Ryan Pace avoided the most dangerous depths of free agency Wednesday, but managed to make a splash anyway, signing the Super Bowl champion Broncos’ leading tackler.
The Bears GM landed inside linebacker Danny Trevathan on a four-year contract —worth, sources said, $24.5 million and $12 million guaranteed — to fill the most gaping hole on a defense with plenty of them.
Pace moved to solidify one on offense, too, agreeing to add Cardinals right tackle Bobby Massie on a three-year deal that will bump three-time Pro Bowler Kyle Long back inside to right guard.
Pace retained starting cornerback Tracy Porter on a three-year deal contract worth a reported $16.5 million, too, and kept two more depth pieces.
Trevathan, though, becomes the becomes the literal, if not figurative, center of the Bears’ defense — the franchise’s best middle-of-the-field presence since Brian Urlacher retired three years ago.
The 6-1, 240 pounder can run and cover, and gives coordinator Vic Fangio reason to get creative after an effective, if vanilla, first season. The Bears started five men at inside linebacker last year: Shea McClellin and four players who were, at one point, undrafted free agents.
Two weeks away from his 26th birthday, Trevathan can grow with a defense whose building blocks include 27-year-old outside linebacker Pernell McPhee, 24-year-old cornerback Kyle Fuller, 22-year-old safety Adrian Amos and 22-year old nose tackle Eddie Goldman.
An average salary of $7 million per season would place Trevathan 10th in the NFL among inside linebackers — a steep price, but nowhere near the most exorbitant of a wild first day of free agency Wednesday.
Trevathan made no secret of his respect for coach John Fox, who helped him develop from an undersized sixth-round draft pick in 2012 to, Wednesday, the focus of the Bears’ free-agent haul.
He said during Super Bowl week he’d likely speak with his former Broncos coach during free agency, and called him “one of the guys who gave me an opportunity to showcase how I can fit in any scheme.”
He shined in the Broncos’ 3-4 defense last season, albeit flanked by pass-rush stars Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware at outside linebacker. His performance was buttressed, too, by nose tackle Sylvester Williams and ends Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson. Jackson’s six-year contract with the Jaguars, which has $42 million guaranteed, could prove to be the kind of deep water Pace preferred to avoid.
As he did last season, Trevathan led the Broncos in tackles in 2013, totaling a career-high 129 under Fox’s 4-3 scheme. The next year, he suffered two fractures near his left knee and then a kneecap dislocation, leading to reconstructive surgery in December 2014.
No stranger to injuries, a healthy Porter was as revelatory as it was rare last season. The 29-year-old cornerback started 13 games opposite Fuller and, according to coaching film, led the team with 22 pass break-ups. Porter should benefit from newfound stability, too, after playing for four teams in each of the previous four seasons.
While Bears such as Alshon Jeffery struggled with injuries, Porter thrived with the Bears’ new training staff, playing 14 games, tied for second-most in his eight-year career.
Running back Jacquizz Rodgers, a special teams stalwart who broke his arm five games into last season, got a one-year deal Wednesday. So, too, did offensive tackle Nick Becton, who also appeared in five games, all on special teams.
The Bears will mine the second tier of free agents in the coming days.
They remain in contact with former Patriots defensive end Akiem Hicks, who played under Pace with the Saints. Sources said late Wednesday the two sides were working toward a possible face-to-face meeting.
The Bears are communicating with tight end Zach Miller, too, after saying last month that they expected their tight end to test the free-agent market.
Follow me on Twitter @patrickfinley