It's official. By the time the Bears trot out for the 2017 NFL season, they won't be the Bears anymore. Similar to how a student may copy off a fellow peer's homework, Ryan Pace has torn a page out of Mickey Loomis's handbook, for the better or for the worse. Keep in mind that unlike many, I strongly believe in Pace, and this is not my way of hurling insults at him. I am just attempting to clearly state the facts.
Let me start with the top of the organization, focusing on the front office. We all know that Pace lured away Josh Lucas, one of his good friends, from the Saints organization to become the Director of Player Personnel for the Bears. One of the few long-time Bears scouts that Pace promoted, Mark Sadowski, also has history working in the Saints front office while Pace was there. The Bears drafted very well last season, so I have nothing negative to say about this. One small concern I do have about Pace's fondness for his former Saints colleagues comes in the aspect of cap management. It seems like the Saints are in cap-debt every year. Despite this, they also often overspend in free agency on aging players, and over-invest in certain positions, most notably tight-end and running back, further deepening their cap troubles. For example, just this year, the Saints signed Adrian Peterson and traded a future second round pick to draft Alvin Kamara in the early third round when they already had a promising running back in Mark Ingram. Last year, the Saints chose to match the Bears offer sheet for restricted free agent tight end Josh Hill despite having already spent on Coby Fleener and having Michael Hoomanawanui, the player they traded Akiem Hicks to the Patriots for, on the roster. This shows that the way they manage the cap and their picks isn't always highly regarded by outsiders.Under Pace, the Bears have also become one of the most active teams in free agency, and one of the most vocal supporters of picking the best player available in the draft despite needs.
Even though we signed a handful of fringe starters and high quality back-ups during the offseason, Pace has handed out more guaranteed money than any other team. Don't misunderstand me, I'm not completely down on their signings. Prince Amukumara is a huge upgrade at corner if he stays healthy, and Marcus Cooper is a young player who is a former pro-bowl alternate. Quintin Demps is old but has a knack for interceptions, with six last year, and Mike Glennon and Dion Sims are high-quality back-ups at worst. The players were by no means bad, and they Pace plugged almost all of our pressing needs. The problem I had in free agency is similar to the problem the Saints and Mickey Loomis seem to struggle with every year. Overpaying. As you guys probably know, the Bears salary cap manager is none other than Joey Laine, a man that Pace pried away from the Saints to displace Cliff Stein, the long-time Bears contract negotiator who is very well respected throughout the league. Stein currently has more of a back-up role, with Laine doing most of the negotiating when signing players. I would also like to point out that a reason Pace may be afraid to put too much money in a big free agent instead of overpaying for lower level players might be due to what happened to the Saints when they signed Jairus Byrd. Byrd was the consensus number one free agent at the time, and no one foresaw the steep drop off in his play which would occur after he signed with the Saints, still in his prime. The Saints were negatively impacted when the Byrd acquisition busted, which may explain why Pace didn't want to go all in on cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and Janoris Jenkins despite high interest. While I agree that the reason we are having to overpay for the players we are signing may be due to the fact that no one wants to come to a massive rebuild such as the one in Chicago, a minor reason for this could be attributed to Pace's keen interest in filling the Bears front office with former Saints such as Laine. I don't think this is a huge deal myself, but I thought it would be a useful connection to point out before elaborating on my theory that the Bears are in-fact morphing into the Chicago Saints.
So why do I think the Bears are turning into the Saints, other than just the similar faces in the front office? We've all heard how Pace has gushed over Drew Brees and how he is the gold standard when evaluating quarterbacks. Pace has always talked about how Brees elevated the program he was in at Purdue, and how this success and experience translated to the NFL. When looking at Mitch Trubisky initially, it may seem odd that Pace selected him. There are rumors that the ownership pressured him into doing so, and that Fox wasn't on the same page as Pace when making the selection. On top of all this, Trubisky seems nothing like Brees. He didn't have experience in college, starting just 13 games, and he only led his team to an 8-5 record. But with a closer look, past his 30 touchdowns and 6 picks, past his 68% completion percentage, you will see that Trubisky was competetive in key games. In his team's bowl game versus Stanford, a team stacked with talent such as the 3rd overall pick Solomon Thomas and the 8th overall pick Christian McCaffrey, people look solely at the 3 turnovers.Few people pay attention to the last 90 seconds of the game.
