As Ryan Pace enters the free agent market for the fourth time as a general manager, he does so with the full backing of Bears’ management. The Bears have their quarterback of the future in place, and hired a young, offensive-minded coach in January. The point: The Bears can pitch a much more stable future to free agents this week than they could a year ago, when Matt Nagy and Mitch Trubisky had yet to join the organization.
And that means the Bears are in a better position to convince a top free agent — like Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Allen Robinson — to sign with them as negotiations begin Monday and contracts can be signed on Wednesday this week.
Pace put forth competitive offers to two of last year’s top cornerbacks on the open market, but A.J. Bouye and Stephon Gilmore signed with the Jaguars and the New England Patriots, respectively. Bouye, in particular, signed with Jacksonville for less money than the Bears offered him, seeing an ascending defense as the best fit for him to continue his career. Previous losing wasn’t a prohibitive factor, either: Jacksonville averaged 12.3 losses per year in the previous six seasons before going 10-6 and reaching the AFC Championship in 2017.
Maybe the Bears’ pitch to a free agent on the offensive side of the ball can be similar to what Jacksonville did to convince Bouye last year. Pace will have to sell upside and stability to free agents and hope that pitch resonates for a team that’s 14-34 since he took over as general manager.
The Bears felt that Pace remained the right man for the job when they inked him to a two-year extension on Jan. 1, a move that ran concurrent to the firing of coach John Fox. Pace is now under contract through 2021 and is tethered to Nagy and Trubisky — the success or failure of those two men will ultimately determine how successful Pace’s vision will be.
But Pace has to give Nagy the right players and Trubisky the right help to give them the best chance to succeed. And that’s where president/CEO Ted Phillips and chairman George McCaskey placed their bet on Pace when they extended his contract despite a string of high-profile whiffs in free agency.
“He did a great job in particular last year of having a lot of younger players add value to the roster,” Phillips said in January. “We want to do that again, whether it's in free agency — obviously the draft is younger players — to look at more younger players in free agency. And even with some of the players that didn't work out last year, the contracts that were signed did not hamstring us past this season.”
Indeed, the Bears were not hamstrung financially by contracts given to Mike Glennon, who will officially be released this week, or Dion Sims, Markus Wheaton and Marcus Cooper, should the Bears choose to move on from any or all of those three players. The Bears enter the free agent market with about $64 million in cap space, according to Spotrac, which could scrape $80 million if all three of those aforementioned players are released (even if they aren’t, it’s still a healthy figure).
Pace isn’t under a significant amount of internal pressure to have more success in free agency, at least from the standpoint of his contractual status and how he’s viewed by Phillips and McCaskey.
“He’s not afraid to take risks in player personnel – my opinion,” Phillips said. “It’s a business where you don’t get a 90-percent success rate. If you’re getting a 60-, 65-percent success rate, I think most general managers would be considered successful. So you’ve got to take risks. You can’t be afraid to fail. So I would say that’s one area where I’m really proud of his growth.”
Pace, though, doesn’t have a 60-to-65 percent success rate in free agency. Of the 19 players he’s signed to contracts worth $1 million or more, only four fall under the “success” category (21 percent), while 11 can be considered “misses” (58 percent). Maybe you dispute those numbers a bit, but it's hard to dispute there being more misses than hits in the last three years.
That ratio will have to change, or Pace will begin to feel internal pressure — as well as, of course, an immense amount of external pressure on him to get it right for Nagy and Trubisky, assuming he got those decisions right as well.
That process begins this week. Pace can sell the Bears’ stability and upside, and now has to identify the right targets for that pitch.
“One of the things that I think has been most impressive about Ryan is that through all these difficult times, he's kept a very even keel,” McCaskey said back in January. “He doesn't get rattled, people look to him for leadership and he's a dynamic leader and outstanding communicator and has excellent organizational skills and analytical skills. And we're looking forward to better things.”