New general managers seldom take over strong teams. After all, most of the time the position in question came open because the prior occupant was not good enough to keep it. However, even the worst teams in the NFL usually have some quality players on them, and GMs need to balance how they build for the future while retaining quality pieces from the past. For this piece, I want to compare the “tear down” part of the last Chicago rebuild to the current tear down taking place. I will try to handle the major moves in chronological order, and I will also try to clarify details that have gotten fuzzy over time.
In 2015, Pace took over a Chicago Bears team that was almost comically inept in many ways. However, there were multiple good players left on the team, and while he retained many of them, there were a number he did not keep as he tried to “flip” the Bears.
Move #1 (Trading Brandon Marshall) Year 1, offseason
At the time the Bears moved on from Brandon Marshall, he had been a Pro Bowler for Chicago twice and 1st-Team All Pro once. Once he left Chicago, he went on to lead the league in touchdowns for the New York Jets, making it to the Pro Bowl again and earning a 2nd-Team All Pro distinction. In exchange for Marshall and a 7th-round pick, the Bears received a 5th-rounder, meaning that in terms of capital to reinvest in the team, the value gained by trading Marshall was about the same as a low 5th-rounder. To be clear–at the time this was a relatively high return for a wide receiver, as even five years ago the trade market was “cooler” in terms of what teams were willing to give up for players.
Move #2 (Terminating Tim Jennings) Year 1, offseason
Tim Jennings had his contract terminated in August of 2015, prior to what would have been his first season under Ryan Pace. The cornerback had been a Pro Bowler for the Bears twice (and a 2nd-Team All Pro once), but it was obvious that his best years were behind him. In fact, despite signing with Tampa Bay, he only played in another six games–starting in half–before being released. His career was effectively over at 32.
Move #3 (Trading Jared Allen) Year 1, midseason
As recently as 2014, Allen had lead the team for quarterback hits, and he was productive across all levels of defense, forcing fumbles, deflecting passes, and creating pressure. However, the switch from 4-3 to 3-4 was not in Allen’s favor, and his age (33) was probably also a factor. Pace was able to move Allen for a sixth-round pick.
Move #4 (Trading Jon Bostic) Year 1, midseason
Bostic was not a major part of the Chicago defense and in fact had been a healthy scratch for multiple games by late September. Thus, when it was possible to trade him for a sixth-round pick a day after trading Allen, the move made all the sense in the world. On that same day Brock Vereen was also waived, functionally ending the safety’s career after he played in 19 games. Thus, Chicago purged two more Phil Emery picks, recovering draft capital for the more promising of the two.
Move #5 (Tagging Alshon Jeffery) Year 2, offseason
The legend of Alshon Jeffery is an interesting one in Chicago. To be clear, Chicago did offer him a contract, but the details of the contract at the time were not publicly available. It was reported that the teams were far apart, with Chicago offering him under $12million per year and the wide receiver seeking more than that. Thus, Ryan Pace did retain the services of Alshon Jeffery for an extra year, and while the specific details of the offer made to him were not made public, some combination of money and environment played a role in his decision to leave for Philadelphia.
Move #6 (Not Extending Matt Forte) Year 2, offseason
Matt Forte was a two-time Pro Bowl running back who had been named one of the Top 100 players in the NFL for four of the last five years when Ryan Pace made it clear that he had no intention of retaining the halfback’s services. Forte would later find a home with the New York Jets for another two seasons, but it was obvious that time had caught up with the 31-year-old after eight seasons in Chicago.
Move #7 (Trading Martellus Bennett) Year 2, offseason
Bennett was a contentious player, but when everything aligned, he was one of the best tight ends in football. He earned the only Pro Bowl of his career while playing for Chicago, but he was also actively hostile to teammates and would take multiple plays off. He was traded along with a sixth-round pick for a fourth-round pick from the Patriots, making his net value almost identical to what was gained for Brandon Marshall.
While Pace took over a team that had been run by his predecessor for a mere three years, Poles took over a team that had been completely rebuilt (multiple times) over the course of seven.
