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Exit Interview: Khalil Mack

A closer look at Mack’s place in Chicago Bears history

Detroit Lions v Chicago Bears Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Khalil Mack’s career in Chicago started on the peak of the mountain – a strip sack and a pick six in the first half against that team up north in the 2018 season opener. Yes, the Bears ended up losing that game, but it felt like the start of something special. In fact, the Bears actually beat the Packers in the second meeting that year, 24-17, the only win against the Packers in the Matt Nagy era. Khalil Mack, at that point firmly operating as the best player on the best defense in the league, took down Aaron Rodgers for 2.5 sacks in a dominating performance. The 2018 season ended with a thud (or a double doi…well, let’s move on), and Mack never quite replicated the 1st Team All Pro Level 2018 season.

The 2018 early playoff exit allowed Defensive Coordinator Vic Fangio the opportunity to take an ill-fated journey to Denver as their Head Coach. That vacancy was not filled by then-assistant coach Brandon Staley, who would serve as Sean McVay’s DC for the Rams before taking the head job for the Chargers, but with Chuck Pagano. The former head man of the Indianapolis Colts came with an impressive resume, including a stint with the creative, aggressive Baltimore Ravens defense. Hopes soared for Mack to retain that high level of play, but Pagano appeared to be on autopilot, calling vanilla schemes and allowing the opposing offense to scheme Mack out of the game.

The 2019 and 2020 seasons ended with well-deserved Pro Bowl honors, but the final stat lines and impact always seemed to fall short of the potential imagined under a more creative scheme and play caller. The 2021 season held promise with the departure of Pagano and the ascension of Sean Desai, but a nagging foot injury shut down the star after only 7 games while his running mate Robert Quinn set the single season franchise record for sacks. Mack finished his Bears career with 36 sacks, 14 forced fumbles, 6 fumble recoveries, 2 interceptions, a safety, and a touchdown.

Was the trade worth it?

The Bears acquired more than just an EDGE defender in the trade with the Raiders, they earned a face of the franchise. Before the 2019 season, the Bears planned a big promotion to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the franchise. The team selected a player for each decade in team history to make into bobbleheads, giving them out as promotions before each home game that year (Butkus and Sayers shared the 60s bobblehead while Ditka, Da Coach, represented the 80s). The Bears sent season ticket holders special bobbleheads of founder George Halas and their superstar defender and face of the franchise, Khalil Mack to represent the future. Not Mitchell Trubisky. Not some other drafted player on the roster or maybe a special bobblehead of another beloved former player not in the decade set (Peanut Tillman anyone?), but Mack. The Bears knew what they had in Mack.

The trade essentially swapped the Bears 2019 1st rounder for the Raiders 2019 2nd rounder (pick 24 to pick 43 overall), the Bears 2020 1st (19 overall) and 3rd (81 overall), and a late pick swap. Using the Fitzgerald-Spielberger trade chart, that works out to 2,648 points, the equivalent to the 2nd overall pick in the draft. (Note that I’m not applying the future year discounts that many would use in the moment and make that number much, much lower)

When the Bears moved Mack to the Chargers earlier this year, they recouped value in the form of a 2022 2nd rounder (pick 48) and a 6th round pick in next year’s draft. That future 6th was then traded back to the Chargers for two 7th rounders, that put the total value paid for four years of Khalil Mack’s service at 1,224 points, or the 33rd overall pick in the draft. That doesn’t account for the giant contract extension that the Bears will still pay this year as they work to clear their books.

If we view things in these terms, would you give an early 2nd round pick and big contract money for four years of Khalil Mack in Navy & Orange? I think that math makes it more palatable than the prevailing narrative of “two first round picks was too steep.” For one of the best players in the league, the best player on the team for at least the first three years of his tenure, and the face of the franchise, it was worth it.

Legacy of Mack – Top 100 Bear All-Time

Before the 2019 season, I helped put together an article for WCG on the Top 100 Bears Players. This list serves as a time capsule with markers of great Bears players and how they stack up next to each other. As players finish their Bears career, I like to reflect on the list to see if any of them would make an updated list and where they might land. For Mack, I’m drawn to two names on the list where he should reside: Julius Peppers and Wally Chambers.

Julius Peppers will walk into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on the first ballot. He only played four seasons for the Bears but arguably had the best stretch of his career in Navy and Orange. The Bears defense boasted top 5 marks in defensive DVOA ranking, including first overall in 2012, with his stellar play an important component. He complied 37.5 sacks and was the best player on the team for long stretches of his tenure. He earned 1st team All-Pro honors in 2010 and three Pro Bowl nods. He ranked 50th overall on the WCG list.

Wally Chambers played a dominant defensive tackle for the Bears when they were simply terrible during the mid-1970s, compiling 37 sacks over four healthy seasons. Despite the circumstances, he won the 1973 Defensive Rookie of the Year, named 1st Team All-Pro once, 2nd Team All-Pro twice, and earned three Pro Bowl invites. He suffered a knee injury and the Bears ultimately traded him to the Buccaneers for the first-round pick that turned into Dan Hampton. He ranked 51st overall on the WCG list.

This is the right neighborhood for Mack to take up residence. Dominant defensive players that spent similar time in Chicago, ultimately leaving earlier than anticipated. While Peppers was cut after a disappointing 2013 season, Chambers pulled back major draft capital. Mack, dealing with a less severe injury, disappointed in his final season in Chicago and garnered a 2nd round pick in return that Chicago used on Jaquan Brisker. (Let’s hope Brisker can turn into a Hall of Famer like Dan Hampton)

The three resume’s look similar to me and I could make for any random shuffling of the three players as to where they rank all-time. I may well change my mind in the future, but on initial placement, I have settled on the following:

Verdict: Khalil Mack is a Top 100 Bears Player of All-Time, penciled in at number 50.

Final Thoughts

I enjoyed the Khalil Mack experience. An elite level talent stirring the drink in Chicago on a fun 2018 season will remain a fond highlight for Bears fans for many years. Ultimately, I believe coaching changes and circumstances beyond his control artificially capped his potential. I wish him well on his journey that should eventually land him in Canton, Ohio.

Want to keep the conversation going? Find me on Twitter @gridironborn.