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.”