Move #1 (Releasing Goldman and Cohen) Year 1, offseason
Goldman was beloved by some fans, but his performance was never enough to rise to broader notice (the high point was likely when in 2019 he was named as a potential Pro Bowl alternate). Goldman was let go after a shaky 2021 campaign and signed for all of 13 days with Atlanta, retiring before the end of July. Meanwhile, Cohen was at one point a Pro Bowl and 1st-Team All Pro for Chicago as a returner, but in addition to tremendous personal adversity, the running back ended his career too injured to continue playing.
Move #2 (Not Extending Akiem Hicks) Year 1, offseason
Akiem Hicks was a rock for the defense, and even though his availability was flagging during his last year in Chicago, he was a force of nature during his first three years on the team. Hicks has now caught on with Tampa Bay, but injuries have slowed him down and he has only played two games out of the eight that were available. During those games his participation has fallen short of what Bears fans would recognize as his peak.
Move #3 (Trading Khalil Mack) Year 1, offseason
The acquisition of Khalil Mack was the single largest non-quarterback move of Ryan Pace’s career in Chicago. Just while playing for the Bears, Mack earned three Pro Bowls, a 1st-Team All Pro, a 2nd-Team All Pro, and came in second in the AP Defensive Player of the Year voting for 2018. While his 2021 season saw him play in only seven games, even in those games he was able to record six sacks. After being traded to the LA Charges for a 2nd-round pick in 2022 and a 6th-round pick in 2023, he has picked up where he left off and could be on his way to what would be his 8th career Pro Bowl selection.
Move #4 (Releasing Nick Foles) Year 1, offseason
Nick Foles was at one point the Super Bowl MVP. However, by the time Ryan Pace traded the Jaguars a 4th-round pick for the right to pay him $24million ($21million guaranteed), he was not in top form and was on his 5th team. In fact, he posted the worst passer rating (by team) of his career in Chicago, and he has simply been a backup for Indianapolis since signing with them, but he still represents a major departure.
Move #5 (Traded Robert Quinn) Year 1, midseason
Robert Quinn was originally considered a misstep by the Bears, offering an unimpressive 2020 campaign with 13 starts and very little to show for his efforts on the field or on the stat sheet. However, 2021 saw Quinn earn the only Pro Bowl berth by a Chicago starter when he set a franchise record for sacks in a single season. The 32-year-old defensive end was not in the new administration’s long-range plans, though, and he was traded for a fourth-round draft pick (a little more than either Brandon Marshall or Martellus Bennett earned) halfway through the season.
Move #6 (Traded Roquan Smith) Year 1, midseason
Roquan Smith entered 2022 as the only non-quarterback on the roster that Chicago had acquired through the first round of the draft. While somehow never earning a Pro Bowl in Chicago, he did earn two 2nd-Team All Pro distinctions and he was a significant player in the defense. Contract talks broke down between the player and the organization during the offseason, and while there has been plenty of finger-pointing on all sides, Smith asked for a trade at one point. Regardless of how sincere that moment was, ultimately Poles chose to honor that request and traded the last half-season of Roquan Smith’s rookie contract (and the leverage tools that go with it) to Baltimore for a 2nd-round pick, a 5th-round pick, and a linebacker.
SUMMARY: Ryan Pace traded four players, earning as much as a 5th-round pick for a couple of his moves, and he moved on from two Pro Bowl Bears veterans. He also used the franchise tag to hold on to Alshon Jeffery before eventually accepting that he and the former Pro Bowl wide receiver were not going to come to terms on a contract.
Meanwhile, Ryan Poles has traded three players for even greater value (sometimes earning even more than a 2nd-round pick for a player), but the trade market has also shifted more toward favoring traded players in recent years, and it will take time before fans know how the post-Bears careers of Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Jared, Allen, and Jon Bostic compare to the post-Bears careers of Roquan Smith, Khalil Mack, and Robert Quinn. Likewise, Poles also let go four players who were at one point high profile members of the Bears, but only half of those players have been able to catch on with other teams.
It is probably not reassuring to find so many parallels between the two Ryans, given the struggles of Chicago over the last decade, but it also seems probable that most teams needing to rebuild do let go of good players–even ones who have productive years ahead of them. Ultimately, these moves are only good or bad based on how well they balance with other aspects of team construction. For example, does acquiring Chase Claypool for the offense help offset any decline that takes place when understudies are forced to step up on defense? It is almost certainly too early to tell. As a Bears fan, I have to hope that this time, at least, the Ryan in charge builds a comprehensive team.