Bears of Ryan Pace willing to reach for 'ceiling' in free agency, draft as ’18 talent grabs loom


Bears of Ryan Pace willing to reach for 'ceiling' in free agency, draft as ’18 talent grabs loom

With the pre-free agency tampering period opening officially on Monday morning (the unofficial tampering period has been open, well, quite awhile), the number and speed of names and teams will increase exponentially over the those of the past month or so. Against the backdrop of what’s to come, a cursory look at the operating philosophy of Bears GM Ryan Pace is warranted.

Because while it may not excuse some of the seeming wild misses on a Quintin Demps, Mike Glennon or Markus Wheaton, putting Pace’s actions in some sort of context offers a look behind the curtain, or through the fog, or beyond whatever camouflage veil analogy works for you.

Whether the past is indeed prologue, one thread that has run through three Pace personnel-acquisition campaigns (draft plus free agency) is a quest for “ceiling,” a willingness to gamble on upside – how great could this guy become? – rather than presumed safer course based on a player’s perceived “floor” – this guy is at least going to be a serviceable pro.

Former GM Jerry Angelo subscribed to the floor philosophy. The problem is that absolutely less than nothing is guaranteed when projecting even an elite college athlete onto the next level. Seeming “safe” floor picks were Michael Haynes, a Penn State defensive end taken 14th overall in 2003; Gabe Carimi, 29th overall in 2011, or Chris Williams, 14th overall in 2008. Phil Emery’s pick of Shea McClellin over Chandler Jones in 2012 fits that template.

Contrast that with Pace’s grab of Kevin White at No. 7 in 2015 – a less-experienced physical talent with just two seasons at West Virginia. Or trading up for Mitch Trubisky in 2017 – someone with just 13 college starts but viewed as possessed of enormous upside – over vastly more experienced DeShaun Watson or Pat Mahomes.

Apply that philosophy to free agency. Pace had “safe” in the form of Brian Hoyer, but opted for Mike Glennon at a multiple of the cost because of upside. Even as he prepared to cut his losses and Glennon, Pace wasn’t apologizing for the mindset behind the decision.

“We were going to be aggressive at that position,” Pace said. “We were going to take swings at that position and be aggressive at the most important position in sports.”

Taking a flyer on Wheaton, clearly another wrong guy, but it’s easy to forget that about this time a year ago, Pace was putting together a wide-receiver selection of possibilities that at various times included Wheaton, White, Victor Cruz, Rueben Randle, Kendall Wright, and Cam Meredith coming off a 66-catch season. With Josh Bellamy, Daniel Braverman, Tre McBride and Deonte’ Thompson, Pace could be excused for thinking he had at least a workable quiver of arrows.

Notably, too, is that Wheaton and Wright were dice-rolls looking for unrealized upside, in the case of Wheaton, or rediscovered upside with Wright, the 20th-overall pick of the 2012 draft.

Pernell McPhee – another “upside” play, a massive contract on a player perceived to be ready to break out after four seasons as a Baltimore backup. Danny Trevathan was a “safe” signing. McPhee wasn’t, for reasons of injury, and Pace made clear that self-scouting has been done that includes evaluation of how much risk is worth taking, particularly with a player with an injury history.

“That applies to free agency and the draft,” Pace said. “That’s important to go back and look at myself and our entire personnel department on every one of our decisions, and just like anything in life, learn from those and get better from those.”

Case studies: what the Bears ultimately do at wide receiver, perhaps balancing the upside/risk quotient of Jacksonville wideout Allen Robinson, coming off ACL surgery, with a run at a “safe” slot receiver Albert Wilson, who played for new coach Matt Nagy in Kansas City.

Transition-tagging Kyle Fuller: “safe,” from the perspective of a known cornerback quantity. Arguably a far more measured response to a position of need than, say, a Marcus Cooper signing.

The Bears will have money to win bidding wars for their targets of choice rather than settling, as they had to do last offseason when more than one free agent opted for elsewhere because of quarterback and coaching uncertainties in Chicago. But Chairman George McCaskey in the past has complimented Pace’s approach, and “just because you have cap space doesn’t mean you can be reckless with these decisions,” Pace said, “so we have to be strategic, disciplined and calculated as we enter free agency.”

But “safe?” Not always. Expect Pace to target proven producers, but there’s always that “ceiling” up there… 

After releasing him, Bears reportedly bringing back Marcus Cooper


After releasing him, Bears reportedly bringing back Marcus Cooper

Marcus Cooper's offseason has resembled a will they, won't they relationship.

The corner back signed a three-year deal with the Bears last offseason, but struggled last year and was released by the Bears after one year of that deal. However, Adam Caplan is reporting that Cooper could be back in a Bears uniform this season.

Cooper was officially released by the Bears on March 14 and visited the Arizona Cardinals earlier on Friday. Cooper started for the Cardinals in 2016.

Cooper began the year as a starter for the Bears, but finished with just four starts. He finished 2017 with 18 tackles and three passes deflected in 15 games.

His play with the Bears didn't exactly make him Mr. Popular with fans, as can be observed by looking at the savage replies to Caplan's report.

Cooper's original contract for the Bears with valued at $16 million over three years so the reported $2.5 million number is a significant pay cut and could mean he is being brought back for depth as opposed to last year when he was expected to start.

