Heading into the 2019 free agency period, the Bears have hit an interesting crossroads with current general manager Ryan Pace. He has now been with the organization long enough that his own draft picks are leaving the team in free agency. With Adrian Amos heading north and other medium-profile players likely to depart, it’s time to evaluate how the early years of Ryan Pace’s management turned out when it comes to the offseason, starting with the players Pace let get away (or showed the door).
Each departure will be evaluated in three ways--whether or not it made sense to let the player go at the time, whether or not Pace did enough to replace what the team lost when the player left, and finally whether or not Pace correctly judged the player’s value in hindsight (in other words, did Pace let talent get away too easily).
Because rosters are large and player turnover is common, this article is only going to look at regular starters or significant role-players who left the team.
Charles Tillman left Chicago for the Carolina Panthers. Tillman is perhaps my favorite Chicago Bear of all time, largely because he exhibited that perfect combination of impact on the field and class off of the field, but made sense to let Tillman leave. It’s unclear Pace could have done anything to keep him, anyway, and Tillman was clearly more comfortable playing for Rivera. This is actually an A- move, the highest I can rank letting the Peanut Punch get away, no matter that he was toward the end of his career. As for how well Pace replaced him, he brought in Alan Ball and Tracy Porter in 2015, so...yeah...not a lot there. He did not address the position in the draft, either. Porter at least had 12 pass defenses? Yeah. Okay. This is a D-level move. Finally, however, it was obvious that Tillman was done. He played less than two-thirds of the defensive snaps available for the Panthers and then called it a career; more importantly Pace did provide him with the ceremonial one-day contract for Peanut to end his days in Chicago. This is an A.
Tillman’s departure actually averages out to a B/B-, largely because Pace needed a better plan at cornerback, and it showed on the field.
Paea also left in 2015, and this was a no-brainer. He wasn’t a system fit, and it made perfect sense to let him go. It certainly would have been a mistake to give him the $21-million-dollar contract Washington offered him. That makes this an A move. Then there’s the ability to replace him. Again, Paea was not an actual system fit, but in general function Eddie Goldman was Paea’s replacement. He has also been solid in that role. Goldman was a solid find in the second round, and Pace replaced one capable starter with another. It cost a draft pick, but restocking a roster in transition is what draft picks are for. This is also A-level work. Finally, Paea hit a wall. After leaving the Bears, he started six games for three teams and is now out of the NFL. Another solid call by Ryan Pace. This is also A-level work.
Paea’s departure was solid roster management, and earns Pace an A right across the board.
Forte was a vital offensive weapon for the Bears through more than seasons. He was clearly not playing his best football in 2015, but he still averaged nearly a hundred yards from scrimmage per game that season--even if he lost 3 games due to a knee injury suffered facing Harrison Smith. Ryan Pace admittedly did not even try to sign him at the end of the season, and so Forte left for the Jets. This was a questionable move, because Forte was an absolute safety valve for Jay Cutler, whom the team was already committed to. More than that, he basically was the Bears’ offensive leader. On the other hand, he was an aging running back. This move is probably a B, in that it made sense on a number of levels.
Behind Forte was Jeremy Langford, who took advantage of the system he was in but who still struggled to be more than a subpar running back and whose value as a receiving threat was more a product of circumstance than his own particular virtues. However, behind Jeremy Langford was Jordan Howard. Howard was not a Forte-type back, but John Fox’s offensive preferences did not call for a Forte-like back. Honestly, if Pace wanted to let go of an all-time great running back, doing it by investing steadily in the position behind him to give the team choices as they moved forward was the way to go. Call this a B+ moved, hindered really by Langford’s limitations.
Finally, there’s how Forte did after leaving the Bears. He was okay in 2016, but he clearly did not have the edge he used to have. He had his worst two seasons over the next two years, and he retired from the NFL on a ceremonial one-day contract from the Bears. Pace nailed this one, clearly moving on from the player at almost exactly the right point in his career. That’s an A.
