There is no fairer democratic process in our country than the dealings of the grammar school cafeteria. Children make investments with immediate grand returns in this space every day, and no one bats an eyelash. They fix to trade their sensible string cheese, apples, and celery — packed lovingly by a parent at home — for a snack pack, a bag of chips, an energy drink, or sometimes all three. It is about taking the most wholesome and nutritious calories and turning them into sugar and sodium-laden dopamine blasts. No one pretends otherwise. No dances around this utter fact, saying, "I've earned a little treat. I'll be better and healthier later.”
No, no, your average child knows precisely what they're getting into when they take that bologna and spinach sandwich on very dark and very dry rye and exchange it for a pack of gummy bears. And they have no pretenses about doing it again, nor do they delude themselves about why they make such a trade in the first place.
This is how Bears general manager Ryan Pace runs his football team. This is how he’s always run his football team: like a child not deigning to eat something healthy, for once, for goodness sake. Any time Pace’s parental guardians pack a banana or an apple, meaning a valuable draft capital asset, he’s trying to trade it for condensed milk and sugar, otherwise known as a player that can help the Bears, theoretically, win in the shortest purview. Yes, he’s not allowed to have sugar after what happened last time. But it’s never stopped him from trading with Timmy, er, the legendary Bill Belichick.
I could gesture wildly at everything and let you come to your dramatic conclusions about how that sort of planning has worked out for the Bears of late, but I’m sure you can put two and two together. Instead, I’ll multiply two and two. Wait, that’s the same thing. I am moving on.
No process, no patience
I once wrote that Pace built his one good Bears team in the 2018 season on the strength of trades, or should I say, on the strength of turning bananas into snack packs. It was, admittedly, an admirable strategy. Pace saw a window for a championship and went all-in, capping his work with a blockbuster, historic trade for Khalil Mack. In a chaotic sport where genuine championship windows are not open in perpetuity (a team barely sneaking in as a Wild Card or lowest seed every season does not count as a contender), that kind of chutzpah should probably be seen more often from personnel executives. There’s too much parity, too much roster turnover, and too many salary-cap constraints to bet that one specific championship-level core will ever last more than a couple of years, at most.
Extended runs like the one the Patriots enjoyed with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are the extremest exceptions and can’t be replicated for a laundry list of reasons, not all of which are in your control. One would be foolish even to try.
But, depending on your finagling, if you go all-in and it doesn’t work out with a Lombardi trophy raised over your head, you can always sit back and retool normally and try again in 2-3 seasons. I know what you’re going to say: not every general manager has such job security that they can actively try not to put the best possible team on the field every chance they get. Let’s set aside Ryan Pace’s impeccable job security for someone of his, well, underwhelming resume, and it’s still not what I’m saying. If your all-in bet on a championship window doesn’t work out and you’re back at square one after a disappointing playoff finish or two, for a little while, what happens next is you manage your franchise’s capital in the traditional sense. There's no mortgaging the future. No contracts are reworked, with money, and cap dollars pushed to a later date. Perhaps you even repeatedly trade down in the draft and recoup some young players with a fresh bevy of picks.
When the new core is ready to win by your estimations, when the cupboard is full again, you start making calls, and throwing finances and picks around willy-nilly.
The issue for Pace post-2018 is that he never had the Bears step back and take this prudent, patient path. The window that opened three years ago closed almost immediately after they fell to the Eagles in the 2019 Wild Card Game. Rather than acknowledge shortcomings at quarterback and upfront and bide his time for another shot, Pace continued to push everything forward, squeezing every last drop out of a winded team he already took several years to construct. He didn’t stop trading up in the draft. He didn’t stop spending big on free agency. He threw everything at the wall, hoping something would stick.
With none of their fundamental issues addressed (if they could’ve even been addressed then, which is the point), the Bears, predictably, got stuck in their usual football Purgatory as a result.
I'll cut Pace slack in one respect.
Mitchell Trubisky’s failure to become a franchise quarterback snagged away most of the opportunity for a more passive modus operandi. The Bears did, after all, only go all-in because they thought they hit a home run with Trubisky. The moment it was clear he wasn't going to be their centerpiece (two seasons ago), the Bears were left grasping at straws. They had a roster built to win now and no reasonable means to quickly address the one position that could ruin the rest of their operation. They were in No Man’s Land.
The purpose of having a star quarterback in the NFL is not only because you generally get a ticket to the dance every year. It’s that you get a lot more breathing room and flexibility to fill out your roster once one is in place. It’s easier to push your chips in, fall short, and retool for another run a few years down the line if you have the most critical position locked in for a decade. This doesn’t excuse Pace not seeing the forest for the trees and continuing to gamble assets away, but he was in a tight bind.
The Bears didn’t have a quarterback, lost their bet, and doubled and tripled down.
If Ryan Pace will be the general manager in Chicago moving forward, if he’s even going to hold any influence or power in a front-office position, then it’s past due that this strategy shifts on a dime. If the Bears have any hope of winning something meaningful with Justin Fields, it has to. They should now be trading their snack packs and hoping for a banana or two. There's no better time to start than this year’s trade deadline— tomorrow at 4 Eastern Standard Time.
