Previously, the Bears under general manager Ryan Pace have been risk averse in free agency, and preferred to gamble with their first round selections in the NFL Draft. It’s been about acquiring young players Chicago is comfortable with on rookie contracts, and signing veterans to prices every party can agree upon. Pace himself has described the perils of free agency as “walking through land mines” and instead focused on building through the draft.
After buying low and going with limited risk on the open market in the previous three seasons, Pace went pushed his hand in this March. He spent big at receiver with Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel ($19.5 million combined in 2018), at tight end with Trey Burton ($5.675 million), and at kicker with Cody Parkey ($3.8 million). Each of Robinson, Burton, and Parkey are now in the top 10 highest paid at their respective positions.
Two questions loom over this assertive change of heart. The first being, what emboldened Pace to start writing larger checks and make more high profile investments? The second deciphering whether this means his first round ideal is also flipped on it’s head with this year’s draft looming.
Home is where the quarterback is
The confidence query is answered easily: Matt Nagy, Mitchell Trubisky, and Vic Fangio’s (renewed) presence inspire direction.
It’s taken a long time for Pace to find the person he believes is a franchise quarterback in Trubisky, and the coach to pair with that young passer in Nagy. When you possess hope under center, a coach believed to be capable of unlocking that hope, and have most of your defensive centerpieces in place: it’s high time to be aggressive and mind the final p’s and q’s of your players. Free agency being a prime example.
In regards to Fangio, this is a coordinator Pace and company clearly feel confident enough in taking the Bears’ defense to the next level. So confident, he’s been retained for another three seasons even after being the defensive mastermind during one of the worst periods in Bears’ history under John Fox. That’s because this is a defense that has a majority of a core in it’s place in Akiem Hicks, Leonard Floyd, Eddie Jackson, Danny Trevathan, and Kyle Fuller. It’s defense that requires continuity, and likely only needs another blue chip addition to take that next step towards becoming a winning unit.
With Trubisky still coming at a cheap price on his rookie deal, Nagy and the Bears’ brain trust are in position to help him - and the Bears by osmosis - as much as possible before it’s time to ideally write a blank check for him in a few seasons. Ideally is said because if the Bears are paying Trubisky, that means he’s become a good quarterback that’s worthy of being built around. The early years of this support system, when Chicago is in most optimal position to give Trubisky assistance, is the time to lock your roster into place and go for it.
Thanks to Trubisky, Nagy, and a defense on the precipice of elite status, the Bears feel they can compete immediately. They might not be ready to contend for a championship, but if you’re going to transform the culture, you put the pieces for victory into place. To evolve, you have to be prepared to play relevant football and place players in positions to excel. Just like the Bears have.
As Pace told Good Morning Football in March, “there’s an excitement in this building.”
A slow Pace
To the second and more pressing question: Pace’s approach for the 2018 NFL Draft is theoretically more grounded Thursday night in Dallas.
The most apt descriptor to use Pace’s first round picks in the draft to this point has been risk with upside. The widely acclaimed safe “floor” players have never fully interested him. The talented, but unrefined prospects have been his foundation. The guys he prefers to get into Halas Hall and develop with the Bears’ program.
Kevin White, selected at No. 7 overall in the 2015 NFL Draft, was a raw receiver with only one major year of production. But at 6-foot-3 and 216 pounds, and a 4.35 40-yard dash, he presented tantalizing physical traits Pace couldn’t pass up in an offensive playmaker. The criticisms of a limited route tree would go away with time.
Obviously, it hasn’t shaken out the way Pace had hoped as White has five starts in three seasons. It spoke volumes that he felt this was the offensive diamond he needed instead of safer players on the board such as the Falcons’ Vic Beasley.
In 2016, the Bears needed a franchise edge rusher. Pace could’ve stayed put at Chicago’s original No. 11 selection and perhaps selected a tackle like the Lions’ Taylor Decker. Instead, he elected to trade up past the Giants and nab Leonard Floyd at No. 9 overall.
Floyd, famously, was incredibly athletic but 225 pounds soaking wet when the Bears first selected him. It didn’t matter. The ability to bend, drop back into coverage, and speed rush popped off the page to Pace. To build around for your defense. The jury is out on Floyd, but he finally seems to be coming into his own going into year three.
Finally, in 2017, the Bears needed a quarterback. Anyone who believed the organization was actually going to move forward with Mike Glennon without having a long term plan in place, exemplified naivety. That’s Glennon and “his year” included. Instead of going with the safer three-year starter in the Texans’ Deshaun Watson, or taking a safety in the Jets’ Jamal Adams, Pace went with the one-year “phenom” in Trubisky.
The history of one-year starters succeeding in the NFL, or lack thereof, didn’t bother Pace. It was about the ability Trubisky showed to be accurate and poised. The ceiling he could reach with fine tuning. Quarterback development is never linear, and Pace was prepared to be patient with his hand-picked face of the franchise.
Each of Pace’s first round picks had ability, but were inherent dangers with a lot to prove when they were drafted. More so than many other prospects. Each attacked a pressing need, especially the last two in pass rush and quarterback, respectively. All had the good fortune of time to develop before more roster bricks were laid down.
On the clock
If Pace continues gambling, he likely selects UTSA’s Marcus Davenport, Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds, or Florida State’s Derwin James. Three players with a ridiculous amount of upside and high class football traits, but with red flags galore that need time to be corrected.
That’s not to say that each don’t make an immediate impact, just that they’re more unlikely to do so at the start, or pan out in comparison to other choices. Every player in the draft has questions, but some carry more. Down the line, any of this trio could be transcendent with patience: like each of Pace’s previous first round picks.
If Pace works off of a safer roster construct given everything else he has in house, the draft cloud prioritization he discussed on Tuesday changes altogether. That would mean drafting Georgia’s Roquan Smith, Notre Dame’s Quenton Nelson, or Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick.
Safe players that start Day 1, but of whom are close to their talent ceilings already. Which isn’t a bad thing to say, just that they’re not likened to improve aplenty from the players they are when they become pros. Smith or Fitzpatrick in particular, could be that potential last playmaker Pace believes the Bears’ defense needs to be dominant. You know what they offer, how they play, and that they can plug in to help your team that wants to win as soon as possible. Stack your deck while the opportunity to maximize it is present.
Ultimately, the only person that knows what trigger Pace pulls come Thursday night is Pace himself. That’s a fact Fox and most of the Bears’ organization can attest to. He’s as predictable of a personnel man as there is in football.
If there were ever a seamless time for Pace to stray away from this previous risk and upside first round philosophy, it would be while the Bears were prepared to win with four years of sand left in the hourglass known as their quarterback’s rookie contract.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times, an editor for Windy City Gridiron and Inside The Pylon, and is a contributor to Pro Football Weekly and The Athletic Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.