It's rare you see Bears general manager Ryan Pace be committal publicly to any kind of team building strategy. This is a personnel man that prefers to keep his hand of cards close to his chest, and who has an impeccable poker face of which not many successfully call his bluff. Pace attempts to play coy every year, but he delves into every Bears' free agency with a clear goal to spend afterwards.
Last week to open the 2018 Scouting Combine, when Pace played the reserved notice of his stance in free agency once again, it was difficult to believe him.
"“Just because you have cap space doesn’t mean you can be reckless with these decisions,” Pace said. “So we have to be strategic, disciplined and calculated as we enter free agency.”
Observing the market from a watchtower is how Pace attempts to paint the Bears in the NFL's eyes in regards to free agents. Yet being in on bidding for premium players such A.J. Bouye, Stephon Gilmore last year and eventually bowing out, or signing guys such as Akiem Hicks the year before on an upside bet tell a different story.
The truth is that Pace wants Chicago's foundation to be built through the draft, as well as add core players when possible on the open market. He'd rather the latter "secret" not be out in the open as to lose negotiating ground because it's his belief that aberrations such as the Bears' 2017 free agency class result.
This year's free agency is arguably the most important of any previous Pace Bears' bidding war. Chicago's franchise quarterback with Mitchell Trubisky is in place, and he needs to weapons to thrive. The defense, while ascending, needs pieces to be finished and become elite. Not all of these holes will be filled in April's draft, so the onus is on Pace to come with aggressive Godfather pitches he hasn't before. In the words of Don Vito Corleone, Pace is going to have to give free agents that he desires, offers they can't refuse.
In his previous three years, Pace has signed a total of 36 free agents. Some of those have been general roster fodder, attempts at cheap depth, or players acquired through the waiver wire. Others have been major successes or failures that count much more towards evaluating how Pace has done as a negotiator. This analysis will focus on the 18 principal additions. Without further ado, here's a grade for each relatively major Pace Bears' free agent addition by tier.
Cream of the crop
Akiem Hicks, DE, 2016: A+
Since signing with the Bears two years ago, Hicks has 108 tackles and 15.5 sacks in his two years in Chicago. He's turned into one of the most dominant defensive linemen in football and become the Bears' best player on defense. Pace originally bet on upside with Hicks and gave him a two-year deal with limited guaranteed money. Once Hicks drastically outperformed his contract in 2016, that set the Bears up to be at risk for losing him after 2017. Of course, he was summarily re-signed to a mega four-year $48 million dollar deal with $30 million guaranteed on the eve of last season. A bargain at the level of play he brings every Sunday as a franchise cornerstone.
Danny Trevathan, LB, 2016: B+
Trevathan was initially the real home run by the Bears in 2016, not Hicks. Coming over from a historic Super Bowl champion Broncos defense, Trevathan was the franchise linebacker Chicago had been missing for a few seasons. He's taken a backseat to Hicks not because he's been awful or not lived up to his affordable four-year $28 million dollar deal with $15.5 million guaranteed, but because Hicks has been that good.
At any rate, Trevathan has 155 tackles and three sacks in his two years in Chicago. A patellar tendon injury suffered in late 2016 has those statistics drop to an extent, but he proved his value by making a quick and mostly healthy return last season. Any time Trevathan did miss a game, his absence was felt. Moving forward, especially at the price, he can safely be counted on as a Bears' core player as the Mike linebacker and one of the guys set up over the incoming hopeful contending window.
Josh Sitton, OG, 2016: B+
It's hard to give Pace too much credit for signing Sitton considering he fell onto his lap after a late August cap casualty. Nevertheless, it should be added onto his ledger. The two seasons Sitton played in Chicago before the Bears elected not to pick up his option for a return in February, were played at or almost at an elite level. He was a stabilizing force for an underrated 2016 offensive line that settled after a rough start and was the type of veteran leader every team would love to have in it's locker room.
