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What will be Ryan Pace’s draft legacy?

After six seasons, what has come of Ryan Pace’s pledge to draft playmakers? Who will be around to serve as the foundation of the next rebuild?

NFL: Chicago Bears at Detroit Lions Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Phil Emery was a famously bad GM, fans were anxious for his departure by the time he left. A decent argument could be made that when he left, the Bears had been reduced to being one of the worst teams in professional football. However, even Emery’s tenure wasn’t a complete waste. After three years of drafting in roughly the middle of the pack (19th, 20th, and 14th), he made 20 picks. If you assess the potential of these picks according to Chase Stuart’s “expected value” chart indexed against AV, these selections carried a value of 120 points. To his (grudging) credit, Emery found a few building blocks that the next regime was able to take advantage of. Presented in order of AV earned after Emery’s departure, here are the five best draft legacies of Emery’s 3-year career.

EMERY’s GEMS

#1) Charles Leno (39 AV): It’s fitting that we start with proof that AV is not a perfect metric, but Leno has made 90+ starts, and only one of his starts was played under the man who drafted him. He has six seasons as a starter, and he earned a place in the Pro Bowl in 2018. Even if his play has fallen off as he approaches 30 (he’s 29), he has been a functional player for much of his career, and six seasons is a long run in a league where careers trend toward half of that.

#2) Kyle Fuller (37 AV): Probably Emery’s best bequest to the Bears, Fuller has played five seasons (missed 2016) and has made 76+ starts for the Bears under Ryan Pace, and in that time he also earned 1st-Team All-Pro honors and two Pro Bowl selections. He’s also not done yet.

#3) Kyle Long (24 AV): This Kyle also played five seasons (retiring before 2020) and made 45 starts for the Bears during the next GM’s era. While his best years were behind him, he did earn a Pro Bowl nod.

#4) Alshon Jeffery (12 AV): Jeffery only played two seasons for Ryan Pace, and he made 20 starts for the Bears during that time. He was Chicago’s leading receiver in 2015, and he trailed Cameron Meredith by only 67 yards for the same distinction in 2016—although being a leading receiver on the 2016 Bears isn’t much of a distinction.

#5) Pat O’Donnell (11 AV): The once-touted punter has played six seasons (in 89+ games) for the Bears, and his leg has definitely gotten a workout in that time.

There were other players who lingered for a bit, too, like Will Sutton (who appeared in 21 games and made 13 starts after Emery left) or Marquess Wilson (14 games, 7 starts, and more than 600 yards under Pace). There are also players like Jordan Mills, who left the Bears during the regime change and then lasted for four seasons on another team. However, those players only really added value that would have been easy enough to replace in other ways.

PACE’s OFFERINGS

After six years of drafting near the top of the draft (#7, #11, #3, #8, #24, #19), Ryan Pace has had roughly the 12th overall draft position. Even with all of his trades, he still has made 39 picks with a total value of more than 245 points on the Chase Stuart AV-derived chart. Essentially, even discounting the lost picks from the Mack trade and what-have-you, he still had twice as much to work with as Emery ever did. If (fingers crossed) this were to be his last season as GM, what would he be leaving to his successor?

What will his enduring legacy be in the form of drafted players? Will he leave the next guy three future Pro Bowlers and nearly 20 net seasons of starting players? If you think he will, who are the best five draftees Pace would leave the team, and how does that legacy compare? To be abundantly clear—this isn’t what the players did for the GM who drafted them (Kyle Long was a beast under Emery, but those All-Pro years aren’t counted above), this is what’s being left in the cupboard for the next manager.

My candidates include:

Cody Whitehair: I think Whitehair has the makings of Charles Leno—a good enough starter who holds his position down and does enough that the team is happy to have him, even if there are grumbles—sometimes justified—that the team would benefit from someone better. Of course, he’s already 28 (only a year younger than Leno), but he might have another five or six seasons in him.

Eddie Jackson: The ballhawk seems to me to be an obvious analog to Kyle Fuller. He’s a defensive back with talent, and while he’s having a down year, I think that’s the fault of the team and Pagano as much as a lack of talent on his part. I see him rebounding and being a reliable safety for years to come. I don’t know if he’ll give the next manager All-Pro level play like Fuller did, but he’s probably going to be an impact player for another five or more years.

