If there is a knock against Ryan Pace throughout his first three years as Chicago’s GM, it’s been his less than flattering record in free agency. Is there validity to this claim, or is it an overblown narrative?
In order to replace someone, there needs to be a hole. Only significant players who signed with another team will be listed, so players like Lance Briggs and Roberto Garza will not be included.
The way in which players left doesn’t matter here as long as it took place within free agency.
Charles Tillman – The Bears were justified in letting Tillman walk after he missed 22 games in the previous two seasons combined. He went on to the Panthers where he had a strong run until experiencing another season-ending injury. Tillman’s departure left the Bears starving for help at corner.
Chris Conte – I apologize in advance for any painful memories that stem from reading this name. His Week 17 blunder will undoubtedly live on in infamy, but the Bears would find out that Conte created a lot of takeaways in the secondary. He was statistically the most consistent safety at creating turnovers in Chicago since Mike Brown, yes, that Mike Brown. Regardless of whether Conte gambled too much, the Bears certainly didn’t find upgrades at this position which we will address later.
Stephen Paea – This one was a bit curious. Paea had his best season in 2014 with six sacks and 33 tackles. However, Chicago didn’t like Paea’s chances of transitioning into a 3-4 and allowed him to walk. He signed with the Redskins early in free agency and his career fell off a cliff due to inconsistent play and injury. Maybe the Bears knew something everyone else didn’t, but they avoided paying Paea a lot of money to sit on IR.
Brandon Marshall – As has been tradition in Marshall’s career, he wears out his welcome quickly. Chicago proved to be no different as his cancerous presence in the locker room lead to a quick demise under the new coaching staff. Pace was able to squeeze a fifth-round pick out of the Jets which became Adrian Amos. Not awful for a player who would have been cut if a trade partner couldn’t be found.
A lot of these names needed to go, and I don’t think anyone envied the task Pace had ahead of him. However, Pace does deserve criticism for the safety spot. Not necessarily for releasing Conte as there were certainly ways to upgrade from him, but due to his utter failure to replace him.
While shedding dead weight is important, it’s equally critical to retain talent. Here are the significant players that Pace re-signed prior to the 2015 season.
Zach Miller – While his coming out party was in 2015, Miller was actually a Bear throughout all of 2014, albeit on the IR. Despite not catching a pass since the 2011 season, the Bears opted to hold on to the veteran tight end, and it paid significant dividends. Miller had his best season in 2015 and was a reliable target to each and every quarterback that took over under center throughout his tenure.
Sherrick McManis – While not the sexiest resigning, McManis has established himself as one of the best special teams players in the NFL. While Chicago’s special teams weren’t great in 2015 and 2016, one can imagine how bad they would have been without McManis in the picture. He doesn’t offer a ton of value at cornerback, but his aptitude as a special teams ace has been more than worth the price of admission.
Pace only kept six of his 23 pending free agents. I may be critical about Pace releasing Conte, but only three other players from that group of 23 still hold an NFL job. The fact that two of those players still reside in the Windy City is a credit to Pace’s eye for talent that he is close to. (The other player for those of you who are curious is Demontre Hurst who is currently with the Titans.)
Unfortunately, Pace’s talent evaluation for those away from his watchful eye has been far more suspect.
Free agent signings
Pernell McPhee – If this offseason has confirmed anything to Bears fans, it’s that top tier pass rushers don’t hit the open market. Unfortunately for Pace, 2015 was no different. However, he managed to net a young player with high upside and low mileage in McPhee. He was coming off a career season in Baltimore where he put up 7.5 sacks behind starters Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil. When McPhee was healthy, he made a huge impact on Chicago’s defense.
Unfortunately, McPhee’s rarely suited up at 100% during his time with the Bears. While it’s easy to blame Pace for McPhee failure in Chicago, he really didn’t have another option. The only other viable 3-4 OLB was Brandon Graham, and opted to stay in Philadelphia. Pace went out and got the best player available at a position of dire need, and he shouldn’t be faulted for that considering that’s exactly what many fans are begging him to do this offseason.
