NFL free agency is a calculated risk.
While it’s comforting, on some levels, to know the Chicago Bears currently have over $45 million in available salary-cap space (that includes Alshon Jeffery's $14.599 million franchise-tag fee), free agency is viewed as a short-term fix rather than a long-term solution.
That does not mean the Bears will sit by and do nothing to address the roster.
Expect the Bears to be active players when the league year begins at 3 p.m. CT on Wednesday, but every indication is the club does not want to spend all of its available cash, which is often easier said than done this time of the year when demand usually outweighs supply.
“We have a lot of needs, we have a lot of cap space. I think we just have to be mindful and strategic with what we do,” Bears general manager Ryan Pace said. "I feel really good on where we’re at right now as far as our preparation. Now it’s just a matter of being smart and calculated with how we approach it because, you know, free agency’s risky. We’ve got to be careful with this. There’s going to be certain positions that we’re going to be more aggressive at, but I think you’ve just got to be cautious in free agency because it’s a risky area.”
Pace has every reason to be cautious. Just look at recent history.
The Bears guaranteed $30.4 million last offseason -- Pace’s first year on the job -- to free agents Pernell McPhee, Eddie Royal and Antrel Rolle. Only McPhee made much of an impact, while Royal and Rolle battled through injury-plagued seasons.
Prior to Pace landing in Chicago, former general manager Phil Emery had to take an aggressive stance on free agency from 2012 to 2014, partly because the Bears drafted so poorly in the Lovie Smith era. Emery committed large sums of guaranteed money to several high-profile veterans, including: Jay Cutler ($54 million guaranteed), Jermon Bushrod ($22.465 million guaranteed vs. injury), Tim Jennings ($11.8 million guaranteed), Martellus Bennett ($5.125 million guaranteed), Jared Allen ($15.5 million guaranteed) and Brandon Marshall ($23 million in guarantees).
Of that group, Cutler is likely the only one to still be in Chicago in 2016 -- ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported the Bears are attempting to trade Bennett, who failed to receive an extension last offseason.
Dipping your toe in the free-agent waters is a necessary evil, but teams that consistently draft and develop young talent typically sustain success. That fact is not lost on Pace, who is still in the process of turning over at one time the oldest roster in the league.
If the Bears add a couple starters by the end of the week, great. But think of free agency as the opening act at a concert. The offseason headliner, for the Bears, is April’s draft. All you’re hoping for, in the interim, is to hear a couple decent songs before the main act takes the stage.
“You’ve got to be selective and cautious with [free agency],” Pace said. “We have a lot of needs right now. Our goal -- and I think a lot of successful franchises, we’ve talked about this before, if you’re drafting well, you don’t have to tread in this dangerous water as much as you would have to early on.”