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The Khalil Mack trade is better than you think for the Bears

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If you’re satisfied with the way the Bears maneuvered through the 2018 off-season, conventional draft pick accounting of the Mack trade offers another reason to pump your fist.

Chicago Bears Introduce Matt Nagy Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Bears general manager Ryan Pace has taken a lot of criticism during his tenure. Some of that criticism is deserved, and some is born of frustration. However, the man knows how to work a trade. That means that a certain writer around these parts has to admit there is at least one thing he is good at.

Let’s talk about the blockbuster trade for Khalil Mack.

Classic draft math

To acquire Mack, Pace sent away a 2019 first-rounder, a 2020 first-rounder, a 2019 sixth-rounder, and a 2020 third-rounder. In terms of conventional draft math, that’s the same as sending away a first-rounder, second-rounder, fourth-rounder, and a sixth-rounder. If you assume the Bears will still be drafting No. 10 overall in 2019, then the approximate value of this entire package is around 1800 points. Compensatory picks make it sort of difficult to peg the exact value of those later-round selections.

In the Mack trade, the Bears are picking up a guaranteed 190-point discount with the return of a future second (valued as a mid-round third). That means the Bears acquired Mack for just over 1600 points of draft value, assuming the conditional fifth-rounder doesn’t end up coming into play. That’s equal to the No. 6 overall pick in the draft. That’s remarkable.

If the Bears are simply mediocre instead of bad in 2018, and that 2019 first-rounder is reduced to No. 16 overall instead of No. 10, then the price of acquiring Mack was less than the 1350 points that are needed to buy the No. 9 pick in the draft.

In terms of draft capital, Mack was cheaper than Leonard Floyd. I like No. 94, but that’s just not right.

Player selection

The easiest complaint to make about the Mack trade is that the Bears need players. Leave aside the fact that simple warm bodies seldom win football games, the structure of the deal is such that the Bears gave away four potential players (two firsts, a third, and a sixth), but they received back three potential players (Mack, a second, and a possible fifth).

It’s true the Bears are essentially “down” a single first-round player after two more drafts (when all of the picks sort themselves out). Ultimately, that is a small price to pay when the general uncertainty of the draft kicks in.

A good rule of thumb is that 30-40 percent of first-round picks end up as Pro Bowl-level players, and about half that many end up as First-Team All-Pros. By trading for Mack, Pace essentially cashed in a pair of 13 chances for a single player: Mack. There is a chance that he does not play at a Pro Bowl level in the next four years, but those chances are much, much smaller than the chances that either or both of those first-round picks suffer the same failings (I’m not going to assign a probability to failing because it’s too vague and because I have no desire to ever anger Mack).

Cap space

This has been hammered home endlessly by the coverage of the trade thus far, so I will only mention it briefly here: if the Bears cannot afford an elite pass rusher when Mitchell Trubisky and Leonard Floyd are both on price-controlled contracts, then no team can afford that sort of deal. The reality is that elite players cost money. The Bears have space, and for years fans have been wondering what Pace planned on doing with that space. Now they know.

Pace is giving Mack $23.5 million per year with his six-year extension. That is a lot of money, and depending on how it’s structured it should average out to around 10-14 percent of the team’s cap space in most years (assuming the cap continues to move up in absolute dollars, which is fairly safe).

Ultimately, a successful team will typically sink about half of its total salary cap into its top ten players (here’s a fun analysis that goes far deeper). The Bears have basically committed themselves to having only 35-40 percent of their cap for the next nine players. Even if Trubisky is extended with another “Mack-level” deal, that would give the Bears 25-30 percent of their cap for the next eight players, and they would have the two most expensive positions in football locked down.

Let’s put this another way: the tenth-highest paid left tackle in 2018 took in less than six percent of his team’s cap, and the entire Bears wide receiver corps this year is costing 16 percent of the cap (per Spotrac). In other words, even these two contracts will leave the Bears room to maneuver if they are smart about it. They have less financial flexibility than before, sure. The thing about cap space is it only helps if you use it.

The trade for Mack was a good move. There are ways it could go wrong, but it was undoubtedly well-done. Ryan Pace should take a bow.