Last January, Chicago Bears Chairman George McCaskey met with general manager Ryan Pace to discuss Pace’s strategy for the 2017 offseason. The message was very clear:
“I told Ryan, ‘You should be criticized every spring for not being more aggressive in free agency because that means we are sticking to the plan of developing our own players, focusing primarily on the draft,'” McCaskey said. “If there is a special guy out there, do you do what it takes to go get him? Yeah. But I think he’s taken a very measured approach to free agency thus far and I expect that to continue this offseason.”
Pace set his goals last year, promising to be aggressive and focus on playmakers and players that could provide effective depth for the then 3-13 team.
“This offseason’s huge,” Pace said. “And I think there’s a big responsibility with that much cap space, (picking) this high in the draft. It’s a significant offseason for us. And we’ve got to get going in that direction.”
The needs were fairly well-defined. The team needed an upgrade at quarterback following the release of longtime underperformer Jay Cutler, who was let go for both salary cap reasons as well as an opportunity to move in a new direction. In addition to quarterback, the team had needs in the secondary, tight end and wide receiver.
Pace went to work. He quickly signed the untested Mike Glennon, who had served as the backup quarterback to Jameis Winston in Tampa Bay. He also added quarterback Mark Sanchez to backup Glennon and serve as a bridge to a potential rookie quarterback, who would eventually become Mitch Trubisky.
The secondary was solidified with the signings of strong safety Quintin Demps and cornerbacks Prince Amukamara and Marcus Cooper. Dion Sims was given a hefty contract ($10 million guaranteed) to serve as the bookend tight end to an aging Zach Miller. Finally, Pace attempted to provide Glennon with new weapons at wide receiver by signing Markus Wheaton and Kendall Wright.
All players were signed to “team friendly” contracts which allow the Bears to part ways with each player in 2018 if they did not fulfill their potential in Chicago. The Glennon contract, in particular, was criticized initially ($18 million) in year one but allowed the team to release Glennon in 2018 for a small cap hit ($4 million) if he either didn’t work out or a new quarterback replaced him.
Looking back at the 2017 offseason following the Bears 5-11 season, most of these signings were less than effective. Only Amukamara has a chance to remain with the team in 2018, and Ryan Pace finds himself in a similar situation this offseason, needing to find playmakers at multiple positions in free agency and the draft.
Where should Pace focus his efforts on free agency? An early analysis of the 2018 NFL Draft and the Bears’ eighth pick in the first round, there will potentially be opportunities to boost both lines and the wide receiver position in the draft. However, due to the uncertain recovery of wide receiver Cam Meredith from a torn ACL and the inconsistency of 2016 first round pick Kevin White, the team will certainly need to address the position from all angles.
Let’s examine the areas of focus for Ryan Pace in 2018 free agency, as well as some potential targets:
#1 Need – Wide Receiver
Assuming Meredith and White return to full health, Pace will need to first decide if any of the current Bears free agents are worth resigning. Of the group, Dontrelle Inman and Kendall Wright are the only realistic options. Inman was added to the receiving corps in the middle of the 2017 season in a trade with the Los Angeles Chargers and flashed some connection with Trubisky in limited playing time. Wheaton also had moments where he demonstrated potential to be a WR3 or WR4 on a good team.
The main targets for Pace and the Bears in free agency at wide receiver appear to be (some may be given the franchise tag or resigned by their current team prior to the free agency period) are Arizona Cardinals John Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers Martavis Bryant, Atlanta Falcons Taylor Gabriel, Los Angeles Rams Sammy Watkins and Miami Dolphins Jarvis Landry. Bryant and Landry have tremendous upside and won’t come cheap, but both also come with considerable baggage of domestic abuse and questionable attitudes in the locker room.
#2 Need – Cornerback
Cornerback is the one position that Pace could decide to solve by simply resigning his own free agents. Both Amukamara and 2014 first round pick Kyle Fuller are unrestricted in 2018, but either or both could potentially re-sign with the team. However, it will come at a considerable price. Amukamara is coming off a solid year, and although he is two years older than Fuller, both players could easily demand contracts in the range of $8-10 million per year.
Other potential targets for Pace at the cornerback position include Cincinnati Bengals Darqueze Dennard, Green Bay Packers Davon House, Houston Texans Johnathan Joseph and New England Patriots Malcolm Butler. Butler is on the wrong side of 30 but has remained an effective defender for the Pats.
#3 Need – Quarterback
It may be strange to consider, knowing that Trubisky is solidified as the starter at quarterback for 2018 and beyond, but the Bears have no other quarterbacks signed to support the 2017 second round pick on the roster. Sanchez has served as an effective mentor to Trubisky, but his days as an actual athlete throwing passes in games has long passed. The Bears will definitely be in the market for an effective second-string quarterback.
Assuming that none of the top free agent quarterbacks are interested in holding a clipboard next season (Drew Brees, Kirk Cousins, etc.), Pace will be left looking at limited options such as Minnesota Vikings Sam Bradford and Case Keenum, Houston Texans Tom Savage and Atlanta Falcons Matt Schaub. Jay Cutler is likely to be released by the Miami Dolphins, but there is less than zero chance that Pace would consider bringing him back to Chicago.
The 2017 offseason proved to be a somewhat unproductive one for Ryan Pace. With his franchise quarterback in place, a new coaching staff and an estimated $60 million in salary cap space, Pace will need to choose a strategy that echoes the “aggressive” directive from his McCaskey bosses, while also considering what players from the current Chicago Bears roster are part of the long-term solution.