Jerrell Freeman earned a three-year, $12 million contract, with $6 million guaranteed, in March.
“I stand here right now as a rookie free agent,” the inside linebacker maintained Wednesday, after the Bears’ fourth organized team activity practice. “Still got to prove myself.”
When they went shopping for defensive upgrades this offseason, coach John Fox and GM Ryan Pace had a type: self-motivated and old-school.
The result were players once overlooked, either by the draft process or because of bad scheme fits, who still carry that anger with them.
That edge is a new attitude around Halas Hall, where defensive enthusiasm was blunted by the Bears’ two worst defenses, ever, during the Marc Trestman era.
How that attitude translates to defensive success — or if it does —will determine the Bears’ win-loss record, perhaps more than any other factor.
It’s easy for players to talk about attitude 99 days before the start of the NFL season. But the same theme seems to resonate from players that haven’t grown comfortable, even if their financial ledgers say otherwise.
“You come in with thatchipon your shoulder every day,” inside linebacker Danny Trevathan said last week. “Write it down, look yourself in the mirror, tell yourself what you want out of the day. Go out there and attack.”
Last year was a marked improvement from the two before it; the Bears were buoyed by their big free-agent signing, outside linebacker Pernell McPhee, a former fifth-round whose competitive fire lit up the locker room in his first year.
This offseason produced three major signings: a former sixth-rounder, Trevathan; former CFL player Freeman; and defensive end Akiem Hicks, who struggled in his move to a 4-3 Saints defensive end last year before being traded to the Patriots.
“Thatchipnever leaves your shoulder …” Freeman said, when asked about he and Trevathan. “It’s always going to stay on you. That’s just why we play like we do; just running around aggressive, just flying around because we have that … I know I have that free-agent mentality.
“I just feel like I’ll always be a rookie free agent in everybody’s eyes, so I’m out to prove [myself to] everybody.”
When the Bears signed Hicks, he got a text from Trevathan. He agreed to keep blockers off the inside linebacker if Trevathan — who would later call him a “mountain” — would pull a few off Hicks at the end of plays.
“You’ve got to kick the first one’s butt,” Hicks said. “If you kick his butt then his buddy isn’t going to be able to get up as fast.”
That chippiness isn’t limited to new players. When comparing this season to last — when he was learning outside linebacker after recovering from a torn Achilles tendon — Willie Young launched into a brief history of his career, which started with the Lions.
“I had to figure outhow to survive with what I was given,” Young said. “You come into the league as a seventh-round draft pick, you’re expecting to be nothing but a practice-squad guy.
“But I never heard that. I never paid that no mind. I continued to live life on the edge — playin’ ball on the edge, take my chances.”
The move to a 3-4 provided just another challenge, he said, not that he was asking for sympathy.
“I’ve never had a break,” he said. “I don’t expect to get a break.”
Neither do his new teammates.
It’s just talk in June, sure, but it’s a sign the Bears defense — with at least three new starters in the front seven—will have a sharpened edge.
“First of all, everybody is athletic, everybody is explosive, everybody has a hunger to get things done,” Hicks said. “Those factors, those things, are enough to make a good defense.”