By Robert Zeglinski
Free wasn’t always an idea NFL teams had to consider. For most of the league’s existence, if you drafted a star you had the opportunity to keep said star unimpeded for most of his career. When Hall of Fame defensive end Reggie White threatened a class action lawsuit, White v. NFL, on behalf of the NFL Player’s Association in 1993, that changed. As the inception of the salary cap and free agent system most know today came into fruition, the brain trust of the league wasn’t pleased. Then defending attorney Frank Rothman believed it would be “the destruction of the National Football League we know today.”
In some ways, despite hyperbole, Rothman was correct.
Free agency was a major wrinkle personnel leads never had to contend with. The NFL is historically an antiquated beast rooted in fear of wide scale change. Allowing players more freedom and giving more work to general managers was unheard of simply because it wasn’t seen as necessary. Making it an incremental part of the NFL off-season calendar meant taking a completely different approach to building a good team. It inherently meant more creativity on the part of many leaders not interested in doing so out of sheer stubbornness.
But Rothman’s evident fears in seeing what it would mean for the league were unfounded. Free agency gives bad teams a chance at hope and quickly. It gives contending teams the opportunity to sand over rough edges of their roster without worry. It allows players a measure of freedom in dictating how their careers envelop as they seek security. No one can argue as to the benefits it’s proliferated for a league desperately needing revisions.
Free agency isn’t a perfect process, and it has a great deal of kinks to work out. The upcoming expiration of the collective bargaining agreement after the 2020 season is a testament to that notion. But in the over quarter century since it’s inception, it’s difficult to argue it’s not only made the NFL machine stronger, but more of an all-encompassing titan.
Under general manager Ryan Pace, the Bears have traditionally been a team that writes metaphorical blank checks in free agency. They’ve been the team seeking a quick injection of hope. From Eddie Royal, Pernell McPhee, Akiem Hicks, and Danny Trevathan, to Mike Glennon, Prince Amukamara, Allen Robinson, and Trey Burton, Pace’s Bears haven’t been shy in using free agency as a shoulder to lean on. For better or worse, it’s defined a significant portion of Pace’s tenure at Halas Hall.
The first week of 2019’s free agency, or the official start of the new league year, has come and gone. The Bears, curiously and necessarily, veered away from being big spenders under Pace for the first time. Shrewd investments in Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Mike Davis are a far cry from big fish signings of Robinson and Trevathan in years’ past.
After four off-seasons, the Bears were finally a contending team patiently sanding over the edges with relative questions as to how some of their additions fit into their plans.
The headliner of Chicago’s latest free agent class is Cordarrelle Patterson, a two-time Pro Bowl kick returner and formerly one of the most underrated weapons for the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots. In 2018, the Bears had one of the worst kick return units in professional football. Patterson, predictably, was one of the best. To limit Patterson’s contributions to solely special teams would be reductive.
For the first time in his six-year career, New England saw value in getting occasional snaps out of Patterson as a running back and receiver. Patterson has never been multi-faceted enough to be a full-time offensive weapon, but in short bursts the blazer is often unmatched. The 28-year-old averaged four offensive touches a game between rushing and receiving for the Patriots last season. His average yards per touch was a stellar 8.96.
Defensive coordinators having to game-plan for Tarik Cohen, Taylor Gabriel, and Patterson are about to lose a lot of sleep.
On defense, it’s a bet on the rest of the Bears’ sound, elite operation lifting up their two newest starters.
2016 Second-Team All-Pro Ha Ha Clinton-Dix once saw a magical career lie ahead of him. The former 2014 first-round pick looked like the Packers’ long-term answer at safety. That is until his play experienced a significant drop off over the last two seasons. Clinton-Dix, ever the playmaker with 14 interceptions in five years, has developed a reputation as a timid tackler who takes poor angles to ball carriers. On a porous Packers defense, Clinton-Dix’s reputation for risk-taking wasn’t welcomed when he couldn’t make the simplest of plays. In the interest of full disclosure: If you wanted a Bears’ reintroduction to the flawed duality of a Bears safety like Chris Conte, Clinton-Dix is your man.
The Bears’ bet in bringing in the veteran 26-year-old is in him becoming more disciplined while playing next to former college teammate and superstar Eddie Jackson. The Bears’ hope is that with a decreased responsibility on a stacked defense, Clinton-Dix’s penchant for freelancing becomes more palatable, and less unfortunate. On a one-year deal, it looks like a low-risk, high-reward scenario. But the Bears are playing for a Super Bowl in 2019. Every move they make carries more weight and risk than normal.
The same prospect goes for former Jet Buster Skrine. Skrine’s career statistics are impressive with a cursory glance. 457 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, and nine interceptions is nothing to sneeze at for a nickel cornerback. It’s solid math, and as we’re told, numbers aren’t supposed to lie. Of course, that’s only when you neglect to mention Skrine’s numbers were compiled over nine playing seasons and 85 starts. One pick a year suddenly becomes far less eye-popping.
Numbers can lie, without context, and in how they’re interpreted.
As Bryce Callahan’s replacement at nickel cornerback, the experienced Skrine has sizable shoes. Sizable in position importance, not because the 5-foot-10 Callahan is a giant. Like with Clinton-Dix, the Bears will attempt to hide a weak link as the rest of their defense lifts everyone else else up. The issue with Skrine is whether that’s actually possible. Over the course of his “illustrious” career, Skrine has committed 64 penalties. From Cleveland to New York, he’s led his team in penalties in all but two playing seasons.
The 29-year-old Skrine is a hard-nosed that lives to up every football player cliche, but to say he’s been a net gain for any NFL team he’s played for would be mistaken. Saying poor defenses with the Browns and Jets limited Skrine doesn’t help his case. If he was on a bad defense, what does it say when he was the one most consistently picked on? You can only hide your liabilities so much. A fresh change of scenery could help awaken a new Skrine. Sometimes the opportunity to refocus is invigorating. More likely, the Bears’ faith in their special defense better not be misplaced.
The Bears wouldn’t have to face any of these questions without free agency being a reality. Then again, they wouldn’t have been able to build one of the league’s best teams without it either.
Robert is a writer, editor, and producer. Follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.