The Bears aren’t likely to sign one of 2019’s top free agents. That’s where this article starts.
Ryan Pace did his heavy lifting last year, spending plenty of cash to add Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, Trey Burton, Chase Daniel and, yes, Cody Parkey. But the real reason the Bears likely will not be major players in free agency in 2019: The Labor Day weekend move to acquire Khalil Mack, then sign him to an extension that stands as the richest inked by a defensive player in NFL history.
So if you see all your dream targets for the Bears land elsewhere next week, just remember that No. 52 is on the Bears, and will be for a long time.
Still, it’s not impossible to envision Pace being aggressive in free agency. The Bears are all of a sudden a destination, the kind of franchise for which some of the league’s best unrestricted free agents will want to play. They’re a team with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations, a creative and well-liked head coach and a defense that was the league’s best in 2018.
From a financial standpoint, offering a rich contract to a free agent isn’t impossible, either. The Bears could save cap space by converting some of Mack’s base salary in 2019 into a signing bonus, though that would carry cap implications right around when Mitch Trubisky’s salary will no longer be cheap for a quarterback. Working out a contract extension for Chase Daniel and/or Danny Trevathan could save cap space in 2019, though like converting Mack’s salary to a signing bonus it would impact later years. Trading Jordan Howard for a draft pick would save a shade over $2 million in cap space, too.
But if the Bears’ best window to win a Super Bowl is in the next two seasons — when Trubisky’s cap hit doesn’t crest $10 million — then Pace would have a justification for continuing his aggressive approach to roster construction in free agency.
Again, it doesn’t appear likely, given Pace has to address depth at a number of positions (tight end, offensive line, outside linebacker, cornerback, etc.) and has never been a draft-for-need general manager (and only has five draft picks, starting in the third round). But if you’re dreaming big next week, here’s a look at how five of the biggest names in available would fit with the Bears:
RB Tevin Coleman
Spotrac estimates Coleman’s market value to be a four-year, $21.28 million contract ($5.3 million average annual value), which if that’s the case would be reasonable for the Bears. The problem is: That’s probably not going to be what Coleman, a Tinley Park native, commands.
Something closer to Jerrick McKinnon’s four-year, $30 million deal ($7.5 million annually, with $18 million guaranteed) with the San Francisco 49ers may be what it’ll take to land the former Atlanta Falcons running back.
Coleman, though would be a good fit in the Bears’ offense: He can hit the hole with speed (167 carries, 800 yards, 4.8 yards per carry, in 2018) and is comfortable catching passes out of the backfield (134 targets, 92 receptions, 1,010 yards, 11 touchdowns in four years). He could add an explosive element to the Bears’ offense as well as being a solution to the team’s inconsistent run game.
Coleman may be good enough to where he doesn’t need Le’Veon Bell to set his market — he could set it all on his own. Bell, too, could find his market not what he hoped for after sitting out all of last season, but even a three or four-year deal at $10 million annually could be too rich for the Bears when they could just draft a running back in April.
More realistic: Jacksonville’s T.J. Yeldon. Spotrac estimates his market value to be a one-year, $3.8 million deal, which would allow the Bears to still draft a running back while taking a flier on the 25-year-old. Yeldon is an adept pass-catcher (233 targets, 171 receptions, 1,302 yards, 6 TDs in four years), but only averaged four yards per carry in his time with the Jaguars. Worth noting: That was in an unimaginative, sub-optimal scheme. Perhaps he has some untapped potential in Nagy’s offense.
S Landon Collins
Rarely does a player of Collins’ pedigree become an unrestricted free agent. He turned 25 in January, was an All-Pro in 2016 and reached the Pro Bowl in each of the last three seasons. The closest recent rough comp to him in free agency is Tony Jefferson, who signed a four-year, $34 million deal with the Baltimore Ravens as a 25-year-old in 2017. Collins enters free agency with a much higher profile than Jefferson.
Good teams with tens of millions in cap space — like the Indianapolis Colts or Baltimore Ravens — could envision Collins as a long-term fixture in the back end of their secondary. His play waned a bit in 2018, as he missed four games and didn’t record an interception, but he may be a better fit for a team in need of a safety than Earl Thomas, an elite player in his own right but someone who’s 30 and coming off a season-ending injury in 2018.
As a young player with a playmaking knack — he had five interceptions and four sacks in 2016 — Collins will have a robust market consisting of playoff teams (like the Bears) with plenty of cap space (unlike the Bears). That’ll likely price the Bears out of Collins’ market. But the thought of him teaming up with his old Alabama ‘mate Eddie Jackson is nonetheless a fun one.
