Takeaways from early ’19 free agency: Bears not flashy, just better

Takeaways from early ’19 free agency: Bears not flashy, just better

Most of the mystery money in the shape of cap space from contract restructures for Eddie Goldman and Khalil Mack is still lying somewhere in a Halas Hall corner, waiting…just…waiting, waiting presumably for some roster purpose yet unseen.

An offhand guess is that general manager Ryan Pace has marshalled funds, borrowed from the future, anticipating a cut or player coming free elsewhere in the NFL sometime before Opening Day, and Pace will have the Bears positioned to strike. In 2016, that cut (in September, by Green Bay) was guard Josh Sitton.

In 2017 it was an August contract extension for left tackle Charles Leno. Last year it was the September trade for Khalil Mack, accompanied by the then-largest contract ever given to a defensive player.

In the meantime, though, the Bears went about their business well below the level of roster pyrotechnics in places like Baltimore (RB Mark Ingram, S Earl Thomas), Cleveland (WR Odell Beckham Jr., DT Sheldon Richardson, DE Olivier Vernon), Oakland (WR Antonio Brown, OT Trent Brown, S Lamarcus Joyner), WR Tyrell Williams), San Francisco (LB Kwon Alexander, DE Dee Ford, Tevin Coleman) and the Jets (RB Le’Veon Bell, LB C.J. Mosley).

A qualifier here is that of all those big-ticket teams, only the Ravens were in the 2018 postseason, and a one-and-done like the Bears at that.

But the question isn’t necessarily how much or on whom, but whether or not the Bears improved, because “you’re either getting worse and you’re getting better,” as Matt Nagy said in the postseason wrapup. They already have a young roster with an assemblage of rising players from whom performance jumps are expected, either from straight development or from second years in an offensive system.

And the conclusion from the signings of the week – S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, RB Mike Davis, C/G Ted Larsen, WR/RB/KR Cordarrelle Patterson, CB Buster Skrine – is that the Bears have in fact gotten better.

Were bigger options available? Of course. Landon Collins instead of Clinton-Dix? Davis or Bell? Larsen or Mike Iupati? Patterson or AB?

But consider:

Clinton-Dix - The Bears had a not insignificant offer of an extension on the table for Adrian Amos last offseason and looked to have it done. Amos ultimately decided against signing and now he’s in Green Bay.  But while Amos carries the better rep and perception, Clinton-Dix rates an edge in coverage, and Bears opponents threw on 61 percent of their snaps in 2018. Clinton-Dix has not missed a game in five seasons and had as many interceptions (three) in 2018 as Amos has had in four full NFL seasons.

Chuck Pagano is mildly unique in that he occasionally employs rotations in his secondaries. The Bears may not be done shopping for defensive backs, and Bryce Callahan has not gotten the play that was widely expected.

Davis - The career backup is not an upgrade from Jordan Howard. But he is from Benny Cunningham and Taquan Mizzell, and that’s the apples-to-apples comparison.

Larsen - Eric Kush served as fill for a couple seasons but Larsen has been a starting center and guard, and is a size and performance upgrade over Kush or Bryan Witzmann behind James Daniels and Kyle Long.

Patterson - The NFL’s worst kickoff return team just got exponentially better, and neither Tarik Cohen nor Anthony Miller need be exposed back there anymore. With his 7.9 yards per carry and average of 31 catches per season, he should fit in just fine with an offense that throws touchdown passes to offensive tackles, hands off to defensive tackles for scores and fields a cluster of five defensive linemen in goal-line skill positions.

Skrine - A Callahan return shouldn’t be ruled out until he signs elsewhere, but in the meantime, Skrine does not represent a precipitous falloff in sub packages. Skrine has interceptions in five of the past six seasons and at least a partial sack in the last three.

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Finding the 'It Factor' – Teams pondering draft mega-deals need to study Bears’ hits, misses trading No. 1’s


Finding the 'It Factor' – Teams pondering draft mega-deals need to study Bears’ hits, misses trading No. 1’s

At some point of Thursday’s first night of the draft, history says that some team will push a big pile of draft chips over in front of another team at the NFL table in return for the latter’s pick. Some of those will work out; others will be considerably less than successful.

Just ask the Bears. Ask them why some of those mega-deals work and others don’t.

Last year it was Arizona trading up from No. 15 to Oakland’s spot at No. 10, taking quarterback Josh Rosen. The deal netted little, unless you believe that the NFL’s worst record and this year’s No. 1-overall pick count for something.

In 2017 it was the Bears going all-in for a one-spot move and Mitchell Trubisky. The Bears at least cashed one playoff check. Kansas City traded two No. 1’s and a 3 to move from 27 to 10 for Patrick Mahomes. Two slots later Houston traded two No. 1’s to move from No. 25 to 12 for Deshaun Watson.

The Bears, Chiefs and Texans all cashed playoff checks last offseason.

In 2016 the Rams traded up from 15 to No. 1 overall for Jared Goff. Philadelphia jumped from No. 8 to No. 2 for Carson Wentz. Both teams were in the 2017 and 2018 postseason, the Rams in the last Super Bowl.

In the might’ve-been category, Bears general manager Ryan Pace pondered a move from No. 7 to No. 2 in 2015 in a quest for Marcus Mariota but judged the price too steep.

The Cardinals’ Rosen gamble and the Bears’ for Trubisky – plus three other Bears mega-deals – offer case studies on the do’s and don’t’s of blockbuster trades involving top draft picks.

