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Slauson release puts pressure on Pace

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When Ryan Pace took over and began overhauling the roster to fit his culture, it was all good. But yesterday, Pace released a player that was very popular and respected. Is it still about the process?

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It's not exactly a secret that when general manager Ryan Pace and head coach John Fox settled into their respective jobs last January that the roster was in turmoil and the locker room in shambles.

Much of the roster was too old. There were a lot of players that were no longer scheme fits and the lack of accountability that was instilled by the previous regime made for a lot of cleaning up to do.

It's hard not to say that Pace and Fox did admirable job in year one. In fact, year one was the easy part.

Shipping off Brandon Marshall and eventually removing Jeremiah Ratliff from the team. Trading Jared Allen and Jonathan Bostic for anything you could get was smart.

Sure, there were difficult partings, such as Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman being let go, but they were also easy to swallow. Both players were well over 30 and appeared to have their bodies breaking down on them. This was a team in flux, in transition. The last thing they needed to do was to hold on to the glory days of season gone by. Giving up on Roberto Garza was tough to see after he played nearly a decade in the Windy City. But again, age was conspiring against him.

But year two is proving to be a much more difficult task.

It was easy to give Martellus Bennett the heave-ho. A player with contact demands who didn't mesh with the new minds was an easy trade. Jermon Bushrod was an easy cut given his age, salary, injury and relegation to back up. Matt Forte made sense too: Despite the player's history and contributions to the franchise, his age and salary demands were too much for a team moving in a new direction.

But yesterday came the news that Matt Slauson was let go. Slauson spent only three seasons with the Bears but had become a very popular player. Perhaps it was his Chicago-type blue collar mentality, complete with matching beard. Perhaps it was his lead-by-example type. Maybe it was the way he stepped into a bad OL situation and brought steady play with much less of the huge salary of Bushrod or the attention.

Whatever it was, Slauson was a Bears guy. One of those players that maybe doesn't get the national fanfare but just fits with a teams history and identity and fanbase. That was Slauson. Slauson fit that mold of midwestern OL blue-collar grit that fans have loved since Mark Bortz, Jimbo Covert and Jay Hilgenberg came along in the '80s.

I liked what Slauson brought to the locker room and playing field as much as the next fan but I was still surprised to see fans admitting that they were moved to tears by the news of his release.

This is where the rebuild gets kind of messy.

See, in year one it was much simpler for Pace to do his part and for fans to agree with it.

In year one it was pretty simple: Get rid of the aging players that are no longer scheme fits (Tillman, Briggs), get rid of the players that are disruptive or distractions (Marshall, Ratliff) and the players that aren't producing (Bostic, Allen).

So far this offseason Pace has continued that trend up until yesterday.

The Slauson release was the first that hit almost none of the previous arguments; age? He's only 30. Injury? He played 16 games last season, but there's rumors that maybe there's smoke there. Locker room issues? Not even close, he's been a leader in the locker room and in the community. Scheme fit? He played just fine in the same system that is being carried over.

So now we have a player that doesn't easily fit into these categories, but was still released. The word on the Twitterverse is that Pace and Co. like the athletic ability of some of their other guards, namely rookie Cody Whitehair and possibly free agent Ted Larsen. No one is saying that Slauson can't play anymore, but it also wasn't as easy to want to keep around a good locker room presence now that a better culture is in place and there are cheaper, younger and more athletic fits for that position.

This is where things can get dicey for Pace.

If Slauson goes elsewhere, wins a starting job and plays at his same level while Whitehair and Larsen struggle, he won't hear the end of it. Even if Whitehair ends up being a fine guard by year two or three.

No one is expecting the Bears to compete this year, so why cast off a perfectly good player because another one might be a slight upgrade but is far from a certainty?

By my count, the Bears have only three remaining free agent signings (does not count draft picks or UDFA signings) left from the previous regime: Josh Bellamy (waivers, 2014), Lamar Houston and Willie Young. The latter two could also be on the outs at some point in the near future as well following productive seasons.

The NFL is a cutthroat business, but unpopular moves such as this one, and to an extent Forte, won't endear Pace to the fans unless he gets great production from the players tabbed as their replacements.

In year two, Pace is moving into the unknown. He better be right.