On the block
I’ll preface an outline of players the Bears could, should, and might trade with this sentiment: If it were so easy to dump your older and less useful players, every NFL team would do it every year, no questions asked. Football's natural volatility and most coaching staff’s insistence on the quick ingratiation of players into their complicated, oft-convoluted schemes severely diminishes the chances of an active trade deadline. There's also the prepackaged notion of a white flag that comes with any trade of a player. The NFL tried to address this problem in 2012 by pushing the trade deadline back two weeks, encouraging teams that were further out of relevance to lick their wounds perhaps and fight for another year. Even with more time, it's still challenging to convince a regime that has eight or nine games left in the regular season to punt everything away for next year. There’s also that whole elephant in the room about convincing other teams that they should take your unwanted players for draft picks. Easier said than done.
This isn’t to state that I don’t believe the NFL is trending toward having a more active and conscientious deadline, because I do. Hell, the Rams might make the few days before the first Tuesday of every November very eventful on their own. But these are caveats to acknowledge.
Without further ado, let’s examine each of the Bears’ main prospects for any trade haul.
Disclaimer: The Bears would have to eat the 2021 dead cap hit for any player they trade. A worthwhile short-term risk, if you ask me, but it might preclude them.
I like Allen Robinson. I genuinely think that he's an elite playmaker on a contender in the right situation, meaning one that doesn’t involve the offensive wastelands that are the Jacksonville Jaguars or Chicago Bears. Unfortunately, I think that both he and the Bears will never unlock such a reality. And 2021, through eight games, has been the low point.
After catching 200-plus passes in two seasons from the likes of Mitchell Trubisky, Chase Daniel, and Nick Foles, Robinson is enjoying career lows in production across the board. He’s 82nd in receiving yards (271), 67th in receptions (26), and is also one of the least-targeted players in football, for someone of his stature, at 49th (44). In another contract year, it could not be going worse for the veteran receiver.
Now, part of this poor play stems from the Bears’ flat-out incapability of throwing the ball without letting Justin Fields go under siege. Chicago does not have an offensive line that can block when the opposing team knows they have to, so the Bears rarely do. When they throw the ball, Fields has a lot more chemistry with guys like Darnell Mooney than with Robinson, and Mooney isn’t lighting it up either. They are a run-first offense that can't pass block, a.k.a. a situation where not many receivers would thrive, regardless of ability.
But I would be remiss if Robinson didn't share some of the blame. He's's never been a great separator. He doesn't' create space with speed. He’s a classic possession player, someone who knows how to find holes in the zone, who high-points jump balls and boxes out safeties and cornerbacks, and works with nuance only where he can. In the Bears’ offense, where everyone is struggling to separate, his archetype is a problem. I don’t think anyone, Fields included, is interested in fitting square pegs into round holes anymore.
If the Bears could find a suitor for Robinson before tomorrow afternoon, I wouldn't hesitate. They’re not going to give him the long-term extension he’s desired for years, and I suspect that he desperately doesn’t want to return to Chicago. Call it a hunch. There is the idea that the Bears will probably receive a third-round compensatory pick once they let Robinson walk. But they lose the selection the moment they sign anyone to replace him—a virtual guarantee. It’s better to trade Robinson now, if feasible. If there is anyone, I’ll decline to name teams that could call, but he’d be a helpful piece for any relevant playoff contender that needs a push over the top. Anywhere in the realm of a third or fourth-rounder as a suggested return, and I’m leaving 1,000 voicemails until that GM picks up his phone again.
I love Akiem Hicks. Based on both his production and long-standing tenor, I think he’s an all-time Bear. It should be a crime that he’s only ever been selected to one Pro Bowl (2018). An utter farce.
But for a 31-year-old defensive end who has only played one full season (well, close to it) in the last three years due to injuries, it’s time to move on. I know there were discussions about extending the veteran in the off-season. If he were willing to sign for the short-term, probably feature in a more minor role, and take considerably less than his current $12 million cap hit, I’d be open to a return. If not, the Bears’ defensive front needs a massive makeover anyway, and his departure is a part of that.
I don’t know what Hicks fetches on the open market, considering he’s nursing a groin injury at the moment. Injured players don’t usually bring back king’s ransoms. But for contenders that need defensive assistance, let’s say the Chiefs and Chargers for two, Hicks fits the bill. Anywhere in the realm of a fourth to fifth-rounder, and I am sending 1,000 texts to any GM who brings up his availability in passing.
In Ryan Pace’s seven-year tenure with the Bears, he has drafted more running backs (6) than offensive tackles (4). David Montgomery, who Pace traded up to select in the 2019 NFL draft, is his golden goose. I understand arguments on why they potentially should, but the Bears, Pace especially, are never, ever, ever, ever, ever going to trade Montgomery.
They value him far too much.
For years, Eddie Goldman has made a living not as a terror for quarterbacks but as the bane of the existence of every interior line’s double teams. As one of the NFL’s best run-stuffers and space-eaters, the 27-year-old Goldman's skill-set is more of a luxury for a contender than a necessity for a roster in flux. When you consider that Goldman will hold an $11.8 million cap hit next season for a team that needs every dollar, the Bears should try and offload him when they can.
If anything, Goldman might be Chicago’s most attractive asset for this specific deadline. Any team that acquires his services gets 2.5 years of control—perfect for a win-now contender—and a decelerated dead cap hit of $2.2 million by 2023 if they choose to move on early. I’d be calling the Bears about Goldman first if I was a team with January and February aspirations. Similarly, any mid-round offer, and I am never hanging up on the executive that’s kicking those tires. I’m staying on the line until the deal is done.
Takes a deep breath, makes self sound like Nelson Muntz
No chance. Not happening.