Bears general manager Ryan Pace issued warnings about free agency at the NFL Scouting Combine. He called it ‘‘a risky area’’ and ‘‘dangerous water.’’ He said the Bears would be ‘‘mindful and strategic’’ and ‘‘smart and calculated.’’
So what does all that mean?
The Bears are in a similar spot as they were last offseason. Their numerous personnel issues won’t be solved in free agency — Pace wants to make that abundantly clear — but they will spend money.
Here’s a look at what Pace did in free agency last year and what his hits and misses might mean for this year:
OLB Pernell McPee
The deal: Five years, $38.75 million total, $15.5 million guaranteed.
What happened: Pace hit a home run with McPhee, who was the Bears’ best player on defense in 2015. McPhee had 64 tackles (according to coach reviews), six sacks, 10 tackles for loss and 25 pressures. He missed two games because of a nagging knee injury, which required minor surgery after the season. McPhee’s come-get-some demeanor also changed the identity of the defense.
What it means for ’16: Signing players such as McPhee is the goal. He fit Pace’s ideal mold for free-agent signings. McPhee was 26 years old and didn’t demand a hefty contract. Pace thought he would excel with more playing time, and that’s exactly what happened. He wasn’t a big-name signing, but he became one through his play. There was risk involved in the move. McPhee had started only six games in four seasons with the Ravens, who rarely let their best players leave. In the end, the Bears didn’t overpay and added a significant contributor. The big question is whether Pace can do it again this year.
S Antrel Rolle
The deal: Three years, $11.25 million total, $4.9 million guaranteed.
What happened: Rolle’s first season with the Bears was ruined by two injures, a sprained ankle and a sprained knee ligament. He made only seven starts. Rolle was voted team captain and mentored rookie Adrian Amos, but he struggled to make plays, finishing with only one pass breakup.
What it means for ’16: The Bears need a safety or two. The guaranteed portion of Rolle’s contract is done, which means the 33-year-old veteran might be on the chopping block if a replacement can be found in free agency, the draft or both. Rolle might get a chance to prove himself in training camp, but he has per-game roster bonuses built into his contract. Would the Bears be willing to get into a bidding war for the Bengals’ George Iloka? At 25 years old and 6-4 and 225 pounds, Iloka is the best safety available.
WR Eddie Royal
The deal: Three years, $15 million total, $10 million guaranteed.
What happened: Royal’s 2015 season was a disappointment. He missed six games because of ankle and knee injuries and an illness. After being the star of camp, Royal struggled during the regular season. His main contributions came as the top option for the Bears’ quick screens. He made 37 catches for 238 yards and a touchdown.
What it means for ’16: Royal is looking at a second chance. His base salary of $4.5 million for 2016 already is guaranteed. In other words, he’s penciled in as the Bears’ No. 3 receiver behind Alshon Jeffery and Kevin White. Royal should have a similar role as quarterback Jay Cutler’s go-to option in the slot and on screen plays. The free-agent market is scarce for quality receivers, which should help Royal stick around.
DE Ray McDonald
The deal: One year, $1.05 million total, zero guaranteed.
What happened: A controversial signing from the get-go, McDonald never played for the Bears. His off-the-field troubles quickly re-emerged when he was arrested in May 2015 on charges of domestic violence and child endangerment stemming from an incident with his former fiancée in Santa Clara, California. The Bears promptly released him.
What it means for ’16: The Bears’ character examinations have to be more thorough and involve much more than a coach’s recommendations. It will be interesting to see what type of character risks the Bears take this year because the decision to sign McDonald was one felt at the highest levels. After McDonald was released, chairman George McCaskey said his biggest takeaway was to trust his own initial impressions more. He originally vetoed McDonald’s signing. The free-agent class this year includes guard Richie Incognito, who went to Pro Bowl after a strong season with the Bills. The Bears need offensive-line help, but Incognito was the main culprit in the Dolphins’ bullying scandal in 2013.
The deals: Alan Ball (one year, $3 million total, $1 million guaranteed), Tracy Porter (one year, veteran minimum).
What happened: Ball got the bigger deal, but Porter was the better player. After starting the first three games of 2015, Ball played sparingly the rest of the season. After being slowed by a hamstring injury, Porter took over in Week 4 and became one of the Bears’ best players. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio often matched Porter against opponents’ best receivers. Porter played 81.9 percent of the defensive snaps, breaking up 22 passes and making one interception.
What it means for ’16: The Bears need a cornerback. Porter will turn 30 in August and is looking to turn his strong season into what might be his final NFL payday. Should the Bears give it to him? Fangio has said he wants him back, but the cost is everything. Ball, meanwhile, is unlikely to return. He will turn 31 this month. Janoris Jenkins (Rams) and Sean Smith (Chiefs) are the top cornerbacks on the market.
The deals: OLB Sam Acho, G Vladimir Ducasse, LB Mason Foster, LS Thomas Gafford, DE Jarvis Jenkins, CB Sherrick McManis, C Will Montgomery, TE Bear Pascoe, RB Jacquizz Rodgers, TE Dante Rosario.
What happened: There were hits and misses, which is typical for one-year deals. Jenkins, Acho, Montgomery and Ducasse were starters at some point. Rodgers was the No. 2 back behind Matt Forte before being put on injured reserve with a broken arm in October. McManis remained a stalwart on special teams. Foster, Rosario and Pascoe were released during the final cuts. In a peculiar move several weeks into the season, Gafford was cut Nov. 28 and replaced by Patrick Scales.
What it means for ’16: Pace believes in one-year, prove-it deals, which is how he describes them. He’s expected to make a handful again this offseason. They’ll be needed to plug holes and increase the level of competition. As for the aforementioned players, Jenkins is the most worthy of a new deal. In 15 starts, he had a career-high four sacks, six tackles for loss and 17 pressures (according to coach reviews). Jenkins has said he wants to return, but the Bears figure to look at potential upgrades first. Two of Jenkins’ sacks came in Week 3. Mitch Unrein, who was signed two weeks into last season after being waived by Chargers, emerged late and is also a free agent.
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