Offseason In Review: Chicago Bears

The Bears were a trendy playoff pick heading into the 2014 season, but a 5-11 finish was followed by the dismissal of both general manager Phil Emery and head coach Marc Trestman. Now, Chicago might be entering rebuilding mode, though they did use free agency to bring in several interesting players.

Notable signings:

There’s no doubting that Eddie Royal is a solid football player — he was excellent out of the slot for the Chargers last season, catching 72 passes for 778 yards and seven touchdowns. And while his $5MM annual salary isn’t all that exorbitant (although it’s higher than Julian Edelman, for example, and equal to that of Emmanuel Sanders), it’s pretty surprising that the Bears handed Royal $10MM in guarantees. That’s more than Torrey Smith, who is widely regarded as a superior pass-catcher, garnered, and it ranks 16th among all receivers (not counting rookie deals). It might seem like Royal has been around forever, but he just turned 29, so perhaps his relative youth helped him score this contract, but I have a hard time believing many other clubs would have agreed to this deal. Chicago must be certain that the Royal/Jay Cutler relationship is strong enough to post positive results over the next three years.

Making the Royal deal all the more surprising is the fact that he got more guaranteed money than the Bears’ true free agent prize, pass-rusher Pernell McPhee. It’s hard to even label McPhee with a position, as we’ve seen him get after the quarterback from all along the defensive line and several linebacker positions, and it will be interesting to see where new Chicago defensive coordinator Vic Fangio asks 26-year-old line up. It’s a little hard to believe that while his total contract is valued at nearly $40MM, McPhee was only able to secure $8.75MM in guarantees. That could have something to do with his relative lack of experience, as 2014 was the first season that he topped 600 snaps on defense. We’ve seen other defensive players leave Baltimore via free agency and tank before, but the Bears certainly have high hopes for McPhee, who ranked as the second-best 3-4 outside linebacker in the league, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

Elsewhere on the defensive side of the ball, the Bears added veteran safety Antrel Rolle, inking the former Giant to a three-year deal. Chicago ranked 29th in DVOA against the pass last season, running out the likes of Chris Conte for extended stretches of time. At age 32, Rolle probably isn’t the same player that he was during his early career in Arizona or his first few seasons in New York, but he should add a level of stability to Chicago’s back end that it hasn’t had in recent years. He’ll also act as a complement, and perhaps mentor, to second-year pro Brock Vereen, the projected starter at free safety.

Rolle wasn’t the only experienced defensive back signed by the Bears this offseason, as they also brought in cornerback Alan Ball, who spent the last two years in Jacksonville. He isn’t a star (PFF rated him as the No. 40 CB in ’14), but like Rolle, he’ll bring a level of competency a Chicago defense that sorely needs it. During the offseason, some around the league had said that the Bears’ defense was so poor last year that they might need 10 new starters (with Kyle Fuller being safe). Given the presence of Fuller and Tim Jennings, Ball won’t be on those new starters, but he will be an insurance option if something happens to the top two corners.

Outside of those four signings, the Bears didn’t do all that much in free agency. However, I was particularly impressed by new general manager Ryan Pace‘s use of the minimum salary benefit to bring in players who could contribute at a low cost. Sam Acho, for instance, could turn out to be a valuable addition, as the 26-year-old former Cardinal is capable of playing either inside or outside linebacker. Mason Foster, also only 26 years old, has four years experience as a starting middle linebacker. Will Montgomery ranked as the league’s 15th-best center per PFF last year despite playing less than 600 snaps. Those were my three favorite MSB additions, but it’s not impossible that players such as Jacquizz Rodgers, Tracy Porter, or Daniel Thomas could contribute something in 2015, as well. Pace was able to bring in a bevy of high-quality role players who won’t embarrass themselves if thrust into increased playing time, and did so while handing out less than $600K in guarantees.

Notable losses:

The Bears didn’t seem to make much of an effort to re-sign Stephen Paea, as the defensive lineman told reporters when he signed with Washington that he chose the nation’s capital over Dallas, Detroit, and Tampa, with no mention of Chicago. The 26-year-old graded as the No. 11 DT in the league according to PFF, and given that he’s earning just slightly more annually than Eddie Royal, I wonder if the Bears would have been wiser to spend that ~$5MM per year on Paea. Although he’s only played defensive tackle thus far in his career, the 6’1″, 300-pounder has the size to play 3-4 end (and it’s the role he’ll play in Washington).

Sentimentally, Chicago lost two of its most beloved defenders, linebacker Lance Briggs (who remains unsigned) and cornerback Charles Tillman (who joined the Panthers). Briggs, 34, played in only eight games last season but was the Bears’ third-best defender per PFF, while Tillman appeared in just two games before injuring his triceps. It makes sense that neither was retained given that the club is going younger on defense, but I wonder if Briggs might be an option later in training if Vic Fangio is unhappy with his crop of inside linebackers.

Another long-time Bear — center Roberto Garza — was released in April despite having signed a one-year extension in December. The pact was inked by the club’s regime, so it’s clear that Ryan Pace & Co. didn’t value Garza at the same level. Garza, 36, had been with the Bears since the 2005 season, playing 154 regular season contests (145 starts) during that stretch, primarily at center and right guard. Chicago also declined to bring back fellow center Brian De La Puente, who had a very successful season in ’14 during which he saw 501 snaps, mostly while filling in at center for Garza during the early portion of the year. De La Puente is only 30 years old and had to surprisingly accept a one-year deal for the minimum salary benefit last offseason, and he remains unsigned as of this writing.

