With the negotiating window now ajar in advance of Wednesday's free-agency opening bell, Ryan Pace's first offseason to "pinpoint and tweak and fine-tune" his division-champion roster, rather than backing up the Brinks truck to address myriad needs of a perennial bottom dweller, is here.
The Bears' most pressing orders of business are re-signing or replacing nickel CB Bryce Callahan, S Adrian Amos and OLB Aaron Lynch, solidifying their specialist situation and securing a more versatile and natural fit than Jordan Howard to pair with Tarik Cohen.
Following the recent restructuring of Eddie Goldman's contract, which ESPN's Field Yates reports creates an additional $2.25 million in cap space by converting the nose guard's $3 million roster bonus due Friday into a signing bonus, the Bears have approximately $18.25 million with which to operate. That's not a hard-and-fast figure, with the Bears certainly capable of redoing other contracts if needed.
Still, Chicago must be shrewd and plan to focus first on re-signing its own — whether players are out of contract or entering potential walk years. Hub Arkush shared Sunday night the few relatively expensive free agents who should be on their radar. (Editor's note: Dante Fowler re-signed with the Rams). I identified last week a handful of potential injury discounts that could appeal to Ryan Pace. So now let's look at a couple potentially solid football fits who, like the others I highlighted, should fit the Bears' budget.
First, though, at the risk of beating a dead horse, one final reminder of my opinion regarding the Bears' offseason: It's time to end the 10-year compensatory-pick drought. That means considering letting Callahan (former UDFA), Amos (former fifth-rounder) and Lynch (street FA) walk and replacing them with players who don't affect the formula. The Bears' best shot at getting back into Round 1 in 2020 is adding picks, especially ones more valuable than what they originally spent on the departing players.
OK, let's take a look at a few free agents — some who count against that formula, others who don't — and explain why they'd make sense here:
Saints RB Mark Ingram
A report surfaced Sunday night stating that the Bears and Packers are both courting the Saints power back and former Heisman winner. Ingram might not have that much more juice than Howard, but he's a much more natural receiver with a bigger overall body of work. That can be viewed two ways, as Howard is five years younger than Ingram and doesn't have as much mileage on his odometer. But the Bears likely only view Ingram as the short-term answer, and with their title window open now, that could appeal to both parties. The Bears owned the Packers in free agency last offseason, when they landed Green Bay targets Khalil Mack and Allen Robinson and ensured Kyle Fuller wouldn't don the green and gold. Doing so again would be the cherry on top of adding a player who can expand Matt Nagy's play-calling flexibility without sacrificing the attitude Howard's style brings on offense.
Jaguars RB Corey Grant
Grant is two years younger than Ingram, with a ton more tread on the tires, and falls somewhere between Cohen and Ingram in terms of stature: Not a big back but big enough to bang inside and a threat to go the distance every time he touches it. In addition to a ton of speed (sub 4.4 wheels) and more than enough receiving prowess (check out what he did to the Steelers in the 2017 divisional round), Grant has some KR experience and could essentially kill a couple birds with one stone for the Bears.
Ravens TE Maxx Williams
The former second-rounder has battled an incredible amount of adversity in his first four seasons yet emerges from Baltimore after his best year and will only be 25 this spring. Granted, Williams' "best year" consisted of 16 catches for 143 yards in 13 games, and his knee issues were at one time thought to be career threatening. But Williams is an asset as a blocker who arrived in the league with the kind of unique athleticism that attracted Pace to Adam Shaheen, almost complete unknown entering Year 3.
Patriots OLB John Simon
A blue-collar edge setter who can provide occasional disruption, Simon worked under Chuck Pagano and Ted Monachino and is fresh off earning his first ring as a Patriot in a part-time role. In addition to that super pedigree and valuable experience and rapport with the Bears defensive staff, Simon is still 28 and should come cheap — a key considering the Bears have nearly $29 million reserved on their cap at OLB next season.
We already wrote about Brian Poole here, and he's either our preference 1A or 1B alongside Briean Boddy-Calhoun, the Browns' 26-year-old restricted free agent who wasn't tendered, meaning he won't cost against the 2020 compensatory formula. BBC is an ascending player who plays with the same kind of tenacity as Callahan but has been more durable. He'd look terrific in-between Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara, while allowing the Bears to reap the compensatory benefits of a former UDFA signing a big deal elsewhere.
Again, check out this piece from last month to read about Jonathan Cyprien, who is either 1A or 1B alongside his Titans teammate, Kenny Vaccaro, whom the Saints selected in Round 1 in 2013, Pace's final year in New Orleans. Vaccaro provided an upgrade from Cyprien upon arriving in Nashville during camp last year, starting 13 games and chipping in with two sacks and 4 QB hits in addition to his 58 tackles and five pass breakups (1 INT). Vaccaro is an enforcer whose rugged near-the-line style would sync beautifully with All-Pro ball-hawking FS Eddie Jackson. Vaccaro might be forced to settle for a smaller deal because of the loaded S market, but he will affect next year' compensatory formula, unlike the more limited Cyprien.
Ex-Falcons PK Matt Bryant
Kicking is kinda important, huh? I don't have a good feel for what Bryant's market will be, but we know the Bears will be loathe to shell out much at a position still handcuffed financially by Cody Parkey. However, Bryant turns 44 this spring and dealt with a nagging hamstring last season, costing him three games and perhaps some outside interest this week. If that interest is lukewarm enough in a player who missed only one kick last season and has a ton of clutch conversions over the past few seasons, he's absolutely worth pursuing. Remember: The Falcons cut him, so he doesn't count toward the 2020 compensatory formula, which I clearly believe should play a huge part in Pace's decision making this week.