Bears

Where does Ryan Pace have the Bears after half a decade at the helm?

Where does Ryan Pace have the Bears after half a decade at the helm?

 Gauging the value of an NFL GM is a tricky exercise. On one hand, it’s just an objectively difficult job. The line about how “there aren’t even 32 people on the planet that can do it” is mostly hand-waving that provides the league’s time-honored nepotism some cover, but the position is a multifaceted one that requires (in theory, at least) a level of expertise not only in football, but in PR and crisis management too. It’s all well and good that you fired up Madden ‘20 and traded Mitch Trubisky for Jimmy Garoppolo straight up, but that’s like saying you could average 10 and 5 for the Bulls because you’re the best drunk pop-a-shot player of your friends.

On the other hand, to shamelessly borrow from Bill Parcels, you are what your record says you are. At a certain point -- and let’s call it five seasons for absolutely no reason that definitely won’t come up later -- your overall record is worth taking seriously. The bill eventually shows up at everyone’s table, even the ones that have been serving beer and wings with Dan Snyder for 10 years.

This brings us to Ryan Pace, who just wrapped up his 5th season as the Bears’ GM. Does the success of a GM matter more after five years than four? Or six? Nope! Probably not. But half a decade is a nice, clean number to digest, and considering this Bears’ championship window is starting to feel more a small prison cell slot than a spacy Bay overlooking Lake Michigan, now’s as good a time as any to audit Pace. 

THE WORST OF THE WORST
Honestly, take your pick. His first coaching hire, John Fox, was coming off four straight AFC titles and a 46-18 record with Denver. Perhaps it was an arranged marriage, but Fox still came to Chicago, signed a four-year deal, and proceeded to coach the Bears to three straight last-place finishes before being fired with one year left on his contract; he hasn’t coached since, but he landed on his feet throwing potshots at the Bears from an ESPN2 studio in the middle of the afternoon. On the roster side of things, 2015 included taking WR Kevin White with the 7th overall pick, who’s also no longer in the league. Pace’s big free agent land that year was Pernell McPhee, who only started 17 games over three years. Antrel Rolle (2015) also didn’t pan out, nor did Eddie Royal (2015) or Dion Simms (2017), to name a few. 

Since then, Pace’s most egregious mistakes have been directly tied to the most important position in sports, no big deal. Mike Glennon got $45 million for three years back in 2017, and then was benched after four games and cut after 16. Not sure if you remember, but Pace also traded up for the second overall pick in the 2017 draft. At the risk of purposefully underselling that point, I’ll just say that Trubisky’s production has lagged behind other quarterbacks in that draft. 

Hiring Matt Nagy looked to be a good move, and might still prove to be. Still, the Bears have finished with poor offensive stats in both of Nagy’s two seasons in Chicago, and after their latest 8-8 debacle, Pace’s record with the Bears now sits 12 games under .500 (34-46). Not great!

THE BEST OF THE BEST

The least-wordy way to point out how good Pace has been at building a talented roster is by simply listing the moves he made, so I’m just going to do that: 

2015’s notable draftees: Eddie Goldman (39), Adrian Amos (142)
2016’s notable draftees: Leonard Floyd (9), Cody Whitehair (56), Nick Kwiatkoski (113) Deon Bush (124), Jordan Howard (150), DeAndre Houston-Carson (185)
2017’s notable draftees: Eddie Jackson (112), Tarik Cohen (119) 
2018’s notable draftees: Roquan Smith (8), James Daniels (39), Anthony Miller (51), Joel Iyiegbuniwe (115), Bilal Nichols (145), Javon Wims (224)

Friends, you’re not going to want to hear this, but Pace is sort of on a draft heater. There is a LOT of NFL talent in those picks, and Goldman, Amos, Floyd (kind of), Whitehair, and Jackson have already signed big-money extensions. Raises are probably coming for Smith, Cohen, Daniels, Miller, and Kwiatkoski as well. None of this even accounts for bringing in Akiem Hicks, Danny Trevathan, and Khalil Mack. The Bears have been able to finish at or above .500 in both of the years that Mitch Trubisky has been the starter, which is a testament to how well the team is built from top to bottom. 

This doesn’t begin to cover all the good (Allen Robinson! Vic Fangio!) or bad (Adam Shaheen! The end-of-season press conference!) that has Pace’s fingerprints on it, because again, being an NFL GM is a lot of work. Five years into his tenure, it’s probably fair to say that Pace is a good GM -- many, many NFL teams have far less of a foundation in place. Building an NFL team goes way beyond finding a quarterback, and Pace has shown that he not only understands that, but is good at it. The sad irony, of course, is that for as big as NFL rosters are, no other sport has such a direct correlation between the success of the team and the success of one specific position. Ryan Pace is a good GM, but the jury’s still out on him as an evaluator of quarterbacks - and when that’s the only real path to sustained success, the fate of even the most multifaceted job is decided through binary results. 

