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December GM: Looking at recent free agency moves

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NFL: Chicago Bears at Detroit Lions Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Monday-morning quarterbacking is a traditional pastime for football fans. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to second-guess the bad throw or the inability to see a blitzing safety. So, in the fine tradition of Monday-morning quarterbacking, and with the Bears’ playoff hopes seeming precarious, at best, I wanted to take a few moments to second-guess the biggest moves made in the last two free agency periods by Bears’ general manager Ryan Pace. With the benefit of hindsight, how did Pace do in deciding who to let go and who to bring in from other teams?

The Ones Who Got Away

For 2019, the biggest free agents Ryan Pace let get away, in terms of contract value, were Adrian Amos, Bryce Callahan, and Josh Bellamy. The year before, the players who got away were Mitch Unrein, Josh Sitton, and Christian Jones. Besides Mike Glennon, who was never going to be kept, those are the six who had an average annual contract value over $2 million (per Spotrac).

Of them, Adrian Amos cashed in for the most money, at $36 million and an average contract value of $9 million. He was coming off a career year that saw him record a pair of interceptions while breaking up nine passes and recording a sack; he had 73 tackles in 16 starts. He has continued to play at that level, too, already recording two interceptions, defending eight total passes, while recording a sack with 71 tackles in 13 starts. There was no decline in his play, and by most statistics the player brought in to replace him (Clinton-Dix) is either behind his performance level or just barely even with it.

However, Bryce Callahan ($7 million per year) has yet to play in a regular-season game for the Broncos, and the previous year Josh Sitton (nearly $7 million per year) played in only one game before suffering what turned out to be a career-ending injury. That same year, Mitch Unrein never even played a snap in a regular game for the Bucs. Meanwhile, Josh Bellamy has been unimpressive while playing for the Jets, but it’s really hard to tell if that’s more a factor of him being Josh Bellamy or of him playing for the Jets.

That leaves Christian Jones, who has probably been playing about the same while serving as a linebacker for the Lions. He is used slightly differently, but even though he is starting more he remains a role-player who does a little bit of everything, and he certainly isn’t a world-beater.

In short, the only real “star” who got away might be Amos, and it’s probably tough to argue that Pace should have paid him $6 million per year more than Clinton-Dix (and $33 million more total) for what is probably only a slight upgrade in performance. Otherwise, these are players who Pace let go at almost exactly the right time, so far.

The Ones Who Pace Brought In

In 2018, some big contracts got handed out. Allen Robinson ($14 million per year for three years), Trey Burton ($8 million per year), and Taylor Gabriel ($6.5 million per year) led the way. There was also Cody Parkey, who was signed for what was to be an average of nearly $4 million per year, and Aaron Lynch (who was signed to a one-year, $4 million contract). One year later, the Bears paid handsomely for the services of Buster Skrine ($5.5 million per year and $16.5 million overall), Cordarelle Patterson ($10 million across two years), and Mike Davis ($3 million per year on average).

Robinson has clearly been the top weapon this year, and while he’s probably overpaid (he’s making more money than all but 13 wide receivers and isn’t in the Top 15 per DYAR and not in the Top 25 per DVOA), he is clearly playing the role that Pace had in mind. Likewise, Cordarelle Patterson was paid a lot of money to serve as a return specialist, but he is excelling in that role (he leads the league in return yards so far).

Not so Trey Burton. Currently 43rd of 43 qualifying tight ends by both metrics, Burton has been a disappointment when he’s been healthy, and he hasn’t been healthy enough for that to compensate for his other shortcomings. Likewise, paying Taylor Gabriel like a Top 40 wide receiver has not brought the team Top 40 results, and it would take a very bold person to suggest that Cody Parkey deserved to be paid what turned out to be $5.5 million for his work in 2018. Mike Davis is no longer with Chicago, but the Bears have found reason to hand on to Aaron Lynch and Buster Skrine is playing serviceable football.

In other words, Pace’s big money free agents have been at least as likely to flame out as to prosper, and there is no “true bargain” to be found. The best that can be said is that some of his top contracts have played up to the level of money he offered them, even if most of them have not. When looking at reasons for a faltering 2019 season, there is plenty of blame to go around. However, the Bears certainly could have used more help from their top-money signings.

Conclusions

In order for free agency to be a success, a team needs to attract more talent than it lets go, and it needs to do so at prices that are affordable. Ideally, teams take advantage of the compensatory pick system and late players who are on the verge of flaming out chase big contracts elsewhere, so that the team that “loses” a declining player gets both a cost savings and a draft pick.

The Bears under Ryan Pace are not close to that goal. Even if they do end up with a compensatory pick, they will have clearly had more misses than hits with their most expensive free agent contracts.