Sitton will be 32-years-old by next season and didn't fit into the Bears' long term plans. It shouldn't be forgotten that he had plenty in the tank while he did get the chance to mesh with them.
Not to be overlooked
Kendall Wright, WR, 2017: B
Touted as the ideal slot receiver when added, Wright outperformed original expectations. Injuries at the top of the Bears' receiving depth chart meant Wright had to become the No. 1 option in the passing game. He went on to be a quality security blanket and lead Chicago in all relevant receiving categories. At one-year, $2 million with $1 million guaranteed, the Bears took in more than they paid for with Wright. His future is up in the air, but his single season performance can't be frowned upon.
Prince Amukamara, CB, 2017: B
Another player with a low amount of commitment afforded, Amukamara exceeded what the Bears expected. He wasn't a lockdown cornerback, but he proved to be an excellent No. 2 opposite of Kyle Fuller. His return, like Wright's, is increasingly in purgatory. At one-year for $3.5 million, he helped make up one of the most underrated primary cornerback duos for the 2017 season.
Mitch Unrein, DE, 2015: B-
An unrestricted free agent at the moment, many have forgotten the "other Mitch" or lamented his great deal of playing time over the past three years. That overlooks the fact that Unrein has been one of the Bears' steadier defenders during his tenure in Chicago and that he's been an underrated elite defensive lineman against the run. The Bears can and should strive to do better at the starting defensive end slot opposite Hicks, but the 31-year-old Unrein was plenty serviceable while deployed.
Bobby Massie, OT, 2016: C+
Similar to Unrein, Massie has been unfairly painted as a scapegoat any time the Bears' offensive line has struggled in the past two years. While he isn't an elite tackle or athlete, he's been a solid stopgap on the right side who does more than admirably in his run blocking. He's not a franchise tackle by any means, but the Bears could've done much worse than anointing him as a starter. Time will only tell how long Massie is for Chicago now as the Bears can cut Massie with limited dead money ($500,000) and search for an upgrade over roughly the next two months. Until then, he does his job at an appreciable level.
Jerrell Freeman, LB, 2016: C
A tackle magnet - when actually on the field - Freeman was a solid signing by the Bears as part of that Hicks and Trevathan free agent class. For that production, three years for $12 million and $6 million guaranteed was a bargain. The key as to why his addition didn't add up as a surefire hit is that he only ended up playing 13 games in two seasons with Chicago due to a PED suspension. And, not to be outdone, a pectoral injury that ended his 2017 after one game. That led to his release this past late February.
Those developments are difficult to blame on Pace, but nevertheless happened and potentially made inside linebacker a need unless you wholeheartedly believe in Nick Kwiatkoski as the future. Freeman would've been a jackpot had he stayed on the field. His Bears' career instead ends with a whimper.
Tracy Porter, CB, 2015: C
The consummate professional, Porter was a late signing by Pace to attempt to get some cornerback depth in his first year as general manager. While the Bears eventually extended Porter way past any solid point, he was useful on the outside in his first year in Chicago. Porter's 2015 was highlighted by his (effectively) game-sealing interception against the Packers and Aaron Rodgers on Thanksgiving, as well as general good coverage throughout. At an $870,000 price for 2015, Porter played his role. Moving forward with him after that was the mistake.
Mike Glennon, QB, 2017: F
Even if you see Glennon as a smokescreen to acquire Trubisky, that doesn't make his individual signing and subsequent unworthy play to keep the face of the franchise on the bench for four games look any better. Giving a quarterback who had 10 turnovers in four starts and looked like he barely belonged at the college level, let alone NFL, $18.5 million guaranteed is a black mark Pace will have to work past for some time.
2017 was the now released Glennon's year until it wasn't. He's the face of one of the worst Bears' free agency classes ever.
