Column: The Chicago Bears need more from rank-and-file free agents. Robert Tonyan, Andrew Billings and D’Onta Foreman believe they can deliver.
The first wave of NFL free agency goes fast, and the majority of the big deals are wrapped up in the negotiating period, which leads to about two weeks of bargain shopping before teams reassess and turn focus to the draft.
The Chicago Bears didn’t skip a beat moving from bigger acquisitions such as linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards and guard Nate Davis to more modest additions such as tight end Robert Tonyan, nose tackle Andrew Billings and running back D’Onta Foreman, all of whom signed contracts Friday.
All figure to be in position to play meaningful roles. Tonyan offers a lot more as a receiver than last year’s No. 2 tight end Ryan Griffin did. Tonyan has the added benefit of knowing the offense as well as any outsider based on his time in Green Bay with offensive coordinator Luke Getsy.
Billings, who will earn $3.5 million on a one-year deal, projects as the starter in the base defense, a capable run stuffer that was necessary if the Bears hope Edmunds and Edwards will have a chance to shine.
Foreman is coming off a career-best season with the Carolina Panthers and enters a position room that needs to replace the 201 carries David Mongtomery had in 2022.
General manager Ryan Poles spent most of his time in free agency last year at the thrift store, and what turned into a 3-14 team pretty much got what it paid for. Fullback Khari Blasingame and wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown were re-signed after playing on one-year deals. They made modest contributions. None of the free agents the Bears had were home runs, and wide receiver Byron Pringle and defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad fizzled.
The Bears should get much more from newcomers this year. Edmunds and Edwards hope to lead a turnaround on defense. Davis is a solid addition for the interior of the line. The rank-and-file additions that follow — Tonyan, Billings and Foreman — need to be more effective for the team to fill key roles with more than replacement-level players.
It sounds as if Getsy did a good job selling Tonyan on how he would fit into what they’re doing.
“This offense goes through the tight ends, whether it’s blocking, passing, whatever,” Tonyan said Friday. “Cole’s a great tight end. He’s big, strong and I think that adding that — that can complement me and him. I’m super pumped. We didn’t really talk in super detail because it’s early, but I’m just excited to get in this building and get things rolling and just be a part of a team that’s ascending in the right direction.”
Billings, who started 14 games for the Las Vegas Raiders last season, is comfortable knowing he’s going to be asked to be a one-technique.
“That’s how I was introduced to the NFL when I played four years with the Bengals,” he said. “So it’s something I know I can do and I see myself fitting pretty well.”
Billings has a compact, powerful frame at 6-foot-1, 311 pounds, and while he’s not going to help a pass rush still in need of a total overhaul, he can push the pocket. One scout said he played with good foot quickness and lateral movement last season. He and DeMarcus Walker figure to be just the start of the makeover on the line that might need another offseason to complete.
For a running back who entered the league in 2017, Foreman is low mileage. He had a career-high 203 carries for 914 yards and five touchdowns, becoming the primary back in Carolina after Christian McCaffrey was traded. He is a physical, downhill runner at 6-1, 236, and the Bears could have a productive tandem with Khalil Herbert, especially considering the small investment — Foreman is on a one-year, $3 milliondeal.
Foreman hasn’t had a ton of work because of some bad injury fortune. He suffered a torn Achilles tendon as a rookie with the Houston Texans in 2017. In Indianapolis in 2019, he suffered a torn biceps. But he got 133 carries in Tennessee in 2021 and did even better with more opportunities for the Panthers.
“I can’t really speak for the coaches and the plan that they have,” Foreman said Friday. “I came here to try to be the guy. If I didn’t come here with that mentality, I would be doing myself a disservice. I think I would be doing the team a disservice. All due respect, humble confidence, not trying to make it seem like anything other than just exactly what it is. That’s just me being confident in myself and feeling like I could come in and be the guy and be a guy that people count on and I can help us win.
“I didn’t come here to take a back seat to anybody. I’m a team guy. I want to do anything I can do to help in any role that they put me in, but coming here with the mindset of wanting to be the guy, wanting to be a person who can help this team and make a lot of plays for this team. I know that’s my mentality and I plan on doing that.”
If Foreman and a few other of the smaller signings Poles makes in free agency can “be the guy,” it will add to a free-agent class with players expected to be the guy.