Ryan Pace is quick to point out in media briefings that relying on free agency is risky, given the very best players in the league rarely make it to the open market. Or, to put it another way, guys become free agents for a reason, most of the time it’s not a positive one.
But Pace will still have to fill multiple starting spots via free agency this year, even as the Bears continue to get younger while building through the draft. Part of the reason for those holes (most notably, at receiver, edge rusher and cornerback) is because of Pace’s misses in free agency over the last three years.
So as the Bears pack up and leave Indianapolis with a good idea of the direction they’ll take in free agency later this month, let’s look back at Pace’s free agency history — specifically, every contract that included at least $1 million in guaranteed money (all contract figures are via Spotrac).
Danny Trevathan (2016 - 4 years, $28 million, $15.5 million guaranteed)
While Trevathan has missed 11 games since signing with the Bears, Vic Fangio’s defense is far better off for his presence as an inside linebacker. The soon-to-be-28-year-old enters 2018 as one of the most important pieces of a defense that showed legitimate signs of improvement last year.
Josh Sitton (2016 - 3 years, $21 million, $10 million guaranteed)
Sitton probably falls into a different category of free agents, given he fell into the Bears’ lap after cut-down day in 2016. But he made a Pro Bowl his first year in Chicago and was a steadying force on the interior of the Bears’ offensive line. Releasing him last month made some sense, given his age (31) and salary ($8 million), but he was nothing but a success in his two years in Chicago.
Akiem Hicks (2016 - 2 years, $10 million, $5 million guaranteed)
No free agent signing has worked out better for Pace the Hicks, who had a solid 2016, signed a four-year contract extension before last season and rewarded the Bears for it with a standout 2017 season. Hicks is a dominant run-stuffer who’s chipped in 15 1/2 sacks in his two years in Chicago, and combined with Eddie Goldman gives the Bears a rock-solid defensive line duo.
Kendall Wright (2017 - 1 year, $2 million, $1 million guaranteed)
For what the Bears paid Wright, they got good bang for their buck. Wright led the team with 59 receptions for 614 yards and played all 16 games in 2017, putting together his best season since 2014. He was exactly the kind of buy-low success story Pace hoped for, but injuries to Cameron Meredith and Kevin White and ineffective play from the rest of this receiver group made him too much of a focal point of the Bears’ passing game last year. With better players around him, Wright would’ve been viewed as an absolute steal, but his production last year nonetheless does make him a success.
Prince Amukamara (2017 - 1 year, $7 million, $7 million guaranteed)
Amukamara was the most-penalized player on the Bears’ defense last year and didn’t record an interception, but that teams generally didn’t throw the ball his way does help the argument that he was a solid enough cornerback. The Bears can do better with a deep free agent and draft class of cornerbacks, but Amukamara doesn’t qualify as a miss, either.
Bobby Massie (2016 - 3 years, $18 million, $6.5 million guaranteed)
Massie’s contract is currently the 15th largest for a right tackle, and Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 ratings ranked him as the 14th best right tackle in the league last year. That seems about right — Massie doesn’t appear to be a candidate to be cut, especially with the Bears already having gobs of cap space and this year’s free agent/draft class lacking any clearly elite tackles. The Bears’ offensive line is fine with Massie manning the right side of it.
Zach Miller (2016 - 2 years, $5.5 million, $3 million guaranteed)
Pace re-signed Miller after a productive 2015 season (34 catches, 439 yards, 5 touchdowns) to an inexpensive deal, and while injuries — including what may be a career-ender last year against New Orleans — limited Miller to only 18 games, his gregarious presence in the locker room was a positive.
Mark Sanchez (2017 - 1 year, $2 million, $1 million guaranteed)
Is $2 million a lot of money to pay someone not to play for your team? Probably. But while Sanchez was inactive for all 16 games last year, he was a good resource for Mitch Trubisky and could be a candidate to return as a true backup in 2018.