Safety Chris Conte offered youth (he’s entering his age-26 season) and experience (more than 600 snaps in each of his first three seasons), but he’s dealt with shoulder injuries throughout his career and has produced at merely an average level. In 2014, Conte graded as the No. 63 safety among 87 qualifiers per PFF. He’d been better than that in the two seasons prior, but he’s always been in the middle of the pack relative to his peers. The Bears moved on, adding the veteran Antrel Rolle as a replacement, while Conte followed ex-Bears HC Lovie Smith to Tampa Bay.

Josh Morgan actually played a decent number of snaps while acting as Chicago’s third receiver last season, but the team added Kevin White in the draft and will hope that Marquess Wilson will take the next step and supplant Morgan, who signed with the Saints. The only notable departure who saw more than 400 snaps was inside linebacker D.J. Williams, who, at age 33 and having dealt with multiple injuries in recent years, might be nearing the end of his NFL run.


The Bears didn’t move around at all during the draft, but they did swing a trade near the beginning of the league year, shipping veteran receiver Brandon Marshall to the Jets. Marshall was among the NFL’s best receivers as recently as 2013, but last season saw him catch just 61 passes for 721 yards, and he missed the final three games with broken ribs. The 31-year-old was due a 2015 base salary of $7.5MM and scheduled to count $9.575MM against the cap.

Marshall’s 2015 salary was set to become guaranteed on the third day of the 2015 league year, so Chicago was forced to quickly make a deal to clear his that total. The club will carry $5.625MM in dead money this year as a result of the trade.

Draft picks:

  • 1-7: Kevin White, WR (West Virginia): Signed
  • 2-39: Eddie Goldman, DT (Florida State): Signed
  • 3-71: Hroniss Grasu, OL (Oregon): Signed
  • 4-106: Jeremy Langford, RB (Michigan State): Signed
  • 5-142: Adrian Amos, S (Penn State): Signed
  • 6-183: Tayo Fabuluje, T (TCU): Signed

Kevin White and Eddie Goldman, Chicago’s top two selections, will be counted on to start almost immediately, with White replacing the production of Brandon Marshall, and Goldman pushing Will Sutton for snaps at nose tackle. It remains to be seen how White will acclimate to the NFL; there’s no doubting his speed and/or raw ability, but some wonder if he’ll need some time to refine his game.

Hroniss Grassu, like Goldman, will have to compete for snaps with Will Montgomery, and the veteran probably has the edge here, though Grassu could also act as insurance at guard in case Matt Slauson suffers another injury. Jeremy Langford will join Ka’Deem Carey, Jacquizz Rodgers, and Daniel Thomas in the race to back up Matt Forte, and most think Langford has the most long-term value of that group.


Phil Emery‘s run as the Bears’ general manager — highlighted by the ill-advised seven-year extension handed to Jay Cutler — officially came to end in December, and the team fired head coach Marc Trestman on the same day. Though the duo had fielded a largely successful club in 2013, 2014 saw number of issues — discord among players, offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer throwing Cutler under the bus, failed signings such as Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston — come to the forefront, leading the pair to be ousted after only two years on the job.

To replace Emery, the Bears settled on former Saints executive Ryan Pace as their new GM after a search that saw Chicago meet with Chris Ballard of the Chiefs, Brian Gaine of the Dolphins, and Lake Dawson of the Titans. At 37, Pace becomes the youngest general manager in the league. It was fair to wonder if Pace would employ the same sort of contract structures in Chicago that often led the Saints to having little or no cap space, but given that Pace’s title was player personnel director, he probably doesn’t deserve blame for New Orleans’ cap woes.

Aside from the Broncos, the Bears interviewed the fewest candidates of any club searching for a new head coach. Chicago was one of only two teams who were replacing its general manager in addition to its HC, so it’s possible they wanted to have Pace in place before getting too deep into its coaching hunt. But it’s also conceivable the Bears simply got lucky, as just four days after Denver parted ways with John Fox, Chicago scooped him up, signing the 60-year-old to a four-year contract. Fox, entering his 14th season as an NFL head coach, will bring Adam Gase with him from Denver to head up the offense, while adding former 49ers DC Vic Fangio to lead the defense (and shift to a 3-4 scheme).

The one true black mark of Chicago’s offseason was the signing of defensive end Ray McDonald, who had already been in legal trouble twice (domestic violence and sexual assault) before joining the Bears. Financially, it was a no-risk signing for the club, but the optics could not have been worse. The public relations backlash only increased when McDonald was arrested again just two months after inking his contract, this time on charges of domestic violence and child endangerment. Chicago released McDonald almost immediately, but the reaction following the incident was clear — Pace had made the first big mistake of his tenure.

Top 10 cap hits for 2015:

  1. Jay Cutler, QB: $16,500,000
  2. Jared Allen, DE/OLB: $12,500,000
  3. Matt Forte, RB: $9,200,000
  4. Jermon Bushrod, LT: $8,050,000
  5. Lamarr Houston, DE/OLB: $6,990,000
  6. Pernell McPhee, OLB: $6,675,000
  7. Martellus Bennett, TE: $6,125,000
  8. Brandon Marshall, WR: $5,625,000 (dead money)
  9. Eddie Royal, WR: $5,500,000
  10. Tim Jennings, CB: $5,250,000

2014 will probably be something of a rebuilding year for the Bears. Turnarounds can happen quickly in the NFL, and given that Chicago hired a veteran coach in John Fox, it’s probably aiming to be in contention again in the very near future. But with three other solid teams in the division, it’s quite possible that the Bears are cellar-dwellers once again, barring vast improvement on the part of either Jay Cutler or the defense as a whole.

Contract information from Over the Cap and Spotrac was used in the creation of this post.

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