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Bears likely to avoid big­gest names, go for smarter in­vest­ments

Chicago Sun-Times - - BEARS BEAT - PA­TRICK FIN­LEY Fol­low me on Twit­ter @patrick­fin­ley. Email: pfin­ley@sun­times. com

Gen­eral man­ager Ryan Pace’s over­haul of the Bears de­fense last year— af­ter they’d posted the two worst sea­sons in fran­chise his­tory— had all the sub­tlety of a jack­ham­mer. He traded lineback­ers Jared Allen and Jon Bos­tic, cut de­fen­sive line­man Jeremiah Ratliff and cor­ner­back Tim Jen­nings and al­lowed one­time stars Lance Briggs and Charles Till­man to leave.

If free agents Shea McClellin and Sher­rick McMa­nis sign else­where this off­sea­son, the Bears will have one de­fen­sive player left who played a down in 2013: line­man Cor­nelius Wash­ing­ton. He par­tic­i­pated in one de­fen­sive snap last year.

“That’s what they do with new teams, like when I was in Oak­land,’’ out­side linebacker La­marr Hous­ton said. ‘‘ They bomb it.’’

The Bears’ de­for­esta­tion is nearly com­plete. Now comes the harder part: find­ing af­ford­able tal­ent in free agency to sup­port strong draft classes. Mon­day marks the first day of freeagent ne­go­ti­a­tions, though noth­ing can be made of­fi­cial un­til Wed­nes­day.

The Bears still need tal­ent to play along­side out­side linebacker Per­nell McPhee, cor­ner­back Kyle Fuller and two rook­ies: nose tackle Ed­die Gold­man and safety Adrian Amos.

‘‘ It’s no mys­tery we had a lot of younger play­ers play on de­fense this year, and ex­ten­sively,’’ coach John Fox said. ‘‘ The thing that some­times I think peo­ple get lost about is the im­prove­ment of that player from a fresh­man to a sopho­more, from Year 1 to Year 2, whether it’s in a par­tic­u­lar sys­tem or just in NFL foot­ball and how to view NFL of­fenses.’’

Pace gam­bled with one- year con­tracts last year and had more hits— cor­ner­back Tracy Porter and de­fen­sive end Jarvis Jenk­ins among them— than misses.

Co­or­di­na­tor Vic Fan­gio was able to quickly in­cor­po­rate veter­ans into his 3- 4 de­fense. To­ward the end of the sea­son, though, Fan­gio said he would have liked to run a more com­pli­cated scheme but didn’t want to rush the de­vel­op­ment curve in his first year.

With an­other sea­son un­der play­ers’ belts, Fan­gio’s op­tions will be­come more ex­otic. Adding play­mak­ers would al­low him to gam­ble more.

Pace, it fig­ures, would pre­fer not to have to patch his de­fense with so many one- year veter­ans each sea­son.

The Bears’ hope is that, af­ter build­ing the ros­ter for an­other year or two, he won’t have to.

Here’s a look at the Bears’ de­fen­sive break­down:

2015 de­fen­sive rank­ings: To­tal: 14. Scor­ing: 20. 2015 Pro Bowl play­ers: None. No­table free agents: In­side linebacker Shea McClellin, cor­ner­back Tracy Porter, de­fen­sive end Jarvis Jenk­ins, de­fen­sive end Mitch Un­rein, out­side linebacker Sam Acho, safety Ryan Mundy, cor­ner­back Sher­rick McMa­nis, safety Chris Prosin­ski, cor­ner­back Alan Ball, safety Sher­rod Martin, linebacker LaRoy Reynolds ( re­stricted).

Top five salary- cap hits for 2016: Out­side linebacker Per­nell McPhee ($ 7.675 mil­lion), out­side linebacker La­marr Hous­ton ($ 6.99 mil­lion), out­side linebacker Wil­lie Young ($ 3.167 mil­lion), safety An­trel Rolle ($ 2.719 mil­lion), cor­ner­back Kyle Fuller ($ 2.642 mil­lion)

Draft picks on ros­ter: Six — safety Adrian Amos and nose tackle Ed­die Gold­man ( 2015); Fuller, de­fen­sive end

Ego Fer­gu­son and de­fen­sive end Will Sut­ton ( 2014); and de­fen­sive end Cor­nelius-Wash­ing­ton ( 2013).

Pace has laid out the dan­gers of play­ing at the high- stakes ta­ble when free agency be­gins. A bad con­tract could cost the Bears dearly, for years.

He knows the Bears, com­ing off a six- win sea­son, aren’t one huge sign­ing away from a Su­per Bowl and there­fore don’t need to gam­ble as much as they need to make steady de­ci­sions to build the team on good foot­ing.

The odds, then, point to Pace try­ing to land two or three play­ers atop the se­cond tier of avail­able de­fen­sive play­ers.

In his fa­vor: Pace has a lot of room to work, both in terms of money and op­por­tu­nity. The Bears have about $ 45 mil­lion in cap space, not count­ing money al­lo­cated to draftees, and start­ing jobs to dan­gle.

For the se­cond straight sea­son, the Bears could use a tal­ent upgrade at al­most ev­ery de­fen­sive po­si­tion group. With Jenk­ins and Un­rein en­ter­ing free agency, they don’t have an ob­vi­ous starter at ei­ther de­fen­sive end po­si­tion.

If Porter signs else­where, they’ll need a start­ing cor­ner­back. The Bears could walk away from Rolle with lit­tle penalty, too, if they find a bet­ter safety on the mar­ket.

Ev­ery team is look­ing for edge rush­ers, even if the Bears have three veter­ans— McPhee, Young and Hous­ton— who were solid last sea­son.

Re­gard­less of whether McClellin re­turns, the Bears seem likely to sign two oth­ers who can com­pete to start at in­side linebacker. Bron­cos in­side linebacker Danny Tre­vathan, who played for Fox, seems as good a fit as the Bears could hope for— as­sum­ing the price is right. Re­mem­ber, the Bears fin­ished the sea­son with two un­drafted free agents, John Timu and Chris­tian Jones, start­ing there.

‘‘ Shea, we feel like his ar­row is still point­ing up, es­pe­cially at the in­side linebacker po­si­tion,’’ Pace said. ‘‘ I thought our de­fen­sive coaches did a great job with him. It’s a de­ci­sion we’re go­ing to have to make.’’

What are they look­ing for in free- agent de­fend­ers?

Fox listed three qual­i­ties— ‘‘ team speed,’’ ‘‘ ath­leti­cism’’ and ‘‘ ex­plo­sion’’— that, while vague, un­der­score that the Bears have a marked skill de­fi­ciency.

They can’t make that up with one good week. But they hope that, by push­ing in their chips on two or three se­cond- tier de­fend­ers, they limit their risk and im­prove at the same time.

Pace em­ployed the same tac­tic last sea­son, with mixed re­sults. McPhee ap­pears to be a fan­tas­tic in­vest­ment, while Rolle strug­gled with in­juries for the first time since 2007.

With more money to spend, the stakes are higher now. Just don’t ex­pect the Bears to dou­ble down on their bets quite yet.

| JEFF HAYNES/ AP

Out­side linebacker Per­nell McPhee was a good choice for the Bears a year ago, and gen­eral man­ager Ryan Pace will be look­ing for sim­i­lar scores this week.

Vic Fan­gio

| TI­MOTHY A. CLARY/ GETTY IM­AGES

Danny Tre­vathan, cel­e­brat­ing dur­ing Su­per Bowl 50 last month, has a strong re­la­tion­ship with Bears coach John Fox and is a po­ten­tial ad­di­tion.

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