Pace has always gushed about Brees' clutch factor, and in a bowl game against Stanford, Trubisky was able to make a basketball school who had seen the likes of Michael Jordan wear their uniforms care about football. He marched down 97 yards, putting behind everything that had happened up to that point. And he threw 4 straight touchdown passes against a very good college defense. The first 3 were dropped by his receivers, but on the 4th play, with the game on the line, Trubisky didn't lose his confidence. He evaded a sack and threw a touchdown dart to his receiver to position them to tie the game. He ended up unable to convert the two-point conversion, but the grit and tenacity he showed in that drive in overcoming the struggles which plagued him earlier in the game was special. Watching the tape of the game, while he didn't play well overall, his final drive was one which made the students of UNC care and feel pride about their football team, despite the loss. While I am definitely not saying Trubisky is the next Drew Brees, that drive against a good defense showed that Trubisky has the grit and perseverance to be a good quarterback for the Bears and be a poor man's Brees for the Bears. While the trade-up controversy is for another post, in my opinion Pace made the right decision to trade up and get a quarterback who he liked, because at the end of the day, if Trubisky does in fact become the next Brees, people will think John Lynch got scammed by Pace and not the other way around. Pace has found his quarterback, but this isn't the only way the Bears are following the Saints' blueprint.
One of the Saints most dangerous playmakers when they were a dominant playoff presence was Jimmy Graham. The 6'6" tight-end was a former 3rd round pick who had one of the best size-speed-strength combinations in the league. He ran a 4.56 second 40 yard dash at the combine, and weighed in at 260 pounds. Adam Shaheen may have been nicknamed "Baby Gronk", but when Pace took a mediocre blocker with great size and speed, he was having flashbacks of Jimmy Graham's dominance catching passes from Brees. While Adam Shaheen is a bit heavier and a bit slower, he can still fly for a man his size, and he was outrunning defensive backs in his division 2 school. When Pace drafted Shaheen despite already having Sims and Zach Miller, Pace was not only following the Saints' best player available mantra, but he was also drafting a player who fit the mold of a player who helped fuel the dominant offenses which came to define New Orleans football. The Shaheen pick has received a lot of flak for being a reach, but considering Pace had no 3rd round pick, he had to pick a player who was the best rated on his board, even if other teams had him ranked lower. For what its worth, scouts were said to be all over Shaheen. If he turns into anyone similar to Graham, Shaheen will be looked at as a great value pick in the second round for Pace.
One of the most versatile offensive threats on the Saints roster used to be Darren Sproles. The 5'6" running back was not only one of the most elusive players in the league, but he was also one of the best receivers out of the back-field while also providing excellent special teams value. Sproles was a one of Drew Brees safety nets and helped diversify the offensive attack. When Pace drafted Tahir Cohen in the 4th round, he was trying to find just that player. The Bears already have Jordan Howard to be their star running back and thumper, but Cohen would be a prototypical 3rd down back who could help add a whole new element to Chicago's offense. Many have already heard his nickname "The Human Joystick", and if he plays to that level in the NFL, he will be extremely valuable to whichever quarterback is under center for the Bears next season. Cohen was not looked upon too highly, but in picking him, Pace took another step forward in his goal to utilize the Saints blueprint the bring the Bears back to prominence. Cohen, a carbon copy of Darren Sproles, should help the Bears do that if he can make the jump from division 2 to the pros.
