The Bears are entering the fourth year under Ryan Pace’s leadership, and to say that they have struggled to build any positive momentum in that time is an understatement. Each year, the team has new challenges. Many of those challenges are of their own making. They struggle for continuity on the offensive line after cutting offensive linemen, they have holes in the receiving game after trading away wide receivers, and they lose games after signing Mike Glennon.
Each individual thing that has gone awry for the Bears has a possible explanation not connected to Ryan Pace. For example, the Kevin White saga can be explained by a pair of unfortunate injuries. The signing of Mike Glennon can be attributed to a scheme of misdirection.
However, it should not be enough for a manager to simply not be bad. Presumably, he should also be good at something. That much, at least, is expected of those he leads. John Fox seemed to believe football strategy belonged somewhere back in the Ordovician period, but by many accounts he was still good at rebuilding the locker room. Even reality star Jay Cutler, for all his failings at QB, was good at fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives.
So, what is Pace good at?
Some things are obviously not even worthwhile discussions. It’s impossible to tell if Pace is good at picking head coaches. He has only done that twice, and Pace advocates will argue that Fox was either forced on him by ownership or else that he was brought in as part of a multi-year rebuild process to ‘reclaim the locker room.’ Meanwhile, Nagy’s Bears have yet to take the field.
Pace’s early draft picks are also not worth considering as contenders. They have played very little (I’ve already covered, here, how few games have been played by his first-round selections) or with inconsistent results. Eddie Goldman, Cody Whitehair, Adam Shaheen, Hroniss Grasu, and Jonathan Bullard are a mixed bag on many levels. That is not to say they are bad players, but there is nothing in these early-round selections to show a particular talent for drafting.
Claiming that contract negotiation is a strength of Pace’s seems like a sick sort of comedy. He has basically paid market price for in-house talent like Kyle Long and Kyle Fuller, he has failed to re-sign some talent (like Alshon Jeffery) for what are arguably justifiable reasons, and he has paid full value to attract free agents like Prince Amukamara (22nd-highest paid corner in the NFL, per Spotrac) and Trey Burton (11th-highest paid tight end in the NFL, per Spotrac). As for newer players, I can’t seem to find the details on Roquan Smith’s contract for some reason.
Early in his tenure, Pace made a lot of trades, while getting picks for players, and he really seems to enjoy moving around in the draft. That’s great, so long as he takes advantage of the market consistently. He doesn’t. Early on, he managed to get the top of market for some of his high quality assets like Brandon Marshall and Martellus Bennett, but he did not deliver on that sort of value consistently.
Pace made one really good trade (value-wise) when he jumped ahead a year to take Anthony Miller. But other than that his trades are largely book value (all of his 2017 trades, for example, were basically within five percent of the Johnson chart). The Mike Glennon “subterfuge” and his covert meetings with Mitchell “James McMahon” Trubisky? Those elaborate tricks let him pay full asking price, and full market value, to move up one spot. Again, they are not bad moves, exactly. They just are not moves that establish that Pace is actually “good” at anything.
Prior to coming to the Bears, Ryan Pace was the director of Pro Personnel for the New Orleans Saints. That means, basically, that it was his job to evaluate players already in the league. His task was making sure that the team was ready during free agency, knowing which players would make his team better.
When it comes to free agency, how has he done for the Bears? Spotrac tells us that his biggest contracts to outside players after taking over the Bears were handed to Mike Glennon ($54 million), Pernell McPhee ($38 million), Danny Trevathan ($28 million), Josh Sitton ($21 million), Dion Sims ($18 million), Bobbie Massie ($18 million), Marcus Cooper ($16 million), Eddie Royal ($15 million), Quintin Demps ($13.5 million), Jerrell Freeman ($12 million), Antrel Rolle ($11 million), Markus Wheaton ($11 million), and Akiem Hicks ($10 million).
