Trusting Bears general manager Ryan Pace’s projection for an NFL wide receiver over Saints coach Sean Payton’s should create an uneasy feeling everywhere but New Orleans.
The Big Uneasy, if you will.
Sorry, but Pace hiring a smart head coach and signing a solid free-agent class hardly erases all the doubt he earned during his first three seasons, when the Bears went 14-34. Those weren’t someone else’s Bears. They were Pace’s as much as former coach John Fox’s.
But giddy Pace supporters can resume their party in the general manager’s honor after Wednesday’s brief reality check to examine why the Bears allowed another wide receiver to leave town without receiving anything in return.
Somewhere, Alshon Jeffery giggles.
The Bears declined to match the Saints’ 2-year, $9.6 million offer sheet with $5.4 million in guarantees to wide receiver Cameron Meredith, a rising player who led the team in receptions and yards in 2016, but missed last season with torn ligaments in his left knee.
Before we even approach the football component of the debate – whether Meredith can rebound from the injury effectively enough to become a reliable possession receiver again – the harder truth to accept is Pace put the Bears in position to lose a 25-year-old asset for nothing by being overly frugal. Saving a little money wasn’t worth the possible reputation cost for a GM lucky enough to be spared his job in January when the Bears fired Fox.
The Bears tendered Meredith, an undrafted free agent from Illinois State in 2015, at the low level of $1.9 million. Because Meredith wasn’t drafted, the Bears weren’t eligible to receive compensation if they declined to match any offer. The Saints and the Ravens felt good enough about Meredith’s health to extend offers.
Pace could have avoided all this by tendering Meredith at a higher level for $1 million more, paying him $2.9 million and guaranteeing the Bears a second-round draft pick from any team that signed him to an offer sheet. For a measly $1 million, a Bears team with $24 million of salary-cap space could have stopped the Saints from poaching a roster lacking wide receivers of a versatile 6-foot-3, 207-pound pass catcher.
For context, the Bears guaranteed wide receiver Markus Wheaton $6 million last year. Wheaton caught three passes in 2017.
Several sources have stressed Pace decided not to match the Saints’ offer primarily because of concerns over Meredith’s left knee. The Bears trust the medical evaluation of their doctors as much as the Saints do theirs. The Ravens do, too, for that matter. If Meredith never sees the field in 2018 or returns much less than the receiver he was, then everyone will look back at Pace’s decision Wednesday as prescient and at critics’ skepticism as unfair.
But it seems incongruous that Pace would guarantee $25 million to free-agent wide receiver Allen Robinson – who’s also coming off a torn ACL – but lack the foresight to fork over $1 million to keep Meredith in the fold in case he fully recovers, too.
No two knee injuries are alike, but it boggles the mind how the Bears and the Saints – the team that employs Pace and the one that taught him how to be an NFL executive – differ so greatly in their Meredith prognosis. Perhaps it would be easier to see the Bears’ logic if the Saints weren’t the team believing in Meredith’s ability to become a legitimate threat in an NFL offense.
It’s like someone giving a restaurant a chance because a highly regarded food critic gave it a good review. When a reputable offensive innovator like Payton identifies something in a wide receiver he thinks can flourish in the Saints offense, the opinion tends to carry a little more weight. This isn’t like losing a staredown to the Jets.
Once Meredith gets over any disappointment over leaving his hometown team, he likely will get excited about the possibilities of playing with a future Hall of Fame quarterback in Drew Brees on a team that truly wanted him. A college quarterback at Illinois State, Meredith successfully had adapted to life as an NFL wide receiver, learning how to separate from defenders and running more exact routes Brees should come to appreciate. Meredith’s high character fits in any locker room.
The ultimate irony comes in where Pace’s decision leaves the Bears at wide receiver, needing to depend on a player whose injuries have labeled him undependable: Kevin White. Prepare for all the upcoming organizational rhetoric about White by Googling all the hopeful preseason stories from any of the previous three seasons, using keywords “brittle” or “bust” for the truest ones. Chicago has heard it before when it comes to the seventh overall pick of the 2015 NFL draft, so everyone should stop listening until White starts producing.
The Bears improved their passing game by hiring coach Matt Nagy and signing receivers Robinson and Taylor Gabriel, as well as tight end Trey Burton – great moves. Now they will need to draft a wide receiver who’s ready to contribute, more of a necessity after Pace allowed a potential No. 2 wide receiver to leave town.
History says they can count on White for nothing.
But as the Bears proved in letting Meredith go for nothing, just like Jeffery in free agency, history’s voice doesn’t always carry at Halas Hall.