DL Stacy McGee, Raiders – Bears GM Ryan Pace’s best free agency find so far has been defensive linemen Akiem Hicks. He had been a rotation d-lineman and hadn’t yet established himself as a starting-caliber player. The Bears rolled the dice on Hick’s potential and now they have a borderline Pro Bowl defensive end on an affordable contract.
McGee has similar potential both as a player and an under market-value contract. The former 6th round pick out of Oklahoma had only started nine games in his first three years as a Raider, but earned a starting gig last year and was the Raiders most effective interior linemen and sack leader through the first five weeks of 2016.
Injuries (ankle, groin) caused McGee to miss seven games and limited his effectiveness when he did play, but during the first five weeks of the season, he proved that he can be a disruptive force against both the run and pass. At 6’3, 310 pounds, McGee has both the size and quickness to play the 5-tech or slide inside to the 3-tech when the Bears play an even front.
His scheme versatility, potential to provide a pass rush from the interior, and untapped potential could give Pace another starter on the defensive line for the price of a rotational player. McGee looked like a beast through the first five weeks of 2016 with 2.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. Adding McGee to Eddie Goldman and Hicks could give the Bears a potentially dominant defensive line (if they can stay healthy) and give them some insurance if last year’s 3rd round pick Jonathan Bullard doesn’t pan out.
Adding another injury-prone defensive linemen to a group that already has trouble staying on the field is risky, but McGee’s injuries last year should keep his price down. The 27-year old defensive end has flashed the ability to be a disruptive starter at multiple positions and could be a steal if the Bears can sign him for around $3M per season.
Predicted contract: 3 years, $10.5M
OLB John Simon, Texans – The former Big 10 Defensive Player of the Year in 2012 racked up 20. 5 sacks and 42 tackles for loss with Ohio St and was a two-time team captain. Despite the elite production level in college, his lack of height (6’1, 257) dropped him to the 4th round of the draft.
Simon was released by the Ravens his rookie year and was snatched up by the Texans, where he’s been a valuable reserve pass rusher. His role has grown every season and he’s shown the versatility to fill in all over the front seven.
Simon started seven games in 2015 for an injured Jadeveon Clowney and had five sacks. He earned five more starts early in 2016 and continued to produce with 3.5 sacks, but a chest injury cut Simon’s season short.
He does lack ideal length for an edge rusher but has good speed (4.62) and surprising power (benches over 500 pounds). Simon’s best weapon may be his motor; while he doesn’t win many battles with his mediocre burst off the line, his combination of strength and relentless pursuit of the ball carrier has been effective.
With 8.5 sacks over his last 12 starts and 26 pressures in just 205 snaps last season, the pass rush skills are there and Simon is also an effective run defender. He has the strength to set a hard edge on running plays and will chase the ball through the whistle. His primary weakness (besides height) is in coverage, where he looks stiff but hasn’t been a liability.
The Bears have a solid group of edge rushers, but both Leonard Floyd and Pernell McPhee have had trouble staying healthy and Willie Young is on the wrong side of 30. Lamarr Houston and his hefty salary could be released and free agent Sam Acho has been ineffective. The Bears could use depth off the edge and Simon is only 26, so his best football may be ahead of him.
With everyone healthy, Simon could be used as a pass rush specialist but he has the all-around skills to play every down if needed. If he gets a consistent chance to start, Simon has double-digit sack potential while providing a solid presence against the run.
Simon is certainly an upgrade over Sam Acho and his versatility would allow him to fill in wherever needed if the Bears are plagued by injuries again. His lack of name recognition and season-ending injury last year could keep his price reasonable and as the saying goes, teams can never have enough pass rushers.
Predicted contract: 4 years, $12M
S Jairus Byrd, Saints – A third safety? Ha, no chance the Bears sign all three safeties on this list, but if they add one of the more expensive options above then they may go to the bargain bin for a veteran like Byrd.
GM Ryan Pace has a little history with Byrd, as he was the Saints Director of Player Personnel back in 2014 when they signed Bryd to one of the richest free agent contracts for a safety. The signing turned out to be a total bust with Byrd blowing out his knee just four games into a six-year, $54M deal.
Before his disastrous stint with the Saints, Bryd was one of the best safeties in football with three Pro Bowl appearances and 22 interceptions in his first five years in the league. He’s never come close to that type of production with the Saints.
Bryd’s knee injury kept him out for most of 2014 and complications from the surgery sapped his effectiveness for 2015, but Bryd is coming off his best season with the Saints. After being benched in week four, Bryd bounced back to earn a spot in the safety rotation and finished the year with 82 tackles and two interceptions.
His dad, Gil Byrd, is the new secondary coach for the Bills, so that is probably where Jairus ends up but if not he may be a solid, cost-effective addition to the Bears beleaguered safety group. A “make-good” short term contract and a chance to rebuild his value could be tempting for Byrd. Even if he’s no longer a Pro Bowl player at age 30, he’s still most likely better than Chris Prosinski and Harold Jones-Quartey.
Predicted contract: 2 years, $4M