Pernell McPhee, OLB, 2015: D
The big ticket free agent of the 2015 Bears' class, McPhee lived up to the bill through the first eight games of that season. He looked every bit a dominant defender that wasn't nearly given enough playing time with the Ravens. Five years for $38.75 million looked like a stroke of genius. That's until his debilitating knee conditions chopped away at a player simultaneously built to play football at a glance, but not to suit up. McPhee attempted to cut weight to take stress of his knees in 2017 and that didn't work.
The Bears and Pace paid for a starting outside linebacker in McPhee and received only 17 starts in three years. They received a player who could only play 50 to 60 percent of the snaps when available. They received as empty of a 14 total sacks as one could imagine.
Eddie Royal, WR, 2015: D
Three years for $15 million with six million guaranteed looked like a steal for the Bears in signing Royal back in 2015. He then went on to appear in a total of 18 games and start in just 10, as he proved unreliable. In the games Royal played, he wasn't productive enough to warrant his price point (70 receptions, 607 yards, 2 touchdowns total). That made moving on from him last off-season easier.
Quintin Demps, S, 2017: D
Like most of the Bears' 2017 free agent class, Pace can come out relatively unscathed because not a lot of guaranteed money was handed out. Demps is the perfect reflection of that as the "veteran presence" the Bears said they needed. A broken arm ended the now released Demps' seasons three weeks into the year and he was eventually completely overtaken by the resurgent Adrian Amos. So much for that veteran presence.
Antrel Rolle, S, 2015: D
By the time he signed with the Bears on a three-year, $11.25 million dollar deal, Rolle was a shell of the former two-time Second-Team All-Pro and Super Bowl XLVI champion he was with the Giants. In seven games played, Rolle had 30 tackles and no interceptions. Another "veteran presence" that amounted to little.
Dion Sims, TE, 2017: D
Many actually believed Sims to be a quality complement to Zach Miller as a blocking tight end. Once Miller went down for 2017 with a knee injury, his deficiencies as both a a blocker and pass catcher in the No. 1 role were evident. Sims had a little over a 50 percent catch rate on 15 of 29 targets and should've been reasonably replaced by the future in Adam Shaheen much earlier than he was. He may return to Chicago next season, but more suitably.
Markus Wheaton, WR, 2017: F
Three receptions. 51 yards. 11 games.
That's the output the Bears received from Wheaton last year after investing two years, $11 million and $6 million guaranteed. Sold as a deep threat with speed, Wheaton instead showed that he was a deep threat who couldn't catch and get in sync with Chicago's offense. It's curious that he hasn't been released yet given that there is a minimal amount of dead money on his contract, but that seems inevitable over the course of this year's free agency. The Bears need better, maybe elite at receiver. Wheaton couldn't even give them competent.
Alan Ball, CB, 2015: F
What's that? You've already forgotten the Bears once put one-year and $3 million into a 30-year-old cornerback that hadn't warranted such treatment? Have no fear, Ball is here!
Ball was barely a depth cornerback in his previous stops with the Jaguars, Texans, and Cowboys. He wasn't all of a sudden going to become a starter with the Bears. He started three games in 2015 before giving way to one last gasp from Fuller. Another miscalculation on the back end.
Marcus Cooper, CB, 2017: D
The transition-tagged Fuller and his return to grace is the only reason you don't see Cooper maligned much more than he should've been. At any point where Cooper was trotted out to play, he struggled mightily in coverage. In one of the bigger moments of the Bears' 2017 season, he stopped playing altogether on a blocked kick and was stripped of the ball. Seeing as how the Bears are likened to overhaul a good portion of their cornerback, it may well only be a matter of time before Cooper is jettisoned.
If the Bears are going to make a contending leap, Pace has to improve on his previous hit and miss nature in free agency. He's not fooling anyone when he plays back the potential of the market cooly. The future of the franchise is again in his hands for a launch point over roughly the next week. No pressure.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times, an editor for Windy City Gridiron and Inside The Pylon, and is a contributor for Pro Football Weekly and The Athletic Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.