Grading Chicago Bears’ Free Agency Plan so Far
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Chicago Bears fans entered free agency with high hopes.
Maybe unreasonably high hopes, which is understandable—this is natural for any rebuilding team, the Bears had some of the most cap space in the league to spend and some of the roughest positions on the roster looked like strengths of the free-agent class.
So it is understandable if onlookers have a negative view of the job done by general manager Ryan Pace and the front office so far. The group didn’t go out and land a top-tier prize like Stephon Gilmore or Calais Campbell.
Instead, Pace stuck to the plan, one never fully verbalized, but understood through a patchwork of quotes and past moves.
“I think you can always recover from the player you didn’t sign. You can’t recover from the player whom you signed at the wrong price. We’ve got to be conscious of that,” Pace told the Chicago Tribune‘s Dan Wiederer.
Going into the third year of a rebuild, Pace decided to draw a proverbial line in the sand on some of the biggest names available and stood firm. Each move made hasn’t been the biggest splash, but they have had a common theme—upside players with contracts that won’t hamstring the franchise for more than a year or so, oh, and upside.
Maybe this isn’t the approach fans wanted, but in hindsight, it might be another critical stretch to one of the NFL’s most dramatic, comprehensive rebuilds. Below, let’s grade some of the biggest moves executed along the plan so far.
Letting Alshon Jeffery Walk
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No matter what gets said about Alshon Jeffery leaving Chicago, a majority won’t like it.
Alas, here goes.
It turns out Jeffery didn’t really want to be in Chicago. It happens. Jeffery, 27, decided to bet on himself by taking a one-year deal with the Philadelphia Eagles. Not hard to see why—Jeffery plays with upstart quarterback Carson Wentz across from Torrey Smith, perhaps allowing him to maximize his value before hitting the market again next year. As opposed to what the Bears have on offense, smart move.
Could the Bears have coughed up the cash to keep Jeffery in town on the same deal? Sure. Pace and Co. could have paid up a giant extension, too. But as the old cliche goes, it takes two to tango.
The reality? The Bears just lost a jumpball receiver who missed 11 games over the past two years while posting six touchdowns, suffering consistent injury setbacks and getting slapped with a four-game ban.
Jeffery would have helped along a rookie quarterback or made a veteran’s life easier. But even in a contract year, he didn’t exactly convince the Bears he was worth the investment.
Losing another staple of the franchise stinks, but it’s part of the rebuilding process and it doesn’t seem like Jeffery wanted to stick around, anyway.
Signing Quintin Demps
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Quintin Demps probably wasn’t what Bears fans had in mind.
It needs said—the Bears doling out cash for a 31-year-old safety wasn’t even a thought, not with guys like Tony Jefferson, Barry Church, D.J. Swearinger, Duron Harmon and others on the market.
But give it a chance.
Call it strategic veteran placement. Chicago figures to have one of the younger secondaries around next year, especially if Pace gets wild and grabs a Jamal Adams with the No. 3 pick in the 2017 NFL draft, or seeks out a starter later. Don’t forget Adrian Amos, either.
Demps might be 31, but he ranked as the 12th-graded safety at Pro Football Focus last year. In a sense, he’s a young veteran because he’s played more than 354 snaps in a season just four times out of his eight years in the league.
And what a four years they were—Demps compiled 18 turnovers over the stretch. It’s not worth even bringing up how many the Bears tallied over the same span.
Demps has little in the way of guaranteed money on his contract after 2017, per Spotrac. In other words, the Bears should get a few plus years out of Demps, who can act as a mentor for young guys while not costing much after the initial year.
This isn’t Eric Berry, but it isn’t bad either.
Adding Dion Sims
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The market for a tight end was drier, yet Dion Sims maybe wasn’t what Bears fans saw coming, either.
Like Demps, that doesn’t make it a bad thing.
Sims, now 26 years old, was never allowed to fully blossom as a pass-catcher with the Miami Dolphins. It’s an area that needed work seeing as he entered the league as an inline blocker first and foremost.
Interestingly enough, 2016, Sims’ fourth year in the league, is when the Dolphins started to roll him out more as a weapon. The offense, per PFF, targeted him a career-high 39 times. He caught 79.5 percent of them for 290 yards and four touchdowns.
Those numbers don’t exactly jump off the page, but a 6’4″, 265-pound tight end blossoming into a respectable weapon isn’t anything to scoff at. Most of his guaranteed money also comes in 2017, per Spotrac.
At worst, Sims acts as a quality blocker while Zach Miller does the heavy lifting as a receiver. It’s a nice balance, though Sims certainly has the upside to take on a bigger role in the passing game.
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Corner gets its own section here because of the sheer quantity of names Chicago added as of this writing.
