Takeaways from Bears' first strikes in free agency: Gains, but not without hard questions

John Mullin
NBC Sports Chicago

First, some questions in the wake of the Bears' successful targeting of Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Allen Robinson.

A year ago, would Robinson have chosen Chicago and the Bears in a free-agency marketplace willing to pay handsomely for No. 1 wide receivers? Irrespective of the torn ACL that would abort his season, would he have left Blake Bortles and what was forming up to be a Jaguars team good enough to reach the AFC Championship Game?

And would the Bears have been able to convince Alshon Jeffery to remain in Chicago with the kind of deal - three years, reportedly $25 million guaranteed in a package topping out at $42 million - that Robinson is expected to get? The Bears are willing to risk $14 million per season, $1 million more per year than Philadelphia gave Jeffery in his four-year extension, on a wide receiver coming off ACL surgery, but they weren't in for that kind of commitment on Jeffery.

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Dealing in hypotheticals isn't really productive, but it can be useful for evaluation purposes. But Robinson coming to terms with the Bears does present as a casual confirmation of what general manager Ryan Pace believed would be a more attractive Bears team with Mitch Trubisky under center and John Fox headed to TV, replaced by Matt Nagy.

Money is usually the ultimate determinant, but the fact is that Pace made successful sales pitches to two players - Robinson and Philadelphia Eagles backup tight end Trey Burton - coming out of the 2017 playoffs. A year ago he offered the money, but it wasn't enough to entice cornerbacks A.J. Bouye or Stephon Gilmore to Chicago.

Not that it means anything necessarily; Pace has typically gone for free agents from winning programs (including, for instance: Akiem Hicks, New Orleans and New England; Danny Trevathan, Denver; Pernell McPhee, Baltimore; Bobby Massie, Arizona; Mitch Unrein, Denver; Josh Sitton, Green Bay). And the Bears still have finished last in the NFC North in all three of Pace's years in charge.

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If there is one doubt point for Burton and Robinson it would be their records of durability. Robinson went down in Week 1 last year with the ACL tear, though he'd played all 16 games the previous two seasons. But he'd also missed the final six games of his rookie season in 2014 with a stress fracture of his foot.

Burton has missed just three games in his four years. For comparison purposes, McPhee had missed just four games in four Baltimore seasons, all in 2012, but he'd been a part-time player for the Ravens and broke down when he became a full-timer in Chicago. Burton played just 26.5 percent of the Eagles' offensive snaps in 2017, 29 percent in 2016, and only 69 total offensive snaps over his first two years, which were spent mostly on special teams.

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As the Bears moved into the maelstrom that is free agency, Pace is facing a level of pressure that realistically is above both the expectations placed on his coach, Nagy, and also the normal expectations that come with the job, any job, in the just-win-baby NFL. Pace predictably has focused on muscling up one of the NFL's worst offenses of 2017, with an intensified degree of urgency because of Nagy and his staff needing the personnel to form the support system giving Trubisky the best chance at being successful, and taking Pace, Nagy, the McCaskeys and everyone else associated with Halas Hall with him.

But teams that have built successfully through the draft have done so by avoiding the need to re-draft positions because of misses. And in free agency, needing to go back into the market for veteran shoring-up of the same position repeatedly is a sure way to financial issues as well as zero growth.

Pace and the Bears went aggressively into the early hours of pre-free agency for a wide receiver (Robinson) and a tight end (Burton). These expected additions came almost one year to the day after the Bears went aggressively into free agency for a wide receiver (Markus Wheaton) and a tight end (Dion Sims).

Not every repeat position-stocking was necessarily the result of a personnel mistake. But the effect is the same, whether from a straight-out mistake or mis-evaluation, or from misfortune. The Bears are in nothing short of desperate need for pass-rushing linebackers because McPhee and Willie Young have broken down, not true "mistakes," but an edge rusher is still the No. 1 draft need because of free agents that didn't work out.

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Securing weapons for Trubisky is an obvious prime directive for Pace and the Bears this offseason. And that ostensibly was happening with the Burton and Robinson negotiations.

But the weapon that determines everything is Trubisky. Period.

The Bears had Martellus Bennett, Matt Forte, Jeffery and a healthy Zach Miller around Jay Cutler in 2015 and finished 23rd in yardage and 21st in points scored. The problem was the quarterback. You couldn't even blame Dowell Loggains, who was still just the quarterbacks coach under coordinator Adam Gase.

As New England has been showing for the last 15 years, and Brett Favre before that, and Aaron Rodgers the last decade, and myriad others, the end game is still the centerpiece position, not the supporting cast.

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