After a conservative start to free agency, are there any impact players left for GM Ryan Pace and the Bears to sign?
Despite having more cap space than all but a couple of NFL teams, it was an underwhelming start to free agency for the Bears. With rumors swirling about the Bears going after the top cornerbacks, safeties, and right tackles on the market, fans were looking forward to some impact signings.
Instead, the Bears got a quarterback that no one except me seems to like, a veteran safety (which they needed), two 2nd-tier cornerbacks, a blocking tight end, a swing tackle, a backup nose tackle, and two slot wide receivers coming off disappointing seasons. Underwhelming seems like the right term for the nine new additions in free agency.
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That being said, the Bears are a better team than they were before free agency opened. Yes, they lost Alshon Jeffery, but I’m pretty sure his two touchdown receptions last year are replaceable somehow. Don’t get me wrong, I expected the Bears to add some impact players as well, but the free agent period isn’t over. There are still some potential upgrades available and there will also be plenty of competent veterans released due to salary cap concerns over the next few months.
There is time left in free agency, but are there any impact players left unsigned? I think there are at least a few and have listed them below in order of preference. The Bears have roughly $24.5M remaining in cap room, plus an additional $12M if Eddie Royal and Lamarr Houston are released.
They still have plenty of resources available to sign a few of the players listed below. If there is anyone I missed, please let me know in the comments.
Best Available Free Agents:
CB Ross Cockrell, Steelers (6’0 | 191 | 25) RFA – I wrote about Cockrell in my original predictions but there has been surprisingly little action around the 25-year-old, who was the Steelers #1 corner the second half of last season.
The Bears haven’t signed any restricted free agents since Ryan Pace took over as GM, but they did try to sign TE Josh Hill from the Saints last year despite his restricted designation. The Bears made an aggressive offer to solidify the tight end position, but the Saints ultimately decided to match.
There is another restricted free agent available this year at a position of need who was given the “original round” tender that Pace and the Bears could target. Besides fellow corner and restricted free agent Malcolm Butler, Steelers corner Ross Cockrell is arguably the next best corner still available on the free-agent market.
Cockrell is a former 4th round pick in 2014, so would cost the Bears a future 4th rounder of which they have two this year. Pittsburgh’s lack of commitment to Cockrell is surprising as he not only started every game as an outside corner, but often shadowed the opposing team’s best wide receiver and led Pittsburgh in pass deflections with 14. It’s possible they are working on a long-term deal that would be escalated by another team bidding on Cockrell, but opening the door to other teams (like the Bears) with just an original round tender certainly increases the risk they could lose him.
The questions for the Bears are whether Cockrell is worth enough of a cap investment to keep Pittsburgh from matching and if he’s worth losing one of their two fourth-round picks?
Cockrell is only 25 with 23 starts already in his three-year career. He has ideal length (6’0) and speed (4.44) but lacks bulk at just 191 pounds. Cockrell earned a starting role halfway through the 2015 season based at least partly on his ability to cover Antonio Brown in practice.
Coming out of the draft, most analyst’s (myself included) considered Cockrell a sub-package corner, but he’s played on the outside for the Steelers since moving into the starting lineup mid-2015. In 2016 Cockrell was the team’s #1 corner, often drawing responsibility to cover the opponent’s best receiver and usually holding his own. Cockrell’s best game last year was holding Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green to just two catches for 36 yards in week two.
He only has two interceptions the last two seasons, but Cockrell showed good ball skills in college with a Duke record 12 interceptions and 41 pass breakups. So far with the Steelers, Cockrell has 25 pass breakups in 23 starts.
He has the length to jump with big receivers, enough speed to stay with just about anyone, and the ball skills to force turnovers. The biggest knock on Cockrell has to do with his thin frame. He lacks the strength to be an effective press corner and isn’t much of a factor in run support.
The Bears currently have three legitimate starting candidates at cornerback in Tracy Porter, Prince Amukamara, and Marcus Cooper, but right now Cockrell is not only the youngest, but was the best player of the four last season.
A starting corner combo of Cockrell and Cooper on the outside and Callahan and LeBlanc on the inside would give the Bears a young defensive back group with the upside to be one of the better units in the NFL over the next few seasons. They would have solid depth as well with veterans Porter, Amukamara, Kyle Fuller (maybe), and recently re-signed Johnathan Banks.
It’s possible this is all useless speculation due to the Steelers matching any offer on Cockrell, but if the Bears have a chance to get a young potential #1 corner for the cost of an extra 4th round pick, they should make Pittsburgh an offer it would be hard for them to match.
The potential addition of Cockrell and a rookie or two from one of the strongest cornerback groups in recent draft history would create competition all over the defensive backfield and hopefully result in a much better secondary for the Bears in 2017.