Anyone who claims that they know how that Matt Nagy hire is going to work out (one way or another) is probably wrong. On the other hand, the first press conference for the new head coach was about as impressive as such things can be, and there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic. One way or another, though, the coaching position is resolved.
It will be Nagy’s job to assemble his staff, and Pace’s job to empower him in assembling that staff. Thus, figuring out the defensive coordinator position is a matter for Nagy, not Pace. That does not mean that Pace’s job is settled now. Here are four moves Ryan Pace should consider getting done before* the draft.
1). Keep Mark Sanchez
I don’t care what athletic or intellectual gifts Mitchell Trubisky may or may not have. I don’t care how much he’s getting paid. He’s still a 23-year-old kid who just had his entire adult workplace overturned. The guy who taught him how to do his job? Left for Miami. The guy who supervised that guy? Fired. The guy who runs the show? Half the town wants him fired, too. That entire way he was supposed to do his job (the offensive scheme)? Just got changed again. Half of his coworkers are going to change jobs, too.
That’s a lot to handle. Through it all, though, Trubisky has had Mark Sanchez present in the locker room, mentoring him. That’s a point of commonality, and it’s familiar ground. More than that, Sanchez seems good at it. I think Pace should keep Sanchez around, and I think he should pay him like a decent backup quarterback if that’s what it takes.
Honestly, hiring Sanchez in the first place might have been one of Pace’s smarter moves in the 2017 off-season, and now it’s time for him to follow up and do it again.
2). Extend Fyle Fuller
Kyle Fuller is evidence that the cupboard was not completely bare when Ryan Pace arrived in Chicago. Pace took over a team that might have been in shambles, but it had some real talent, including the former first-round pick out of Virginia Tech. It’s something of a truism that corners need a couple of years to hit their stride, and Kyle Fuller seems to provide another anecdote in favor of that idea. That is one reason I am using this article to serve as an apology to Fuller. At the beginning of the season, I wrote this:
“If Fuller turns in a year that is close to 2015 (Top 50 in interceptions, Top 60 in passes defensed, Top 20 in yards per target allowed), he is probably worth keeping around. However, if he returns to 2014 form (Top 10 in interceptions, Top 15 in forced fumbles, and Top 50 in passes defensed), he will have earned an apology for the way I essentially wrote him off after an injury.”
The truth is that Fuller did not hit the later marks. He was just barely outside of the top 50 in interceptions (he only had two), and he didn’t record a single forced fumble. However, he was tied for second in the league with 22 passes defensed, and a quick dive into the world of Football Outsiders reveals an interesting gem.
As the “LCB,” Fuller is typically responsible for defending against the offense’s “right” side of the field. Chicago’s pass defense was 7th in the NFL to the right side of the field (by DVOA), and while Chicago consistently got burned deep - their defensive score against the deep pass was mostly well below the league average -- the DVOA against deep right threats was +24.9% for the league, but it was -4.4% for Chicago (or the 8th-best in the league). Not all of that success is due to Fuller, but a lot of it was because of Phil Emery’s last first-round pick.
Simply put, Fuller was one of Chicago’s better defenders, last year, and because it takes defensive backs some time to get in the rhythm of a defense, even if Pace lands the best rookie CB coming out of college, the Bears need a seasoned, capable corner already in place. This is especially true for a team that has other roster holes it needs to invest its draft capital in.
Fuller should cost a pretty penny. Corners aren’t cheap, and good ones don’t hit the market very often. That’s okay. Pace has been managing cap space well, and extending high-end, first-round talent that fills a need on a team is a great place to spend that cap space.
3). Keep Bargain Shopping Wide Receivers
I know. The Bears need “elite” talent. Some might point out that the second-hand bin has given Chicago receiving talents like Markus Wheaton (46 total yards on 3 receptions). To this I have a couple of responses, not the least of which is that Wheaton was not a bargain deal. He was given $6 million guaranteed over two years for a total value of $11 million. The thing is, wide receivers are usually either worth a big contract or they aren’t, and so a deal like Wheaton’s was the sort of compromise Pace should avoid.
Kendall Wright, on the other hand, meets the definition of a bargain. He was given a 1-year deal worth $2 million and churned out 614 yards and 10.4 yards per reception. Likewise, Dontelle Inman had a contract worth just over $1.6 million this year and because of a technicality he didn’t even cost a draft pick--though his utility was such that if the Bears had sacrificed a later pick, it probably would have been okay.
I am not saying that the Bears should not also go after a high-end free agent receiver. On that, I’m torn. I want details first. However, I am saying that Pace needs to keep searching for guys who cost (in football terms) next to nothing. Sure, fantasy football players might enjoy a Jarvis Landry or a Sammy Watkins, but the Bears need depth at wide receiver as much as they need elite talent. They are amazingly, almost mind-numbingly thin at wide receiver for 2018.
Let me put it this way--by receiving yards gained in 2017, the top wide receiver committed to the Chicago Bears for 2018 is Tanner Gentry (35 yards). The next three guys under contract (Kevin White, Cameron Meredith, and Markus Wheaton) totaled 56 yards in 2017. Notably, Kendall Wright will be a free agent, as will Josh Bellamy and Dontrelle Inman. Yes, those three players were the top three receiving threats for Chicago in 2017. Meanwhile, Deonte Thompson and Tre McBride now play elsewhere.
Some might say that the fact that those deals are already about to expire is proof that Pace should not bargain shop. To this I retort with the observation that Markus Wheaton shows the dangers of over-investing in a single player unless he is an established talent. I also point out that there is replacement-level talent to be found in free agency. This seems to be a relative strength of Pace’s, and he needs to employ that strength. Pace needs to extend players who can be had cheaply and find other receivers who can be picked up at a discount. He needs to replenish the depth of the receiver corps. Nagy might have some suggestions. I hope he does.
After he does this, he can address the wide receiver group in other ways--maybe with a high-priced free agent, maybe through the draft, or maybe by Kevin White and Cameron Meredith living up to expectations. It should probably be all three. Ultimately, though, the Bears are almost to the point that they should keep Glennon around just to split him out wide by the goal line.
4). Pick up another 2nd-round pick
There are a lot of talented players in the 2018 draft. In fact, this upcoming draft has talent at edge-rusher, at wide-receiver, and on the offensive line. This is a chance to shore up some of the weaknesses on the team. It’s sort of a shame the Bears don’t have a third-rounder, because that would be the easiest way to put together a package to double-dip in the top 50 spots or so. However, there are still options.
The easiest would obviously be to move down a bit in the first round. The 8th pick is worth 70.90 points on the Rich Hill adjusted draft value chart. Moving down to the mid-teens (where there will still be plenty of talent left) frees up almost 20 points, which is basically the #50 pick. However, nothing about Ryan Pace’s style so far leads me to believe this is a valid expectation. On the other hand, he could also move back in the 2nd round and bundle the 4th-round picks to pick up a pair of 2nds (albeit later than the Bears are currently slated to pick).
A lesser version of this same move would be for Pace to get back into the third round by moving around in the second and fourth (both of their 4th-rounders could also work together to buy a 3rd-rounder). That would also be fine. The real thing is that Pace seems aggressive about moving up in the first round and sliding back in later rounds, but the 2018 draft is one in which there are a lot of potential gems between picks 40 and 70. I hope Pace tries to take advantage of that.
*Okay, #4 bends the time frame a little