After a wild opening week of free agency, Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Pace’s plan has become very apparent.
The opening of the new league year is always an exciting time for NFL fans but as Pace has highlighted multiple times this off-season, it can be dangerous waters.
In the opening days of free agency, we watched teams around the league throws hundreds of millions of guaranteed dollars at good but not great players. Defensive linemen Malik Jackson and Olivier Vernon headed that list with a combined $82.5 million guaranteed.
Yet Pace took a different route.
Before applying the franchise tag to receiver Alshon Jeffery, the Bears opened up free agency with the third most cap space in the NFL at a touch under $61 million. They have since spent $38 million of that, with $20.17 million going to ILB Danny Trevathan, OT Bobby Massie, DT Akiem Hicks and ILB Jerrell Freeman. The remaining bulk went to their own free agents.
Of the four outside free agents they have signed to date, the team has guaranteed just $29.5 million. Jackson - who signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars - landed $42 million guaranteed, which is more guaranteed money than all four of the Bears external free agents combined.
To take that a step further, Jackson’s average annual value flies in at a staggering $14.25 million, while the Bears’ top three defensive additions came in at a slightly higher $15.125 million combined.
Pace spoke from the onset about being smart with veteran acquisitions and specifically said they would not dive into the top-tier class of free agency. After just six days, it's clear he made the right decision, at least on paper.
Good NFL teams build through developing their own talent in the draft, while also having a good mix of smart free-agent acquisitions. Just look at the last three Super Bowl champions, who are proof of that philosophy.
The Bears and their general manager are moving into the second year of a full blown reboot. Last year was an evaluation process for the front office and coaching staff alike. They wiped the slate clean of players such as Brandon Marshall, Tim Jennings and Jordan Mills, while adding multiple one-year free agents on a tryout basis.
After a full season of evaluation, Pace has full reigns of the roster and has his top talent evaluators - Anthony “Champ” Kelly, Josh Lucas and Joe Douglas - firmly entrenched.
Pace is no stranger to cap troubles. His time in New Orleans was plagued with cap issues, especially in the latter part of his tenure with the Saints.
It appears he learned from the mistakes of his former general manager Mickey Loomis, while bringing in a top-notch Director of Pro Scouting like Kelly, who had his fair share of success with the Denver Broncos.
How has Pace continually found value in this 2016 free agency class? Let’s take a look.
As of Monday, the Bears have yet to sign a free agent over the age of 29.
Why is this important? It’s simple: the NFL is a young man's game.
Look back to the 2014 season when the Bears signed defensive end Jared Allen to a three-year deal. At the time, it seemed like a great idea to sign the 32-year-old - who was the NFL's active leader in career sacks - to a lucrative contract, but after one unproductive year, it proved costly.
Not only did Allen not live up to his contact, the team ended up being stuck with an $11.6 million cap hit the next year in a defensive system he didn’t fit. He was later traded to the Carolina Panthers and they received little financial relief from the poor decision.
The Bears have made their “living” off the free agent market over the past decade, mainly due to numerous poor drafts during that time period.
After depending on the free agent market for years, the collective age of the team skyrocketed to one of the oldest in the league and remained that way for many years.
Since the end of the Phil Emery era, the roster has seen a drastic change in philosophy, which has created a much younger team.
It’s not always easy to find young free agent talent and even if you do, it’s going to cost you.
Another common trend Bears fans have been seen over the past decade is the act of cutting multiple aging veterans with large dead money amounts, just to turn right back around and make the same mistake again.
Even if clubs are finding younger players on the free agent market with good skill sets, teams are usually paying dearly for it.
Look at Julius Peppers as a prime example. Former GM Jerry Angelo struck free agency gold by landing Peppers, who produced well for a handful of years. Yet the back-loaded contract put the Bears in a bind in the final years of his deal.
Emery eventually bit the bullet and took a $9 million dead cap hit and let Peppers hit the streets. Emery somehow continued that ugly trend with the addition of Allen, a contract that burned the team almost immediately.
Under the new regime, Pace’s marquee signing last year was OLB Pernell McPhee, who in today’s market can be classified as a bargain.
McPhee signed a 5-year, $38 million deal but the big pull in his contract was the low amount of guaranteed money: $8.75 million.
Why is a lower guarantee so important?
To put it simply, it’s less of a commitment for a team and allows them a painless exit strategy if that player doesn't work out.
Looking at this year’s signings, Pace has been able to keep guarantees well under the 50 percent mark, which will allow the team great flexibility down the road.
Allowing Full Flexibility In the Draft
Drafting based on need instead of adding the best player available (BPA) usually gets teams into trouble. Obviously going BPA is somewhat subjective in terms of certain positions, but not being forced to draft a certain position high in the draft, or even at all, usually results in better overall draft classes.
Forcing certain positions to fit in the early rounds of the draft was something the Bears struggled with for years.
Last year, Pace used the BPA strategy and the team produced one of its most successful draft hauls in recent memory.
By filling needs at linebacker, offensive line and defensive line in free agency, Pace has no glaring holes on the roster and can again go BPA in next month’s draft.
Not even a week into free agency, the secondary market is in full effect. There is still great value out there and the Bears still have multiple needs they can address before the draft rolls around.
They also still have roughly $20 million in cap space left, with much more flexibility that can be used within their own roster.
With that unused space, they can add another multi-year deal or two, coupled with even more one-year prove-it contracts.
Pace has done a great job so far of maneuvering through the dangerous waters of free agency and if he can continue to do so, he will have the Bears in prime position to land even better long-term talent in the upcoming draft.