After hitting on an up-and-coming star in Pernell McPhee in his first free agency as Chicago Bears general manager, you can bet Ryan Pace will be a bit more strategic this time around with roughly $46.6 million in cap space according to OverTheCap.com (the seventh-most space available).
Pace had just a little over $30 million to work with last off-season before free agency hit and he used it to discover his team’s strengths and weaknesses with a large portion of one-year, prove-it deals. McPhee’s five-year, $38.75 million deal ($15.5 million guaranteed) served as the big splash signing.
Veterans, wide receiver Eddie Royal (three-year, $15 million with $10 million guaranteed) and safety Antrel Rolle (three-year, $11.25 million with $4.9 million guaranteed) served as value signings. However, neither player panned out struggling with lower body injuries in their first seasons in Chicago.
At Pace’s introductory press conference in January 2015, he stressed how important it is to build through the draft. He said at the time: “we’re not just acquiring athletes. We are acquiring football players that fit Chicago Bears.”
With the way he assessed the team this past season, starting with free agency and the draft, Pace has a much better idea for what the team truly needs and who exactly fits the mold of a Bears player. He said last month at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis that “part of our challenge is identifying good players and then identifying good values.
“We stack our free-agent board and then we identify salary parameters where we feel they fit in,” Pace continued. “And we know when the gun goes off, we’re working outside those parameters and if it gets a little uncomfortable, that’s when you have to make a tough decision. Our goal (is), if you’re drafting well, you don’t have to tread in this dangerous water as much.”
With all that in mind here’s a look at a short list of players who have been linked to the Bears and then a breakdown of who truly fits and why.
Defense: Linebackers Danny Trevathan (Denver) and Jerrell Freeman (Indianapolis); defensive ends Akiem Hicks (New England) and Jaye Howard (Kansas City); cornerback Patrick Robinson (San Diego); safeties David Bruton (Denver), Rodney McLeod (Los Angeles) and Tashaun Gipson (Cleveland)
Offense: Running backs C.J. Anderson (Denver) and Ronnie Hillman (Denver); tight end Jared Cook (St. Louis); guards Louis Vasquez (Denver) and Alex Boone (San Francisco)
LB Danny Trevethan
The Bears have been linked to fifth-year pro Danny Trevathan ever since he said during Super Bowl 50 media week that “I’m sure we’ll end up talking”, regarding him and the Bears. On Tuesday, chatter broke out once again, this time about the Bears being close to agreeing to a four-year deal with Trevathan (first reported by Bear Report’s Aaron Leming).
The 6’1″, 240-pound inside linebacker flourished under head coach John Fox in his second season in the league, 2013, racking up 129 tackles, 10 pass breakups, three interceptions, three forced fumbles, two sacks and a fumble recovery.
After being a backup as a rookie and playing just three games in 2014 due to a trio of left knees injuries, Trevethan shined once again in his return to full health this past season guiding the Broncos to a Super Bowl win (two fumble recoveries against Carolina). He had 109 tackles, six pass breakups, two interceptions and a defensive touchdown as a he finished ranked as the 10th best linebacker with an 86.6 grade per Pro Football Focus.
Trevathan is reportedly set to earn between $7 and $8 million on his free agent deal and the Bears should be more than willing to dish out the dough for him. He’s a talented downhill hitter, who excels in coverage, stays in his gaps more often than not and can match up with just about anybody in the middle of the field. He’s not a big hitter like Carolina’s Luke Kuechly or San Francisco’s former star Patrick Willis, but Trevathan gets the job done. A 2012 sixth rounder from Kentucky, Trevathan should be introduced as a member of the Bears very soon providing them with an instant upgrade at inside backer.
Colts’ inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman has also been mentioned as a possibility for the Bears.
DE Akiem Hicks
Football comes down to who has better talent on their offensive and defensive lines. Getting speed rushers and solid bookends are important defensively while having powerful run blockers and solid pass protectors offensively are too. With the issues the Bears had on their defensive line a season ago, signing or drafting a five-technique defensive end is a must this off-season. One name that makes sense for that spot is Akiem Hicks.
Hicks has been a name tossed around in the media the past few days via the Tribune and more recently The Providence Journal’s Mark Daniels, who said earlier Tuesday that Hicks’s team from a year ago, the Patriots are one of 11 teams interested in signing him. At 6’5″, 234 lbs, Hicks has flashed plenty of talent as a run stopper and pass rusher at times through his first four seasons.
Originally a third-round selection in 2012 out of the University of Regina (Canada) by New Orleans, he started 33 games there recording 119 tackles and 6.5 sacks before being traded last September to the Patriots in exchange for tight end Michael Hoomanawanui. That trade worked for both sides and for Hicks he shined as a rotational piece in New England, adding 21 tackles, three sacks and a fumble recovery in 13 games. He had 167 rushes adding 18 pressures.
Now that Malik Jackson is off the market after agreeing to a reported six-year, $90 million deal with Jacksonville, Hicks is a nice option, who will come at a cheaper rate and can fit right into a starter role. Ryan Pace is very familiar with Hicks and you can bet the Bears will try to lure him to town.
G Louis Vasquez
Released by Denver on Tuesday with $6.75 million due to him, the eighth-year pro has made 101 starts in 102 games since entering the NFL in 2009 as a third-round pick by San Diego. He started 47 games over the last three years in Denver after signing a four-year, $23.5 million deal in 2013. He ranked 45th at his position last season and was clearly too pricey for the Broncos, who need to free up cap space to bring back top players.
Vasquez, who turns 29 next month may come at a bargain price considering his so-so year. He’s still a leader and a bruiser up front and can be viewed as an upgrade over the combination of Vladimir Ducasse and Patrick Omameh last season. Vasquez can play both guard and tackle and can serve as a nice transitional piece before the Bears make a serious push at the position. Plus, the 2013 Pro Bowler has plenty of familiarity with offensive line coach Dave Magazu, his previous coach in Denver.
G Alex Boone
Perhaps an even better option for the Bears at guard is Alex Boone. Boone will most certainly be a more expensive player on the free agent market, but he can play both guard spots and has made 59 starts over the past four seasons in San Francisco. After serving as a backup in his first two years (2010-11), the soon to be 29-year-old entered the league as an undrafted rookie from Ohio State.
Boone would be a great fit with the Bears and would boost their offensive line in terms of both the run and pass blocking. He ranked 40th among guards by Pro Football Focus as San Francisco’s left guard. Boone should earn around $7 to $9 million per annually and that could push the Bears out of the picture.
S David Bruton
To me, 28-year-old safety David Bruton is one of the most interesting free agent safeties on the market this off-season. The seven-year pro has made only eight starts in his time with Denver, adding 162 tackles, three interceptions, five forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and 16 pass breakups. He’s made just four starts over the last two seasons but recorded a career-best 49 tackles, two interceptions and seven pass deflections in 2015.
The question remains if Bruton can become a full-time starter or if teams actually view him as such. Signing a three-year, $4.3 million extension in 2013, Bruton will get a slight pay raise on that deal, but it might not be much more. With Antrel Rolle aging and not certain to be back with no guaranteed money left on his current contract and Adrian Amos locked in as the starting free safety, a reunion with John Fox could make sense. Bruton is similar to Ryan Mundy, who signed with the Bears two years ago after being a backup/spot starter for most of his career.
Rodney McLeod (25-year-old, who has made 48 straight starts, recording five interceptions and six forced fumbles).
Tashaun Gipson (versatile 25-year-old, who has 42 starts in four seasons with 12 interceptions including 11 from 2013-14).
DE Jaye Howard
A fourth-round pick by Seattle in 2012, Jaye Howard truly bounced back from being waived during final cuts in the 2013 season. Howard has made 23 of his 24 career starts over the past two seasons, recording 93 tackles, 6.5 sacks and a forced fumble. Howard should be set to earn a nice payday in his first free agency.
The Florida product certainly won’t get $10 million annually, but somewhere around $6 to $8 million would be a nice deal for him. The Bears need to bulk up their defensive end spot and Howard could be an option if Hicks is gone and vice versa.
CB Patrick Robinson
Patrick Robinson enjoyed a revival season this past year with San Diego, starting 10 games, adding 43 tackles, eight pass breakups and an interception. A 2010 first round pick out of Florida State, it seems as if the 28-year-old is finally starting to get it together.
He made 33 starts, recording nine interceptions in his first five seasons in New Orleans after earning a one-year, $2 million deal with the Chargers last off-season. On a short-term deal, bringing Robinson in as that third cornerback would make plenty of sense for the Bears, who need depth at the position in the worst way.
Robinson earned a solid 79.4 grade in 713 snaps last season according to Pro Football Focus. He’s an underrated signing in a strong free agent cornerback class.
RB’s C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman
Both Denver running backs have shown flashes but I’m not sure if either guy is a full fledged starter. C.J. Anderson made 12 starts over the last two seasons, totaling 1,607 yards (4.8 average) and 13 rushing touchdowns along with 59 receptions for 507 yards and two touchdowns. His counterpart Ronnie Hillman has made 15 starts in four seasons adding 1,842 rushing yards (4.1 average), 12 rushing touchdowns and 67 catches, 431 receiving yards and a touchdown.
Hillman, a 2012 third rounder out of San Diego State is nothing more than a change of pace back. He has been good in that role at times and could be a fairly priced free agent pickup. Anderson, on the other hand, was assigned a $1.67 million tender on Monday, so a draft pick would be involved in his acquisition. Undrafted out of Cal, Anderson has a chance to develop into a solid No. 1/No.2 back.
If the Bears were smart, they would pair Jeremy Langford with a guy like Anderson. Remember way back when John Fox had Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams back in Carolina, that needs to happen in Chicago with Matt Forte going elsewhere.
TE Jared Cook
Released last month by the Rams, Jared Cook’s cap hit was scheduled to be $5.69 million. Cook originally signed a five-year, $35.1 million after a four-year career with Tennessee. With poor quarterback play last season, Cook failed to record a touchdown for the first time since his rookie season in 2009.
He’s averaged 500.4 yards in seven seasons with 16 touchdowns in 42 career starts. Cook would be a nice pickup for the Bears especially if Martellus Bennett is sent packing and Zach Miller is not re-signed. Cook is a certainly a guy to monitor.
Targets off the market:
Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Malik Jackson (six-year, $90 million deal with $42 million in guaranteed money).
Oakland Raiders guard Kelechi Osmele (five-year, $60 million deal).
Baltimore Ravens tight Ben Watson (two-year, $8 million deal).
Plenty of more news to come on Wednesday with free agency opening up.
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