Emma: Bears Plan To Be Cautious, Composed In Free Agency

By Chris Emma–

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (CBS) — Before his days running a front office, Ryan Pace was cutting his teeth on the pro scouting side.

He would spend long hours in front of game tape to evaluate what a player could or couldn’t be, looking to guide the Saints’ decisions in free agency. Because of this, Pace knows well the risks in play.

Pace is now entering his third offseason as Bears general manager, one that will bring many critical decisions. While the current focus is on likely subtractions of quarterback Jay Cutler and receiver Alshon Jeffery, Pace’s attention is has turned to adding to his roster in free agency when it opens next week.

“Our free agent board is stacked,” Pace said Wednesday at the NFL Combine.

The Bears’ work in preparing for free agency is all but complete, awaiting Tuesday and the beginning of the “legal tampering” period. Pace and director of player personnel Josh Lucas and director of pro scouting Champ Kelly have their plans in place.

Like the last two offseasons, expect the Bears to be cautious in free agency.

“There is a delicate balance between being aggressive and being decisive, but being responsible,” Pace said. “I think you can always recover from the player you didn’t sign. You can’t recover from the player that you signed at the wrong price. I think we’ve got to be conscious of that.”

The signing of defensive lineman Akiem Hicks last offseason is an example of what the Bears will look to do again in 2017. Hicks was 26 and had shown his potential on film more than the stat sheet, but Pace believed in what he could become as a defensive end in coordinator Vic Fangio’s schemes. Hicks was signed to a two-year, $10-million deal. He posted seven sacks in 2016 and will earn new paper down the road.

Linebacker Danny Trevathan’s deal was another which made sense for the Bears in March 2016. Then 25, he was a cap casualty for the defending champion Broncos and their vaunted defense. A player just entering his prime became available for the Bears, who signed Trevathan to a four-year, $24.5-million deal. It was a team-friendly contract that made sense.

The other cap casualty from Denver was defensive lineman Malik Jackson, who had Chicago’s interest before his price was driven too high. The Jaguars were willing to pay the steep cost of $86.5 million over six seasons, with $42 million in guarantees.

Then there’s the disastrous decision the Texans made, signing quarterback Brock Osweiler to a four-year, $72-million deal that included $37 million guaranteed. Osweiler earned his way to the bench late in his first season in Houston.

One could create a long list of failed decisions in free agency. There’s inherent risk in signing a veteran player, first with the obvious of identifying why the player was made available in the first place.

Following a miserable 3-13 season, the Bears must find immediate fits on the open market who can bring success in 2017 and beyond. Coach John Fox reiterated their preference to build through the draft, but free agency offers the chance to instantly upgrade a roster. The Bears currently have around $60 million in cap room, a number that will go up if they part ways with Cutler.

The Bears must upgrade their secondary, which is entirely lacking playmakers, and now receiver could be a priority position with Alshon Jeffery set to test the open market. Their defense is getting better, but the offense is lacking pieces, with a new quarterback likely coming in. The Bears’ needs are great, but so are their resources.

Pace will be in the spotlight next week as the Bears look to the open market. He understands the risk in play.

“Free agency is dangerous,” Pace said. “You’re stepping through land mines, and you’ve got to be careful you don’t step on the wrong one.”

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670 and like his Facebook page.

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