Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio told it like it was late last season when asked if inexperience at inside linebacker limited what he could do.
“It does a little bit,” Fangio said. “But you play with the hand you’re dealt.”
Fangio’s hand unquestionably will be a lot stronger in 2016 after the Bears completed a revamping of their starting inside linebacker duo by signing free agent Jerrell Freeman to a three-year, $12 million contract (with $6 million guaranteed) one day after signing Danny Trevathan to a four-year, $24.5 million deal.
The 6-0, 240-pound Freeman, who will turn 30 in May, was the Indianapolis Colts’ second-leading tackler in 2014 and 2015 after leading the Colts in tackles in 2012 and 2013. He was ranked No. 1 against the run among inside linebackers in the NFL last season by Pro Football Focus.
“I think the staff — with coach [John] Fox and Fangio [made the Bears attractive]. I just liked the surrounding,” Freeman said. “I know a couple of players that’s played for them before and they spoke highly of them. And also who I get to play with. You’ve got Trevathan right beside me, that d-line and the linebackers. It’s definitely a good situation.”
One of the benefits of hiring the player-friendly John Fox was that he could attract desireable free agents. That seemed to come to fruition with the signing of both Trevathan — who played for Fox in Denver from 2011-14 — and now Freeman, who said Fox made “the biggest impression” on him when the Colts scrimmaged against the Bears in training camp last season in Indianapolis.
“He’s always upbeat,” Freeman said of Fox. “He’s a great coach. You could tell his players love playing for him. Just a great atmosphere. It’s like a big family over there, just like in Indianapolis. Coach Fox is highly regarded. I saw that out there, within the training camp and he’s laughing and joking with everybody — even with us, the Colts.”
Freeman’s signing also carried an endorsement for the new regime under general manager Ryan Pace. Freeman said the Bears being “genuine” impressed him during his visit to Halas Hall.
“I think coach Fox is going to shoot you straight. He’s not going to blow smoke up your you-know-what,” Freeman said. “And I got that from everybody — from him all the way up to Ryan and Fangio. Thats just how everybody is there. It’s a real big thing that everybody’s on the same page, like-minded from top to bottom. It’s hard enough to win when you’ve got everybody on the same page. It’s even harder to win when everybody’s not. That’s a real good thing, too.”
The Colts did not pursue Freeman in free agency — “which was kind of a shocker,” Freeman acknowledged — but Freeman still was an attractive free agent. The Bears’ front office, the coaching staff and the players on defense and offense — particularly Jay Cutler — helped him choose Chicago.
“I wasn’t really worried about the Bears’ record [last season, 6-10]. I was looking at the pieces. I think the pieces are there,” Freeman said. “You can’t have a chance without a quarterback and Jay Cutler definitely has all the tools to be a great quarterback. And they’ve got a couple of good receivers coming back and some good running backs. That defense is coming on and hopefully I can add another piece to that puzzle.”
While free agency is often a crapshoot at even the highest salary levels, the Bears have significantly upgraded at two positions without breaking the bank. Each of the five players who started at inside linebacker last season was learning on the job — regular starters Shea McClellin and Christian Jones and fill-ins LaRoy Reynolds, Jonathan Anderson and John Timu.
But Trevathan and Freeman figure to hit the ground running. Trevathan has been a starter in Denver the past three seasons (though he missed most of 2014 with an injury). Freeman started 57 games over the past four seasons for the Colts.
And while Freeman — like Trevathan — is strong against the run, he is excellent in coverage. On the fifth snap of his NFL career in 2012, he returned an interception of Jay Cutler four yards for a touchdown in the season opener against the Bears. In his final game for the Colts last season, he had two sacks and returned an interception 23 yards for a touchdown against the Titans. When Freeman missed two games because of injury late in the season, the Colts’ defense allowed 38 points to the Steelers and Jaguars in blowout losses.
Freeman has never been short of motivation. He was undrafted out of Division III Mary Hardin-Baylor in 2008 and played three years in the CFL with the Saskatchewan Roughriders — leading the CFL in tackles in 2011 — before signing with the Colts in 2012.
“That chip on my shoulder’s never going to get knocked off,” he said. “I carry it with me and it’s kind of shaped the player I am — the aggressiveness, the recklessness, out there running around, because I can really appreciate where I’ve come from. A lot of people counted me out in a lot of situations. I definitely carry that chip.”
Freeman, who said his greatest strength “is knowing my job and understanding the defense,” does not expect his role or impact to change on the Bears under Fangio.
“It’s pretty much the same thing I was doing in Indy — being a three-down linebacker, being able to cover,” he said. “Just being a playmaker. Just doing what I’ve been doing. I guess that’s plenty.”