What we learned about the Bears, free agency & the future

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Bears coach John Fox and GM Ryan Pace. (AP)

The NFL’s free-agent frenzy has moved to a calmer stage, and the Bears came away with new starters at inside linebacker, defensive end and right tackle.

On paper, general manager Ryan Pace had a solid haul.

With more than a week of free agency in the books, here’s what we’ve learned about the Bears and what lies ahead:

Pace’s pitch

Pace and coach John Fox proved to be a formidable pair in their free-agent pitches.

Similar to Fox’s connection with linebacker Danny Trevathan, Pace secured defensive lineman Akiem Hicks, who was drafted by the Saints in 2012.

Hicks turned down the Patriots — which included a late phone call from coach Bill Belichick — saying Pace was “one of the final reasons” he chose the Bears. Hicks said he’s a believer in Pace’s plans.

Right tackle Bobby Massie said Pace had a straightforward approach in negotiations, which also had an honest feel.

“He sold me,” said Massie, who had other offers.

Tight end Zach Miller and defensive lineman Mitch Unrein also mentioned Pace’s influence.

The Bears did miss on two notable targets: Broncos running back C.J. Anderson and tight end Jermaine Gresham.

Anderson later said Dolphins coach Adam Gase, the former Bears and Broncos offensive coordinator, was pivotal in him signing a four-year, $18 million offer sheet, which the Broncos later matched.

Gresham strongly wanted to remain with the Cardinals.

Incentive-laden deals

For years, the Bears have benefitted from having Cliff Stein, a former agent, in charge of negotiations. This year, Joey Laine, the Bears’ director of football administration, led the way.

The Bears included incentives in many of their new contracts. Incentives are generally considered a way to bridge gaps in talks.

Massie ($15,625), cornerback Tracy Porter ($15,625), tight end Zach Miller ($31,250) and special-teamer Sherrick McManis ($6,250) have per-game roster bonuses for being on the 46-man gameday roster.

Massie ($250,000), Porter ($1 million), Hicks ($250,000) and linebacker Jerrell Freeman ($250,000) have Pro Bowl bonuses.

Porter, Miller and Hicks also have bonuses tied to playtime and production. Freeman’s deal includes playtime escalators up to $750,000 each year.

Some of the bonuses are classified as NLTBE (not likely to be earned), meaning they don’t count against the salary cap when the deal is signed

(Note: Contract details for Unrein and receiver/returner Marc Mariani were not immediately available.)

Alshon’s deal

The Bears have until July 15 to reach a long-term deal with receiver Alshon Jeffery, who signed his $14.599 million franchise tag tender on March 8.

Two receivers received big money this year in free agency: Marvin Jones from the Lions (five years, $40 million, $20 million guaranteed) and Mohamed Sanu from the Falcons (five years, $32.5 million, $14 million guaranteed).

But neither deal should be mentioned in talks with Jeffery. He’s much better than both players. Jeffery should get a deal like Dez Bryant (Cowboys), Demaryius Thomas (Broncos), A.J. Green (Bengals) and Julio Jones (Falcons) received last year. They all have average salaries of $14 million or more.

Since Jeffery signed, he is required to attend mandatory offseason activities.

Compensating Long

Now that Kyle Long is back at right guard, it will be interesting to see if the Bears start working on an extension for him. He’s entering the final year of his rookie contract.

The Bears can always pick up his fifth-year option in the coming weeks, but Long is a core player. He deserves credit for professionally handling another position switch.

Kelechi Osemele’s free-agent deal with the Raiders – a five-year, $58.5 million contract, which includes $24.5 million guaranteed – sets the stage for negotiations with Long. It established a new precedent.

Considering the size of the contract, there was speculation that Osemele, a former Raven, would be moved to tackle, but he’s expected to remain at guard.

Baltimore coach John Harbaugh revealed that the Ravens offered Osemele $8.5 million per season, which would have made him the NFL’s highest paid guard. Instead, he’s getting $11.7 million annually from the Raiders.

Osemele might be more polished, but Long’s upside is undeniable. Long also has valuable intangibles to consider. Long has three Pro Bowl appearances, including one at tackle, compared to none for Osemele.

Bring’em back

The Bears re-signed key contributors from 2015: Miller, McManis, Porter, Mariani and Unrein. One prevailing common characteristic is that all five were praised at some point last year because of their character.

Fox tabbed all of five for leadership responsibilities at some point last season, whether it was being a weekly captain or a participant in his leadership council or giving the weekly team speech.

Keeping them and trading tight end Martellus Bennett is part of the culture change.

One-year fliers

Pace values one-year, prove-it deals, and the Bears will make some over the new few weeks. This was an important time last year. Pace found starters in defensive end Jarvis Jenkins (two weeks into free agency), outside linebacker Sam Acho (April 1, 2015) and Porter (June 8, 2015).

Follow me on Twitter @adamjahns

Email: ajahns@suntimes.com

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