By Robert Zeglinski
Every year’s NFL free agency period is specifically catered to the high rollers who believe they have nothing to lose. That means specifically those teams on the cusp of another championship like say the New England Patriots, or the annual paper champion, Jacksonville Jaguars. There’s an inherent comfort in spending big when you think it’s a primary avenue for your success. For the Chicago Bears and general manager Ryan Pace, they’ve instead become masters at playing the market’s second tier in always looking forward to a more important infrastructure – homegrown, drafted players.
Early offseason hype surrounded the Bears in just what superstars Chicago would add in free agency given their top five cap space, but for a team still a ways from possessing it’s own championship core, it was never meant to be. Pace himself preordained more of a cheap veteran flea market play rather than the high expectations of going for gold from fans.
“You can always recover from the player you didn’t sign. You can’t recover from the player you signed at the wrong price,” said Pace before the hoopla of the open market ensued. Try as you might to disagree, his stance has basis and is the correct move for an organization in transition.
The Bears were in on the Bills’ Stephon Gilmore but weren’t going to get into a bidding war with New England and attach themselves to a good, but not great player. They were also in on former Texan, A.J. Bouye, but were only going to sign him to their terms. Two secondary additions they indeed could’ve used, but elected not to move on for fear of hamstringing the team with potential non-core players.
That same moniker also applies to now former Bear, Alshon Jeffery, who signed with Philadelphia on a one-year contract.
As evidently as possible, Jeffery’s market didn’t develop the way he believed it would and the Bears themselves believed he was the wrong player at the wrong price in any sense. Kicking the can down the road and committing to another non-elite player wasn’t in the stars. This was a roster purging of a still budding regime building it’s own foundation.
Most sports have the same ideal of how to succeed. You primarily move the needle in the draft.
That’s what the consistently successful winning teams do in football. That’s the Patriot way (disregard this past free agency). That’s the Pittsburgh Steeler way. In a smart comparison, that’s the Green Bay Packer way. In all actuality, Pace and the Bears are planning on doing their best impression of these squads and their personnel evaluators, but better (ideally).
Winning free agency is a myth in that regard. Too many teams that believe they’re on the cusp of something great go all out when they should really hold back and keep their cards close to their chest.
The last five teams to spend the most money in free agency – the Jaguars, Jets, Buccaneers, Dolphins, and Buccaneers again – had a combined record of 30-50. None of these teams made the postseason. Obviously in that light none of them won a championship either.
Sure, on the surface the Bears were one of the highest spending teams this past free agency, handing out $118 million plus in contracts. But an important caveat is that only $2.5 million of that money is guaranteed beyond the 2017 season. Guys like Prince Amukamara and Kendall Wright have to make a name of themselves again while the Bears look for a short-term boost.
Not much commitment is attached to any of the Bears’ new players and that’s key for a rebuilding team. What Chicago’s spending boiled down to is a lot of prove-it deals and filler while drafted young talent develops and comes into it’s own as the team’s necessary stars.
Simply put, overspending or backing up a truck of money for guys looking to cash in on free agency is more of a sexy ideal than the “right” way of building a winner. If you have not much other talent in place, how can you benefit from signing a star corner or safety or pass rusher? How will these guys flourish or maintain their level of play once you try to work your way out of their debilitating contract?
Take a look at Chicago’s current situation and you’ll understand why they instead preferred to fill the roster with depth and little risk.
Currently, they don’t have their franchise quarterback, although that could change in April. The defensive front seven is coming together with sophomore phenom, Leonard Floyd, Akiem Hicks, and company, but it’s still hardly a winning unit. The secondary, where the Bears could have upgraded most in free agency, is still very much in flux despite signings of Quintin Demps, Amumakara, and Marcus Cooper.
There are a lot of holes on this roster where simply throwing money at them would only be a short-term fix that masks greater issues. A successful bandage that will look glitzy to some degree but eventually have the full wound exposed again. The Bears aren’t close to contending and Pace knows it. He also knows that the lottery of the draft with his and his scouts’ evaluations is how they’ll eventually get to that destination.
“I think you have to be disciplined during these time periods,” said Pace of his measured approach after the whirlwind of this free agency.
Ideally, the time will come where the Bears do once again make a splash in March. Signing a player that puts them over the top because of the rest of their roster is in place and ready to compete for a title.
Chicago once did it with Julius Peppers in 2010 in adding a star pass rusher to a mostly finished defense and it resulted in an NFC Championship Game appearance. With these current Bears, you’d hope for more sustained success but can still see the comparison. A year or so down the line, committing to that kind of player like Peppers just might happen as the Bears prepare to launch into the stratosphere, but not now. Not even close.
Pace has a plan and design on first crafting his team in the draft. Whether that plan pans out is a different story altogether, but the steadfast belief is commendable. He’s sticking to his laurels and not letting the moment get the best of him.
“This is what I believe in. I believe that to have to sustained success you must build your team through the draft.”
Robert Zeglinski is a staff writer for SB Nation and managing editor at No Coast Bias. Follow Robert on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.