The 2015 season has provided yet another new look for the Chicago Bears, which all started with the hire of first-year general manager Ryan Pace. Closely following Pace was new head coach John Fox and within the week the new coaching staff was filled, all headlined by defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and offensive coordinator Adam Gase. After minimal time to evaluate the roster, Pace and Fox formed their plan and began their process of execution.
The Friday before free agency began, the news most Bears fans didn't want to hear broke: Brandon Marshall has been traded. Marshall is going into the first year of his new three year, $30-million extension and will now be playing that contract out with the Jets. His season ended on a rough note with a set of broken ribs and a collapsed lung, and he finished with fewer than 1,000 yards for the first time in eight seasons.
Although Marshall’s production fell off and he’s going into his age-30 season, he was simply not seen as a good match for the new regime. Fox said he wants his player’s main focus to be football and winning. Marshall stated many times prior that football is his platform and not his purpose. The fact Pace was able to stand his ground and receive a 2015 mid-round draft pick for the beloved Marshall was an impressive feat.
Overall, the trade is a win-win for both sides. Marshall gets to play in New York with more freedom and the Bears are able to grab a higher draft pick in this year’s draft and saved $3.95 million in cap space. Days later, Mike Wallace was traded for the same exact return.
OLB Pernell McPhee - Five Years/ $38.75 million ($15.5 million guaranteed)
One day before free agency opened, Pace struck by signing former Ravens outside linebacker Pernell McPhee. In 2014, the 26-year-old totaled 7.5 sacks, 21 hits, 35 hurries and was Pro Football Focus’ (PFF) second-rated 3-4 outside linebacker in just 540 regular season snaps. The former fifth-round pick was ranked second in PFF’s Pass Rushing Productivity (14.4), behind only the Chiefs' Justin Houston. He played both outside linebacker and 5-technique (3-4 defensive end) in his time with Baltimore. He provides the exact versatility Fangio required from his pass rushers in San Francisco.
At 280 pounds, McPhee will line up opposite Lamarr Houston but both are projected to play at 5-technique and 7-technique (4-3 defensive end) pending the front being used. He was one of the top-rated 3-4 pass rushers on the market and was obtained at fair-market value, as seen in Brian Orakpo’s four year, $32-million deal and Jerry Hughes’ five year, $45-million deal. It’s also important to note, much like Houston last year, McPhee’s contract is essentially a two-year deal if it does not work out.
It was said that it would take a “creative coordinator” to get the most out of McPhee and Fangio should be able to do just that.
SS Antrel Rolle - Three Years/ $11.25 million ($4.9 million guaranteed)
It didn’t take long for Pace to strike with his second free-agent move just a day into the new league year with the signing of 32-year-old former pro-bowler Antrel Rolle. On the surface this looks like a risky thee-year deal but it’s worth noting that the $4.9 million guarantee is paid out in year-one. If the team chooses to keep him after the first year, he will have cap hits of just more than $3 million on average through 2016 and 2017.
Rolle struggled in coverage in 2014 with the Giants as a free safety. PFF rated him 81st of 87 safeties but he did play better than those numbers suggest. The prior year at strong safety, he was rated the 9th best safety with a +8.0 grade. The veteran is also lauded for his leadership and will provide much-needed stability in what was once an out-of-control locker room.
Although PFF was not a big fan of Rolle, the former eighth overall pick still had 87 tackles and three interceptions in 2014.
Judging by the safety market that has developed since, with contracts such as Da’Norris Searcy’s 4 year, $23.75-million pact or Ron Parker’s 5 year, $25-million deal, Rolle came at a more-than-fair price.
WR Eddie Royal - Three Years/$15 million ($10 million guaranteed)
Out with one of Jay Cutler’s former Broncos targets and in with another was apparently Pace's plan. Eddie Royal is coming off a two-year stretch in which he totaled more than 1,300 yards and 15 touchdowns with the Chargers. The 28-year-old’s best year came his rookie campaign under Cutler in 2008 when he had 91 receptions, 980 yards and five touchdowns.
On top of Royal’s contributions as a receiver, particularly in the slot, he can also help in the return game. At this point in his career he may be more of a situational punt returner and third receiver but he provides a speed threat in the slot the Bears have lacked the past few years. Royal will not replace Marshall’s productivity or presence but can serve as a reliable slot target.
Although his contract was slightly rich and his guaranteed money was higher than preferred, Royal's deal is an affordable two-year pact with a third-year option.
OL Vladimir Ducasse - One Year/$825,000 ($40,000 guaranteed)
The former second-round pick is on his third team in five years. Still viewed as a project, the 27-year-old appears better suited at guard. Barring a breakthrough, Ducasse looks like nothing more than camp competition with upside.
LS Thomas Gafford - One Year/$950,000 ($150,000 guaranteed)
Gafford is a welcomed addition after the transition year following Patrick Mannelly’s retirement. The 32-year-old has played full seasons each of the past six years and has worked under former Bears special teams coach Dave Toub since 2013. Going into free agency, the Bears were the only team without a long snapper on their roster.
QB Jimmy Clausen - One Year/$1.12 million ($262,500 guaranteed)
TE Zach Miller - One Year/$660,000
TE Dante Rosario - One Year/ Terms Not Disclosed.
After Pace struck with his first three signings, he has been quiet and calculated since. While some fans may be bored with the lack of movement, it’s obvious he has a plan and will not panic to make a Jared-Allen-like signing. With right around $15 million in cap space, $6 million of that will go to the draft, which will ultimately leave the Bears with closer to $9 million in spending space. Phase II of free agency is in full-effect, so expect to see the method to Pace’s madness come full-circle within the coming weeks leading into the draft, and again after the veterans are cut following the draft.
OVERALL GRADE: C+
Aaron Leming has years of salary cap knowledge and has written for Rant Sports, Bears Draft On Tap, and Cover 32. He is a regular contributor to Bear Report and Bear Report Magazine.