Since Ryan Pace came aboard as the Bears general manager in 2015, the team has signed 36 free agents.
It hasn’t been filled with instant success and to be honest, Pace has done a so-so job in the free agency period. However, he has managed to be stronger in the draft process.
With NFL free agency officially starting Wednesday, the Bears are sitting around with a new head coach in Matt Nagy and have a good amount of holes to fill (WR, G, LB, CB and K). The legal tampering period officially begins today at 11 a.m. CT/12 p.m. ET.
Veterans Antrel Rolle and Eddie Royal, cornerback Alan Ball and situational pass rusher Pernell McPhee all proved to be inconsistent pieces from the 2015 free agent class. Linebacker Sam Acho, defensive end Mitch Unrein and cornerback Tracy Porter proved to be the best additions.
The following year, Pace fared much better with the signings of defensive end Akiem Hicks, linebacker Danny Trevathan, tackle Bobby Massie, guard Josh Sitton and linebacker Jerrell Freeman. It appeared as if Freeman would pan out but two suspensions later he was released. Also, Sitton’s $8 million option was not picked up recently.
This past off-season, Pace took some risks with the additions of wide receiver Markus Wheaton, quarterback Mike Glennon, cornerback Marcus Cooper, tight end Dion Sims, safety Quintin Demps and cornerback Prince Amukamara. Only Wheaton, Cooper and Sims are under contract, but all three could easily be released. Amukamara is a free agent the team is mulling over.
With all that being said, this is another crucial free agency for Pace and the Bears, especially with the bright young mind of Nagy on his side. The Bears have $64,561,002 cap space available (with 47 players under contract), per Spotrac.com. That number should increase when the Bears decide to release some or all of the three players I mentioned in the last paragraph.
Here’s a look at who the Bears should target when free agency opens up next week.
Veteran Kendall Wright finished last season as the Bears’ leading receiver with 59 catches and 614 yards. The Bears’ wide receiver group combined for just four of the 13 passing touchdowns on the season. Wright and Dontrelle Inman are free agents. Josh Bellamy and Cameron Meredith were both hit with original round tenders ($1.907 million), per the Chicago Tribune.
In order for second-year quarterback Mitch Trubisky to succeed, he needs weapons around him. Here are a couple of guys that can help move the chains.
The top playmaking wide receiver is Allen Robinson. The 25-year-old is coming off a torn ACL which he suffered in Week 1. A 2014 second round pick out of Penn State, Robinson has 202 receptions, 2,848 yards and 22 touchdowns in his four-year career. The 6’3″ pass catcher totaled 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2015.
Robinson is a guy with a really impressive catch radius. The question with him is his health. Pace will always be linked to injury prone Kevin White. Can Pace afford to dish out so much money to a guy like Robinson who had a devastating injury? Robinson is good, but he could price himself out of the Bears’ taste.
The No. 4 overall pick from 2014, Sammy Watkins rejuvenated his value this past season with the Rams. He served as a red zone mismatch, totaling eight touchdowns. The former Clemson standout is able to do a lot of the special things that Alshon Jeffery used to do for the Bears.
Injuries have kept Watkins out of 12 games across four seasons. He is a risky acquisition much like Robinson, but he has plenty of talent left in the tank and that was apparent last season in Los Angeles. The Bears will certainly be calling his agent this week.
Serving as a slot man for Kansas City for mainly three out of the last four seasons, Albert Wilson has been linked to the Bears. Chiefs general manager Brett Veach said in an interview at the beginning of the month, well Matt [Nagy] is in Chicago, he knows all about him.” Veach was referring to Wilson of course.
Wilson has made 26 starts, totaling 124 receptions for 1,544 yards and seven touchdowns. A speedy 5’9″ target, Wilson would be a younger replacement for Wright if in fact, he signs with Chicago. I personally would re-sign Wright either way, but it doesn’t look promising that he’ll be back.
Other options: Terrelle Pryor, Marqise Lee, Donte Moncrief, Paul Richardson, Tyrell Williams, Jordan Matthews.
The free agent market for outside linebackers is rather thin this year. Pernell McPhee and Willie Young were both cut here recently. Lamarr Houston likely won’t be re-signed and Sam Acho is a free agent. Leonard Floyd and Isaiah Irving are the lone outside linebackers under contract currently. This is a position of great need of young legs and talent.
The Bears could go after Nigel Bradham to play outside linebacker or they could use him inside next to Danny Trevathan. I know Nick Kwiatkoski will be given a chance, but Bradham is a savvy veteran who can get the job done. So, we will see if the Bears go after the 28-year-old.
Much like Bradham, Anthony Hitchens is good against the run and can play inside backer. The 25-year-old will almost certainly be chased by his former team in Dallas. The Bears should look into Hitchens’ asking price.
Outside of a 10 sack season in 2016, Dee Ford hasn’t done much to live up to his first round pedigree. The former Kansas City outside linebacker is still young at 26 and has 25 starts and 17.5 career sacks to his name.
Other options: Shaq Barrett, Tahir Whitehead, Barkevius Mingo
Josh Sitton’s $8 million option wasn’t picked up, Kyle Long is returning from two off-season surgeries and Eric Kush and Bradley Sowell (reportedly re-signed to a two-year deal) return as depth pieces.
I highly doubt Pace and the Bears want to spend a lot of money on another guard. However, players like Andrew Norwell don’t hit free agency quite often. He has improved every season with Carolina and served as a vocal leader for them. He should easily command more than what Sitton’s option was, so that could be tricky to explain.
