By Chris Emma–
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (670 The Score) — There’s a cruel side to the NFL front office business, one that Ryan Pace is now all too familiar with as Bears general manager.
Now in his fourth year on the job, Pace is in the process of parting ways with many of his own. The Bears have released linebackers Pernell McPhee, Jerrell Freeman and Willie Young, safety Quintin Demps and will end the failed Mike Glennon quarterback experiment at the start of the new league year on March 14.
Bidding farewell to the people is difficult, as Pace was quick to remind. Unfortunately for his Bears, cutting loose the players has been far too easy.
The Bears have failed at attracting and signing free agents these last three years, save for two impact players in linebacker Danny Trevathan and defensive lineman Akiem Hicks. Those missteps have been reflected on the field, where the Bears have gone 14-34 under Pace’s leadership.
The Bears are set to enter the new league year with more than $80 million in cap space, which as of Wednesday would be the third-most in the league. They could add to that number or lessen it with contract extensions for defensive lineman Eddie Goldman or safety Adrian Amos, both presently in discussion with the team for new deals.
Pace again referred to free agency as “treacherous waters” that lie ahead for the Bears, and he will wade with caution once again.
“Just because you have cap space doesn’t mean you can be reckless with these decisions,” he said. “So, we have to be strategic, disciplined and calculated as we enter free agency.”
New Bears coach Matt Nagy reminded Wednesday why the entire league has converged on Indianapolis, a centralized location to evaluate the next wave of talent at the NFL Combine. Every executive speaks of building through the draft, but executing that is easier said than done. It’s a big reason why general manager jobs become available.
But the importance of the draft shouldn’t downplay free agency, which can help a team turn its fortunes with one offseason. The Super Bowl champion Eagles built around young quarterback Carson Wentz by adding key free agents last March. And likewise, the Jaguars went from a 3-13 afterthought in 2016 to the AFC Championship Game in large part because of their free-agent additions.
The Bears are positioned with some young pieces in place at key positions. Free agency will allow them to build around that core, but Pace has his work cut out in bolstering the roster with better talent through the open market.
His first priority is with impending free-agent cornerback Kyle Fuller, who could be tendered the franchise tag before deadline next Tuesday. The franchise tag would keep Fuller under contract for another year. Conversations with Fuller’s party are already ongoing.
Wide receiver, outside linebacker and cornerback stand as the Bears’ greatest needs this offseason.
With that in mind, the next two weeks could go something like this:
— Re-signing Fuller to a long-term deal remains a possibility for the Bears, whether that’s within the next week or before the July 16 deadline established through the franchise tag. However, Pace did point to a strong market at cornerback in free agency, with players like Malcolm Butler and Trumaine Johnson among proven alternatives to Fuller.
While Pace did say that the Bears will be wise with their cap flexibility, that doesn’t necessarily mean they will be cheap. With cornerback such a vital need — Marcus Cooper and Cre’Von LeBlanc are the only players under contract at the position — the Bears could pay up for the kind of game-changing cornerback they’ve coveted. Meanwhile, the draft features players like Minkah Fitzpatrick and Denzel Ward as potential stars at cornerback available in the top 10.
— The market at wide receiver may be thin once again. The Dolphins tendered the tag to Jarvis Landry, who was set to be the top slot target available. The Jaguars could do the same with Allen Robinson, who would be the top receiver available. The Bears figure to be players if Robinson or the Rams’ Sammy Watkins reach the market.
The Bears will most likely retain restricted free agent Cam Meredith, while Kevin White will return to find whatever role he can earn. Kendall Wright and Dontrelle Inman could also be retained on new deals. The Bears are still evaluating the status of Markus Wheaton, who had a three-catch season in 2017.
If not a big signing, the Bears could look for a under-the-radar players like Taylor Gabriel or Albert Wilson, both players who could fit Nagy’s system well. The draft offers plenty of promising targets on the second day. Before then, the possibility of Alabama’s Calvin Ridley looms with the eighth pick.
— The Bears have just three outside linebackers currently on the roster: Leonard Floyd, Isaiah Irving and Howard Jones. Effective pass rushers are always at a premium. DeMarcus Lawrence leads the group this season, though he will be coveted by many teams, including the Cowboys.
What’s more likely is the Bears will look for upside in a player like Kony Ealy or Alex Okafor, the latter of whom was drafted by the Saints during Pace’s time with the organization. Of course, there’s the concern of Okafor’s torn Achilles suffered in November. The Bears may be wise to retain Lamarr Houston for veteran depth after he racked up four sacks in five games last December.
The draft presents a golden opportunity for the Bears with a player like Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds, a freakish athlete with a massive frame. Edmunds can play either inside or out and would be an ideal complement to Leonard Floyd for the Bears defense.
Pace was awarded a contract extension through 2021 in January because the Bears believe in their future with him more than they fret these last three years.
In this, another pivotal offseason, he’ll now look to convert on the free-agent market, which could go a long ways toward ending the team’s cycle of losing.