Three times in the past decade, and once 10-plus years before that, the Bears rocked the NFL with franchise-altering trades for what they hoped would be franchise-defining talents. Twice they appear to have gotten what they bargained for; twice, not so much, for intriguingly similar reasons.

These deals form a collective object lesson for teams (Oakland? Arizona?) contemplating the kinds of trades this week that the Bears made that brought them Jay Cutler, Khalil Mack, Rick Mirer and Mitchell Trubisky. Only the Bears-49ers deal that secured Trubisky represented a specifically draft-weekend trade; Cutler happened 10 years ago, ahead of the 2009 draft, Mirer was moved in February 1997 for a Bears No. 1 and Mack was a late-preseason deal.

But the four together serve as a collective trail of breadcrumbs regarding what is typically the difference between those kinds of blockbusters working out vs. blowing up on the acquiring team, in those cases the Bears, this draft, someone else.

Finding “It”

The critical element is, pure and simple, football character. It’s not talent. It’s the “It Factor.”

“The competitiveness, a guy playing with, we call it ‘dog’ or energy or swagger, those kinds of things,” Pace said. “There's more specific things I don't want to get to, but I would just say you can feel a guy's football character on tape and we're really strong on that.”

Mack and Trubisky have that essential football character, the “It Factor;” Cutler and Mirer didn’t. And the results reflected it.

The Cleveland Browns snagged “undersized” quarterback but leadership-heavy Baker Mayfield and improved by seven wins last season and by four prime-time games going into this one. Irrespective of any trade situations here, the Browns, like the Bears, can vouch for what happens without “It” – Johnny Manziel, Brandon Weeden, Brady Quinn.

Cutler, Mirer: leadership-lite

If there is a jolting difference that sticks out, it is that Pace very clearly has made football character a priority (Mike Glennon notwithstanding). Others haven’t.

Those inside Halas Hall at the time recall the personnel staff asking for evaluations of Cutler by the coaching staff. Those were done and included prescient, serious reservations about Cutler’s leadership and personality.

Those were disregarded by the dealmakers as not significant. They were. Cutler's Chicago teammates said all the right things about him, even as he was shoving one offensive lineman coming off the field, told another to shut up and play his own position at another point and was telling one position coach, on the practice field, to back off his fundamentals.

Cutler took a Lovie Smith team that reached the 2005 postseason behind Kyle Orton and the 2006 Super Bowl with Rex Grossman, and missed the playoffs four of his five Smith years, then in both of his Marc Trestman years and both of his John Fox years. Grossman and Orton were a combined 40-24 in Chicago. Cutler was 51-51.

Cutler simply wasn’t worth what the Bears gave up for him. It seemed obvious at the time (certain commentators who will remain nameless here were roasted for saying so at the time) and it proved out. He was in Chicago exactly what he’d been in Denver. He was the same middling quarterback with suspect “weapons” as he was with Pro Bowl’ers Martellus Bennett, Matt Forte, Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall, behind an offensive line that included Jermon Bushrod and Kyle Long, both Pro Bowl players.

Mirer was a disaster after the Bears chose to ignore his dismal four years with the Seattle Seahawks and give away. Mirer seemed perceptibly overmatched by the game when he was given three starts in ’97, all losses. He had no confidence and, worse, inspired none.

On the other hand, Mack and Trubisky… 

A rookie Trubisky told veteran Pro Bowl guard Josh Sitton to shut up in a 2017 huddle (no one is supposed to talk in there except the quarterback), which Sitton respected and recounted. Not the same thing as embarrassing or disrespecting. Head coach Matt Nagy on more than one occasion last season made mention of Trubisky’s reactions to adversity and mistakes.

Football character. There is something to be said about a rookie quarterback who earns a complimentary nickname – “Pretty Boy Assassin" – from the defense for what he was doing to them running scout team. The defense’s nickname for Cutler doesn’t clear NBC censorship standards.

Mack brought with him from Oakland not only sacks, but also a mindset that took root in and resonated with an already-strong defensive unit.

“When you bring a guy like Khalil in,” Pace said, “I think the longer you’re around him, it’s not just the player, it’s his work ethic and it’s his professionalism and it’s everything he is as a person. And to have your best player be absolutely one of your harder workers is a great thing to have as a franchise.”

Football character.

The unfortunate reality is that character is harder to assess than talent. But as a handful of Bears transactions involving all-important high-round draft choices (and quarterbacks) have repeatedly demonstrated, arm strength, size, 40-times, all that stuff, don’t make up for a missing “It” factor if that targeted player doesn’t have “It.”

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SportsTalk Live Podcast: Robbie Gould continues to toy with Bears fans... is a potential deal in sight?


SportsTalk Live Podcast: Robbie Gould continues to toy with Bears fans... is a potential deal in sight?

0:00 - The Cubs crush the Dodgers as El Mago puts on another show at Wrigley. Meanwhile, is the bullpen the biggest reason why they are above .500?

5:00 - One day away from the NFL Draft. Is Kyler Murray a lock to be the #1 pick. Will the Bears move up to the 2nd round?

8:00 - Robbie Gould continues to dominate the conversation with Bears fans. Hub gives his insight on a potential deal.

10:00 - Frank Thomas and Chuck Garfien join the panel to talk White Sox. They discuss when the top prospects should get called up and if now is the time for the Southsiders to add veterans like Craig Kimbrel or Dallas Keuchel.

Listen to the entire podcast here or in the embedded player below.

Sports Talk Live Podcast


Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Bears.