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Understanding Ryan Pace

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Chicago Bears Introduce John Fox Photo by David Banks/Getty Images

First, I want to begin by apologizing to everyone who likes short pieces. We have plenty of those around here, but this isn’t one of them. I will try to use sidebars to capture key points, but this is going to be an information-dense article. It has to be, as I am navigating three years of leadership at a massive organization. As much as possible, I am going to try to analyze Ryan Pace’s moves without judgment. That is going to be difficult, as he has made a number of moves that the fan in me really dislikes and only a few moves that I have enjoyed. However, my real goal with this piece is to try to explain the patterns I see in Ryan Pace’s decision-making, for better or for worse.

Contrary to what a lot of fans seem to think, Ryan Pace does have a consistent methodology, and that methodology is informed by a clear vision of how to build a team. I am not saying that I, personally, endorse this methodology. I am, however, saying that he is personally consistent with exactly what he has always claimed.

Background

Before getting into details, it is important to address Ryan Pace’s handling of the roster he had when he arrived. Pace took over the leadership of a team that was a disaster. The man who was arguably the face of the franchise was a serviceable but not extraordinary quarterback who was coming off of a really bad season and was signed to a widely criticized contract. The defensive core that had carried the team to its most recent winning season was functionally gone, whether into retirement (Brian Urlacher), to another team (Julius Peppers), or to age and injury (Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman). Even more than would normally be the case for a general manager, he had no reason to value any player on the team beyond what those players could reasonably contribute moving forward.

Contrary to some opinions, Pace also needed no motivation to purge the roster beyond on-field performance. According to Sporting Charts, the 2014 Chicago Bears were 29th in the NFL in scoring efficiency (earning points on fewer than 28% of their drives) while being 32nd in the NFL in terms of the scoring efficiency allowed by their opponents (allowing points on nearly 45% of opponents’ drives). Given their “dominance” in both of these categories, a reasonable argument could be made that they were the worst team in football.

The Worst Teams in 2014

Team Offensive Efficiency Defensive Efficiency Composite
Team Offensive Efficiency Defensive Efficiency Composite
Chicago Bears 28 32 60
Oakland Raiders 32 27 59
Tennessee Titans 30 29 59
No other team achieved the balanced horror of these three.

There were calls by some fans to fire everyone on down to any unpaid interns. Whatever other news reports might have suggested about why “Player X” needed to go, or about how there was a conspiracy to move “Player Y” out for some reason, keep in mind this was an organization where an offense in the bottom five of the league was its strength.

Thus, he entered his time with the Bears with no reason to trust the roster, but he found three assets that people were interested in trading for: Bostic, Allen, and Marshall. Bostic went to New England in exchange for a 6th-round pick; in New England, he started one game and played in 11 before leaving the league. Allen likewise garnered a 6th-round pick and he played solidly for Carolina before retiring at the end of the year. Marshall (sent to the Jets with a 7th-rounder in exchange for the 5th-rounder that became Adrian Amos) had what can only be called a solid run in New York, earning another Pro Bowl nod the same year he was traded. Marhsall, it should be noted, is no longer with the Jets; Adrian Amos is (for now) still with the Chicago Bears.

Whether individual fans like these moves or not, they are not the moves of a GM trying to earn quick victories in order to show progress. They are not the moves of a rookie trying to prove himself. Marshall and even Allen could help a team pick up one extra win (or a couple of extra wins) in the present. Instead, Pace made long-term decisions (again, whether those long-term decisions were good ones or not is a different argument). This informs my first observation.

Observation #1: Pace seems to favor a long-view, possibly at the expense of immediate results.

Briefly, Pace is not motivated by a desire to prove himself. Many football executives try to show results immediately, and so they make decisions trying to temporarily inflate a team’s record at the cost of future potential. What informs Pace’s motivation is meaningless. He could simply be confident, he could have assurances from ownership that he has time, or he could simply want to do the responsible thing and build the team well regardless of whether or not he, personally, receives the credit.

To test this observation, it is necessary to consider his handling of the team veterans, both in terms of trades made and in terms of who is and who is not offered a contract.

A capricious or desperate GM would likely seek to hang on to playmakers of any kind, regardless of what their long-term prospects for the team are. Additionally, if Pace is short-changing the present in the interest if the future, I would expect to see him trade a player he sees as having a short future with the Bears (due to age, declining production, or attitude) as soon as possible. Likewise, high-impact players with a short future might not be extended, whereas players with the potential to contribute for a long time would be retained.

In 2016, he repeated his earlier pattern by trading Martellus Bennett to the New England Patriots (sending back the pick received for Bostic along with Bennett in exchange for a 4th-rounder). I have previously looked at how he tends to get decent value for these trades, so by themselves they are essentially another data point indicating that his interest is not in grabbing “wins now” but in whole-team construction.

