Grading the Bears in Free Agency: A Major Step Sideways
Jumping in to grade a team's free agency moves after a couple days of signings makes little sense.
The secondary free agency market has to develop because if can determine degrees of success and failure for a team.
The Bears have continued signing free agents at low cost virtually every day since the initial rush to sign Jimmy Graham, Robert Quinn and trade for Nick Foles.
They've addressed every need area short of wide receiver, whether it was in free agency itself or with players turned loose prior to the start of free agency.
Here's a look at how Ryan Pace did at acquiring veteran help to solve the problems that took down the 2019 Bears.
Retaining Free Agents
It starts with keeping core players and letting those leave who have outlived usefulness or have grown too expensive.
The Bears weren't keeping both Danny Trevathan and Nick Kwiatkoski when both can play and they play the same position. One was leaving any way you slice it. So losing Kwiatkoski counts for little just as keeping him and letting Trevathan leave would have done. Keeping Trevathan does make more sense because he's still young enough to provide a few more high-level seasons and is better in pass coverage.
It wasn't a win letting go of Prince Amukamara when he provided leadership and coverage, albeit with a lack of interceptions. Some of their other moves wouldn't have been possible without the cap savings here, though. Letting go of receiver Taylor Gabriel hurt as well, but with two concussions last year after at least two earlier, they couldn't afford to retain him.
Finally having the courage to admit Leonard Floyd failed to live up to their pass rush expectations counts as a plus. Considering Floyd got $10 million for one year, they saved $3.2 million toward a replacement and finally have a better pass rusher on the other side.
Losing Nick Williams depleted depth, but at the $10 million for two years he got from Detroit they weren't retaining him. They did the next-best thing and made sure they wouldn't lose defensive lineman Roy Robertson-Harris by tendering him at a higher level as a restricted free agent.
A few other depth losses were less necessary. Swing tackle Cornelius Lucas departed after making a big difference filling in for half a season. Considering what they paid other lower-level free agents who may not even make the team, they could have easily paid Lucas the $1.9 million average salary he received for two years from Washington.
Because they understand the defense better than other low-level free agents on the market, bringing back safeties Deon Bush and DeAndre Houston-Carson was important.
Losing inside linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis came at a position where they had younger, less expensive options. The most important role Pierre-Louis had was special teams, and two big penalties he committed on the punt return/punt block unit had significant roles in defeats.
Robert Quinn supplies the real finishing ability in his pass rush Floyd failed to produce, but does deprive them of the flexibility they had with a more versatile defender.
The trade for quarterback Nick Foles isn't a free agency move, but came within the context of free agency and was only possible because of what was going on around the league with other free agent signings. They found a better fit for their offense than they would have had trading for Andy Dalton, a safer one than by trading for injury-riddled Cam Newton. Signing Teddy Bridgewater might have provided a greater chance for long-term success, but this isn't certain. Bridgewater hasn't played enough games since his devastating 2016 knee injury—six starts—to say he's definitely at the level he was five years ago. The fact they never seriously considered Marcus Mariota is somewhat disturbing because he fit many of their qualifications and also had a better yards per pass attempt and passer rating than many considered.He went to the Raiders for far less than the Bears are paying for Mitchell Trubisky's competition.
They've taken a beating for signing Graham over some other tight ends, particularly Eric Ebron. Yet Ebron hasn't been dependable enough as a producer while missing too many games. The top tight end option was their target, Austin Hooper. They simply lacked the cash for this and settled for Graham at too much money. Now they're going to look silly if time really has eroded Graham's skills to the point where he can't play.
Cornerback Artie Burns, safety Jordan Lucas, linebacker Barkevious Mingo and tackle/guard Germain Ifedi are players signed at positions of need but every one of them has failed to a large extent to meet even minimal NFL standards, let alone live up to their initial draft status. Resurrection projects is the best way to describe these four.
Signings prior to the start of free agency also have to be taken into account. What they can get out of CFL cornerback Tre Roberson remains to be seen but he does have NFL experience with Minnesota. And the addition of Demetrius Harris gave them another potentially productive player with experience in this offense at a spot where Adam Shaheen has flopped.
The Bears came into free agency in the bottom half of the league for cash availability but they somehow squeezed out the money needed for players to cover almost every need area, which takes pressure off their in-coming rookie class to become immediate starters.
Danny Trevathan's contract showed the experience and expertise of Bears contract negotiator Joey Laine. Initial contract reports called it a three-year, $21.25 million deal with phantom years at the back to make the first year affordable. ESPN's Dan Graziano did a deeper dig and found the Bears actually were able to achieve this affordable structure by including two option bonuses of $3.6 million each with future deadlines where salary becomes guaranteed. It's very cap friendly for a player who does have a past of injuries.
Restructuring Nick Foles' deal to give him voidable years gave him options to leave if he plays well while making it more affordable for the Bears' cap situation if he has to be cut.
Quinn's contract is the epitome of structuring success. He's only costing $6 million against the cap this year when they most need cap relief, while he gets what is a $70 million overall deal. They're pushing the expense off to the future, which has to be done if a team wants to take a shot in the present.
They succeeded at pushing Trubisky, either in the back so he steps forward or out the door.
Bringing in a viable wide receiver with speed remains the one unaddressed area. There are receivers with experience to play the Z position, like Javon Wims and Riley Ridley. They're more possession types than game breakers.
The Bears became older but they have more players who better fit what they're trying to do and this was a big problem last year when coach Matt Nagy couldn't find ways to make his offensive system work. At the same time, their secondary has now further depleted from when it was at a high point in 2018. Even with a better pass rush it's difficult to see how the Bears are going to even be close to the level they were at two years ago considering they made 27 interceptions that season.