Bears Free Agent Focus: Eric Ebron

Bears Free Agent Focus: Eric Ebron

Stop me if you've heard this one before: The Bears need a tight end.

It's a narrative that started bubbling since the middle of the 2019 regular season when it became apparent that neither Trey Burton nor Adam Shaheen was the answer at the position for the Bears. Coach Matt Nagy was forced to turn to undrafted rookie Jesper Horsted and little-known veteran J.P. Holtz to find production for his offense. It was a big problem for Nagy, whose system calls for a playmaking tight end like Travis Kelce to hit its maximum potential.

To be fair, there's only a few at that level (Kelce, George Kittle and Zach Ertz) in the league right now. But the Bears have to do their due diligence this offseason to try and find a 'lite' version of that guy. One player in free agency who has a resume of recent production as a pass-catcher to maybe be 'that guy' is Eric Ebron, who's coming off of a down year with the Colts.

Ebron appeared in just 11 games last season and finished with 31 catches for 375 yards and three touchdowns. It was a stark contrast from 2018 when he scored 13 touchdowns and was one of the NFL's best playmakers at the position.

RELATED: Bears Free Agent Focus: Case Keenum

The problem with Ebron as a viable target for Chicago is that his tenure in the league produced more seasons like 2019 than 2018, but his pedigree as a former top-10 pick with high-end athletic traits warrants at least a look for a possible one-year prove-it deal.

At 26 years old, Ebron still has a lot of good football left in his legs. His market value should come in lower than Burton's $8 million per season; according to Spotrac, Ebron's expected contract this offseason will pay him around $7.5 million per year. Compared to the likely cost for players like Austin Hooper (Falcons) and Hunter Henry (Chargers), Ebron will be a bargain.

Ryan Pace will be bargain shopping in March, and Ebron may end up on the discount rack after the first wave of free agency concludes. Teams will be hesitant to offer him the kind of multi-year deal he's going to seek, which will give the Bears a chance to swoop in and lure him with the prove-it theory. He's young enough to earn a lucrative contract in 2021 if he posts big-time numbers in 2020, which Nagy's offense will give him the chance to do if he stays healthy.

Even the worst version of Ebron is better than the best of what Chicago has on its roster right now. He should rank highly on their offseason wish list, assuming his market remains where it logically should.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Bears easily on your device

Bears Free Agent Focus: Case Keenum

Bears Free Agent Focus: Case Keenum

The Bears have been connected to all of the big-name free agent quarterbacks this offseason. General manager Ryan Pace is expected to add competition for the starting job in free agency or the 2020 NFL draft after incumbent and former second overall pick, Mitch Trubisky, regressed mightily in his third season last year.

But rather than focus on players like Tom Brady, Philip Rivers and even Marcus Mariota, it makes more sense to pay close attention to the next tier of free agent passers who could offer a potential upgrade from Trubisky while not necessarily creating shockwaves through Halas Hall upon signing.

One quarterback who fits that description perfectly is Case Keenum, the journeyman starter who's entering his 10th season in the league. 

Keenum is coming off of back-to-back forgettable seasons with the Broncos and Redskins, but it wasn't long ago when he was one of the better storylines in the NFL after leading the Vikings to 11 wins in 14 starts in 2017. He threw for 3,547 yards, 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions that year and earned himself a respectable two-year, $36 million contract with Denver in 2018. His tenure as a Bronco lasted just one season (he finished 2018 with a 6-10 record) and his time as the Redskins starter was short-lived in 2019. He started just eight games for Washington.

For his career, Keenum's completed 62.4% of his passes and has thrown 75 touchdowns compared to 47 interceptions.

Keenum's resume isn't overly impressive, which is why he's a great fit for what Pace should try to accomplish over the next two months. He has to find a competent starter who can take advantage of everything else the Bears have going for them (namely, a championship-caliber defense) and who can be aggressive enough on offense to score enough points to win the close games. Keenum proved in 2017 that he can do that, especially when he has a good supporting case around him.

Keenum also qualifies as a solid bridge quarterback in the event Trubisky crashes and burns in 2020. At 32 years old, he's young enough to keep the starting job for a couple of seasons while Chicago attempts to find a younger long-term answer under center. 

Last but not least, he's going to be cheap. He didn't have a good year in 2019, and he was making just $3.5 million with the Redskins. There will be a limited market for his services this March, which means the Bears should be able to land him at a backup's salary despite his starter's upside. And that matters, especially for a team that's trying to free up salary cap space for other positions of need along the offensive line and secondary.

Keenum won't move the needle much for Bears fans in March, but landing a player of his caliber could ultimately be the difference between the Bears missing the playoffs for the second consecutive season and making a deep playoff run.