INDIANAPOLIS — The Bears are in a better place, and everyone knows it after their 12-4 season. General manager Ryan Pace is now dealing from a position of strength.
Here are five ways it will affect free agency, which is already taking shape this week at the NFL Scouting Combine:
A place to be
Pace views the Bears as a destination team for free agents. That wasn’t the case in previous years. It often forced the Bears to overpay for players. They lacked leverage because they lacked wins.
“You go into free agency sometimes and that’s real,” Pace said. “Players want to be [in] certain places, and if they want to come to a less desirable location, they’re going to ask for a lot more money, sometimes unrealistic.”
Everything is different for Pace after last season.
Pace only has a few roster needs — it’s essentially kicker more than anything else — but a new culture has formed under coach Matt Nagy.
Nagy’s “Club Dub” and “Booms” went viral along with the Bears’ dance celebrations. Quarterback Mitch Trubisky and six of his teammates played in the Pro Bowl last month. And the Bears’ massive expansion of Halas Hall is expected to be completed in April.
“I feel like we are a lot more attractive destination for a variety of reasons,” Pace said. “It’s the coaching staff. It’s the youth of our roster. It’s the city of Chicago. It’s the brand-new facility. We’re definitely a team on the rise, and I think a lot more players will want to be part of that.”
Plenty of space
The Bears keep adjusting their books in order to gain more salary-cap space for 2019.
Cutting tight end Dion Sims freed up $6 million. Restructuring right guard Kyle Long’s contract provided roughly $3 million more. And kicker Cody Parkey’s eventual release on March 13 will come with a post-June 1 designation, which defers more than $1 million to 2020.
Pace said the Bears always have “internal conversations” about moves that result in more cap space, but he also expressed satisfaction on where the Bears currently are at.
The Bears’ 2019 draft class won’t require the same financial commitments as the past because it lacks (for now) first- and second-round selections.
“Yeah, we’re good,” Pace said. “We knew going into this that the cap space was going to be a little bit more limited than it has been in years past. So obviously we forecasted for that and planned for that. But we can still accomplish our offseason goals and we have a plan in action for that.”
Room for two
Following right tackle Bobby Massie’s contract extension, safety Adrian Amos and nickel back Bryce Callahan are the only two starters who currently have expiring contracts. But Pace expressed optimism that both could be retained.
“Yeah, I wouldn’t say it’s either-or,” Pace said. “And there’s ongoing discussions.”
But those discussions are different. Negotiations with Callahan involve more concerns about future injuries. He has yet to play a full season because of various ailments.
“There are so many things that factor into a player’s contract,” Pace said. “Those are all factors in Bryce’s contract, and we’re working through that.”
For Amos, there are other factors. After the 2019 season, the Bears are looking at a possible contract extension for safety Eddie Jackson, who was named first-team All-Pro in only his second season.
“One of the hardest positions to find is that free safety with ball skills, a ball hawk free safety with range,” Pace said. “And Eddie fits that to a T.”
Pace didn’t say it but Amos doesn’t have the same production.
“He played solid and the ball production increased as the season went on, and I think he was comfortable in the defense,” Pace said. “He’s an example of a player that we drafted and developed, and he’s gotten better. He’s a great teammate and a good Bear.”
The Bears lack cap space and draft capital, but that doesn’t mean they can’t improve. Pace sees that happening naturally as his young team matures.
Last year’s rookie class has plenty to build on, especially linebacker Roquan Smith (team-high 114 tackles), left guard James Daniels (10 starts), defensive lineman Bilal Nichols (six starts) and receiver Anthony Miller (seven touchdown catches 15 games).
“There’s going to be natural growth and progression,” Pace said. “We’ve got to make sure that happens. But we’ve got the right character on our team and the right staff around those players to make that happen.”
Pace also strongly believes he has the right quarterback and coach. Trubisky’s growth alone in Nagy’s offense could make up for any deficiencies that the Bears have next season.
“We all smile when we talk about going into the offseason and [Trubisky and Nagy] spending more time together,” Pace said. “It’s not just the offensive system; it’s the chemistry with the players. That was all new last year, so it’s exciting to have that going forward.”
A long-term view
For the first time in Pace’s tenure, he has to be mindful of his spending because of what the future holds for his current players. And he doesn’t want to bungle the Bears’ books.
Center Cody Whitehair is in line for a contract extension this offseason, and the Bears eventually will pick up outside linebacker Leonard Floyd’s fifth-year option for 2020.
If all goes well, Jackson and running back Tarik Cohen will be looking at extensions after the 2019 season, too.
The Bears often design their contracts with affordable exits, but the team will eventually have to lock in Trubisky, too.
Long-term deals for quarterbacks — the most lucrative in the NFL — always change how teams operate from year to year. Right now, the Bears are fortunate to be a winning team with a quarterback on his rookie contract.
“You’re always talk about drafting and developing, and the best form of free agency is re-signing those players to contracts,” Pace said. “We are forecasting ahead with some of these guys coming down the pipeline that we’re going to need to extend at some point.
“That’s a good feeling because that means that we’ve drafted well, and I’ve said this before, it’s refreshing to look at the depth chart and not be overwhelmed by all the needs everywhere. Now we can pinpoint and tweak and fine-tune, and that’s exciting to do that with Matt.”