This is a continuing series where we examine free agent classes three years later to evaluate their impact. Last year, we gave Ryan Pace’s 2015 free agent class a C- based off weak free agents, but solid additions through re-signings and UDFAs.
Did Pace improve in free agency during his second year as Chicago’s GM? Let’s start with the departures:
In order to replace someone, there needs to be a hole. Only significant players who signed with another team will be listed.
This one probably stung the hearts of Bears fans more than it impacted their 2016 season. Forte publicly stated that he was more than willing to take a pay cut, but Pace was clear from the get-go that Forte was not in the team’s long-term plans.
Forte signed with the Jets and shared time with a number of other backs before retiring. The heir apparent in Jeremy Langford proved to be a disaster, but a fifth-round draft pick in Jordan Howard proved to be more than capable of taking over as Chicago’s bell cow in 2016.
This one came as a real surprise considering his solid play and versatility on the line of scrimmage. The Bears technically filled this hole by drafting Cody Whitehair, but as we’ll see in the free agency section, Pace was one offseason miracle away from having this cut become a major mark on his record.
While he was no more than a role player on the defense, Jenkins was a solid run stopper in a 3-4 defense. He followed Forte to the Jets, but the Bears really didn’t do anything to improve the position. Jenkins was an odd player to let walk considering how affordable he was, but his absence in 2016 proved inconsequential overall.
A position change lead to more playing time and statistical production for McClellin in 2015, but the tape showed a linebacker who always seemed to be catching contact rather than delivering it. The Bears let the former first-round pick walk after four disappointing seasons. He won a ring with the Patriots, but he was no more than a special teamer and depth piece.
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.
Due to a number of injury-laden, albeit productive seasons, the Bears weren’t quite ready to reward Jeffery with a long term deal. Chicago opted for a prove-it deal in the form of the franchise tag. This proved to be a decisive year for Jeffery as another injury-filled season also included a PED suspension.
Pace allowed Jeffery to walk in free agency the following offseason. While Jeffrey has maintained production and added a Super Bowl ring, Pace has made it a point following the debacle of Ray McDonald (which was discussed in the 2015 edition) to create a very clear archetype of player he likes to add. Jeffery proved not to be within that model, but Pace did the right thing in buying time in 2016 with the franchise tag.
The special teams ace continued his exceptional work in 2015 and netted a two-year deal worth nearly three million in the offseason. McManis still continues to make big plays on special teams and filled in relatively well for an injured Bryce Callahan in the latter part of the season.
While certainly not the best receiver on the roster, Bellamy proved to be a physical presence on the field and an above-average contributor on special teams. He was an inexpensive re-sign who still provides solid value to the team.
After his breakout 2015 campaign, the Bears rewarded Miller with a two-year deal. Staying healthy always proved to be a struggle for the veteran tight end, but when Miller did manage to suit up, he provided his quarterback a security blanket. Moreover, Miller would manifest himself as a mentor for a young quarterback who entered the fold in 2017.
Free agent signings
When we graded the 2015 class, the biggest knock against Pace was how he let a number of his safeties walk without really replacing them in free agency or the draft. Pace learned his lesson from the year before and made sure not only to replace, but upgrade the linebacker position in free agency.
Trevathan brought a championship pedigree to Chicago’s defense as well as a bonafide signal caller to echo Vic Fangio’s calls. Despite missing 10 games in his first two seasons with the Bears, Trevathan has been worth every penny of his contract.
This looked to be a home run signing following the 2016 season. Freeman racked up 110 tackles with the Bears in 2016 and was considered by many to be a top-five inside linebacker heading into 2017. Unfortunately, a bicep tear followed by trouble with PEDs spelled an early end to Freeman’s career. Fortunately for Pace and the Bears, Freeman’s contract was a bargain. This was a solid evaluation of talent by Pace, but circumstances just didn’t work out.
Pace was bailed out to an extent by the Packers cutting Sitton right before the start of the year. The Bears lost starter Hroniss Grasu to a season-ending ACL tear, and as mentioned prior, Pace allowed Slauson to walk in free agency. Without the addition of Sitton, the Bears would have been starting a rookie in Cody Whitehair and a career backup in Ted Larson.
Pace had to pay a premium, but Sitton’s play was worth the price of admission in both 2016 and 2017. While there was certainly an element of luck involved, Pace deserves credit for always keeping the phone to his ear in an attempt to improve his team.
While Massie had a rough first year in Chicago, he developed into a solid NFL tackle. Perhaps more telling is that he’s netted two multi-year contracts from Pace. He was signed to a mid-level contract, and he’s provided mid-level performance in return.
In a league where many teams are struggling to secure solid tackles, Pace did a good job finding one and locking him up on an affordable deal. A forgotten portion of this signing is that Massie allowed Kyle Long to move back to his natural guard position.
Call us crazy, but we have a feeling you’ve heard this name before. Pace picked up the former Patriot on a two-year deal and was instantly rewarded with Pro-Bowl level play. Of course, it took a few seasons for the league to recognize that play, but those who watched Hicks in 2016 and 2017 know he was deserving of the honor way before this season. Obviously a home run signing by Pace.
Undrafted Free Agents
While he hasn’t played many snaps on offense, Braunecker has been a great special teams contributor throughout his tenure with the Bears. Pace’s ability to consistently find a few players like this in undrafted free agency each season is a major reason why the Bears boast one of the deepest rosters in the NFL.
This move took a while to materialize, but Pace stuck to his guns on a physically gifted player even though Robertson-Harris barely touched the field during his first two seasons. Even though he still only plays as a rotational player on Chicago’s defense, his ability to create explosive plays has paid dividends.
The growth from 2015’s free agent class to 2016 is incredible. Pace certainly proved himself to be a fast learner and added significant talent to the roster via free agency in his second year on the job. Most of the names on this list are recognizable for all the right reasons, which in free agency is absolutely incredible. Hard to find much fault with this class, even if it took a few years for it to translate into wins.
Overall Grade: B+
Overall, it was Pace’s best off season to date. I knew that the signing of Trevathan was brilliant. But have to admit, never expected Hicks to become such a dominant force and Massie a straight up reliable RT.
And to find the Harvard TE and R-Harris as UDFAs, was even better. You need depth at every position and players you can roll out if need be.
For all of Pace’s faults as a GM, he’s become a GM that has learned from his mistakes and is improving as a personnel evaluator.
I’ll stand by him to the end, just for being the only one that knew that piece of garbage Cutler, had to be dumped. And it took a lot of courage to gamble on Trubisky. And he may just be enough at QB, for the Bears to win a SB with this solid defense.