Bears look much different, but will they be better?
Just more than a week into free agency the Bears are a much different team.
It remains to be seen if they're better, and the draft is still over a month away, but on paper they're much improved.
GM Ryan Pace had a plan going into free agency and he stuck to it, significantly upgrading a 6-10 team at three positions on defense, and making the offensive line better at two positions with just one move.
“We have a lot of needs; we have a lot of cap space,” Pace said, weeks before the free-agent market opened. “We just have to be mindful and strategic with what we do.” He and his staff set their board, factoring in affordability, with a priority placed on targeting younger players whose arrows were pointing up.
“Free agency's risky,” Pace said. “We've got to be careful with this. There's going to be certain positions that we're going to be more aggressive at, but I think you've just got to be cautious in free agency.”
By addressing areas of need and adding players at positions that are not considered well-stocked in the draft, Pace has given himself plenty of options. He's now better able to draft the best player available rather than having to reach for a player to fill a glaring need. As expected, there have been no blockbuster free-agent signings by the Bears, but the cumulative effect of Pace's maneuverings is promising.
The new guys
With apologies to 33-year-old Derrick Johnson, who re-signed with the Chiefs and was unlikely to leave, Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman were the top two inside linebackers available in free agency. The Bears got both of them. Trevathan signed for $24.5 million over four years, while Freeman got $12 million over three years.
Trevathan is already an excellent player, and he'll be just 26 on his birthday next week, so there's every expectation that he's just approaching his prime. The Colts made no effort to re-sign Freeman, which could be cause for concern, but he's much more of a playmaker than last year's starters, unrestricted free agent Shea McClellin, who signed with the Patriots; and Christian Jones, 25, who still has upside.
Both new linebackers will benefit from the presence of 6-foot-5, 324-pound defensive lineman Akiem Hicks, who got $10 million for two years. He's an upgrade over the player he essentially will replace in the starting lineup, Jarvis Jenkins, who signed with the Jets.
Hicks, who left the perennial powerhouse Patriots, has started 33 games but is just 26 with his best football ahead of him.
The addition of road-grader Bobby Massie (three years, $18 million) solidifies the right tackle spot and allows Kyle Long to move back to right guard. Long was pretty good at right tackle last year considering he had a week to learn the position before the season started. But he's an elite guard, and with he and left guard Matt Slauson bookending young center Hroniss Grasu, it should limit the growing pains of last year's third-round draft pick.
“I'm here to move people,” the 26-year-old Massie said. He'll do that effectively in the run game, and the consensus is that he's improving as a pass protector.
Keeping Pro Bowl wide receiver Alshon Jeffery for one year at $14.6 million with the franchise tag was the only move that made sense. Giving him upward of $60 million on a long-term deal would have been a pricey gamble after last year's four separate injuries kept him out of seven games. Letting Jeffery walk would have placed an unrealistic burden on redshirt rookie Kevin White after the 2015 first-round pick missed his first year following shin surgery for stress fractures.
Cornerback Tracy Porter was rewarded with a three-year, $12 million deal after making good on last season's one-year, veteran-minimum, prove-it contract by leading the team with 22 pass breakups. Porter's a bit of an injury risk, but he was the Bears' best cover corner last year, and without him they'd be desperate for cornerback help.
Tight end Zach Miller ($5.5 million for two years) also has a lengthy injury history, but he was a godsend last season when he enjoyed good health and a career year. He also has excellent rapport with quarterback Jay Cutler. The Bears still need a big, blocking tight end, but that's not an expensive purchase.
Defensive lineman Mitch Unrein was an under-the-radar re-signing, but he's a John Fox guy from Denver and a tough, selfless and versatile role player.
Wide receiver Marc Mariani, cornerback Sherrick McManis and running back Jacquizz Rodgers are all valuable backups and productive special teams contributors. McManis (two years, $2.85 million) has more special teams tackles over the past four years (55) than any Bear, including a team-high 17 last season.
Mariani lost the kickoff-return job to Deonte Thompson last season but is a reliable punt returner. When injuries decimated the wide receiver corps last year, he responded with a career year that included 22 catches for 300 yards, and 19 of his receptions resulted in first downs.
An elbow injury ended the 2015 season for Rodgers (one-year, $760,000) after just five games, but he can be an effective change-of-pace runner and he had a combined 105 catches for the Falcons in 2012 and '13.
The ones who got away
The decision to let running back Matt Forte walk is still a questionable one. It was made more so by the revelation that the Bears offered running back C.J. Anderson $19 million over four years, even after professing faith that youngsters Jeremy Langford and Ka'Deem Carey were more than capable of filling the void. The Bears could have kept Forte for less than the $12 million over three years he got from the Jets, but that's still much more than Langford and Carey make combined.
And it's difficult to imagine Forte's workload ever again matching the 262 touches he had last year, when he turned 30. And that represented the fewest touches he's ever had in a full season. He had 255 touches in 2011 when he missed four games.
It could be argued that Pace didn't get much for tight end Martellus Bennett in the trade with the Patriots. The Bears sent the disgruntled and malcontented 2014 Pro Bowler and a sixth-round draft pick (204th overall) in return for New England's fourth-round pick (127th overall).
But, once word leaked last month that the Bears were anxious to part ways with Bennett, it could be considered a win that they were able to get anything. They move up 77 spots in the draft and get rid of a guy who wasn't buying into the program.
Depending on your outlook, the Bennett trade is either addition by subtraction, or it makes the offense less effective. The guess here is that he never again approaches the 90 catches and 916 receiving yards he had in 2014.
McClellin no longer had a spot in the starting lineup, and the Bears did not value Jenkins nearly as much as the Jets ($7 million, two years), although he could have had a significant role as a backup in the D-line rotation.
Incoming free agents
LS Aaron Brewer
LB Jerrell Freeman
DL Akiem Hick
OT Bobby Massie
LB Danny Trevathan
Re-signed free agents
OL Nick Becton
TE Rob Housler
WR Alshon Jeffery
WR Marc Mariani
CB Sherrick McManis
TE Zach Miller
CB Tracy Porter
RB Jacquizz Rodgers
DL Mitch Unrein
Bears free agents who signed elsewhere
OT Jermon Bushrod
RB Matt Forte
DL Jarvis Jenkins
LB Shea McClellin
LB LaRoy Reynolds
Bears free agents still out there
LB Sam Acho
CB Alan Ball
WR Josh Bellamy
OG Vlad Ducasse
S Sherrod Martin
C Will Montgomery
S Ryan Mundy
OL Patrick Omameh
S Chris Prosinski
WR Deonte Thompson