The Chicago Bears have signed five open-market veterans in free agency, including three inked just yesterday.
As we pointed out following the first week of free agency, GM Ryan Pace created one- or two-year opt-out options for Pernell McPhee, Eddie Royal and Antrel Rolle, with miniscule repercussions.
They may have signed multi-year deals but they are not necessarily multi-year investments.
These are “prove-it” deals in which the player must show his new team he’s worth a long-term contract.
This is a drastic change from the former regime, which threw caution to the wind by signing Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall and Jared Allen to long-term, cap-crippling contracts. Even with Marshall in New York, those three will count nearly $35 million toward the salary cap this year.
Let that sink in for a second.
In essence, Pace has been working with one hand tied behind his back due to the egregious contracts handed out by his predecessor.
Yet even with his arm in a sling, Pace has not only added talent to the roster but he’s done it a manner that may set the team up for long-term success.
The exact formula for compensatory picks in the NFL has never been made public – which is truly amazing considering the impact of those picks – yet the process by which those picks are awarded, at a basic level, isn’t hard to understand.
A simplistic explanation:
In free agency, teams lose their own players to other teams and, conversely, acquire athletes from other teams. If the total contract amount of players lost is higher than the total contracts of players signed, a team can be awarded compensatory picks.
Beyond that, we wind down a road of complicated legalese that takes into consideration whether or not players “qualify” for compensatory picks and how each loss and gain is weighted compared to each other.
For the most part, if you sign fewer players than you lose, you have an opportunity to acquire extra picks between Rounds 3-7 in the following year’s draft.
Most NFL teams would much rather invest in a young, cheap rookie than an overpaid veteran who is another team’s garbage.
If the Redskins are anything, they are a cautionary tale, in that spending sprees in free agency are Band Aids that provide no long-term stability.
Acquiring compensatory picks is a winning formula, a game very few NFL teams are willing to play. Yet if Pace continues his current strategy of short-term investments, the Bears have a very good chance of entering the compensatory sweepstakes.
On the current roster are 20 players whose contracts will be up after this season, including Matt Forte, Shea McClellin, Alshon Jeffery, Jay Ratliff, Ryan Mundy, Mason Foster, Ray McDonald, Jarvis Jenkins and Jimmy Clausen, all of whom will be roster-worthy in 2016.
If the Bears part ways with just these nine players and refrain from chasing aging veterans, there’s no reason they can’t come out on top in terms of total contracts. If that happens, they’ll be awarded at lease one late-round compensatory pick in 2017, and off they go.
In the compensatory game, getting your foot in the door is the hardest part. Once in, a smart GM like Ted Thompson can exploit the system to his team’s advantage.
With all of that said, the only way to have success using this strategy is to draft well. If you flush your draft picks down the toilet, compensatory picks are about as real to a team as the Easter Bunny, as a GM will have no option but to fill roster holes with free agents.
Consider this: the Bears drafted 19 players between 2009-2011. None are on the current roster. Three full drafts worth of players and not a single long-term option.
So is it surprising the Bears have made the playoffs just once since 2006?
So if the fundamental strategy of Chicago’s front office doesn’t change, neither will the results on the field.
Which is why Bears fans should be excited, not concerned, over Pace’s low-volume approach to free agency. If he can follow in the footsteps of Thompson and Ozzie Newsome, he can create long-term stability in the Windy City.
That’s something worth waiting for.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fifth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter.