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Valuable bust insurance: Ryan Pace's free-agent contracts have been front-loaded and Bear-friendly

When it comes to low-end free-agent acquisitions, Pace has hedged his bets by front-loading guaranteed money making it easy to mulligan after a disappointing season.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Detroit Lions
Markus Wheaton looking cool before dropping the ball during a dissapointing 2017 season for the Bears.

Let's rip the collective band-aid off: Markus Wheaton, Marcus Cooper, Dion Sims, Quintin Demps and lest we forget Mike "MG8" Glennon.

Bears’ general manager Pace's 2017 free agent season looks bad on the surface, but there is one crucial factor on all of these contracts that gave the Bears the opportunity to quietly sweep most of this under the rug. All of these contracts had the majority of the guaranteed money in the first year. If the Bears cut all of these players (only Sims remains) the sum of dead money in 2018 is a reasonable 5.08M. Details of the contracts here:

Markus Wheaton- Year one: $6 million, including a $1.5M signing bonus. Year 2: 0 guaranteed salary. Cut: $750,000 dead cap due to a prorated signing bonus.

Marcus Cooper- Year one: $6 million, including a $1.5M signing bonus. Year 2: 0 guaranteed salary. Cut: $1 million dead cap due to a prorated signing bonus.

Dion Sims - Year one: $6 million, including a $1 million signing bonus. Year 2: 0 guaranteed salary. Cut: $666,000 dead cap due to a prorated signing bonus.

Quintin Demps - Year one: $5 million, including a $1 million signing bonus. Year 2: 0 guaranteed salary. Cut: 666k dead cap due to prorated signing bonus.

Mike Glennon- Year one: $16 million, including a $3 million signing bonus. Year 2: $2.5 million guaranteed salary (with offset language). Cut: Since he had offset language and is signing a two year, $8M deal with the Cardinals (according to Ian Rapoport), the Bears won’t get hit with any dead cap space from his salary. He still has 2M in dead cap from his prorated signing bonus.

These signings undeniably look bad in retrospect, but the argument defending Pace's approach is that he was able to bet on five different players with potential upside with minimal long-term (or even medium-term) cost to the franchise. Many thought these signings were bad from the moment they happened, but they had at least some logic to them.

Wheaton was the best “speedster” available after both Kenny Stills and Tedd Ginn Jr. turned down the Bears’ offers (reportedly for more money than they accepted). Cooper was coming off a four interception season when the Bears had been embarrassingly bad at creating turnovers. Demps was coming off a six interception season. Sims was supposedly a good blocking Tight End (although I didn’t see this show up in Chicago). And Glennon had been an almost-average quarterback with limited opportunity and seemed like someone who could succeed as a game manager and at least take care of the football. There’s always the hypothesis that his signing was purely a red herring to mask the Bears’ interest in Mitchell Trubisky.

The front-loaded guarantees are team-friendly, and certainly players and agents know this. The Bears won’t be able to get this kind of contract structure with highly-coveted free agents, but it’s a strategy I expect them to employ for their lower-profile signings. It looks like they will make a lot less of these signings this season — which is a good thing — but I still expect Pace to take a gamble on some low-floor potential-upside players, especially at positions like edge rusher and offensive line, which have little available in the high-floor department.

Some potential edge rushers who might be amenable to such a contract could be Jerry Attaochu (24), who has shown talent but is coming off an injury. Rams’ Matt Longacre (26) has showed promise in limited opportunity, and his tender allows Rams first refusal but doesn’t provide compensation if he signs elsewhere. Alternatively, there are a couple former busts who showed promise last season, Barkevious Mingo (27) and Dion Jordan (27). Jordan is a restricted free agent with the Seahawks, but I haven’t seen news of an original round tender on him yet.

If Pace wants to find a value at offensive tackle, he’ll have to dig deep. I still have a sliver of hope that 6-foot-9 former undrafted free agent Cornelius Lucas (26), who filled in one game for the Rams and played well, will become a buy-low superstar under offensive line coach Harry Heistand’s guiding hand. The interior offensive line is also a thinning group, but some potential young targets could be Titans’ center Brian Schwenke (26) who has been below average but improving slowly, or guard Quinton Spain (26) who is coming off a down year, which may limit his leverage. In the former bust category, Cowboys’ guard Jonathan Cooper (27) has been a disappointment in terms of draft position but an average player who may have upside.

The Bears have been cautious in free agency prior to this year. Pace has done a good job of protecting himself from his mistakes misses by keeping the guaranteed money on his risky signings in the first year. This year leading with Allen Robinson is already different. The Bears are ready to take bigger risks and get true difference makers to compete on another level. And they are able to do it because they don’t have any clunky contracts weighing them down.