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Navigating through “land mines”: Finding “value” in Ryan Pace and John Fox at the Scouting Combine

The men in charge of the Bears’ rebuild spoke prior to this year’s Combine. There’s a lot to unpack and “value” to find.

Bears general manager Ryan Pace
USA Today

As one of the primary evaluation tools of NFL teams - for better or worse - the annual Scouting Combine also acts as precursor to the new league year and a haven of hope on the dawn of free agency and the draft. Everyone has money to spend. Everyone is doing their homework on each and every available asset from rookies to star veterans coming free on the open market.

If the Chicago Bears are to truly right the ship from a 9-23 start in the first two years of general manager Ryan Pace’s regime, they have to make the most of every possible niche. Next week’s initial free agency wave has to be a slam dunk. The draft - needs another circa 2016 crop that featured promising players in Leonard Floyd, Jordan Howard, and Cody Whitehair among others. There are no room for mistakes or excuses now.

Prior to this year’s annual scouting frenzy at the Combine, Pace and Bears head coach John Fox offered up more of a look on their own evaluation process, the situation concerning Alshon Jeffery, potential free agency plans, and more. All of this of course followed their press conference in advance of the entire offseason on January 4th.

Pace made note of a lack of specific transparency commenting that he’ll be able to shed more light on what’s to come soon.

“A little over a week now, I’ll be able to answer questions more directly with you guys,” said Pace of his negotiating dilemma in divulging too much too soon publicly.

For now, let’s resort to a Bears Rosetta Stone in searching for meaning and curious comments from the two Chicago leaders on what’s on the horizon at Halas Hall.

On free agency risks

Pace: “Free agency is dangerous. You’re stepping through land mines and you’ve got to be careful you don’t step on the wrong one.”

Fox: “The two years we’ve been here, we’ve done a lot of erasing. Part of that has been a little bit to get more youthful and a little bit to get better. And so as I mentioned earlier, we’re in good position from a monetary standpoint, not that we’re going to build through free agency, because we believe the right way to build is through the draft.”

“But last year, getting a guy like Akiem Hicks and Jerrell Freeman, some of the people we got in free agency, they improved us. We need to do that again this offseason.”

Pace: “You can always recover from the player you didn’t sign. You can’t recover from the player you signed at the wrong price.”

Clearly, while Pace maintained he can’t get into too many specifics, he paints a Bears’ current mindset for the Wild West of free agency.

  • For one, he’s apprehensive about overspending. A “land mine” is an over-sought or overrated player blowing up in the Bears’ face. That’s probably why reports surfaced that Chicago is primarily targeting more proven veteran Buffalo Bills cornerback, Stephon Gilmore, in free agency, as opposed to the Houston TexansA.J. Bouye. Bouye had a breakout season in a contract year in 2016 but also poses risk as to whether he can keep his play up moving forward. There’s a fear of buyer’s remorse with players like Bouye that may not be worth the hefty price tag an influenced market will drive.

What’s the takeaway in relation to current Bears players for the time being?

They don’t think Jeffery is worth the money he covets or in general, on a long-term deal. They’re not sold on his commitment or talent and would prefer to invest money they would give to him in other areas they can trust. Pace doesn’t want to have to try to “recover” from signing Jeffery to a contract he isn’t comfortable with.

And really, who can blame him? A rebuilding franchise can’t afford to be hamstrung in any way.

  • From Fox’s vague perspective (which isn’t new or exclusive to him in comparison to many other NFL head coaches) his preference would be on building the Bears’ infrastructure in the draft. Not a novel concept by any means and a welcome sentiment.

Yet in specifically noting free agent diamonds such as Hicks and Freeman, Fox shows that the Bears definitely plan to acquire some integral foundational pieces - again - where they can place them around around a drafted core. It’s a necessity that most have correctly speculated on for awhile and the Bears won’t move away from any measured aggressiveness on that front whatsoever.

On the Jeffery “to be or not to be” situation:

Pace: “Tagging him (Jeffery) two years in a row wasn’t really an option for us.”

Fox (assessing Jeffery’s worth): “I think when he’s been out there, I think it’s been positive. I think, really it’s just been that consistency of being out there and I’ll say it’s a partial evaluation and one we’ll just continue evaluating moving forward.”

Pace: "There are certain instances where testing the market is a necessary part of the process."

  • This would’ve been the third straight year the Bears worked themselves into a contract situation with the 27-year-old Jeffery and the second time they would’ve used the tag. Given the price increase, they were never enthused or committed to paying Jeffery $17 million, even for one season. While it would’ve been useful in negotiations to at minimum lock him into place, the Bears haven’t been in contract talks with Jeffery for weeks so that’s a moot point which also speaks volumes.

Furthermore, it’s rare a player receives multiple tags in the NFL given that asset mark-up unless his team deems him absolutely of working out some kind of deal with in. In the case of Jeffery, the Bears do not see him as a franchise player, it’s as clear as day.

In that respect, Pace and company will let Jeffery test the market and they know he’s not likely to come back. For all of Fox talking about evaluations and such, Jeffery has been in Chicago for five seasons. They know everything there is to know about him as a player. They’re comfortable letting him walk. There is no more actual “evaluating”, partial or whole, going on.

If Jeffery should actually return to the Bears because the market is not as receptive as he’d believe (in my opinion, highly unlikely), then Pace will get to pay him a price he’s much more comfortable with over a period he prefers. Letting the market come back to you is a notable fallout of free agency after all.

However, given how many teams with space space would like a wide receiver though - such as the Philadelphia Eagles and Tennessee Titans - there’s a great chance you won’t see it in this instance.

