What a difference a year makes.
At this time last year, the Chicago Bears’ big free agency signings were short-term, shot-in-the-dark types that fit the mindset of the leadership at the time. A risk-averse quarterback to replace Jay Cutler. An in-line, block-first tight end to support the running game. Possession receivers who had brief moments of brilliance with their original teams. Veteran defensive backs to supplement a young secondary.
Things are different this time around, and this 180-degree turn from that tier of players is probably not a coincidence. A proven WR1 who is still in his prime. A quick-twitch speed receiver with a knack for big plays. A tight end who earned an expanded role in an offense based on what he did in a similar system. Quarterbacks familiar with the system and willing to assume a mentor role.
Even on the defensive side, the Bears retained two players who were successful in last year’s scheme and took a shot on one who was successful under Vic Fangio.
Things are starting to fall into place. The Bears are better today than they were on Monday.
- You can even hear it in GM Ryan Pace’s voice. Pace said he feels there is a “different vibe” in the room this year as compared to last, writes Patrick Finley of the Chicago Sun-Times. Pace doesn’t sound like a general manager who has suffered through a 14-34 run as he enters Year 4. Instead, Pace’s words carry a tone of someone re-energized by the start of a brand-new project. Perhaps being able to spend $57 million in guarantees for Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, and Trey Burton factors into it as well.
- JJ Stankevitz of NBC Sports Chicago senses the change, too. There are too many clear differences in the way the Bears attacked the market, how they spent their cap dollars, and with the type of players they targeted to default to the “same old Bears” kind of thought. None of this guarantees these players will pan out and the team will go on to bigger, better, and championship-caliber things. But Pace is positioning the team to grow into something more than what they were last year – which was basically John Fox’s last stand.
- Matt Nagy is starting to garner some sort of rock star status early in his head coaching career, which is a bit surprising for a first-year coach. But as Adam Jahns of the Chicago Sun-Times points out, Nagy’s presence mattered in the signings of several of these free agents. Gabriel encouraged fans to look up the Chiefs offense on YouTube, because of the unit’s creativity. Robinson also took note of how Kansas City’s offense performed while Nagy was the OC. Daniel noted his personal relationship with Nagy as a factor for signing. Money talks, obviously. But personality goes a long way to secure things too.
- Even cornerback Prince Amukamara felt it: “There’s just something about here that felt like home,” Amukamara said on a teleconference, via the Chicago Tribune. Amukamara was one of the one-year “prove it” contracts Pace signed last year and he essentially turned that into a three-year extension. It was telling that Amukamara told his agent he didn’t want to hear from any team other than Chicago. And that he wanted to finish what he started in Chicago tells me something about his drive to do his part in replicating a top-10 finish for the defense in 2018.
- You can add new edge defender Aaron Lynch who felt coming to Chicago was a draw because of the atmosphere created by the coaching staff. It’s good that this kind of vibe (as Pace put it) is applicable on both sides of the ball:
New Bears OLB Aaron Lynch on playing for Vic Fangio again: "He’s somebody you want to impress. … Vic has that type of respect and gives off that type of vibe, where you want to go out there and do your best because you’re going to get your best from your coach."
— Colleen Kane (@ChiTribKane) March 16, 2018
- Over at Bleacher Nation, I’m reminded that Brett shared a story that went into detail explaining how the Cubs tug at the heart strings with personal relationships and going beyond the surface to connect with a player. And while baseball and football are two different animals, there is some weight to this. Remember how cold and indifferent the Marc Trestman era was? Remember how quickly Trestman lost the locker room because he couldn’t connect with players? While it’s easy to think of Nagy as the anti-John Fox, Nagy is more the anti-Trestman with how he goes about cultivating bonds and relationships. Hopefully, it translates into wins.
- Robinson and Sammy Watkins were the two best wide receivers on the free agent market and both were on the receiving ends of pretty big paydays. But which one is better? The debate is just starting:
Who is the better free agent WR signing: Allen Robinson or Sammy Watkins?
— NFL Network (@nflnetwork) March 14, 2018
- Allen Robinson signed a three-year deal with the Bears and will be just 27 when he reaches free agency after the end of the contract. But that isn’t stopping him from thinking big picture and beyond 2020. During his introductory press conference in Chicago, Robinson told reporters he was in it for the long haul: “This is not just a three-year for me. In my mind, I want to retire a Chicago Bear.” That’s quite a statement for a 24-year-old to make, but perhaps Robinson is truly sold on Mitch Trubisky’s upside, Matt Nagy’s coaching ability, and a supporting cast that is head-and-shoulders better than what was on the field in 2017.
- While the Bears brought in Cody Parkey to be their new kicker and retained punter Pat O’Donnell, the team is still in search of a long snapper. The Oakland Raiders signed Andrew DePaola, who served in that capacity in Chicago last season. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reports DePaola’s four-year, $4.27 million deal includes $875,000 guaranteed and makes him the league’s highest-paid long snapper. Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune believes that re-signing Patrick Scales is still a possibility.
- It didn’t take long for one member of the ill-fated free agent class of 2017 to start making their rounds to other teams. NFL Network insider Ian Rapoport tweets that the Seattle Seahawks are bringing in Markus Wheaton for a visit. No Bears player was bit harder by the injury bug than Wheaton, who had an emergency appendectomy, broken finger, and mid-season groin injury that limited him to three catches in 2017. Seattle is undergoing a rebuild of sorts after losing tight end Jimmy Graham to Green Bay and wide receiver Paul Richardson to Washington.
- Seattle also whiffed on the opportunity to bring in Jordy Nelson, who passed on joining the Seahawks to sign with the Oakland Raiders. Nelson received a two-year deal worth $15 million to join Jon Gruden and a revamped Raiders squad. Former Packers teammate James Jones says the Packers low-balled Nelson. “I’m not going to say what they offered him, but they really, really low-balled him. It wasn’t even anything you would consider. Even with all that, he was still considering taking it.”