The lesson of this year’s NFL free agency is the same as every other year — the draft is where it’s at when it comes to building a football team.
Linebacker Danny Trevathan, the Bears’ “splash” move Thursday, was a sixth-round draft pick by the Broncos in 2012 — selected 188th overall, four picks after the Bears took Nevada cornerback Isaiah Frey. Right tackle Bobby Massie, who also signed with the Bears on Thursday, was a fourth-round pick in the same draft — selected 112th overall, one pick after the Bears took Temple tight end Evan Rodriguez.
In fact, most of the top free agents in this class — like just about every other free agent class — were readily available coming out of college. Of the top 10 contracts signed so far, at least five were given to players drafted in the third round or later in 2012 — defensive linemen Malik Jackson (fifth round, 137th overall), Olivier Vernon (third round, 72nd overall) and Damon Harrison (undrafted), guard Brandon Brooks (third round, 76th overall) and wide receiver Marvin Jones (fifth round, 166th overall).
It’s difficult to hit a home run in free agency. The nature of football makes player movement almost inherently problematic — whether its Ndamukong Suho or Haloti Ngata in free agency or Jimmy Graham via a trade.
But even in the early stages of this year’s free agency, Bears general manager Ryan Pace looks like he knows how to play the game. Though this is his second year as general manager, it’s his first with a full season of preparation for free agency — when he knows his coach, his current roster and the strengths and weaknesses of the team after a 6-10 season under John Fox.
His free agency game plan seems pretty clear — to address acute needs where a free agent has the best chance for an upgrade. He’s already standing on second with a ringing double by signing Trevathan, a proven talent who will upgrade the Bears at inside linebacker merely by staying healthy. And he’ll turn 26 later this month.
Still interested in upgrading that position, the Bears hosted Colts inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman on Friday, sources confirmed. The 6-1, 268-pound Freeman would complement Trevathan well on the inside if the Bears can sign him.
What about Shea McClellin? In December, Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio gave a somewhat surprising endorsement of McClellan as a building block. But the Bears also know they can do better. McClellin visited the New York Jets on Friday, sources confirmed. But he’s still an option for the Bears. They’re just looking for better ones.
The Bears’ next target appears to be 6-5, 324-pound defensive lineman Akiem Hicks, who excelled after a Week 4 trade from the Saints to the Patriots — especially after getting more snaps late in the season. Hicks, who had three sacks, four quarterback hurries and a fumble recovery for a touchdown in Weeks 14-15 against the Texans and Titans last season, would be no sure thing. But he’s a player that both Bill Belichick and Fangio wants on his team. That’s good enough for me.
Reports that Hicks was close to signing with the Lions are unfounded, sources said. In fact, it’s the Bears who might not let Hicks leave town without a deal. Ryan Pace wants to move deliberately but quickly, and get ready for the much bigger game — the April 28-20 draft.