Watching former Bears receiver Alshon Jeffery parade around on national television with the Lombardi Trophy, discussing the 73 yards and touchdown he caught in the big game that helped secure the first Eagles Super Bowl ever, was a stark reminder of a gamble gone wrong for Bears’ General Manager Ryan Pace.
It was barely a year ago that Alshon Jeffery made a bold promise while still a member of the Bears, “I guarantee you we’ll win the Super Bowl next year.” Jeffery was right, he just had to leave the Bears to do it.
Basing his decision on injury history, rather than elite production when healthy, Pace allowed Jeffery to leave to sign a one year deal with the Eagles worth $8.75 million guaranteed. The franchise tag value, which would have allowed an extra year for the Bears to either negotiate a deal with the star receiver or work out a trade if he was really set on leaving, would have been $15.682 million dollars. The Bears decided they were better off saving that money to invest in other positions, like quarterback, where Pace deemed Mike Glennon worthy of $18 million guaranteed dollars. Jeffery parlayed his one year contract into a four year contract, while playing 16 healthy games for the champions, meanwhile Glennon did not see another snap for the Bears after week four.
The decision to let Jeffery walk for nothing led to Bears fans getting treated to a year of watching their prized rookie quarterback Mitch Trubisky throwing to the likes of Markus Wheaton, Josh Bellamy and Dontrelle Inman. The running joke among fans and media was that “the Bears sure could use a guy like that Jeffery in Philadelphia” hilarious right?
Yet here we are, a year later, and the Bears stand on the cusp of making an identical mistake with another young player at a position where the Bears lack depth as it is. Kyle Fuller, coming off a career year, in which he recorded two interceptions and consistently shut down any number one receiving option teams threw at him, stands to make a lot of money this offseason. Will the Bears be the team to give it to him? They better be.
Alshon Jeffery should be a living, breathing reminder that in a league that allows you to retain your top talent on one year deals through the franchise tag, you cannot afford to gamble on young, top end talent leaving with no return. The similarities in the two situations are everywhere. A young player with injury history, but who has shown the ability to be elite when healthy, is going to be a free agent. The Bears have three options, negotiate a long-term deal, franchise tag the player, or let the player walk. A year removed from the Alshon decision it is obvious Pace made the wrong choice, and is now left scrambling to build a semi-respectable receiving corp out of anything more than spare pieces. Spare pieces that are only available because in the NFL, smart teams do not let their young talent hit the market.
To make the same mistake on Fuller just a year later would show that Pace is incapable of learning his lesson, a trait the often leads to GM’s losing their jobs. This will be the third offseason in a row where the Bears enter the free agency period with an enviable amount of cap space, nearly $41 million dollars worth, before expected cuts of high money players such as Pernell McPhee and Mike Glennon. This is the offseason where being conservative and saving that money, as Pace has done the past two off seasons would be inexcusable.
This is the year where Pace watched the Jacksonville Jaguars march all the way to AFC Championship game behind the power of their elite defense, that was led by the type of aggressive free agent signings that Pace has been skittish to make since taking over the Bears. As well as their elite young corner Jalen Ramsey, whom the Jags had drafted in the first round in 2016. Starting to get the idea? Pace’s commitment to the draft is admirable, and not the wrong way to build a roster, but elite free agent signings are part of the job description as well, and Pace repeatedly receives failing marks in that department.
The NFL is not a league where you can allow young talent to walk because you are afraid of paying them. Good teams win because they draft well, and then resign those players when the time comes. The Jaguars are a premium example of getting what you paid for. Pace missed his chance to strike on free agents last year, opting for cheap flyers on Prince Amukamara and Marcus Cooper, as opposed to elite talent like A.J. Bouye and Stephon Gilmore, both of whom played major roles on AFC Championship defenses, for the Jaguars and Patriots respectively.
The Bears chose a similar approach to replacing Jeffery, a series of small signings of unremarkable players and hoping for one to break out. The results once again showed you get what you pay for in the NFL, and the Bears have the money to pay for better, like Kyle Fuller. The days where Ryan Pace tries to get cute and save his money for guys he has “intuition” on and gets “fired up” about, as the rest of the league scratches their head and laughs, need to come to and end this offseason. Pay Kyle Fuller or pay the price.
The Bears have not had an elite cornerback since Charles Tillman left, last year they finally had one in Kyle Fuller. Fuller recorded two interceptions last year, and was among the most targeted players in the Bears secondary. It was considered the year that Kyle Fuller “resurrected his career”. With Amukamara set to hit free agency again, and Marcus Cooper being yet another Pace free agency miss, and with the Bears set to recoup millions of dollars through offseason cuts, the decision is all but made for Pace. A franchise tag for Fuller would cost around $16 million for the Bears, more than affordable for the once proud franchise.
If the Bears are going to ever return to any semblance of relevance, Pace needs to stop treating the huge amount of cap space he has ever year like the gold in Fort Knox, and open up the check book for players that will help the team win games this year. Patience has run out for Pace’s docile approach to free agency and fans are tired of it. There is no question that Pace’s job is on the line this year and moving forward, contract extension be damned.
Fans are sick of watching the Bears lose with cheap patch up options at key positions like receiver and defensive back, the fans deserve better, and the Bears have the resources to provide better. The time to win is now. The time to stop trying to outsmart the rest of the league with signings like Mike Glennon is now. The time to reward Kyle Fuller’s breakout year is now. To allow another bright young player such as Fuller to leave for nothing in return, would show that Ryan Pace is too caught up in his ballyhooed intuitions to put the winner on the field that Bears fans have been starving for for so long.