On Thursday, I took a rather pessimistic look at the worst free agent signings that the Chicago Bears have made over the past 10 years. Since things aren’t all doom-and-gloom here at Windy City Gridiron, I decided to look at the opposite end of the spectrum.
For better or worse, the Bears have been fairly active in free agency in that span, which makes for exciting offseasons. Some of the moves paid off, some of them didn’t, while many others were just average. It’s hard to find a good collection of signings that can truly be considered great. Some players were good, but not good enough to warrant their steep price tag, while others signed for cheap and outplayed that price, but weren’t necessarily great.
There have honestly been so many mediocre free agent signings over the past 10 years that there aren’t a lot of deserving honorable mentions. Martellus Bennett gave the Bears that playmaking spark they lacked at tight end since they traded Greg Olsen in 2011. At the same time, though, he was instrumental to the disastrous locker room collapse that took place under the head coaching tenure of Marc Trestman. Josh Sitton was a very good last-second addition to the team, but he only played on the Bears for two seasons and was paid quite a bit.
There are also a few “what-if” situations that could have paid off really well for the Bears if certain events hadn’t transpired. Injuries caught up with Pernell McPhee, who looked like a great signing before his eventual injury-caused decline. Jerrell Freeman was one of the best linebackers in the league in 2016 and was signed to a cheap deal, but a season-ending injury in 2017 and two PED suspensions affected the signing from being truly great. Danny Trevathan has the chance to make this list in the future, but he has to prove that he can consistently stay healthy first.
With those in mind, let’s dive into which five players were the Bears’ best signings in the past decade.
Julius Peppers, DE, 2010
Contract: Six years, $91.5 million, $42 million guaranteed
Unlike the other contracts that will follow this one, the deal that Julius Peppers signed to join the Bears in 2010 was massive. Despite that fact, he was able to live up to his salary.
Despite being 30 years old by the end of his first season in Chicago, Peppers maintained the level of play that he had achieved with the Carolina Panthers. In four seasons with the team, he ended up with 37.5 sacks, 10 forced fumbles, 142 total tackles and 18 pass deflections. Peppers made it to the Pro Bowl in three of his four seasons with the Bears, and he was named first-team All-Pro in 2010.
Peppers didn’t stay around for the entirety of his contract, but he provided Chicago with the most dominant force they had seen off the edge since the days of Richard Dent.
Tim Jennings, CB, 2010
Contract: Two years, $2.6 million
When Tim Jennings signed with the Bears in 2010, he was seen as a solid depth piece, but not much else. Virtually nobody would have guessed that he would blossom into a high-end starter during his time there.
Jennings’ first two years with the Bears were decent, as he ended up with 17 pass deflections and three interceptions. He developed into a solid starter alongside Charles Tillman, so Chicago decided to bring him back on another deal. It was under that contract that Jennings broke out into a ballhawk.
Jennings led the NFL with nine interceptions in 2012, a total that has yet to be matched by any player in a single season since then. He also ended up with one pick-six and 21 pass deflections. He followed that up with another impressive season in 2013, when he finished the season with four interceptions - two of which having been returned for touchdowns - three forced fumbles, and 13 pass deflections. Jennings made the Pro Bowl in each of those years, and was named second-team All-Pro in 2012.
Jennings fell off in 2014, and was eventually released after the season. However, he managed to exceed all expectations when he first signed with the team by transforming from an occasional starter to one of the best cover cornerbacks in the NFL.
Matt Slauson, OG, 2013
Contract: One year, $815,000, $200,000 guaranteed
In 2012, the Bears were starting Chilo Rachal and Lance Louis at the two offensive guard spots. Needless to say, the position was quite a big need heading into the 2013 offseason. Then-general manager Phil Emery did a good job of filling that need, adding first-round pick Kyle Long and Matt Slauson. While the addition of Long was a much bigger splash, Slauson managed to outplay his cheap price tag.
Slauson only allowed two sacks and started in all 16 games in his first season with the Bears. He also served as a mentor for Long, who made it to the Pro Bowl in his rookie year. Slauson’s toughness, consistency and veteran leadership helped him get signed to a four-year contract at the end of 2013. His 2014 season was cut short due to a pectoral muscle tear, but he rebounded with another good outing in 2015, in which he started all 16 games at left guard.
Slauson was released from his contract after the 2016 NFL Draft, which surprised a lot of fans at the time. Although Ryan Pace was ultimately saved by the bell when Josh Sitton shockingly hit the open market, the release was still a strange decision. Nonetheless, Slauson more than outplayed his contract and was a reliable anchor on the offensive line for a couple of years.
Willie Young, EDGE, 2014
Contract: Three years, $9 million, $3.95 million guaranteed
The Bears whiffed big time in signing Lamarr Houston and Jared Allen in free agency in 2014. Luckily for them, another one of their defensive end signings, Willie Young, paid off for them in a big way.
Young had worked his way up into a starting role with the Detroit Lions in 2013, but he found his way back on the bench when he signed with the Bears. That didn’t stop him from having the best season of his career, though. Despite only starting in eight games, Young ended up with a career-high 10 sacks, which led the team that year.
Right as he hit his stride, however, the Bears underwent a coaching change which saw them transition to a 3-4 base defense. As a result, Young was forced to become a stand-up outside linebacker after having spent his NFL career as a 4-3 defensive end. Despite some growing pains early on, he started to come along nicely. He had 6.5 sacks in 2015, and he led the team in sacks with 7.5 in 2016. This past year wasn’t too kind to the fisherman, as he tore his triceps in the fourth game of the season and missed the remainder of the year. The injury, plus the fact that he was 32 years old, prompted his release on Wednesday.
Although Young’s Bears career ended on a sour note, he was a consistent pass rusher who quickly became a fan favorite. Not too shabby for a player who was originally signed to be a backup.
Akiem Hicks, DE, 2016
Contract: Two years, $10 million, $5.5 million guaranteed
General manager Ryan Pace made quite a few moves in free agency during the 2016 offseason, but no player provided a better bang for their buck than defensive lineman Akiem Hicks.
Prior to signing with the Bears, Hicks was a solid, but not great defensive lineman. He had played for a few years with the New Orleans Saints before getting traded to the New England Patriots three games into the 2015 regular season. He flashed some promise during his short tenure as a Patriot, as he corralled 3.5 sacks and 21 tackles in 13 games there. Being 26 years old at the time of his signing with the Bears, many thought that he would step in and be a solid starter for a couple of years. After two years into his run with the team, though, Hicks has become the best player on their defense.
Hicks broke out in 2015 with a then-career high seven sacks and 54 tackles. The Bears were in just their second season in their 3-4 defensive scheme, so having a force like Hicks on the defensive line helped speed up their transition a bit. He managed to top his 2016 campaign the following year, as he ended up with team-high 8.5 sacks and 54 tackles this past season.
Hicks’ stellar play resulted in a big-money extension last September. With four years on his new contract, Bears fans can only hope that he has a lot more sacks left in the tank.