Ryan Pace’s trademark aggressiveness has resulted in a mixed bag as Bears general manager over the past five years, with one division title, no postseason victories and a 34-47 record.
For better or worse, from the Mitch Trubisky and Khalil Mack trades to the Pernell McPhee and Allen Robinson signings, Pace is going to fire his shot on bold acquisitions whenever possible.
Yet one of the stranger, rarely discussed components of the Bears’ immensely disappointing 2019 campaign is that while Pace took a lot fewer shots up against the cap for the first time last offseason, he was quite efficient.
Save for the ill-fated signing of backup RB Mike Davis – who contributed 47 yards from scrimmage for roughly $3 million before his Week 10 release – Pace was shrewd and calculated. He added two new starters in his secondary, the best return man in football and two key depth pieces who rose to the occasion when called upon, while spending less than only six clubs – only one of which tallied more than seven wins en route to the playoffs.
That was a far cry from Pace’s approach in his first four years on the job, when the Bears’ average offseason spending ranked 11th, including a 2018 league-leading $463-plus million en route to 12 wins and the NFC North title two seasons ago, according to spotrac.
Everything starts behind center
The Bears have a longer list of needs to address this spring, with likely a smaller margin of error, but Pace will have similar cap constraints. Backing up the Brinks truck, as Pace’s Bears had done previously, to fix everything that went wrong this season isn’t an option.
There’s also the great unknown – how candidly Pace and coach Matt Nagy were discussing Trubisky at their season-ending news conference when they said he remains the unquestioned starter. We know the Bears almost certainly will seek upgrades over impending free agents Chase Daniel and Tyler Bray. But it’s unclear how aggressively they’ll pursue stability at the game’s most important and, subsequently, expensive position.
Nonetheless, the vet QB market might be as robust as any in recent memory. Could Andy Dalton, who played some of his best football under new Bears OC Bill Lazor and almost assuredly will be traded or released, offer the vital boost to Chicago’s Trubisky contingencies and competition? Nick Foles has ties to Lazor, Nagy and new QB coach John DeFilippo, but his contract likely wouldn’t make him a viable option until 2021.
Those are a few potential trade targets, but don’t discount free-agent possibilities such as Case Keenum and Marcus Mariota.
Order of non-QB business
The Bears undoubtedly also must use free agency to shop at tight end and offensive line. But the former seemingly lacks clear potential upgrades outside of Atlanta’s Austin Hooper and the Chargers’ Hunter Henry – both sure to command lavish contracts, should they avoid getting tagged – and the latter is solid at guard and sparse at tackle, where the draft is loaded.
Another unknown: Whether a second consecutive offseason surgery finally fixes what ails Trey Burton, whose second year of a four-year, $32 million contract was a total washout. The Bears most certainly need a “Y” tight end with the Adam Shaheen project officially an unmitigated failure, but what about the all-important “U” role that was filled capably in 2018 by Burton before languishing in his stead?
Jesper Horsted flashed promise at the “U” as an undrafted rookie whom the Bears converted from receiver, the position where he broke many school records at Princeton. Similarly, the Bears have a potential “Y” weapon in fellow college free agent Dax Raymond, and an overachiever in J.P. Holtz who did some nice things from a number of alignments.
Unfortunately, the time for promise and potential for Pace’s Bears has passed, making tight end a strong candidate to be priority No. 1 in free agency, where Hooper could be Pace’s biggest prize. It’s worth noting the Bears potentially can save more than $2.5 million against the cap by waiving Shaheen and top reserve Ben Braunecker.
Already with second-round investments in interior blockers Cody Whitehair and James Daniels, plus a couple of intriguing jars on the shelf in Rashaad Coward and Alex Bars, Pace seemingly won’t want to spend a lot at guard. After all, free agents Joe Thuney and Brandon Scherff appear poised to reset the OG market, where Andrus Peat and Graham Glasgow hardly will be had for a pittance.
It’s also possible if not likely that Nagy’s decision to replace Harry Hiestand with new O-line coach Juan Castillo signals the Bears’ belief that their biggest improvements up front will originate from within.
Still, we’d expect at least one second-tier OL signing, perhaps with a connection to the Bears’ coaching staff, such as Philadelphia’s Halapoulivaati Vaitai, who boasts positional flexibility and a Super Bowl ring.
The Bears have two free agent O-lineman – Coward, who’s restricted, and bypassed unrestricted utility backup Ted Larsen following recently retired Kyle Long’s trip to injured reserve.
Addition by subtraction?
Frankly, the biggest area of free-agent intrigue on defense could surround potential departures rather than arrivals. Two starters – ILB Danny Trevathan and S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix – are out of contract, as well as top reserves Nick Kwiatkoski and Kevin Pierre Louis at linebacker and Deon Bush at safety.
Kwiatkoski is younger and more durable than Trevathan, whom he impressively filled in for last season, while Bush lacks Clinton Dix’s pedigree but might be a better fit stylistically alongside newly extended Pro Bowler Eddie Jackson. Although the Bears aren’t flush with draft capital, these are devalued positions where sharp evaluators can find rookie contributors – especially paired with Jackson and Roquan Smith.
Bear in mind: Chicago can save $9 million in cap room by releasing vet CB Prince Amukamara, and it might not necessitate a drop-off with Kevin Toliver earning valuable on-the-job training the past two seasons. Similarly, Leonard Floyd’s $13.2 million salary potentially also could be shed, and although there’s no clear contingency on the roster, the savings and/or a Day 2 draft pick might lead to a more disruptive complement to the NFL’s highest-paid defender, Khalil Mack.