Free agency in the NFL has a checkered history. The official moniker of free agency has been around since 1947 with player rights limited before then, as teams could re-sign a guy endlessly to the same current terms of an ongoing contract. Eventually, the modern version as we know it that defined and introduced unrestricted free agency, did not begin until 1992.
With it, came bidding wars and the never-ending cries for a non-contending team to not be “cheap” as this newfound opportunity regularly came along. Flash forward to present day, and logic, well, can be thrown out the window. Fans have come to see free agency as an outlet for all of their struggling team’s issues. As an easy excuse to get back into the fold they believe their fandom “deserves”.
Now, take a look at the NFL’s current, consistent hierarchy and you’ll see a common theme. By any objective measure that group consists of the New England Patriots, Green Bay Packers, and Pittsburgh Steelers. Throw in the New York Giants from time to time, and now again, the Dallas Cowboys, and you have your five horsemen.
There are caveats as to how each of these franchises contend or are contending, but nonetheless they represent what most other NFL fan-bases envy: January football that’s relevant. A novel concept.
Each of these teams are routinely in the postseason, have a rich history in the past decade-plus, and don’t dwell on any lengthy postseason droughts. There’s stability and talent present. All unlike the recent Chicago Bears, of course.
And how are these pillars of solid examples built exactly?
Through the draft, with the occasional cherry on top of sundaes, known as free agents.
These teams have solid front offices who have a clear vision, draft relatively well, and possess a franchise quarterback they can rely on to make up for roster deficiencies and lift their organizations. They draw envy because they rely on their own homegrown players as a foundation and only extend a hand to someone on the market when on the cusp.
In cases of the Packers, they mostly avoid spending on outside guys like the plague altogether, as that franchise’s support no doubt grows antsy with a championship dry spell that they believe shouldn’t be happening considering they have a future first ballot Hall of Famer in Aaron Rodgers.
Sticking to your principles no matter the cause, is something to be commended, I guess.
And say what you will of Eli Manning or the Cowboys membership in that club, but Manning does have two championships with proper support in New York, and Dallas built their newly famed main cog of an offensive line through years of quality drafting.
Both still apply here. And both only add to their, at least, traditionally successful franchises. All of this brings up a necessary query.
Just how much should the Bears break the bank this offseason?
It is officially year three of the Ryan Pace-John Fox era. To this point, the Bears have won only nine games in two years. Frustration is building as patience dwindles among Chicago’s faithful. An air of dissent seems to be rising as skeptics sit waiting to strike with the potential failure of this regime.
Even Pace knows the Bears can’t continue to sit in the North cellar for long when reflecting on the 3-13 2016 season.
“Hey, I get that there’s a lot of skepticism. We won three games”, said Pace earlier in January.
Gaze around and hey, the Bears are rife with cap space. When the free agency period opens at 4:00 P.M. ET on March 9th, without any roster cuts or moves, Chicago will settle in at around $59.7 million to $63.7 million, depending on cap credit. Consider potential cuts such as quarterback Jay Cutler, wide receiver Eddie Royal, and outside linebacker Lamarr Houston; and the Bears start putting themselves in the conversation for “top-five cap space” that Pace discussed north of $80 million.
One could attribute that space to not having many current players in their prime from past regimes on outstanding deals they’ve earned, sans Kyle Long’s extension last summer or Alshon Jeffery’s franchise tag. But nevertheless, intrigue and clamoring for blank checks to be written, grows.
The only team that should have more space than Chicago is the Cleveland Browns, who similarly, have a lack of core players, as they are likely to settle in at approximately $108 million. And that city is calling for the same exact remedy. Don’t forget, free agency is a quick fix, at least for criticism.
Reasonably, these are the Bears’ current needs: Safety, cornerback, quarterback, tight end, offensive tackle, and a pass rusher. A lot to fill in the blank.
Luckily, this year’s draft and free agency class are both rife with talent the Bears most desperately need at safety and corner. From guys like the Chiefs’ Eric Berry to the Texans’ A.J. Bouye, there will be the occasion to buy talent in addition to picking your own crop.
And with these kinds of additions and a host of guaranteed money funneled away, the expectation for playoff contention or to a greater extreme, championships, will arise.
But is it fool’s gold?
Spending on the top free agents doesn’t always equal what many will equate as actual progress. The concept of spending to get wins isn’t mutually exclusive and the “proper” route. It’s merely one avenue that has as shaky ground as the draft process. The McCaskey family will be decried as cheap by what seems like a majority in Chicago, and yet they’ve routinely been near the top in actual spending.
As the NFL Player’s Association shows in recent history, the McCaskey’s just don’t spend it on the right players.
NFL clubs are required to spend 89% of the cap in cash during a 4-year period. Here is how every team stacks up, per our updated numbers. pic.twitter.com/FI7Gf2I3OA— NFLPA (@NFLPA) December 5, 2016
Quality offensive linemen such John Tait and Ruben Brown come to mind as examples. When both signed in Chicago in 2004, they were 31 and 33, respectively. The collapse of the Bears offensive line with age and deterioration in 2007 should have been easy to foresee when you spend on way past-their-prime players for an incremental position.
Or how about Orlando Pace? By the time he made his way to Chicago in 2009, this was a 33-year-old left tackle with a lot of mileage. Now he was supposed to be the one protecting the newly minted Cutler’s blindside? Pace was a major disappointment that also could’ve easily been foreseen, and couldn’t even finish his lone season at Soldier Field.
These examples are but some of the follies that Bears executives have thrown themselves for a loop. It’s really as if someone was playing the role of general manager in “Madden” with big names, and not thinking of the long-term consequences. Fitting square pegs into round holes over and over for the fantasy aspect.
This time needs to be different though. And this time, the Bears and Pace (the general manager) should go in with a mission to acquire top guys like Berry, Bouye, and more. Because if there’s one ideal to follow when spending to fill huge holes in the NFL, it’s this: Avoid age and injury.
In the case of Berry - who is a cancer survivor - and Bouye, who are 27 and 25, respectively, that’s no issue. And it should be the common refrain of prime players for the Bears’ front office to focus on.
Just last year, the Giants gave away $102 million in guaranteed money with headline deals to Janoris Jenkins, Olivier Vernon, and Damon Harrison, all quality game-changing talents, all younger than 27 at the time of signing. Lo and behold, New York ended a four-year playoff drought, won 11 games, and re-solidified itself as a contender in the twilight of the younger Manning’s career. The Giants spent efficiently and followed that age model to avoid problems, and the Bears should too.
Chicago possesses the means and the resources. There’s no reason to avoid being a high roller so long as you stray from as much as risk as possible. This is no time to be a Scrooge.
You can’t fix all of your issues by throwing money at them, but with risk assessment in mind, it’s okay. The Bears at least give off the illusion that they have an idea of a proper direction. When it boils down, if Pace and company focus on the right players, it’s time to throw caution to the wind. Because as long as you look after the pennies, the dollars will look after themselves.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for the Rock River Times and is a staff writer for Windy City Gridiron and Second City Hockey. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.