, trying to get better at something, whether it’s putting your hands inside, or hands up, whatever it may be, you’re getting better at something. He’s pushing us to do that. so that just makes us better.”

Even if Leno doesn’t hit that upside and maintains being “solid” or “fine” or whatever you want to call it, that won’t necessarily be a deterrent to the Bears’ success. Ten of the top 20 tackles in Pro Football Focus’ rankings played for a team that didn’t make the playoffs in 2017 — and while, of course, having an elite left tackle is preferable, the Bears can still be competitive with Leno manning that position in 2018.

15 Most Important Bears of 2018: No. 9 - Charles Leno, Jr.

15 Most Important Bears of 2018: No. 9 - Charles Leno, Jr.

All the high-flying receivers and the playmaking tight end that GM Ryan Pace added to the Chicago Bears this offseason will be rendered powerless if Mitch Trubisky doesn't have time to throw, making left tackle Charles Leno, Jr. one of the most important players on the roster this season.

The good news is Leno has already proven he's a solid starting tackle. He was the 15th-best offensive tackle in the NFL last season on Pro Football Focus' grading scale, earning an 80.4 (the highest grade of his career). Dig a little deeper into PFF's stats, however, and Leno ranked 20th in pass protection, suggesting he's in the bottom half of NFL starters in the aspect of his game the Bears need him to be reliable at. As a run blocker, Leno ranked 11th.

Still, Leno has steadily improved in each year of his career. The analytics show that. Here are his grades since his rookie season from PFF: 53.5 (2014); 56.3 (2015); 71.2 (2016); 80.4 (2017). His improvement should continue in 2018, especially with new offensive line coach Harry Hiestand fine-tuning his game. 

Leno has enjoyed an unexpected rise from seventh-round pick to a player who signed a four-year, $38 million extension at the start of last season. If his development continues, the Bears have a salary-cap bargain with Leno, whose average annual salary ranks 14th among left tackles at the start of 2018.

Chicago invested big money in Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Trey Burton as well as draft capital in Anthony Miller, who they selected in the second round this year by trading away a second-round pick next year to move up and grab him. The only way they'll get a return on that investment is if Leno establishes, early in the season, that Trubisky can trust him. That trust is critically important not only for an effective offense this year but also for Trubisky's overall development. If he starts seeing ghosts in the pocket because of constant pressure from his blindside, Chicago's long-term plan can easily get derailed.

Leno will benefit from Trubisky's mobility and coach Matt Nagy's creativity. He doesn't have to be a perfect left tackle. But there will be a devastating ripple effect on the rest of the offense if he struggles, making him one of the Bears' most critical players in 2018.