Additionally, it’s worthwhile to consider players that Pace has allowed to leave the organization, or players Pace has cut outright. In 2016, Matt Forte was allowed to leave without being offered a contract. While Forte was aging, it is highly likely that paired with Cutler and an offense that already knew him, he would have continued to be productive for at least one more year. How likely? Here are key stats from Forte’s last three years:

Forte’s Last 3 Years

Year Games Rush Attempts Rushing TDs Long Yards per Attempt Yards per Reception
Year Games Rush Attempts Rushing TDs Long Yards per Attempt Yards per Reception
2014 (Chi) 16 266 6 32 3.9 7.9
2015 (Chi) 13 218 4 27 4.1 8.8
2016 (NYJ) 14 218 7 32 3.7 8.8
While his yards per carry went down, how much of that is from the state of the Jets’ offense?

In other words, while there was a slight dip in his rate-level production, that dip could be explained by the faltering Jets’ offense at least as much as by a decline in Forte’s ability. However, under Pace’s paradigm, giving Forte another contract would have been about short-term gains at the expense of developing a new running back and tying the team into a more limited future.

Consider the difference in how Kyle Long was handled. Long is a high-caliber guard who was able to move over to tackle when that was needed. He was rewarded with a contract extension that makes him (currently) the guard with the ninth-highest guaranteed value and the third-highest average value over the length of the contract. Viewed from the lens of wanting “his guys” instead of “Emery’s guys”, this is inconsistent. Why cut Pro Bowler Forte while keeping Pro Bowler Long? Pace makes no sense!

On the other hand, viewed through the lens of “running backs have short careers” versus “linemen can last for a long time”, his decisions make perfect sense. A contract handed to Forte in 2016 still has the Bears looking for a running back in 2018. A contract handed to Long in 2016 has at least one position on the line secured by (assuming some decline in value) a top-half guard at the least or (assuming continued value) a pro bowl contender.

As a fan, I would rather have had Forte in Navy and Orange in 2016. As a long-view manager, Pace was likely concerned that Forte would be out of work, on the bench, or in the trainer’s room in 2017, so he decided to see what Langford and Howard could offer. This leads to the next observation.

Observation #2: Outside of the draft, Pace prefers to find players who will provide stability and is risk-averse.

As a general manager, Pace would rather achieve consistency than cyclical results. It is difficult to assess whether or not this trait would be as pronounced without the backlash surrounding the Ray McDonald signing, but it likely would have always been present, because even the McDonald signing matches the same overall pattern. Additionally, it matches Observation #1, in that he is again preferring to build a sustainable team instead of trying to buy wins.

Faced with the need to transition a roster from 4-3 to 3-4, Pace did not immediately go out and find the biggest available names in free agency. He did not trade high picks for players who might accelerate the change. In 2015, Pace found a high-impact outside linebacker (Pernell McPhee) who was available, but even this signing (now in the third year of a five-year deal) has McPhee as the 17th-highest paid outside linebacker in the NFL. Eddie Royal, likewise, was a signing that brought in a missing part of the offense without representing a significant expenditure. Antrel Rolle matches the same pattern.

Back when media outlets liked Ryan Pace, he was quoted for what CBS Sports called the best encapsulation of NFL Free Agency:

"There is a delicate balance between being aggressive and being decisive but responsible," Pace said. "I think you can always recover from the player you didn't sign. You can't recover from the player whom you signed at the wrong price. We've got to be conscious of that."

This clearly plays out in his selection of free agents. He does not believe in going after the best available free agent. Instead, he prefers to throw moderate amounts of money at moderate talents, filling in roster holes through selective pressure.

The 2017 free agency class is a perfect example. The secondary was a weakness of the 2016 Bears. Rather than chase after a single big name, he found three defensive backs and paid them all mid-level money (Demps is the 16th-highest paid Strong Safety by average contract value according to Spotrac, while Amukamara and Cooper are the 23rd and 32nd –highest paid cornerbacks, respectively). The team had struggled to find healthy wide-receivers late last year, so Marcus Wheaton was guaranteed the 53rd-most money among receivers and Kendall Wright was promised less than that. These are risk-averse moves, as is signing a pair of quarterbacks for under $20 million in guarantees.

The same basic reasoning can be applied by his decision not to pursue Alshon Jeffery after the franchise tag expired. Alshon Jeffery would, beyond reasonable doubt, provide a valuable offensive weapon to the Bears for at least the next two years while he was healthy. However, Jeffery has also missed 11 of the last 32 games for one reason or another. Another injury or another PED suspension would threaten the overall roster stability Pace aims for, and so there was a maximum price Pace was willing to pay in order to (in his own mind) be responsible. Thus, Jeffery is now an Eagle.

