Quietly, general manager Ryan Pace and the Chicago Bears have become big winners of the early free agency period.
The Bears haven’t made many splash moves, and veteran Matt Forte—the team’s heart and soul for over a half-decade—departed Chicago for the New York Jets. But winning free agency doesn’t always mean spending the most money or acquiring the biggest names.
Through the first week, Chicago has re-signed cornerback Tracy Porter and tight end Zach Miller and lured four likely starters to the Windy City without breaking the bank.
Pace fixed the Bears’ biggest weakness, signing linebackers Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman to man the middle of Vic Fangio’s 3-4 defense. In San Francisco, Fangio once built a championship-quality defense on the foundation of Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman at inside linebacker. Trevathan and Freeman aren’t Willis and Bowman, but they now represent one of the better 3-4 inside linebacker duos in the NFL.
The two are also a huge upgrade on what Chicago had at the position to start free agency.
The quarterback of Denver’s Super Bowl defense, Trevathan is an ideal modern linebacker—with speed to range sideline-to-sideline and playmaking ability against both the run and pass. Freeman has been rock solid in the middle of the Colts defense for the last four seasons. Together, the two only cost a combined $36.5 million.
The Bears added more help on Sunday, signing Akiem Hicks away from the New England Patriots on a bargain two-year deal. A huge defensive lineman with strength and length, Hicks will slot in up front to help keep blockers off Trevathan and Freeman behind him.
Pace also made a move on offense. Needing to move Kyle Long back to guard, the Bears signed former Arizona Cardinals tackle Bobby Massie on a three-deal with less than $7 million guaranteed. His arrival should kick Long back inside, with Massie the front-runner to start at right tackle.
The Bears can now attack the draft to take more steps forward, especially along the defensive line—where the 2016 class looks strong.
Pace inherited a hurting roster from Phil Emery and Marc Trestman last offseason. Slowly, but surely, he’s trimmed the fat and helped the Bears improve at numerous positions, using all the tools at his disposal. The rebuild has more work to do, but credit the second-year general manager for wisely utilizing free agency for the second straight season. While adding Trevathan, Freeman, Hicks and Massie hasn’t demanded many big headlines, the Bears are clearly better today than they were before the market opened.