The Bears could play Nick Easton at either guard or center. The 25-year-old has 17 starts to his name. He could move to the center spot which would give Cody Whitehair his natural guard position back. Or the Bears could sign Easton as a guard. Either way, he’s worth calling.
It would cost the Bears a pick to sign Quinton Spain, so this signing could be a bit tricky. We know Pace loves keeping his draft selections. Spain is a two-year starter at left guard who has logged 33 starts in three seasons with Tennessee. The 25-year-old is going to be looked at by plenty of guard needy franchises.
Kyle Fuller was hit with the transition tag at $12.97 million, so that gives the Bears some time to figure out how to work out an extension with their top cornerback. Prince Amukamara is a free agent and doesn’t look likely to return after intercepting no passes a season ago. Marcus Cooper and Cre’Von LeBlanc remain on the roster while Bryce Callahan (RFA) and Sherrick McManis are free agents.
Going from Super Bowl hero a few years ago to a benched player in the latest Super Bowl, Malcolm Butler will be a hot commodity regardless of what New England thinks of him. The 28-year-old has eight interceptions in his career, with the last three being starting seasons. Butler might prove to be way too pricey for the Bears.
Heading into his seventh NFL season, Trumaine Johnson hasn’t been that great the past two seasons for the Rams playing on the franchise tag in both 2016 and 2017. He has three interceptions during that span. Johnson is a physical corner at 6’1″, who racked up 15 picks over his first four seasons including seven in 2015. The Bears could be going after Johnson to fit this defense.
No interceptions in four seasons could certainly turn off a lot of teams from Aaron Colvin. However, the slot cover man has been solid for Jacksonville. The Bears have to figure out what to do with Bryce Callahan, who seems to be injured more often than not. Colvin could be an option at nickelback.
Other options: Rashaan Melvin, Patrick Robinson, EJ Gaines, Darqueze Dennard
Outside of Akiem Hicks, the Bears have only Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris on the roster at defensive end. Hicks has been tremendous for this defense while Bullard and Robertson-Harris have shown glimpses, but haven’t put it all together.
Meeting with Seattle already last week, Derrick Shelby has a market brewing. The 29-year-old has been reliable as a defensive end for both Miami (2012-15) and Atlanta (2016-17). The Bears could do worse than signing Shelby to be a contributor to its 3-4 defense.
Coming off his best sack season, 9.5 to be exact, Adrian Clayborn will certainly be getting some calls. The 29-year-old had six in one game against Dallas, who were without their left tackle Tyron Smith. Clayborn can get after the quarterback and is effective against the run. He has been with Atlanta the last three seasons.
It never hurts to have run support and that is the biggest strength that Williams Hayes possesses. The 32-year-old has started 46 games across 10 seasons. He missed six games last season with Miami due to a hamstring injury.
Last year’s fourth round pick Eddie Jackson is looking like a steal already while Adrian Amos was pretty serviceable a year ago. Upon that, DeAndre Houston-Carson and Deon Bush are on the roster as well.
The Bears need help at safety whether that is a third safety or someone to come in and start next to Jackson with Amos being the rotational guy. Here are some free agent options.
The Bears need interceptions produced by its defensive backs. Tre Boston is a guy who gobbled up a career-best five picks last season with the Chargers. He spent his first three seasons in Carolina where he had three picks. The former North Carolina standout is a hard hitter who would certainly fit the Bears’ aggressive defensive scheme.
27-year-old Terrence Brooks has spent his four-year NFL career with three different teams drawing only one start. A 2014 third round pick out of Florida State, Brooks is going to earn a nice payday from some team here soon. He played behind Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye in New York last season. Brooks should be a target for the Bears.
The 18th overall pick from the 2013 draft, Eric Reid has been solid as a coverage man with 10 tackles in five NFL seasons with San Francisco. Of course, he’s known as a guy who has been part of the National Anthem protests while kneeling, so that could turn off teams. He has only three interceptions over the last three seasons after recording seven in his first two years in the league.
Other options: Ron Parker, Marcus Gilchrist, Kenny Vaccaro
2017 was wiped away for Caleb Sturgis after he suffered a hip injury forcing him to miss 15 games. He was replaced by rookie Jake Elliott. His spot in Philadelphia is gone, but Sturgis will have plenty of suitors with his long leg and experience. The 28-year-old owns an 81.0 field goal percentage and has booted a 50-yard field goal in all of his five seasons in the league.
After spending three seasons with Arizona, Chandler Catanzaro had a sound season this past year with the Jets, connecting on 25-of-30 field goal attempts. He had a career-worst 75 field goal percentage in 2016. The 27-year-old owns an 84.4 field goal percentage for his career.
The 26-year-old latched on with the Bears late last season after Connor Barth was finally released due to his inconsistency. Cairo Santos made 1-of-2 field in Week 12 against Philadelphia before suffering a season-ending groin injury. Veteran Mike Nugent replaced him. Santos owns an 84.1 field goal percentage.
Note: Pat O’Donnell is an unrestricted free agent. Veterans Dustin Colquitt and Shane Lechler. Perhaps, the Bears look in the draft for a replacement at punter.
Other names to keep in mind
Tight end Trey Burton, tight end Jimmy Graham, quarterback Chase Daniel, tight end Troy Niklas, quarterback Matt Moore, quarterback Derek Anderson and quarterback Chad Henne.
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