Instead of using free agency to buy a few excellent pieces, Pace uses free agency and renewed contracts in an attempt to create a “high floor” of performance for the Bears. This means, however, that a Pace-built team is woefully short on high-impact players. Had he inherited a roster that was younger, more capable, or even better-suited to his coaching staff’s needs, then the limitations of this approach might not be as visible. However, he did inherit a roster that was low on playmakers Pace could count on moving forward. That leads to the third observation.

Observation #3: Pace does not use the draft as a means of a building a complete team, but rather as his primary (if not sole) source of high-impact players.

When Pace talks about stringing together multiple good drafts, he is clearly not talking about making safe moves to establish the backbone of a team. That, as noted, is what he depends on free agency for. Instead, the draft is Pace’s means of securing his playmakers.

On the surface, this seems like an odd claim to make. Pace has taken 9 defensive players and 11 offensive players. He has drafted offensive linemen, wide receivers, tight ends, running backs, a quarterback, defensive tackles, linebackers, and defensive backs. That is a remarkable degree of balance for him to show in just three years. However, it is also a claim that is readily supported.

Begin by considering the five players in whom he has invested the most draft capital. Collectively, these five players represent an investment of 80-85% of the total “buying power” Pace has had to spend as a general manager in the draft:

Pace’s Playmakers

Player Pick Pos Hill Johnson
Player Pick Pos Hill Johnson
Trubisky 2 QB 32% 34%
White 7 WR 19% 19%
Floyd 9 OLB 17% 18%
Goldman 39 DT 7% 7%
Shaheen 45 TE 6% 6%
The numbers on the right list what portion of his total draft capital Pace spent on these players.

First, there is Mitchell Trubisky. The North Carolina quarterback represents an investment of 2597 “Johnson-era” draft points, 44.6 Stuart AV points, or 644.74 Rich Hill New Chart points. To put that into perspective, this one player represents one-third of all of the draft power Pace has wielded as the GM of the Bears. However, free agency is notoriously a poor place to find franchise quarterbacks, and the Bears needed one.

Second, consider Kevin White. White was acquired with the very first draft pick Ryan Pace ever made, and he is still the second most-expensive player Pace has drafted. There were question marks around him given his limited playing time, but he undoubtedly had playmaker potential, and so Pace pulled the trigger on spending roughly one-fifth of his draft power over three years in order to secure the services of a player with 23 games under his belt and less than 2000 receiving yards on his cleats.

Third, look at the Leonard Floyd selection. Mocked to the Bears by a number of draftniks, he was touted as a potential pass-rushing star by Football Outsiders. It seemed like the Giants might go after him, and so the cost of trading up to get him was ultimately insignificant. This pick was at roughly the same cost as White, and a fourth-round pick was, frankly, pocket change Pace found lying around in order to make the move he wanted.

Fourth on the list is Eddie Goldman. Goldman carried a grade ranging through first- and second-round, and Goldman’s draft profile on NFL.com states (emphasis is mine):

“His power at the point of attack and ability to discard blockers and actually make plays rather than just eating space will have 3-4 teams very excited about their potential nose guard of the future”

It should not be a surprise that this is where Pace spent his highest second-round pick to date.

Finally, there is Adam Shaheen. “Baby Gronk” as he has been called has the potential to be a dramatic playmaker. He had an impressive combine and he led all college tight ends last year in touchdown receptions.

Now, consider the way he treats the rest of the draft. Pace’s lower-round picks have a primary purpose of enabling him to move after the high-potential playmaker he desires earlier on (he spent a fourth-rounder to move up to secure Floyd, for example). However, should that not be an option, he will fall back to riskier prospers who might still make plays or (as a last resort) simple roster construction.

Many of his picks after Round 2 consist of players worth taking a chance on because of the potential they represent: Langford, Amos, and Fabuluje were all prospects flawed enough to fall but with notable upside. The same is true of Bullard and almost the entire crew from 2016. The strongest outlier is Grasu, possibly taken because he did in fact represent value at 71. With the depleted range of picks available to him in 2017 (because, again, he went after the potential impact player he wanted most in Trubisky), Pace did nothing to adjust this strategy: he took a gamble on Shaheen, yes, but also on Jackson and Cohen. Interestingly, the position where he is likeliest to simply invest for the sake of investing is offensive line.

Conclusion

With one notable exception, Ryan Pace is a risk-averse GM. He has a solid, reliable (but not flashy) head coach. He sacrifices short-term wins in the interest of creating a stable long-term roster. In free-agency, he focuses on building a roster of “good” players instead of going after high-ticket stars. His general conservatism provides a counterpoint to his belief that the draft is where he needs to find his stars, and he will maneuver in the draft to find those stars at the cost of making selections for the whole roster (likely because he believes that any holes can be filled through safe moves in free agency).

Time will tell about whether or not the Bears benefit from Pace’s strategy. However, he is internally consistent, and it seems likely that he will stick with this approach so long as he is the man guiding the Bears.