Plenty of possibilities loom ahead of Bears' draft pick

Plenty of possibilities loom ahead of Bears' draft pick

As the Bears begin to fill out their draft board in earnest, they’ll do so by evaluating the players they like and the players they think will be available when they pick eighth in April. And what players check both those boxes and go into their draft “clouds,” as Ryan Pace calls them, will depend largely on how many quarterbacks are taken ahead of the Bears’ pick. 

With about a month until the draft, it seems clear two teams will take a quarterback with a top-seven pick: the Cleveland Browns and New York Jets. The Browns own the Nos. 1 and 4 picks; the Jets traded up from No. 6 to No. 3, and teams rarely invest that kind of draft capital to not draft a quarterback. 

That leaves a few hinge points in how many quarterbacks are picked by the time the Bears are on the clock:

New York Giants (No. 2 overall)

The Giants still have an aging Eli Manning but could move to use the second pick to draft his long-term replacement. Or, alternatively, they could use this deep class of top-end quarterbacks as an avenue to trade down, add some picks and build out a young core that way. Either of these scenarios would be good news for the Bears, as we’ve seen Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, N.C. State defensive end Bradley Chubb and Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson connected to the Giants at No. 2 as well, if they were to stay there. The Buffalo Bills could be motivated to trade up to No. 2 to make sure they get the guy they want with quarterbacks almost assuredly going off the board at Nos. 1 and 3. 

Cleveland Browns (No. 4 overall)

If the Browns get their quarterback with the first pick — Sam Darnold? — they could be sitting in an ideal spot at No. 4. If the Giants draft a quarterback, Cleveland could play hardball and tell teams they’re fine keeping the fourth pick and drafting Barkley with it. That could create a bidding war between the Buffalo Bills (No. 12) and Denver Broncos (No. 5) to trade up and draft the last of the four clear-cut top quarterbacks in this class. In this scenario, Cleveland adds a bunch of picks to an already-sizable stash and accelerates their growth through the draft. 

If the Giants were to trade out of the No. 2 pick, let’s say to the Bills, it may lessen Cleveland’s desire to trade down from No. 4 unless a team in need of a quarterback like the Arizona Cardinals (No. 15) or Miami Dolphins (No. 11) starts lurking around. But as we saw last year with the Bears trading up one spot to draft Mitch Trubisky, teams don’t want to leave things to chance if they have conviction on the quarterback they want. So that brings us to the…

Denver Broncos (No. 5 overall)

The Broncos signed Case Keenum to a two-year deal and still have 2016 first-round pick Paxton Lynch on their roster, though he hasn’t shown much in only five games as a pro. Does Denver absolutely, positively have to draft a quarterback? No. They’re probably in the same boat as the Giants in that regard. But what if they really like Josh Allen and/or Baker Mayfield, both of whom their coaching staff worked with at the Senior Bowl, and one of them is still on the board when the Browns’ pick comes up at No. 4? Or what if Josh Rosen has been their guy all along? 

In that case, John Elway may make an aggressive move to guarantee he gets the quarterback he wants, and not risk losing that guy if a team were to cut the line by trading with the Browns. 

The other scenario is less positive for the Bears: Maybe the Broncos only have one or two quarterbacks out of this group they want, and they either can’t find a trade partner to move out of No. 5 or don’t want to. If three quarterbacks are drafted in the first seven picks, the Bears may not have the opportunity to draft one of Nelson, Chubb or Alabama defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds, for example, is a super-talented prospect — but we seem to be moving toward a consensus that Nelson, Fitzpatrick, Chubb and Barkley are the four best non-quarterback prospects in this draft. And in all likelihood, the Bears will only be able to draft one of them four quarterbacks are taken before they pick. 

The wild card here is Nelson, given his position (guard) is rarely seen as worthy of being a top-10 pick. But those who saw him up close in college believe he’s a future perennial Pro Bowler, possibly beginning as soon as his rookie year. The Bears’ fit is obvious, with Harry Hiestand coming to coach the offensive line from Notre Dame and the team — as of right now — still having a fairly clear need for another interior offensive lineman. Perhaps Nelson falls to the Bears even if there are only three quarterbacks off the board before they pick, but having four go off the board would make things a little less stressful at Halas Hall in late April. 

Indianapolis Colts (No. 6 overall) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (No. 7 overall)

The Colts already traded down once, and likely did so with the confidence that Chubb would still be on the board at No. 6 to help their limp pass rush. Fitzpatrick seems to be a good fit with Tampa Bay, though a player of his caliber would be a good fit anywhere. Either of these teams still could be persuaded to trade down, especially if the Giants and/or Broncos pass on a quarterback.

Chicago Bears (No. 8 overall)

If four quarterbacks are off the board by the time the Bears pick, that’s ideal for Pace. If three are, he still could get someone from his No. 8 pick “cloud” and be content staying there. If only two are — and this doesn’t appear to be a likely scenario — that means the Bills haven’t found a trade partner and may want to leapfrog the Dolphins at No. 11 to get their guy. More likely, if the Bears are able to trade down from No. 8, it would be because a team like Arizona wants to make sure the quarterback they want isn’t snagged by an opportunistic team ahead of them. 

But Pace's draft history has seen him trade up far more frequently than trade down. If someone who's in his draft cloud is available when the Bears go on the clock, chances are he'll pick that guy and not trade down. 

Plenty can and will change between now and when the draft begins on April 26. But for right now, the landscape ahead of the Bears suggests only positive things setting up for their first-round pick.