Mike Glennon (2017 - 3 years, $45 million, $18.5 million guaranteed)
Pace assumed plenty of risk when he shelled out eight figures to a guy who had played in two games in the previous two seasons, and there’s no other way around it: This was a disaster, from Glennon’s first pass of the preseason (a pick-six against the Denver Broncos) to his final game, an embarrassing, turnover-filled blowout loss to the Green Bay Packers.
Pernell McPhee (2015 - 5 years, $38.75 million, $15.5 million guaranteed)
McPhee struggled to stay healthy over his three years in Chicago, missing 12 games and only recording 14 sacks in the 36 games in which he played. Pace’s first big-splash signing played an important part of changing the culture in the Halas Hall locker room, but didn’t play a big enough part in changing the culture of losing that’s plagued the Bears since the end of the Phil Emery/Marc Trestman era.
Dion Sims (2017 - 3 years, $18 million, $10 million guaranteed)
If the Bears valued Sims’ blocking last year (and, to an extent, believe Adam Shaheen can step in as a reliable receiving tight end), they’ll hang on to him, especially because a thin market of blocking tight ends could drive the price up for the guys who will hit the open market. Or maybe Matt Nagy’s offense doesn’t necessarily need a hulking, blocking-first guy, and the Bears release Sims and make a play at someone like Philadelphia’s Trey Burton. Either way, the Bears thought they were adding a player with ascending pass-catching skills last year, and only got 15 receptions and one touchdown out of Sims in 2017.
Quintin Demps (2017 - 3 years, $13.5 million, $5 million guaranteed)
Maybe Demps could’ve built off a six-interception 2016 season with the Bears, but a fractured forearm in Week 3 prematurely ended the 32-year-old’s season. Adrian Amos’ emergence meant Demps was among the Bears’ cuts last month.
Markus Wheaton (2017 - 2 years, $11 million, $6 million guaranteed)
Pace bet that Wheaton’s healthy and productivity would return after he only played in three games and caught four passes for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2016 (Wheaton averaged 48 catches, 696 yards and four touchdowns the two years prior). Instead, Wheaton was hit by some early health issues — an appendectomy and a hand injury in training camp — and then a groin injury in October. All told, Wheaton played in 11 games, was targeted 17 times and generated three receptions for 51 yards. For a team bereft of reliable outside receivers, this was a big miss.
Victor Cruz (2017 - 1 year, $2.468 million, $1.5 million guaranteed)
Taking a flier on Cruz wasn’t necessarily a bad idea, though that the 30-year-old didn’t even make the team after an underwhelming training camp qualifies him as a miss here.
Tracy Porter (2016 - 3 years, $12 million, $4.25 million guaranteed)
Porter initially looked like a success story, signing for less than $1 million in 2015 turning in a solid first season with the Bears. Pace re-signed him after that year, but Porter was released after the 2016 season and didn’t make an NFL roster in 2017.
Jerrell Freeman (2016 - 3 years, $12 million, $6 million guaranteed)
It’s unfair to expect Pace to have seen Freeman’s two PED suspensions coming, and pairing the veteran with Trevathan looked like a pretty good idea at the time in 2016. But Freeman tore his pec in Week 1 of 2017, then was hit with the PED suspension that all but sealed his fate as someone who’d be cut in February.
Eddie Royal (2015 - 3 years, $15 million, $10 million guaranteed)
Royal caught 15 touchdowns in his previous two seasons before signing with the Bears, but only played in 18 games in 2015 and 2016 without much else to show for it. The 31-year-old was out of the league in 2017.
Antrel Rolle (2015 - 3 years, $11.25 million, $4.9 million guaranteed)
Rolle still was a productive player into his early 30’s, picking off nine passes in 2013 and 2014 with the New York Giants before signing with the Bears. But his career fizzled with the Bears, with ankle and knee injuries limiting him to seven mediocre games. He announced his retirement in November of 2016.
Alan Ball (2015 - 1 year, $3 million, $ 1 million guaranteed)
Ball, like Rolle, Royal, Porter and possibly Freeman never made it back to the league after being cut by the Bears. He played in 15 games after the Bears released Tim Jennings and wasn’t effective.