BOCA RATON, Fla. — The first hour of free agency earlier this month was crazy. It always is. That’s when the biggest deals are made across the NFL.
“Things are going fast,” Bears general manager Ryan Pace said.
But Pace looked at his plan and was emboldened.
“I realized how disciplined we have to be with our plan and how much confidence we’ve got to have in our plan,” he said Tuesday during the NFL owners meetings. “I was proud of the way we stuck to that.”
The Bears had interest in some of the big names available and the salary-cap space to spend lavishly. But they took a modest approach and still were successful, in Pace’s determination. Players high on their free-agency board were signed: linebackers Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman, right tackle Bobby Massie, defensive end Akiem Hicks, tight end Zach Miller and cornerback Tracy Porter.
That haul impressed many around the league. The Bears not only signed plug-and-play starters but showed a frugality often seen from the league’s best teams.
“I like how we kind of spread it out a little bit,” said Pace, who made his first comments since free agency opened. “It reduces your risk a little bit.”
The moves addressed areas of need and could change the complexion of the team, particularly on defense. It starts with Freeman and Trevathan, inside linebackers who share a similar mindset with brash outside linebacker Pernell McPhee, last year’s big free-agent addition.
“He’s a well-rounded line-backer, run and pass,” Pace said. “He’s a good tackler. He’s athletic. He brings a playmaking ability to our defense. I like his demeanor. It’s the toughness and the charisma he brings.”
“Freeman has that chip on his shoulder where he came from,” Pace said. “He plays with an edge and a grit that you like and appreciate, especially at linebacker. The right demeanor.”
Of course, it may not work. It will take a few successful drafts to truly overhaul the Bears’ roster. But on paper, there’s no denying the Bears improved from last season because of free agency. Pace said his staff — director of player personnel Josh Lucas, director of college scouting Joe Douglas and director of pro scouting Champ Kelly and his scouts — deserve credit for “setting the table” with a successful approach.
“We were very confident where, ‘Hey, this is getting a little out of control here,’ ” Pace said. “Let’s go on to another option, or let’s consider another option that’s a better value
Pace believes the Bears also eliminated some of the unknown risks typically associated with free agency by not only re-signing some of their own players (Miller and Porter) but players they’re familiar with from previous stops (Trevathan and Hicks).
Pace was part of the New Orleans Saints’ staff that drafted Hicks in 2012. He said Hicks elevated his game after being traded to the New England Patriots last season.
“He’s always been a guy who’s got that raw, brute strength and power, and he’s still refining his technique and getting better,” said Pace, who views Hicks as an end in the base 3-4 defense and a nose in substitution packages. “He’s a very coachable guy. So I still feel like there’s a lot of upside ahead of him.”
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