GM Ryan Pace’s overhaul of the Bears defense last year — after they’d posted the two worst seasons in franchise history — had all the subtlety of a jackhammer.
He traded linebackers Jared Allen and Jon Bostic, cut defensive lineman Jeremiah Ratliff and cornerback Tim Jennings and allowed onetime Bears stars Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman to leave.
If free agents Shea McClellin and Sherrick McManis sign elsewhere this offseason, the Bears will have exactly one defensive player left who played a down in 2013: Cornelius Washington. The lineman participated in exactly one defensive snap last year.
“That’s what they do with new teams, like when I was in Oakland,” outside linebacker Lamarr Houston said. “They bomb it.”
The Bears’ deforestation is nearly complete. Now comes the harder part: finding affordable talent in free agency to support strong draft classes. Monday marks the first day of free agent negotiations, though nothing can be made official until Wednesday.
The Bears still need talent to play alongside outside linebacker Pernell McPhee, cornerback Kyle Fuller and two rookies: nose tackle Eddie Goldman and safety Adrian Amos.
“It’s no mystery we had a lot of younger players play on defense this year, and extensively,” coach John Fox said. “The thing that sometimes I think people get lost about is the improvement of that player from a freshman to a sophomore, from Year 1 to Year 2, whether it’s in a particular system or just in NFL football and how to view NFL offenses.”
Pace gambled with one-year contracts last year, and had more hits — cornerback Tracy Porter and defensive end Jarvis Jenkins among them — than misses.
Coordinator Vic Fangio was able to quickly incorporate veterans into his 3-4 defense. Toward the end of the season, though, Fangio lamented he would have liked to run a more complicated scheme but didn’t want to rush the development curve in his first year.
With another season under his players’ belt, Fangio’s options will become more exotic. Adding playmakers would allow him to gamble more.
Pace, it figures, would prefer not to have to patch his defense with so many one-year veterans each season.
The Bears’ hope is that, after building the roster for another year or two, he won’t have to.
Here’s a look at the Bears’ current defensive breakdown:
2015 defensive rankings: Total — 14. Scoring — 20
2015 Pro Bowl players: None
Notable free agents: inside linebacker Shea McClellin, cornerback Tracy Porter, defensive end Jarvis Jenkins, defensive end Mitch Unrein, outside linebacker Sam Acho, safety Ryan Mundy, cornerback Sherrick McManis, safety Chris Prosinski, cornerback Alan Ball, safety Sherrod Martin, linebacker LaRoy Reynolds (restricted)
Top 5 salary cap hits for 2016: outside linebacker Pernell McPhee ($7.675 million), outside linebacker Lamarr Houston ($6.99 million), outside linebacker Willie Young ($3.167 million), safety Antrel Rolle ($2.719 million), cornerback Kyle Fuller ($2.642 million)
Draft picks on roster: Six. 2015 — safety Adrian Amos, nose tackle Eddie Goldman; 2014 — cornerback Kyle Fuller, defensive end Ego Ferguson, defensive end Will Sutton; 2013 — defensive end Cornelius Washington
Pace has laid out the dangers of playing at the high-stakes table when free agency begins: a bad contract could the Bears dearly, for years.
Coming off a six-win season, he knows the Bears don’t need to gamble — They’re not one huge signing away from a Super Bowl — as much as they need to make steady decisions to build the team on good footing.
The odds, then, point to the GM trying to land two or three players atop the second tier of available defensive players.
In his favor: Pace has a lot of room to work, both in terms of money and opportunity.
The Bears have about $45 million worth of cap space, not counting money allocated to draftees, and starting jobs to dangle.
For the second-straight season, the Bears could use a talent upgrade at almost every defensive position group. With Jenkins and Unrein entering free agency, they don’t have an obvious starter at either defensive end position.
If Porter signs elsewhere, they’ll need a starting cornerback. The Bears could walk away from Rolle with little penalty, too, if they find a better safety on the market.
Every team is looking for edge rushers, even if the Bears have three veterans — Pernell McPhee, Willie Young and Lamarr Houston — who were solid last season.
Regardless of whether McClellin returns, the Bears seem likely to sign two others who can compete to start at inside linebacker.
Broncos inside linebacker Danny Trevathan, who played for Fox, seems as good a fit as the Bears could hope for — assuming the price is right. Remember, the team finished the season with two undrafted free agents, John Timu and Christian Jones, starting there.
“Shea, we feel like his arrow is till pointing up, especially at the inside linebacker position,” Pace said. “I thought our defensive coaches did a great job with him. It’s a decision we’re going to have to make.”
What are they looking for in free agent defenders?
Fox listed three qualities — “team speed,” “athleticism” and “explosion” — that, while vague, underscore the fact that the Bears have a marked skill deficiency.
They can’t make that up with one good week. But they hope that, by pushing in their chips on two or three second-tier defenders, they limit their risk and improve their team at the same time.
Pace employed the same tactic last season, with mixed results. McPhee appears to be a fantastic investment, while Rolle struggled with injuries for the first time since 2007.
With more money to spend, the stakes are higher this time around.
Just don’t expect the Bears to double down on their bets quite yet.
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