Free agent focus: Breaking down Ryan Pace's hits and misses with Bears

Free agent focus: Breaking down Ryan Pace's hits and misses with Bears

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). 

The hits

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. 

The neutrals

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. 

The misses

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.

Three questions for Bears pass rush: What is Leonard Floyd's ceiling?

Three questions for Bears pass rush: What is Leonard Floyd's ceiling?


Pre-camp depth chart

1. Leonard Floyd
2. Isaiah Irving
3. Kylie Fitts
4. Elijah Norris
5. Josh Woods

1. Sam Acho
2. Aaron Lynch
3. Kasim Edebali
4. Andrew Trumbetti

1. What is Leonard Floyd’s ceiling?

Floyd’s career to this point has been limited by injuries, but in the 22 games in which he’s played he’s only averaged one sack every 97 snaps. That’s essentially what Pernell McPhee provided last year (one sack ever 96 snaps), for comparison’s sake. The point being: Not only do we not know if Floyd can stay healthy for a full year, we might not know if he can live up to the expectations for a top-10-picked pass rusher.

Coaches and Floyd felt like they fixed the reason for Floyd’s concussion issues from his rookie year, which they believed was the product of poor tackling form. Floyd’s season-ending knee injury last year was a freak, unavoidable one, to be fair — but he’s still missed a total of 10 games in his two-year career.

The Bears haven’t lost confidence in Floyd’s potential, though — if that were the case, Ryan Pace likely would’ve added more to his team’s outside linebacking corps. In the short term, Floyd is a key player to watch in Bourbonnais — impactful practices are important for building up his mental confidence in his knee. In the long term, the Bears’ bet on Floyd needs to pay off, otherwise this pass rush may not be good enough in a quarterback-centric division.

2. Can Aaron Lynch be a diamond in the rough?

Lynch had a productive rookie year under Vic Fangio in 2014, recording six sacks and looking like a nice fifth-round find for the San Francisco 49ers. After Fangio was passed over for the 49ers’ head coaching job and left for the Bears, Lynch still notched 6 1/2 sacks in 2015.

But he only appeared in 14 games in 2016 and 2017 due to conditioning and injury issues, as well as a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on substances of abuse. When Lynch did play, he wasn’t effective, with only 2 1/2 sacks in those 14 games covering 379 snaps.

So that’s why Lynch signed for only one year and $4 million, with only $1.25 million of his salary guaranteed, according to Spotrac. The Bears hope a fresh start and reunion with Fangio will benefit Lynch, but the prove-it nature of his contract doesn’t guarantee him anything more than a chance.

“It’s exciting getting back with Vic, you know, he drafted me,” Lynch said. “I know his defense. So being it's something I'm used to and the fresh start like I mean, I've had my ups and downs in this league and it's just nice to come here to people with open arms that believe in me so now I've just got to come here and play football so it feels amazing.”

Getting six or so sacks out of Lynch would be huge for the Bears’ defense, but those efforts begin with the 25-year-old staying healthy. That Lynch suffered hamstring and ankle injuries during the offseason program was a little concerning, even if they weren’t characterized as anything but minor knocks.

3. What are fair expectations for Kylie Fitts?

The 6-foot-4, 265 pound Fitts is an intriguing prospect in that he tested well at the NFL Combine and, before injuries limited his junior and senior years, posted an eye-popping 2015 (seven TFLs, seven sacks, 10 pass break-ups, four forced fumbles). Fitts doesn’t believe the injuries he suffered at Utah (Lisfranc/foot, ankle sprain, shoulder sprain) will linger or pop back up in his pro career, though.

“I think I got all my injuries over with,” Fitts said. “I think it’s just a run of bad luck and it’s over now. I’m healthy, feeling good now, and I’m banking on remaining healthy and playing good.”

Still, every team in the NFL passed on Fitts until the Bears used the 181st pick to draft him in April. That doesn’t mean he won’t have success — Jordan Howard was the 150th pick in the 2016 draft, after all — but he’ll head to Bourbonnais with plenty of work to do to earn a role in Fangio’s defense. The Bears’ outside linebacking depth chart may not look strong, but that doesn’t mean Fitts will waltz into a prominent role. What he does in practices and preseason games will go a long way toward determining his outlook for 2018.

Bears' pass rush is one of NFL's worst, says PFF

Bears' pass rush is one of NFL's worst, says PFF

The Chicago Bears play in a division with Aaron Rodgers, Kirk Cousins and Matthew Stafford, so it's pretty obvious that a key to this season will be the defense's pass rush.

Unfortunately, getting after the quarterback doesn't appear to be a strength of defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's unit. According to Pro Football Focus, the Bears have one of the worst group of pass rushers in the NFL.

Right now, expectations for what the Bears can expect off the edge pass-rush wise should be very low. Injuries have slowed Floyd’s development after he was drafted with the ninth overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, leading to just 72 total pressures through three seasons. Starting opposite him will likely be Acho, with Lynch in on nickel pass-rushing packages. Lynch has averaged four sacks, and just over six hits and 21 hurries per season in his four-year career. The Bears top pass-rusher right now is Hicks on the defensive interior, and after producing 49 total pressures in 2017, he will likely need to be their top pass-rusher again in 2018.

If Sam Acho ends up starting opposite Leonard Floyd, then Aaron Lynch will go down as a free-agent bust. He was signed to start, not to be a rotational pass rusher. In fact, it's Acho who's better equipped to rotate into the lineup and provide a burst of energy when needed. 

Sixth-round pick Kylie Fitts is another candidate to bring pressure off the edge for the Bears, but he too is a great unknown. His college resume is littered with injuries and more potential than production. Chicago is high on him, however, and he could be another day-three steal to add to Ryan Pace's draft catalog.

Ultimately, the Bears' pass rush will come down to Floyd and whether he can become the elite sack artist he was drafted to be. In fact, he's entering something of a make-or-break year. If he doesn't prove he can stay healthy enough to register 10 or more sacks this season, Chicago may have to re-think its plan at edge rusher.