Bears’ free-agent fishing hasn’t done much for their present or future

It has been a particularly frustrating shutout at wide receiver, where the Bears badly needed help.

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Bears wide receiver N’Keal Harry warms up during training camp.

Bears wide receiver N’Keal Harry warms up during training camp.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The Bears had no intention of making big splashes in free agency last offseason. They were headed the other way, in fact, and wanted to unload some of their pricier players to make space for future plans.

So general manager Ryan Poles went fishing. He signed 19 players in free agency, including bringing back safety DeAndre Houston-Carson, and traded a seventh-round pick for wide receiver N’Keal Harry. Of those 20 players, 16 are on one-year contracts and three of the two-year signees could be cut with minimal impact on the 2023 salary cap.

The outlier is defensive tackle Justin Jones, whom Poles picked up for two years and $12 million when the Larry Ogunjobi deal fell through. With everyone else, Poles was hoping to strike gold on someone the rest of the NFL overlooked or undervalued, and none of them has made a concrete case to return next season.

Linebacker Nicholas Morrow, wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown and offensive tackle Riley Reiff have played the best, but Morrow isn’t the playmaker they’ll need on the weak side next season, St. Brown isn’t enough of a threat and Reiff is 34.

Poles came up particularly empty at wide receiver, which remains a major concern. 

St. Brown has the best numbers at 18 catches for 300 yards and a touchdown, followed by Dante Pettis at 17 catches for 226 yards and three touchdowns. There are 135 players with more than 300 receiving yards this season.

The Bears had high hopes for Harry and Byron Pringle, but both have been injured and ineffective. Pringle got $4.1 million — a relative splurge — but has missed six games and has only nine catches, 130 yards and two touchdowns.

Pringle got that money coming off a career year with the Chiefs in which he racked up 568 yards and five touchdowns on 42 catches, but that production seems to have been mostly a result of playing with Patrick Mahomes.

With Darnell Mooney, Chase Claypool and St. Brown out against the Bills on Saturday, Pringle played 86% of the snaps, but quarterback Justin Fields targeted him only two times.

He didn’t throw to Harry at all.

Harry was a first-round pick in 2019, so it’s easy to understand Poles’ curiosity. But if the Patriots couldn’t develop him, the odds were against anyone else doing so. Harry got hurt early in training camp and missed the first six games, and the Bears added Claypool shortly after his return.

Harry has had opportunities nonetheless, but he has been a healthy scratch sometimes and has only five catches (on six targets) for 93 yards and a touchdown. His 6-4, 225-pound build and some of his acrobatic catches are enticing, but it’s telling that he didn’t see one pass in 28 snaps against the Bills.

Among the other more expensive pickups by the Bears in the offseason, center Lucas Patrick played seven games and is out for the season, defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad has one sack and hasn’t started since Week 9 and Morrow has been dependable.

Patrick and Muhammad signed two-year contracts, but their small guarantees would allow the Bears to save $3.9 million in cap space by cutting Patrick and $4 million by parting with Muhammad.

Morrow, who is on a one-year, $3 million deal, has played almost every defensive snap and leads the team with 103 tackles, but the Bears are likely to move forward with Jack Sanborn at middle linebacker and look for someone more disruptive at weak-side linebacker.

The Bears would absorb only $500,000 in a dead-cap hit for releasing backup quarterback Trevor Siemian, which would be sensible. They’d be better served following the Ravens’ example by developing a backup who plays similarly to Fields.

It doesn’t matter much this season anyway because the Bears were unlikely to be competitive, but Poles inherited a roster riddled with holes and needs to fill most of them before next season. Finding even a couple of long-term answers from this group would’ve accelerated his rebuild.

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