At the top of that group is Glennon, but even leaving him aside, McPhee had a single good year in him--which does not mean much if, as Pace adherently insists --the team has been part of a deliberate long-term rebuild. After that, McPhee was basically the same as he had been in Baltimore: a rotational pass-rusher. The problem was that the Bears mistook him for someone who could do it full time. Trevathan has yet to play as well in Chicago as he did in his two best years in Denver. Meanwhile, Sitton was an elite guard for Green Bay who played like a decent guard for the Bears.
One tier down is Sims, who has been a barely adequate weapon on offense, and Massie, the placeholder tackle paid like a good tackle. Cooper came off one great year on a great defense in Arizona to play like ... well ... an older version of Cooper. I can write about Royal’s time on the Bears if necessary, but I’d rather summon Melville at that point and simply prefer not to. Demps did not work out for the Bears either, because somehow signing a 32-year-old defensive back looking for his sixth team to a multi-year deal didn’t work out.
Spotrac reports that Freeman ultimately earned a little over $8 million dollars, or just under ten grand per snap played. For those who want to tout Hicks, I answer with Rolle and Wheaton.
Late Round Draft Picks
Pace has made 12 selections in the fourth round or later, and three of those 12 selections have spent at least one year as the designated starter for the team (25 percent). Across the league, the actual trend is for 17 percent of players taken late to earn such a distinction. So far, Pace is looking good here. He also has one of the only eight Pro Bowlers taken in those rounds. Not bad at all. Perhaps we have found his area of competence.
Of course, Pace also burns off a lot of his later picks in the sixth and seventh rounds in order to get more “oomph” out of his earlier picks. That would be a fine strategy if it got results, but so far it has not. On the whole, 56 of the 231 fourth and fifth-round picks received starter designation on their team (24 percent). Whether this is because of the actual talent of the players or because teams need to at least try to get some value out of these picks is up for debate. What matters is that all three of Pace’s starters have come from these two rounds, and so all we can really say is that he (apologies) keeps pace.
Sorting purely by Pro Football Reference’s AV score, of the 458 players taken after Round 3 since Ryan Pace has been general manager, his best four picks are ranked 10th, 14th, 57th, and 69th, or four in the Top 100. This seems promising. Of course, the weakness of the Bears and Pace’s constant trading means that they have been picking earlier in these rounds, too. In fact, they have held the 14th, 32nd, 34th, 66th, and 76th overall picks in this group. That’s five of the Top 100. Given the roughness of this metric, the best we can say is that Pace had five of the best late-round picks and actually found four of the best late-round players.
Please remember, ‘the draft is a crapshoot’ does not exonerate Pace here for two reasons. First, we are comparing him to his fellow executives, who are also engaged in the exact same crapshoot. This is an apples-to-apples comparison. Second, we are trying to find something he is good at, not something he might not be bad at. Remember his three starters? He has as many selections who have earned zero AV.
So, that leaves Jordan Howard, the Pro Bowler, as “evidence” of his late-round acumen. Given that Pace actually drafted a running back in the late rounds each of his first three years, this one data point makes it really hard to establish a pattern, because Pace could simply have gotten lucky. It’s also worth pointing out that Howard earned his distinction as an alternate while playing for a team that was so incompetent in the passing game that the running game was functionally the offense, so it’s tough to call this an absolute success. To put it another way: if Jeremy Langford had not gotten hurt, the legend of Pace’s later-round prowess depends on a safety in Adrian Amos with one career interception.
That’s it. Ryan Pace is not demonstrably skilled in selecting players in the draft nor in maneuvering in the draft for value. His ability to pick up value for traded players is likewise at the break even point for all intents and purposes. His legacy in free agency is, to put it generously, mixed. His ability to drive a hard bargain (or, really, to make a deal) is actually costing the Bears a chance to move forward as a team, and there’s no sign he has ever done all that much better than average in this regard.
Do Pace’s missteps have explanations? Absolutely. Are there excuses and apologies to be made? Sure. However, what there is not is a demonstrable advantage gained by Pace. There is no sign that there is anything he actually does well in order to compensate for his other struggles.
Given that he has a contract signed through 2021, that could be a problem.
*Unless otherwise noted, all stats come from the incomparable Pro Football Reference.