Again, Chicago didn’t go crazy here, inking a Gilmore or A.J. Bouye or even getting weird and trading for a Trumaine Johnson. Instead, the list reads as so: Prince Amukamara, Marcus Cooper, Johnthan Banks.
The names won’t jump off the page by comparison, but they all share the upside and limited financial risk the Bears desire at this stage of the rebuild.
Banks is back after only appearing in eight games last year. A former second-round pick with great size (6’2″, 185 pounds), he’s an ideal match for what defensive coordinator Vic Fangio needs to do. Keeping him around to see if it pans out is an obvious move.
Amukamara, on the other hand, was the No. 19 pick in the 2011 NFL draft and spent last year with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He wound up ranked as the 44th corner at PFF, allowing a 64.1 completion percentage with five touchdowns and no interceptions. Just note—these numbers don’t mean everything, as Jacksonville didn’t always use him to his strengths.
Similar story for Cooper. Also 27 and with good size at 6’2″ and 192 pounds, Cooper slotted 107th on the list while getting peppered with targets as teams shied away from Patrick Peterson. He allowed a 63.9 completion percentage with four touchdowns and interceptions, but again, usage is key.
The point of these signings? These are boundary corners who fit perfectly in Fangio’s press scheme. They haven’t always been used as such, which means a guy who led a Super Bowl-bound defense in San Francisco will play them to their strengths and perhaps help them produce strong years.
Remember, quality boundary corners are one of the hardest things to find at the NFL level. Chicago has plenty of other names such as Cre’von LeBlanc who can hold down slot and nickel roles, plus don’t forget Kyle Fuller floating around. Adding boundary guys who immediately upgrade the roster shouldn’t be viewed in a negative light.
Rebuilding at Wideout
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A similar theme sticks around for the Bears at wideout.
The roster lost Jeffery, but added Markus Wheaton and Kendall Wright, two guys with loads of upside.
Wheaton is a former third-round pick who had problems staying healthy with the Pittsburgh Steelers. At his best in 2015, though, he tallied 749 yards and five touchdowns while averaging 17 yards per catch.
An anomaly? Maybe, but it isn’t easy to find targets in an offense featuring Antonio Brown. At worst, Wheaton stretches the field and opens things up underneath for guys like Wright, Cameron Meredith and Kevin White. A consistent deep presence is an important part of the process for the offense.
As for Wright, he’s a former first-round pick who just happened to have his best years as a pro under then-offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains. In 2013, he caught 94 passes for 1,079 yards and two scores, yet hasn’t played in a full 16-game season yet.
Now reunited with Loggains in the same capacity, provided injuries and odd fits with coaching staffs are behind him, he could be a the reliable slot presence the team needs.
There aren’t many sexy ways to win back approval after losing a talent like Jeffery. But the depth chart now features four guys with quality upside. White leads the pack, of course, and could still blossom into a No. 1. Meredith, though he doesn’t get the attention because he’s not a major name, also has plenty of room before hitting a ceiling. Adding Wheaton and Wright to the mix continues this theme and does so via smart meshes with need and coaching staff.
Handing the Offense to Mike Glennon
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Is this a case of saving the best for last?
The answer comes down to an eye-of-the-beholder outlook.
Chicago inking Mike Glennon is, in a word, odd. As free agency came closer, speculation fired up that Glennon wanted to seek an opportunity to start. The Bears seemed to bid against themselves here, giving him a $45 million contract over three years, per Spotrac.
On its head, that seems like a lot of cash to blow on a 27-year-old player who has appeared in two games since 2014. Granted, most players would get replaced by Jameis Winston, but Glennon’s lack of reps and consistency along a coaching staff are concerning, even if the deal, like most of the others so far, doesn’t hurt the Bears much after 2017.
The other side of the coin is more optimistic. Glennon has a 30-15 touchdowns-interception ratio, is still young and could benefit from playing with consistency around him. As a scouting writeup from ESPN’s Matt Bowen mentions, simply getting Glennon more reps could help him turn into a quality starter seeing as he has a good arm, makes reads and progressions with his eyes consistently down the field.
Glennon also impressed at his opening presser, citing specific plays from the film of last season and talking up the guys he’ll play with next year. For those who had reasons for disliking Jay Cutler, it was a breath of fresh air.
The nice thing about the Glennon signing is the flexibility. His contract doesn’t prevent the Bears from drafting a rookie as high as No. 3 this year. He’s also young enough to play another seven or eight years, provided he hits on the extreme end of the upside allowed by his set of tools.
Like most of free agency so far, Glennon wasn’t what most anticipated. But with time to digest it, he clearly fits the mold of Pace’s approach and the positives aren’t throwaways.
All contract information courtesy of Spotrac unless otherwise specified. Stats courtesy of NFL.com. All advanced metrics courtesy of Pro Football Focus.