That makes the decision to let Forte go an A-.
Think back to before Gould’s resurgence and the Bears’ struggles at kicker. Gould was underperforming. Not only was he struggling to get the ball between the uprights, he was also one of the worst in the league at touchbacks. The reality is that while a kicker can fluctuate up and down at accuracy on field goals, a poor touchback percentage tends to be fairly consistent. Therefore, actually releasing Robbie Gould made sense at the time--even if the move was unpopular. This is a B.
Now, don’t go looking at who Pace found to replace him. Just...don’t. The position has been one of weakness ever since Gould was released, and there is no way to sugarcoat that fact. Pace seems to have been cycling through kickers at a prodigious rate, but he can’t seem to find even marginal competence (with the missed playoff field goal sort of the icing on the cake). How bad has it gotten? A guy named Blewwit is now the kicker, and it makes sense. This is an F.
Finally, Gould has had a resurgence. He has reached an all-time high in field goal percentages, and he has been adequate in touchbacks, which have actually lost a bit of value due to rules changes. In short, he is the kicker that Bears fans wanted back, and he’s actually been responsible for at least one defeat of the team that showed him the door. This is a D, softened from an F only because he has admitted that being released was a wakeup call for him.
This is a D or a D+.
Could Pace even have kept Alshon Jeffery? Most signs point to the idea that Jeffery was leaving Chicago either a) since Kevin White was drafted or b) after Marshall was traded. Jeffery’s one-year prove it deal with the Eagles was more or less a sign that he wanted to be somewhere else. However, even if Jeffery did not want to stay, as the general manager Pace was the person responsible for letting things get to the point that Jeffery wanted to leave as soon as he was off of the franchise tag.
Did it make sense to let him go, instead of pursuing some other option? It did. Jeffery’s prior two seasons totaled 20 games, barely more than 1600 yards, and 6 touchdowns. He was not playing at the level of his Pro Bowl season, or even at anything roughly close to it. Resorting to extreme measures to keep him would have been a mistake. This is a B move, downgraded mostly because of the management failure leading up to his departure in letting things get that hostile.
Then, there’s the efforts to replace him. They were subpar. White is a bust. The Bears haven’t had a single receiver achieve one of of Jeffery’s “bad” years since he left. It’s touch to compare across systems, but the reality is that the Bears did not have good replacements behind Jeffery, and2017 proved that. Dramatically. This is a D, salvaged by the presence (at the time) or promising UDFA Cameron Meredith and the hopes of Bust-in-progress Kevin White.
Finally, Jeffery has played well since leaving Chicago, but it’s notable that he has endured the fewest yards per game of his career (discounting his first year in the league while he was emerging into a starting role) after leaving Chicago. Only one of his years in Chicago saw him get fewer yards per reception or yards per touch than he has enjoyed with the Eagles. Jeffery has been a solid player, but he has not been an elite weapon. In retrospect, he has played very well, but Pace seems to have been validated in not treating him like a franchise-defining wide receiver. Call this a C+ or a B-.
Overall, letting Jeffery head east for greener pastures was a C+ decision.
These five moves collectively earn a B or B- average. However, a disturbing trend emerges when the moves are looked at “horizontally” instead of individually. In each case, Pace did a solid job of identifying whether or not it made sense for the organization to cut a player or let him leave (his grade across these categories is a B+). He also did a good job of moving on from players before a downturn, but his decision to let players go when viewed with hindsight still scores out to a B. Where Pace has struggled is in setting up a plan for after a player moves on. His grade in this category is a C-, but that’s really just an A for drafting Goldman to transition from Paea and a lot of nothing behind that.
Pace has consistently struggled to replace the talent he lets go, and his backup plan is typically to draft replacements (like Goldman, Howard, and Langford). That trend is worth keeping in mind as the Bears face a season without a lot of draft capital and a rising number of players leaving in free agency.