Ryan Pace wants to avoid relying on 'risky' free agency, but the Bears aren't there yet

Ryan Pace wants to avoid relying on 'risky' free agency, but the Bears aren't there yet

INDIANAPOLIS — The Bears will have somewhere between $80 million and $90 million to spend in cap space, according to Spotrac, when teams can enter contract negotiations March 12 and free agency officially begins March 14. 

Ryan Pace has had more misses (Mike Glennon, Markus Wheaton, Marcus Cooper, Pernell McPhee, Antrelle Rolle, etc.) than hits (Akiem Hicks, Danny Trevathan) as he enters his fourth free agent period as the general manager of the Bears. On one hand, he’s learned the dangers of free agency the hard way, with those busts not reflecting well on his tenure in Chicago, which has attached to it a 14-34 record. On the other hand, he’s structured the contracts of a good chunk of his signings to give the Bears an out after one year, as was the case with Glennon, Wheaton and Cooper. 

As Pace prepares for this year’s free agent market, he preached caution and selectivity while meeting with the media on Tuesday. The Bears might have a mountain of cash to spend, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll blow through all of it. 

“Just because you have cap space doesn’t mean you can be reckless with these decisions,” Pace said. “So we have to be strategic, disciplined and calculated as we enter free agency.”

Take this quote from Pace, too:

“A lot of times guys become free agents for a reason and we’re mindful of that,” he said from the Indiana Convention Center. “And I think as we continue to build our roster more and more through the draft, maybe we won’t have to supplement as much in free agency. But we have to be mindful of that. It is risky. 

“We’ve done a good job of structuring the contract where we can get out of some of these. But it’s kind of treacherous waters and we have to be careful as we go through this.”

While the Bears do have that ascending young core — led by Mitchell Trubisky — that Pace has wanted since coming to Chicago in 2015, they’re likely not at the point where they can build a winning team in 2018 just because of that young nucleus. Or, to put it another way: If the Bears are going to end this four-year streak of double-digit-loss seasons and be a playoff contender, Pace is going to have to have some success in free agency. 

As things stand right now, the Bears have clear needs for starters in at least four units. They need at least two wide receivers (depending on the health of Cameron Meredith and Kevin White, maybe three, though Pace sounded confident in both players), one interior offensive lineman, at least one outside linebacker and two cornerbacks. Depending on the team’s evaluation of Jonathan Bullard, there could be a hole to fill at defensive end; the same goes for Nick Kwiatkoski at inside linebacker; Dion Sims could be cut, too, if the Bears don’t believe his blocking skills outweighed a disappointing year catching the ball. All told, from those units, they will likely need to find no fewer than six starting-caliber players between now and the end of the NFL Draft. 

The Bears can fill some of those holes internally. Kendall Wright looked like a starting-caliber wide receiver last year, though he’s better served as a third target, not a No. 1 or No. 2 guy. Signing Kyle Fuller to a long-term deal would solidify a cornerback spot (Pace said conversations with Fuller’s representation are “constantly ongoing,” and the Bears have until March 6 to decide whether or not to use the franchise tag on him). If the Bears can count on Meredith to be at or above his 2016 level of production (66 catches, 888 yards) that’d eliminate the need for one wide receiver. 

But Pace is going to have to connect on a couple of free agents from outside the organization in March. Maybe it’s focusing his attention on signing the best cornerback available, whether it’s the Rams’ Trumaine Johnson or the Patriots’ Malcolm Butler. Maybe it means making a run at Panthers guard Andrew Norwell, who’s 26 and might cost as much — if not more — than the $8 million Josh Sitton would’ve been owed in 2018. Maybe reuniting Matt Nagy with wide receiver Albert Wilson makes as much sense below the surface as it does on the surface. Maybe it’s jettisoning Sims and signing the Eagles’ Trey Burton to pair with Adam Shaheen.

The Bears, realistically, can hope to find two starters in April’s NFL Draft (any more would represent a tremendous draft class). Draft an edge rusher and a receiver, sign Wilson, sign an interior guy (either Norwell or someone cheaper), retain Fuller and make a big run at Johnson/Butler/E.J. Gaines/Bashaud Breeland — that sounds like a best-case plan. But Pace would still need to “hit” on Wilson, a guard/center and a cornerback in free agency. 

To paraphrase an old Pace quote — which he said at last year’s NFL Combine — it’s a lot easier to recover from the guy you don’t sign than the guy you do sign. Pace can recover from the guys he signed last year (again, the Bears can easily get out from under Glennon, Wheaton, Cooper and Sims after one year), but the Bears might not recover if they keep churning through more free agent misses than successes. That’ll be the case until the Bears don’t have to keep dipping into the free agent market to fill so many starting spots. 

“There have been a couple of big hits, we talked about Akiem and Trevathan and things of that nature, but there’s also some misses,” Pace said. “I think that’s the nature of free agency. I think the less you can dabble in it, probably the better. But in order to do that, you have to be drafting well and developing those players so you don’t have to be as aggressive in free agency.”

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.