By Robert Zeglinski
He always puts a good front for gathered photographers and reporters. There’s always an ever-present smile on his face. He’s always “fired up” about the direction his Bears are heading, because he’s either an optimist or naive.
But when it comes to legitimately letting wind of where he could be leaning in roster acquisitions, Bears general manager Ryan Pace instead prefers to play it close to the vest.
That fact plays all the more true for Pace in free agency. An area he has struggled to bolster the Bears with. An area he can’t afford to have a letdown once more in the upcoming 2018 market. Somehow, he still serves to downplay the notion of what this March means for Chicago in terms of appropriate gravitas. Somehow he still likes to paint himself as risk-averse, as he did to open last week’s Scouting Combine.
“A lot of times guys become free agents for a reason and we’re mindful of that,” said Pace from Indianapolis. “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.”
That structuring Pace is referring to looks at the abhorrent 2017 Bears’ free agent class. A haul of additions featuring sunk costs in Mike Glennon, Quintin Demps, Markus Wheaton, Marcus Cooper, and more. The Bears spent the third-most money in free agency last year at $116 million. Most of that money will go back into their salary cap purse, but an overwhelming majority of it wasn’t spent well.
Six of the top-10 spending teams in 2017 ended up making the playoffs after adding those supplements Pace glosses over.
The Bears, at 5-11, did not of course.
What the 2017 Bears’ free agency period really says is that, up until this point, Pace has been cautionary with deals he hands out to players he hasn’t drafted: to a fault. Even top-tier additions such as Akiem Hicks were bets on upside with initially low commitments before he played himself into an extension. Everything Pace does with dotted lines is micro-managed.
If the Bears are going to contend, let alone lift themselves out of four straight years at last place in the NFC North, then that means this approach to free agency by Pace has to stop.
Because for as much as Pace often espouses about building through the draft and establishing a foundation, the fact remains that any relevant championship contender plays the free agent market like a fiddle. There is too much roster turnover to fully rely on draft classes as to how a team builds itself into relevance. Better yet, there is too much roster turnover in the NFL period to have the Bears continually swing and miss in free agency.
The teams that attack free agency properly like the Patriots, Vikings, and Jaguars – all of which made it to this year’s Championship Sunday – are those that fill needs and afford money as well as commitments to worthwhile players. They’re not dipping their toes into the pool. They’re not coming in with weaker offers and withdrawing themselves as the slightest hint of a bidding war. They’ve instead done their market research and narrow down their targets as best as possible.
The Bears with Pace, up until now, could only wish for that kind of approach to shopping. The Bears with Pace, have instead window shopped and withdrawn after seeing the price tag while browsing.
Realistically, this year can be different for the embattled general manager.
Pace has his franchise quarterback in Mitchell Trubisky. He has his hand-picked hopeful innovator at head coach in Matt Nagy. He has the makings of a potentially elite defense with the returning Vic Fangio. The Bears’ window with Trubisky at his cheapest is still open. It just needs a boost.
Trubisky needs weapons. Jacksonville’s Allen Robinson and the Rams’ Sammy Watkins will be available.
Trubisky needs protection up front. An assortment of offensive line options such as the Chiefs’ Zach Fulton will be there for the taking.
Fangio and the defense need continuity. On Tuesday, Pace transition-tagged Kyle Fuller likely setting the table a long-term deal to stay in Chicago: a solid first step of this off-season.
There are no more excuses. Only action. There is no more safekeeping or fear of risk. Pace, for once, must work whatever magic he has to maximize the Bears’ free agency to its fullest. For once, with no fear, he has dive head first into the deep end of the pool. R.
Robert is your guy for all things Bears. Follow him on Twitter: @RobertZeglinski.