Antrel Rolle – Remember what I said about not replacing Conte’s playmaking ability at safety? Well, this was the guy who was supposed to do it. After signing a three-year, $11.25 million contract, Rolle played a total of seven games before getting injured and cut by the next offseason. When you get cut in favor of Chris Prosinski and Harold Jones-Quartey, that is really saying something. Perhaps even worse is that Pace failed to replace the very player he released, Conte, which is unacceptable in my eyes.
Eddie Royal – After performing well for John Fox in Denver, Royal was brought over to Chicago. Unfortunately, just like Fox, Royal left his winning ways with the Broncos. Whenever Royal managed to stay healthy, his play on the field left much to be desired. He missed 14 games in two seasons and he barely eclipsed 600 yards receiving during his tenure in Chicago. He was supposed to give Jay Cutler a reliable target in the slot, but all he did was cost the Bears $10 million over two seasons.
Ray McDonald – I’m not sure if there’s ever been a player who caused so much damage to a franchise and GM without playing a single snap. Pace took a gamble on McDonald who would provide an instant boost to the new 3-4 defense, but carried the baggage of two arrests (though charges were dropped on both occasions). Unfortunately, Pace’s gamble didn’t pay off, and McDonald found himself in the news with two more arrests within 72 hours of each other.
McDonald had no visible impact on the salary cap or on the field product, but he significantly altered Pace’s approach to signing and drafting players. Ever since the McDonald fiasco, Pace has stayed far away from players who have previous history with the law, opting for high character players. This could continue to manifest itself with players like Jarvis Landry and Arden Key who could fill gaps in Chicago’s roster, but may not be considered due to their legal history.
Sam Acho – Not the sexiest of signings, but Acho has certainly fit the mold of a “glue guy” for the Bears since being brought on prior to the 2015 season. He’s been a solid performer on special teams, and he’s filled in admirably at outside linebacker whenever his number has been called. Sure, four sacks in three years (25 total starts) isn’t great or even good, but he’s been exactly what you want out of a rotation OLB in a 3-4.
Tracy Porter – I’m sure you’re all ready for a ray of sunshine at this point, well… the best I can offer you is Tracy Porter. Out of all the 2015 signings, Porter far and away provided the best value. He signed for the veteran minimum in 2015 and wound up starting 13 games for the Bears in place of the hapless Alan Ball (we’d talk more about him, but I promised sunshine in this particular section). Despite being in the twilight of his career, Porter managed to reinvent himself in Vic Fangio’s defense and enjoyed mild success.
He doesn’t have flashy stats to back it up, but he more or less filled the hole that Tillman left. Porter will always live on in Chicago Bears history for his memorable performance against the Packers on Thanksgiving, but when he is the best free agent signing, there’s a problem.
Of these players, only two made it through the 2017 season, and if McPhee didn’t have so much guaranteed money in his deal, he wouldn’t have made it this far either. Sure, Porter and Acho provided the stop-gap solutions, but for the amount of money Pace doled out in 2015, he failed to net a single long-term starter for the future.
Undrafted free agents
Cameron Meredith – A diamond in the rough. Pace decided to pick up the athletic freak out of Illinois State and give him a shot at wide receiver. While he didn’t see the field much in 2015, Meredith has become Chicago’s number one receiver. As Pace has shown with his UDFA’s and late-round draft picks, he is always willing to take a flyer on an athlete who loves to play the game, and that model has helped him score many a good player (see Jordan Howard, Adrian Amos, and Tarik Cohen).
Bryce Callahan – While injuries have held him back at times, Callahan has proven to be one of the NFL’s better slot corners when healthy. He played his best football in 2017 by snagging two picks and receiving credit for six pass breakups. Another great pickup for Pace.
John Timu – Another glue guy, Timu is someone you love to have as depth, but not someone you would be overjoyed with seeing in the starting lineup. He has proven to be a solid backup and fairly competent in run support.
No one is questioning that Pace had a lot of work to do when he came to Chicago. He needed to fix a roster that was old and overpaid. Oh, and he also needed to help the team switch from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4.
However, not a single player who received a multi-year deal from Pace in 2015 was able to finish out their contract. While Pace’s approach to free agency didn’t hamstring the Bears with cap issues, it also didn’t reward the Bears with many if any impact players in the long run.
His undrafted free agents and re-signings were smart and beneficial to the Bears, but his inability to bring in contributors from the open market kept Chicago’s journey back to contention at a slow crawl.