CHICAGO – A year ago, the Bears made a big splash by diving wallet-first into the free agent pool.
This year, they seem to be snoozing by the poolside.
As teams around the NFL spent millions to sign veteran free agents and first-round draft picks Wednesday, the Bears proceeded with caution. They made no significant moves on the second day of free agent negotiations, with signings formally set to start at 5 p.m. Friday.
The Bears’ only moves were to sign a pair of late-round draft picks: Quarterback Nathan Enderle, a fifth-round pick, and linebacker J.T. Thomas, a sixth-round pick, each agreed to four-year deals.
Meanwhile, the team’s veteran free agents waited for the next move.
Those players included center Olin Kreutz, who has been a staple of the Bears’ offensive line for the past 13 seasons. In addition to the Bears’ interest in re-signing Kreutz, the NFL Network reported that the San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals had interest in him.
Kreutz’s agent, Mark Bartelstein, has said his client preferred to remain with the Bears.
“There’s nothing I can really give you on Olin right now,” Bartelstein said Wednesday. “Obviously, we’re involved in a lot of stuff with him, and we’re working through it.”
As Bears general manager Jerry Angelo and his front-office staff sized up the market, players under contract started to head south to Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais.
Training camp does not officially open until Friday, but players were allowed to arrive to their dormitory rooms starting Wednesday. No media members will be allowed on site until Friday.
The list of arrivals included all five of the Bears’ rookie draft picks along with quarterback Jay Cutler, safety Chris Harris and many other veterans, according to the team’s website.
Bears defensive tackle Henry Melton updated his Twitter page after he arrived in Bourbonnais.
“Back with some of the guys y’all aren’t ready for us this year,” Melton said.
The training camp presence of each of the Bears’ draft picks would seem to indicate imminent deals for those who remain unsigned. First-round pick Gabe Carimi, second-round pick Stephen Paea and third-round pick Chris Conte were allowed to report to training camp before signing contracts as part of the league’s transition rules following a 136-day lockout.
Paea showed a sense of humor after arriving at his first NFL training camp.
“First day at the dorms, 4th floor [with] no elevator, and it’s hot,” Paea wrote. “This is what football camp is all about. #GOTTALOVEIT #DABEARS”
The Bears’ lack of activity in the first 48 hours of free-agent negotiations might not have grabbed headlines, but it could pay off with bargain deals in the next few days.
Teams such as the Carolina Panthers, Washington Redskins and San Diego Chargers moved aggressively to bolster their rosters soon after negotiations began. The Panthers reportedly agreed to a six-year, $72 million deal to re-sign defensive end Charles Johnson, while the Chargers made Eric Weddle the richest safety in NFL history with a five-year, $40 million deal.
By allowing other teams to spend big money first, the Bears might be able to pluck a few veteran free agents who were not caught up in the first wave of signings.
One possibility is wide receiver Roy Williams, who was told Tuesday by the Dallas Cowboys that he would be released. He enjoyed his best season in Detroit under Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz and played for Bears wide receivers coach Darryl Drake as a college standout with the Texas Longhorns.
For a day, however, the Bears settled for signing a couple of rookies.
“I felt relieved,” Enderle told the Bears’ website after signing his contract in Bourbonnais. “It’s been a hectic few days. I’m just excited to be here.”
Soon enough, some veteran free agents will join him.