The Super Bowl is now in the books, and while Philadelphia may still be on a championship-hangover, the other 30 GM's of the league have their sights on how they can punch their ticket to Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta in 2019.
NFL Free Agency doesn't start until March 14th, but that hasn't stopped the Bears from being intensely active since the final whistle blew on Week 17. First thing was first on the dreaded (or not so dreaded) "Black Monday," as Bears fired their head coach John Fox after three straight losing seasons. Then, on the same day, Bears ownership decided to give Ryan Pace a 4-year contract extension through to 2021, giving him a chance to fully engrave his vision into the organization and align his contract with both QB Mitchell Trubisky's and the coach he will decide to hire.
Then the coaching-dominoes began to fall. Just a week after firing Fox, Ryan Pace hired his guy in Matt Nagy, an Andy Reid disciple. Shortly after his hire, Nagy began quickly orchestrating his staff that had Bears fans already thinking post-season birth. Names like Harry Hiestand as o-line coach, Mark Helfrich as offensive coordinator, and what most deem as the most important coaching move, Vic Fangio kept as defensive coordinator.
While the coaching change was very much necessary, the Bears still lack the talent needed to compete at a playoff level. With Ryan Pace entering his 4th year as Bears GM, there are no more excuses for this team to have another lack-luster season. It's Pace's time, and he's got to step it up.
Reinforcing Pace's Investment
There's no question Ryan Pace's greatest and most important investment is the QB he drafted second overall in 2017, and surrounding him with every bit of assistance should be Pace's top priority this off season.
The coaching hire was step one, and Pace may have hit it out of the park. Head coach Matt Nagy will bring a system over from Kansas City that had Alex Smith playing the best football of his career. A system that incorporates RPO's will highlight Trubisky's skill-set and allow him to develop into a smarter quarterback with pre-snap reads. Now, instead of seeing a 8-9 man box after a run-play is called and being stuck with it, Mitch will be able to audible to a quick pass play that will feature his athletic ability and quick-release. Couple this concept with new offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich's spread scheme in Orgeon, and us Bears fans may be in store for an offense that we haven't witnessed since... ever.
But for any offensive success to come to fruition, having talent would surely help. After suffering injuries to top-two receivers Cameron Meredith and Kevin White and tight-end Zach Miller, the Bears' passing game understandably struggled. Kendall Wright was Chicago's leading receiver, who's also due to be an UFA. If the season started today, the Bears' top three receivers would be Cameron Meredith, Kevin White, and Tanner Gentry. It's no secret that what Ryan Pace chooses to do at the wide receiver position will be under a microscope in Chicago.
Whether it's a stab at a big-name free agent like Jarvis Landry or Allen Robinson, or a drafting a popular name like Calvin Ridley, it's a task the Bears' GM must address and address aggressively, as there's little room for error there going forward.
Turning a Good Product Into a Great One
Anyone who's watched Chicago Bear football knows the strength and backbone of this team is the defense, especially with Vic Fangio returning as the coordinator for continuity. And while the defense has essentially improved statistically every year under Fangio's watch, it's still missing the cornerstone piece(s) to make opposing offensive coordinators lose sleep at night.
Akeim Hicks is the only surefire play-maker on that side of the ball. Guys like Danny Trevathan and Eddie Goldman are vets that are good, but not necessarily great. And, of course, young guys like Eddie Jackson, Leonard Floyd, and Kyle Fuller (assuming his return) certainly make the future of the defense look bright. But none of these guys are perennial Pro Bowlers (yet).
Though there are tons of other needs on the team, if Pace could find a low risk, high reward kind of guys at pass rusher and/or corner to go opposite of Kyle Fuller and Leonard Floyd, it not only strengthens the defense but give Fangio a ton of options with his play calls. Unleashing a tenacious pass rusher to go along with Floyd, coupled with guys like Fuller, Jackson, and (insert another solid corner pickup here) on the back end, would make for a defense that can play with any offense in the league. And if the offense can put up some points (not saying they'd have to be unstoppable, just competent), then January football would be a very reachable goal.
I want to truly believe that the Bears aren't that far off from contention, but there is a lot that has to work out for that to be the case. Ryan Pace has to hit in free agency (which he hasn't been able to do since he's been here), and the draft. Player have to take that next step in development. And the team has got to stay healthy.
One of the more overlooked tasks Ryan Pace has this off season is his decision on the strength and conditioning staff. The phrase "Injured Reserve" has been attached to the Bears like white on rice the last couple of years. To say that a change in the training staff would eliminate the injury bug is a stretch, but there aren't any other logical options to try and get this team to maintain relative health (because no team is fully healthy during the long stretch of a season.). If the Bears can keep from having more than 3 starters on each side of the ball from falling into the injury pit of doom, watch out.