So far, I have looked at two players the Bears drafted in Shaheen and Cohen who are almost exactly like key Saints playmakers, and another in Trubisky who Pace believes has the potential to live up to Brees legacy. One pick that has been overlooked is that of Jordan Morgan. Another division 2 player, the fifth round pick is familiar with the Bears coaching staff after working with them during the Senior Bowl. The Saints have been known for their unique process of building their offensive line from the interior. When the Saints had one of the league's most dominant offenses, it was anchored by Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs, who were two of the best offensive guards in the league. The Bears currently have Kyle Long and Josh Sitton in those two spots, not to mention Cody Whitehair in the center spot, leading them to have arguably the best interior offensive line in football, rivalling that of the Cowboys. Don't underestimate Jordan Morgan's potential value. I was disappointed as well when the Bears opted not to go for a talented offensive tackle prospect such as Roderick Johnson (Florida State) in day 3, and was surprised that they decided to select another guard. When I read more about Morgan, it made much more sense. He hails from the same conference as Jahri Evans, a former fourth round pick and 6 time pro-bowler, and NFL network analyst Charles Davis compared Morgan's potential to Evans when evaluating the Bears choice. On top of this, he has great athleticism for an offensive lineman, and he has a nasty demeanour which is valuable for run-blocking, exactly what the Bears need. Sitton, 31, has a contract which will expire in two years, and Morgan is regarded as a prospect who will need two years of development before he can become a good starter in this league. Morgan is a clever stash by the Bears for their future after Sitton, and he provides further evidence that Pace is looking closely at the Saints, especially their offense, when trying to add players to the Bears.
Even before the draft, Pace showed that he valued signing former Saints on defense. Two examples are Akiem Hicks and Tracy Porter. Hicks was a third round pick when Pace was in the Saints front office, and he flashed in Rob Ryan's 3-4 defense. When the Saints switched to a 4-3 scheme under new defensive coordinator Dennis Allen, Hicks didn't fit and they traded him to the Patriots, where he thrived as a rotational player. Pace tapped into his familiarity in Hicks and signed him to a two-year deal, and Hicks had a breakout year last season. Another former Saint is Tracy Porter. Porter was key in the Saints 2010 Superbowl run, and his most notable play was when he intercepted Peyton Manning and returned it for a touchdown to help clinch a Superbowl win. Porter has been injury prone throughout his career, but due to Pace's familiarity with him, Porter signed with the Bears and was a helpful mentor to the young cornerbacks while also fighting through injury to start the majority of his Bears games. Pace has used the Saints as a team from which to pluck players he is comfortable with, and this is another way that the Bears are following the Saints blueprint. Other notable examples of this include the signing of John Jenkins this offseason and the attempted signing of restricted free agent Josh Hill last offseason.
Of course John Fox and Vic Fangio have had an impact on decisions as well. When attempting to understand the Bears signing of Mike Glennon, the only explanation is the wonders Fox was able to work with an unproven quarterback he signed in Carolina named Jake Delhomme the season before a Superbowl run. Fox drafted pass-rushers such as Julius Peppers and Von Miller in both Carolina and Denver in the top 10, and it helps explain the Bears taking Leonard Floyd, an Aldon Smith clone, at number 9 to help add to Vic Fangio's defense. Fangio thrived with the best inside linebacker combination in the league in Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman, which helps explain the signings of Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman last offseason. And Fangio utilized Ahmad Brooks in San Francisco to be a tone setter against the run, something Pernell McPhee was signed for on the Bears. These examples do show that Pace has taken his coaches into account while making his decisions, which is important in building a good team.
Overall, Pace has taken his coaches perspectives into account, but he is clearly working off the Saints blueprint and their championship roster. Whether it is signing former players or drafting carbon copies of his biggest stars in New Orleans, the Bears roster is starting to resemble that of New Orleans more and more. Hicks, Porter, Shaheen, Cohen, Trubisky and even Jordan Morgan prove this.