Assessing or “grading” any team’s work in free agency is something of a cousin to doing that sort of critiquing of a draft class; opinions are easy but real substance only comes beginning sometime in September.
The reason is fairly obvious, not unlike the SEC’s required caution to investors, that “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.” Decisions are based on performance but after that… .
So any meaningful answer as to whether the Bears are a better team by virtue of their moves in free agency lies some months off.
And there’s one other really, really big “if” in all this – the one that matters more than any free-agency or draft pickup:
The standard line through this offseason, going back to and including the arrivals of coach Matt Nagy and OC Mark Helfrich on top of retaining QB coach Dave Ragone, has been that a key component in the 2018 Bears mission statement has been to secure more of a supporting cast for Trubisky. That’s backwards.
The only way Trubisky was worth his GM trading up to ensure getting him with the No. 2 pick is if he makes THEM better, not vice versa.
These incoming players are basically upgrades of a woeful offensive unit and would’ve been made whether Trubisky, Jay Cutler or Mike Glennon were the starting Bears quarterback for 2018.
The point is Trubisky himself. GM Ryan Pace envisions greatness for Trubisky, meaning the kind of quarterback like a Brady, Brees, Favre, Rodgers, the kind of quarterback who turns average into good and good in great.
Allen Robinson may be the delayed fill for Alshon Jeffery, and Trey Burton may replace what the offense lost when Zach Miller went down. But those things only happen if Trubisky plays to his seed, becomes what Donovan McNabb did for the Eagles or what the four in the previous paragraph did for their franchises. Weapons don’t make the quarterback; the quarterback “makes” the weapons. That’s why they get $25 million a season and the weapons don’t.
The Bears are putting $14 million a year for three seasons into Allen Robinson on the strength of the wide receiver’s 2015 and 2016 seasons with a combined 153 receptions, 2,283 yards and 20 TD’s. The Jacksonville Jaguars were 3-13 and 5-11 in those two seasons. Jacksonville reached the AFC Championship in 2017 with quarterback Blake Bortles putting up career-bests in completion percentage, QBR and interception percentage. And a defense that was No. 1 in the AFC in points, yards and passer-rating allowed. And without Robinson for 15-1/2 games.
How much better in fact IS the Chicago offense with Burton, Robinson and slot receiver Taylor Gabriel?
Burton: As he did with Glennon, Akiem Hicks, Pernell McPhee, Markus Wheaton and others, Pace is going for “upside,” what that player could be that he hasn’t been before. Sometimes it works (Hicks); sometimes it doesn’t (Glennon, etal.).
Burton was never the No. 1 tight end with Philadelphia and played less than 30 percent of the offensive snaps over his last two and most productive Eagles years. Pace had to shore up the “move” tight end position and receiving capabilities at the TE spot with the loss of Miller and pedestrian production of Dion Sims. Burton was behind two very good Philadelphia tight ends in Brent Celek and Zach Ertz, and he wasn’t going to supplant Ertz or replace the just-released Celek, a physical blocker with 40 pounds on Burton.
What the Bears need is for Burton to follow the performance curve of Martellus Bennett, who, personality issues aside, became a force when he got out from behind Jason Witten in Dallas.
Right now, this is an upgrade from where the Bears were over the final eight games of 2017. But Miller caught 20 passes (not including the mistaken overturn of that final pass in New Orleans) in eight games. Burton caught 23 in 15 games last year. Miller averaged 11.5 yards per Bears catch; Burton averaged 9.6 over his last two Philadelphia seasons.
The Bears are counting on “upside” for their $32 million over four Burton years.
Gabriel: Gabriel is joining his third team in the last four years, being cut after his first two years in Cleveland by a Browns team coming off a 3-13 year in 2015 and was going to go 1-15. Playing for the NFL’s 2016 MVP in Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, Gabriel caught 35 passes and scored 6 of his 8 career touchdowns. Whether the Bears were outbid by the Miami Dolphins for former Kansas City slot receiver Albert Wilson or in fact wanted Gabriel more doesn’t matter in the rearview mirror. But Gabriel is presumed to add more explosiveness with the football than Wilson or Kendall Wright.
That explosiveness is what the Bears are investing considerably more than the $2 million they paid Wright in 2017. What they are banking on, again, is upside. Gabriel has averaged 33 catches over his four NFL seasons and 13.8 yards per catch. Wright caught 59 for the Bears last year but only one for a TD and his career average of 11.4 ypc isn’t likely going up at age 29.
Robinson: Potentially huge upgrade over everything the Bears tried at wide receiver in 2017. The qualifier: Robinson’s comeback from season-ending ACL surgery. That projects to roughly a 50-50 proposition, based on research of colleague JJ Stankevitz on wide receivers pre- and post-ACL injuries.
A second qualifier: The Bears never had a winning season over Jeffery’s final and best four Chicago seasons, in which he averaged 70 catches per season. Robinson averaged 67 receptions over his three good Jacksonville seasons. The Jaguars didn’t win then, either, because neither the Bears nor Jags got the quarterback situation where it needed to be.
Sometimes the free-agency marketplace imposes some quirky realities on the Bears and everyone else.
The Bears solidified their cornerback situation with the transition-tag’ing of Kyle Fuller and re-signing Prince Amukamara for $27 million over three years. But it means that the Bears approach 2018 with the same No. 1 corner pairing that they had for 2017, just with a combined price of $21 million vs. last year’s $10 million for the same players.
Whether they are the better with Amukamara at $9 million-per vs. Trumaine Johnson at a reported $15 million-per or Malcolm Butler at $12 million-per will play out in the fall.