More realistic: Keeping Adrian Amos. If Collins and Thomas net large contracts, and Tyrann Mathieu and Lamarcus Joyner make up a second tier, that could drive Amos’ price down. Then again: Spotrac estimates Amos’ market value to be a six-year, $48.48 million deal, which would likely be too pricey for the Bears’ budget. But there just may not be enough teams willing to spend that much money on a safety to go around for Collins/Thomas/Mathieu/Joyner/Amos/Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix/Eric Weddle/etc.
WR Antonio Brown
Brown, of course, isn’t available in free agency, but he’s the biggest name available in any regard heading into the new league year, which starts on Wednesday. After Brown stiff-armed a trade to the Buffalo Bills in the wee hours of Friday morning, he’s back on the market, and the Steelers reportedly still want a first-round pick for him.
But Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio reported “several teams” are waiting for Brown’s price to come down. Could the Bears be one of them?
The Bears don’t even have a second-round pick to offer the Steelers in 2019. They’d have to re-work Brown’s deal to get his cap hit down from $22.165 million this year, which would then commit the Bears to a receiver on the wrong side of 30 for tens of millions of dollars when they’re already paying Mack tens of millions of dollars, and will have to pay Trubisky tens of millions of dollars in a few years. That’s not a realistic way to build a roster, even if you’re going for broke in 2019 and 2020. This isn’t happening.
More realistic: New England’s Cordarrelle Patterson. Depending on what sort of market develops for the soon-to-be 28-year-old, Patterson could make sense as a kick returner (taking those duties off the shoulders — literally — of Anthony Miller) and a versatile, explosive weapon in Nagy’s offense. The Patriots inventively used Patterson as a running back at times in 2018, and perhaps Nagy could use him to create some favorable mismatches against opposing defenses.
4. EDGE Clay Matthews
Matthews may have zero interest in playing for the Bears after spending 10 wildly successful seasons with the Green Bay Packers and winning a Super Bowl with Aaron Rodgers. But hear me out: He’s the kind of free agent backup for Mack and Leonard Floyd the Bears would do well to target in free agency.
Who better than a seasoned veteran — who played all 16 games last year — to rotate in for Mack/Floyd, and in a pinch replace either in the starting lineup? Matthews’ double-digit sack days seem behind him, but he did have 7 1/2 sacks as recently as 2017. If he wants to go ring chasing, the Bears have a better shot at the Super Bowl than the Packers do at the moment, Rodgers notwithstanding.
Still, how weird would it be to see Matthews in a Bears uniform? Weirder than seeing Julius Peppers in a Packers uniform?
More realistic: Arizona’s Markus Golden. A one-year prove-it deal for Golden, who had 12 1/2 sacks in 2016 while in a 3-4 defense, would provide plenty of upside behind Mack and Floyd. Golden has dealt with injuries and ineffectiveness over the last two seasons, playing in just 15 games and totaling only 2 1/2 sacks. But he’ll be 28 on March 13, which would fit with Pace’s recent history of keeping the Bears as young as possible.
5. PK Stephen Gostkowski
Paying Gostkowski $3.5-$4 million per year when Parkey is still on the books would reek of desperation, though the Bears certainly are desperate to fix their kicking woes. Gostkowski has spent his entire 13-year career with the Patriots, though, and has a pretty good deal there, winning three Super Bowls and kicking in at least the AFC Championship in each of the last eight years.
The Patriots didn’t use the franchise tag on Gostkowski, exposing him to the open market, but as long as Tom Brady is still in New England they might as well make sure they have a stable kicking situation. Still, if the Bears were going to spend on a kicker to replace Parkey, it felt like Robbie Gould would’ve been that guy — but, of course, won’t be after the 49ers used the franchise tag on him.
More realistic: Jacksonville’s Kai Forbath. Forbath would fit with the lower-cost angle that has, so far, made up the beginnings of the “major competition” wanted by Pace. He has a strong leg — he made six of nine attempts of 50 or more yards with the Minnesota Vikings in 2017, two of which came outdoors — and in his career has made 78 percent of his field goals from 40 or more yards (Parkey, prior to his disastrous 2018, made 71 percent of his field goals from the same distance). Forbath only appeared in three games with the Jaguars in 2018 and would still have to win a kicking competition against Redford Jones, Chris Blewitt and perhaps a draft pick/undrafted free agent if he, or another free agent kicker, were to be signed.
The Bears aren’t likely to sign one of 2019’s top free agents. That’s where this article starts.