Roquan Smith: Next it gets tricky. I think Roquan Smith is probably going to be at least as capable of a player as Kyle Long turned out to be at the end of his career. I have some concerns about his durability, but that makes me like the Kyle Long comparison even more. He’s young, too, and if he manages to earn a long enough second contract (as seems likely), he could match Long.

David Montgomery: I have no trouble seeing Montgomery as an Alshon Jeffery—he’s a nice offensive weapon, but running back careers are trending short these days. Even if he does turn out to be durable, I can see a new GM letting him go at the end of his contract anyway, wanting to get “his” guy. If Montgomery gives a new GM two years of locking down a major offensive weapon, he’ll be a good find.

Tarik Cohen: This guy is basically a special teams player and a gimmick. His one Pro Bowl was as a returner, and I have no idea what sort of shape he will be in if and when he finds his way back on the football field. I think he probably contributes less than O’Donnell, but I think what he contributes is probably flashier.

That leaves me with the following players on speculation—does James Daniels rebound? Do I think Cole Kmet, Jaylon Johnson, or Darnell Mooney are heading for great things? If none of them pan out, then with twice as much time, value, and picks to work with, then Pace has basically broken even with Phil Emery. If Daniels starts over on Miami, Johnson starts for parts of two seasons but never turns the corner, and Mooney turns into Wilson, is Cole Kmet going enough to justify the extra 19 picks and three years of drafting? If all of them pan out and Eddie Goldman comes back at full strength, then is that really twice as much as what Emery managed with twice as much opportunity, when we grade on the curve of time?

I don’t think so, but I have long been accused of being too critical of Ryan Pace, so I posed the same question to the other writers. Here are the responses I received:

Patti Curl:If we’re only allowed 5, Eddie Jackson, Roquan Smith, Cody Whitehair, Eddie Goldman, and Tarik Cohen. Maybe some debate over Daniels vs. Whitehair. I also like both Jaylon Johnson and Mooney but don’t think they make the top 5 yet. Miller has potential but is too late in his career to keep using that word. Nichols Ridley and Wims are decent depth pieces. All told I think Pace leaves more than Emery did. He also leaves much to be desired. In diminishing order:

Eddie Jackson, Roquan Smith, Eddie Goldman, James Daniels, Tarik Cohen, Jaylon Johnson, Cody Whitehair, Anthony Miller, Darnell Mooney, David Montgomery, Bilal Nichols, Javon Wims, Riley Ridley, and Cole Kmet.

I’m out on Pace but I 100% believe this is more than Emery left to work with.”

Sam Householder: “There’s a decent cupboard here.

Eddie Goldman still has a good career ahead of him post-COVID and he arguably should already be like a 1- or 2-time Pro-Bowler. Darnell Mooney might be at worst a decent rotational receiver. David Montgomery should at least get to the end of his rookie deal (granted that’s only two more years). Tarik Cohen, assuming he rehabs well, should be an all right piece and he’s an All-Pro returner. Roquan Smith is a player that should earn a second contract and he’s playing at Pro-Bowl type level, possibly future All-Pro. Jaylon Johnson is on a similar trajectory but he’s still super young. Eddie Jackson is already an All-Pro. James Daniels finally looked like he was taking the next step. Cody Whitehair should at least be a serviceable OL, even if he probably shouldn’t be considered their best OL as he currently is seen (that’s an indictment of those around him more than it is him, IMO).

They may not all have the honors that some of Emery’s leftovers did, but really is anyone saying that Leno’s Pro-Bowl earns him like ‘Pro-Bowler Charles Leno’ type recognition? No way, it’s more of the ‘Oh yeah, remember when he was a Pro-Bowler, that was weird.’”

MOVING FORWARD

So, that’s the question.

Obviously, it’s better for the Bears if every Pace decision works out well and if he leaves behind a team stronger than the one he took over. He has certainly had the opportunity to do so. At worst, a man who claimed to be building the Bears for sustained success should have found players who succeed in a sustained way.