For the Bears to achieve success in free agency, a goal that has escaped them in recent years, general manager Ryan Pace doesn’t necessarily have to make a splashy, huge-money move in the opening hours.
Sure, some teams always do. But some of the best deals come after the feeding frenzy dies down.
When the market officially opens at 3 p.m. on March 14, the Bears could certainly use a WR1 or a quality edge rusher because the team is lacking in impact players. But on a 5-11 team with multiple areas of need, the Bears must at least shore up all areas of weakness so they’re not compelled to reach for players to fill gaping holes during the draft.
The Bears need to have the freedom to select the best player available with each of their picks in the draft, where Pace has done his best work, rather than forcing a pick for a lesser player just to fill a need.
Armed with around $70 million in cap space, Pace has the bankroll to make an impact in free agency and enter the draft with a balanced roster. Resisting the urge to win the offseason on Day One is important. However, if the Bears are looking to announce their presence with authority, they could do so at wide receiver, where there is some quality talent in the marketplace. Edge rusher? Not so much.
At both those positions the Bears probably need help in free agency and in the draft. At cornerback and interior offensive line, two lesser needs, Pace could bolster those spots well before the draft
But, first things first. Outside linebacker Leonard Floyd is the only edge rusher under contract who can be considered a pass-rush presence. He’s produced 11 ½ sacks since the Bears made him the ninth overall draft pick in 2016, showing production and potential when he’s on the field. But Floyd has missed 10 games in his first two seasons, and he needs a complement other than defensive lineman Akiem Hicks, who has 15 ½ sacks in the past two seasons.
The bad news for the Bears is that the free-agent market for top pass rushers is thin at best after Ziggy Ansah and DeMarcus Lawrence were franchised.
Former Bear (2010-13) Julius Peppers had 11 sacks for the Panthers last season. But he seems comfortable in Carolina, and he’s 38, which is old even for a physical marvel like Peppers. The Falcons’ Adrian Clayborn had 9 ½ sacks last year, but six came in one game against a Tyron Smith-less Cowboys team, and he’ll be 30 in July.
After that, it’s Trent Murphy, who had a breakout 2017 with nine sacks, and Junior Galette, who had 22 combined sacks in 2013 and ’14 but has just three since then.
The Bears have to be active here because they cut Willie Young (24 sacks from 2014-16) and Pernell McPhee (14 sacks from 2015-17), and Lamarr Houston (four sacks in December) and Sam Acho are unrestricted. So the cupboard could be completely bare after Floyd, meaning something must be done in free agency, even if it’s bringing back Houston and Acho.
The draft has a solid crop of pass rushers, but they’ll be long gone before the second day is over, so the Bears likely need to use their No. 1 (eighth overall) or No. 2 (39th) to land an immediate difference maker on the edge. They do not have a third-round pick.
Given the lack of production that recent first-round wide receivers have provided, the Bears need an immediate upgrade in free agency.
Even with ex-Dolphin Jarvis Landry traded to Cleveland, there are talented pass catchers still in the marketplace. It starts with the Jaguars’ Allen Robinson, who would easily be the Bears’ WR1, provided he’s fully recovered from last year’s ACL tear in his left knee that ended his 2017 season after three snaps.
Though not a classic deep threat, Robinson is big and physical. He averaged 17.5 yards per catch in his 2015 breakout season, with 80 catches for 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns. His numbers dipped in 2016, his last healthy season, but he still caught 73 balls for 883 yards (12.1-yard average) with six touchdowns. That’s the floor for a healthy Robinson, who should be the Bears’ top target.
The Bears would also upgrade their shaky situation at wide receiver with Sammy Watkins. In his first two years with the Bills, the 6-foot-1, 211-pound Watkins appeared well on his way to living up to his status as the fourth overall draft pick in 2014. He had a combined 125 receptions for 2,029 yards with 15 touchdowns and a 16.2-yard average per catch.
But, in an injury plagued 2016, Watkins played just eight games, totaling 28 catches for 430 yards and two touchdowns. Acquired by the Rams in a trade before the 2017 season, Watkins caught 39 passes for 593 yards, but he had eight touchdowns.
Robinson and Watkins are both just 24 and should still have their best football in front of them with several years of quality production. The Jaguars’ Marqise Lee and the Seahawks’ Paul Richardson would also help the Bears. Even at 31, the Ravens’ Mike Wallace can still stretch the field, but he’s not a WR1.
At cornerback, slapping the transition tag on Kyle Fuller will almost certainly result in his return – at least for 2018 – and that’s a huge step. But if Prince Amukamara departs in free agency, the Bears will have to go shopping, which might not be a bad idea, since there are several players who could provide an upgrade over Amukamara, a decent cover corner who makes few plays on the ball.
The Bears have enough resources to add the immediate help they need at wide receiver and still upgrade in a couple other spots, which would make for a successful trip to the free-agency market.