CHICAGO — The Bears entered the offseason with a mission of continuity and they stayed true to their word. Despite losing Adrian Amos and Bryce Callahan, the Bears will return 20 of 22 starters from a team that won the NFC North.
But just because the Bears are bringing back most of a squad that won a division title, it doesn’t mean they didn’t have places to improve upon. Here are the Bears’ biggest winners and losers after a hectic first week of free agency.
Winner: Chris Tabor
To say last year’s Bears struggled on special teams would be an understatement. While a dominant defense and opportunistic offense paved the way, it was the third phase (No. 26 overall in Football Outsiders’ DVOA) dragging behind only hoping to catch up. The Bears’ first few moves of free agency proved they’re on a mission to bring their special teams up to task if they’re to compete for a Super Bowl. That sound you hear is music to the ears of special teams coordinator Chris Tabor.
The elephant in the room was always kicker Cody Parkey. After missing 11 attempts in 2018, including a fateful shot cementing a playoff exit to the Eagles, the Bears officially released the veteran. The Bears will have to eat the roughly $4 million in salary cap space that Parkey’s owed from a sizable free agent contract. Finding more stability and creating competition at kicker for a contending team as early as possible takes precedence over temporary financial hits.
It’s debatable how valuable kick returns are in a league where over 56 percent of all kickoffs end up being touchbacks. But even on the limited opportunities teams receive, it’s best to make something of nothing. A good team never turns down a chance at improved field position.
In 2018, the Bears ranked a paltry 30th in the NFL in kick return yards. The length of their average kick return was last in the league. In terms of putting themselves behind the eight-ball, the Bears were unparalleled.
Enter Cordarrelle Patterson, one of pro football’s preeminent kick returners over the last decade and the Bears’ newly acquired primary kick returner. The 28-year-old is coming off a season where he was No. 3 overall in length of kickoff return at 28.8. A season where he was one of the most underrated weapons on a Super Bowl champion in the Patriots. A kickoff return touchdown Patterson scored against the Bears at Soldier Field last October is equivalent to the one total the Bears have scored since Devin Hester left after 2013.
The Bears have missing this extra element for awhile. A hunch says the dynamic Patterson, who maintained he has reached out to the legendary Hester, is a safe bet to turn their fortunes.
“Every chance I get with the ball in my hands, I try to make an explosive play,” Patterson said at his introductory press conference. “It doesn’t matter where they line me up, I just want to go out and make a play for my team.”
Loser: Jordan Howard
It’s no secret the Bears are seeking other more versatile non-Howard options at running back this off-season. Howard himself has rightfully taken less than kindly to the proceedings over social media, as evidenced by an Instagram post early last week. Chicago’s successful search for a multi-faceted back could mean the difference between an elite offense and one that’s merely good. Signing former Seahawk Mike Davis, a player who is talented but has featured in an extremely limited capacity over the first few years of his career, is another definitive sign the Bears are moving in a different long term direction. You don’t hand out two-year contracts worth $6 million to players with 234 career carries like Davis if you’re satisfied with your situation.
As for Davis and his Bears involvement, it’s difficult to project what a veteran with so small of a playing sample size brings to the table. However, even in a limited role, Davis caught 34 passes with Seattle last year and proved to be a more natural receiver. There’s all the evidence you need as to how the 26-year-old fits into Matt Nagy’s offense.
“A running back that can do everything,” Davis said of his skill-set. “Can catch, run, make guys miss, pass protect. I’m here to do it all.”
Winner: A motion for depth
Some championship contending teams turn out to be too top-heavy, too reliant on their best players always having to save the day. If the Bears are going to be a consistent factor every January the way they feel they can be, they’ll have to adequately fill out the bottom parts of their roster. They had a solid start along those lines in free agency.
First came the addition of interior offensive lineman Ted Larsen on a one-year, $930,000 deal.
Larsen had previously spent the 2016 season with the Bears before featuring for the Dolphins the last two years. He clearly won over general manager Ryan Pace enough to bring back him into the fold at a crucial but underrated position. Larsen can play all three positions on the interior of the offensive line and has significant experience at each slot over the course of his nine-year career. He’ll act as the Bears’ primary interior backup to Cody Whitehair, James Daniels, and Kyle Long.
Not to be outdone, the diminutive but explosive Marvin Hall brings his electric capabilities to Chicago. The former Falcon signed a one-year deal with the Bears betting on high upside. While the 25-year-old should primarily play special teams as the departing Josh Bellamy’s replacement, don’t overlook his potential offensive contributions. Every time the 5-foot-10 wideout was pressed in due to injury in Atlanta, he came up with an explosive play, averaging 14.9 yards a catch.
For the time being, Hall will competently make his hay on special teams in Chicago. That is until the speedy receiver’s streaking past an unfortunate defender, showcasing upgraded Bears depth in the process.