Bears general manager Ryan Pace makes free agency interesting just by being Ryan Pace. The GM who signed Mike Glennon to a $42 million contract and traded for Khalil Mack has proved he’s capable of anything.
So when it was reported early Tuesday that Pace had freed up $11 million in salary cap space by reworking Mack’s contract, the excitement on social media was palpable. Just what was Pace up to? Making room for a big play for a big-ticket item? Or just getting prepared for upcoming extensions for any of his blossoming young stars? Considering Pace’s history, the timing made the former the more likely than the latter.
Be that as it may, the fun of all the almost habitual/reflexive anticipation and excitement of free agency for the Bears this year is that — with the possible exception of a kicker — it’s not critical. Pace has gone from reaching to improve a bad roster in 2015 (Pernell McPhee, Antrel Rolle and Eddie Royal) to finding key pieces for a newly hired coach in 2018 (Trey Burton, Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel) to needing only to tweak the roster in 2019.
And he’s doing it with the wind at his back. The addition of Buster Skrine (three years, $16.5 million) to a top-three defense that arguably was the best in the NFL last season can have a bigger impact than adding McPhee (five years, $38.75 million) to a 31st-ranked defense in 2015.
Regardless of what happens in free agency, the Bears’ chances of taking the next step in the playoffs and winning the Super Bowl are predicated on growth from within:
1. Mitch Trubisky and the offense parlaying a foundation year in 2018 into a quantum leap in 2019 — with or without running back Jordan Howard. The storylines of better communication, improved chemistry, reacting instead of thinking and Trubisky’s ability to read the defense instead of setting the offense will be over-written and tiresome by training camp. But nobody the Bears add on offense is going to change that scenario.
2. The defense avoiding a significant drop-off — and potentially improving — in the transition from Vic Fangio to Chuck Pagano. Even without nickel back Bryce Callahan and safety Adrian Amos, the Bears still have 10 starters returning on defense. And that includes four 25-and-under players who should be better in 2019 no matter who is coaching them: linebacker Roquan Smith (22), safety Eddie Jackson (25), nose tackle Eddie Goldman (25) and defensive lineman Bilal Nichols (23 on Sept. 14).
Neither of those scenarios is a sure thing. But for the first time in several years, the chances of the Bears improving from within are greater than their need to do it through free agency, or the draft, for that matter. That puts free agency for the Bears in its proper place, as a complement to building through the draft.
The Bears’ most significant event in free agency so far is the loss of Callahan, who was rated among the best nickel cornerbacks in the NFL last season but missed the final three games and the playoff game against the Eagles with a broken foot.
The 27-year-old Callahan seemed like the one player the Bears might overpay to keep, despite his injury history. But as good as he was, he was replaceable in the Bears’ defense, at least in the short term. Sherrick McManis, whose lack of production as the starting nickel in 2015 opened the door for Callahan, was much better in Callahan’s stead with a better supporting cast — up until the final meaningful defensive play of the playoff game, when Golden Tate beat McManis for the winning touchdown.
Would Callahan have made that play? Hard to tell for sure. But overall, McManis’ play supported the argument that most of the pieces are in place. For the Bears — finally — free agency is for tweaking, not rebuilding.