On Jay Cutler’s future in Chicago

Pace: The situation is “fluid.”

Fox (evaluating Cutler): “I think again, the perception in the building may be a little different than outside from what I’ve gathered. But I think he’s very smart; he’s a very tough competitor.

Pace (on Cutler’s health recovering from a torn labrum): "I wouldn't say he's there yet, but he's definitely ahead of [schedule]."

Fox (also on Cutler’s health): I think he’s had to deal with some injuries; unfortunately, they’re part of football. But he’s bounced back quickly from all the ones we’ve experienced in the last two years. But I think the competitive nature of Jay, I’ve been very impressed with.”

(Pace also maintained keeping Cutler is an option.)

Translation: Someone please trade for this guy.

  • Seeing as how Cutler is still on the Bears roster, I suppose there is the faintest of odds he remains in Chicago in 2017. But in seeing how Pace and Fox didn’t totally close the door at a huge league platform and make sure to paint Cutler in a positive and healthy light, it’s more about keeping up some kind of trade value.

This is posturing at it’s finest. The Bears will hold on to Cutler until they absolutely have to let him go by the start of the league year, or sooner. There’s a line in the water and even if no one’s biting, they’ll keep it there until they have to really remove it and release him without being on the hook for his contract in regards to an injury suffered under their watch.

So of course Cutler is a fine “competitor.” Of course he’s “ahead of schedule.” That’s what a quarterback-needy team with any draft pick available to give up wants to hear. Cutler has no future with the Bears but after publicly putting up a for sale sign for the pending 34-year-old, they’re not going to release him so quickly without hope of asset recovery.

On drafting or acquiring a quarterback and developing him

Pace (on drafting a quarterback at number three overall): “I think you have to get value.”

Fox: “I think at the quarterback position, there’s a lot of intangible things that go along with it. It’s not just the strongest arm or the tallest guy or the quickest guy. there’s so much that goes into it.”

Pace (on a conducive environment for a quarterback): “The infrastructure is in place for a young QB to succeed because of the team's offensive line.”

Fox (on a quarterback he drafted as a head coach in Carolina, Jimmy Clausen): “That situation was a little bit unique, because I think people projected him maybe even into the top 10. On draft day, that's not how it materialized.”

(Editor’s note: Right, sounds good. That happens all the time in the draft. It’s crazy.)

“Personally, I never even watched him, because he wasn't a targeted guy for me in our pre-draft assignments. But I can say now I would hope we draft someone that I've actually gotten a chance to watch.”

(Editor’s note: Wait, what?)

Pace (on the importance of wins and losses for quarterbacks in college): “I think about (Drew) Brees when he was at Purdue & he elevated that program."

  • Let’s start with Pace here, who denotes “value” at Chicago’s top-three pick.

Does that rule out taking someone such as Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer or Clemson’s Deshaun Watson? No. If by chance Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett doesn’t fall, the Bears will in all likelihood take a quarterback they like at this stage.

Oh, and that “elevate the program” stance from Pace can really only describe Watson in overall success at college, so take that for what it’s worth. He seems to be the young guy Pace likes to this point every time he describes an ideal young passer in his mind.

  • Anyway, as Pace discusses, he believes Chicago’s offensive front is very advantageous for any passer they may select to grow up behind. The trio of Josh Sitton, Cody Whitehair, and Kyle Long is perhaps the best interior in football. Adding a quality tackle such as Rick Wagner to that group would help a quarterback move through his development cycle quickly.

Nevertheless, saying “value” for the high pick does mean the Bears will explore every available avenue.

Whoever is chosen with this pick needs to be a perennial Pro Bowler and game-changer. It doesn’t matter if he’s a quarterback, a pass rusher, or a safety. That’s what events such as the Combine, Senior Bowl, and Pro Days are for, though. Find out if you like a guy enough to invest a high pick into him.

  • As for Fox’s comments on Clausen, that’s a red alert.

Yes, there are situations where you don’t expect a quarterback or player to drop to you so you may focus your energy elsewhere.

But in the cases of the draft when you need a franchise player (the 2010 Panthers needed a player to build around with an aging Jake Delhomme on the way out) I would advise watching all available tape on every possible prospect to get an idea of what you’re getting into. That suggestion goes double for a head coach in Fox.

The Bears are in a similar place that those Panthers were. They need a franchise quarterback to build around. And even if that Clausen mistake in the second round by Fox and company was made approximately seven years ago, it doesn’t inspire much confidence considering Fox has never developed a young passer as a head coach.

It’s why in the past Fox has signed guys like Delhomme in Carolina and went after the quick fix in Peyton Manning in Denver (although, to be fair, who could blame him there). And it’s likely now why the Bears are rumored suitors for Mike Glennon’s services. He’s not comfortable with developing a young and fresh guy with no NFL experience under center. Make no mistake, that’s not the proper long-term view.

If your head coach doesn’t have the long-term future of your franchise in mind, is he the right guy for the job? The best and only answer is no. Get the guy into place that you trust.

  • Needless to say, I would hope Pace has almost complete and lone input on who will be the Bears quarterback moving forward in light of comments like this from Fox. If Fox does have some input, I would hope he’s actually watching all of the possible options in the draft and on the market.

"I hope you guys appreciate, like, I always want to be honest," said Pace at near close. "We're at such a sensitive time right now."

We’ll know much more about the trade secrets at Halas Hall very soon.

Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for the Rock River Times and is a staff writer for Windy City Gridiron and Second City Hockey. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.