Bears GM Ryan Pace’s draft strategy is not working early in 2019

Bears GM Ryan Pace’s draft strategy is not working early in 2019

Ryan Pace cut his roster-management teeth in New Orleans under general manager Mickey Loomis, who’s known as one of the more aggressive decision-makers in the league when it comes to the NFL Draft. If Loomis likes his guy, he goes and gets him and worries about the draft capital later. 

There’s considerable risk involved with trading away draft assets in today’s modern NFL, in which accumulating productive players on cheap rookie contracts is a proven path to winning. If you’re trading away spins of the wheel in the draft, you better hit on the players you pick. For the high risk, there is a high reward, too. 

Which brings us to this point: Through five games in 2019, Ryan Pace's batting average on players he traded draft assets away to acquire isn’t very good. 

Yes, Pace would — and should — ship two first-round picks as well as a few others for Khalil Mack (and a 2020 second-round pick). Sacrificing a sixth-round pick to get back into the fourth round in 2017 and snag Eddie Jackson was certainly a success, too. 

But the four biggest “conviction” trades he made within NFL Drafts since taking over as the Bears’ general manager haven’t yielded the sort of results necessary to make them successes, at least so far through five games in 2019. 

Pace sacrificed, in total, two third-round picks, five fourth-round picks and one fifth-round pick to draft four players: Leonard Floyd, Mitch Trubisky, Anthony Miller and David Montgomery. He did recoup some picks by shipping away Martellus Bennett and trading down within the second round of 2017's draft, to be fair. 

But still, no team has made fewer draft picks in the last three years than the Bears’ 17. That strategy runs counter to the league’s sometimes slow-moving analytics revolution and requires a high batting average on those small number of picks. Pace comes from a scouting background and makes aggressive moves with conviction, which is admirable. But again: Doing so requires a high hit rate. 

Floyd had a roaring start to Year 4 in the NFL, but since having two sacks against the Green Bay Packers he's looked like the player he's been over the last few years: Good against the run, but not elite in affecting the pocket. 

Trubisky is averaging 5 1/2 yards per attempt through four games this year and, yes, has been much worse than the other two quarterbacks taken in the first round in 2017. 

Miller had a largely invisible season until his outstanding 32-yard catch against the Raiders on Sunday, but still dropped a pass and committed two penalties in succession that helped give Oakland good field position on a kickoff in the second half. Five games into his second season, after a promising rookie year, Miller has just eight catches for 80 yards. 

And Montgomery, partly for blocking/scheme reasons beyond his control, is averaging 3.3 yards per carry — lower than the 3.7 yards per carry average that got Jordan Howard shipped out of town after the 2018 season. 

"His name was high on our board and we wanted to make sure we could get him," Pace said of Montgomery after April's draft. "... It was, let's just make sure we get this player we have conviction on."

Combined, those four players take up only 7.65 percent of the Bears' 2019 salary cap (Allen Robinson's cap hit of $15 million takes up 7.7 percent). Pace and his amateur scouting department, too, have done a good job hitting on the mid-round picks the Bears have made: Adrian Amos, Bilal Nichols, Tarik Cohen, Howard and Jackson have all been fourth- or fifth-round picks. 

But the Bears need more out of some combination, if not all, of Floyd, Trubisky, Miller and Montgomery over 2019's final 11 games. Otherwise, a return to the playoffs — and a positive review of Pace's draft strategy — won't be in the cards. 

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Projected 2020 NFL salary cap is good news for the Bears

Projected 2020 NFL salary cap is good news for the Bears

The NFL informed all 32 teams on Tuesday that the 2020 salary cap will increase to between $196.8 million and $201.2 million, according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport. The increased cap figure is a bit of good news for the Bears, who are one of six teams with more than $200 million committed to its roster in 2020.

The salary cap for 2019 was set at $188.2 million.

More money means more flexibility for GM Ryan Pace in free agency. And while the Bears still don't project as one of the major players on the open market this year, they'll certainly have enough spending power to add second-tier free agents and possibly a starter along the lines of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix's addition last year.

There are some player contracts Pace may want to take a closer look at this offseason, too. Wide receiver Taylor Gabriel, for example, has a $6.5 million cap hit in 2020 but represents just a $2 million dead cap figure if the Bears part ways with him. It's a quick $4.5 million in extra spending money that Pace could decide is critical for a must-have free agent. Plus, with the group of talented and young receivers already on Chicago's roster, a player like Gabriel may no longer be needed.

And what about cornerback Prince Amukamara? Sure, the veteran defensive back is a valuable starter, but cheaper options could be available on the open market. Plus, the Bears may have found his future replacement in Kevin Tolliver. Cutting Amukamara would free up $9 million in cap space (he has a $1 million dead-cap figure).

This is the funny thing about the salary cap. It's pliable. Pace can manipulate the numbers to add a big-name free agent even as we enter an offseason that appears ominous for the Bears' cap situation.

The Bears love their defensive depth. Now their playoff chances – and offseason plans – rely on it

The Bears love their defensive depth. Now their playoff chances – and offseason plans – rely on it

As it turns out, the Bears’ inside linebacker situation is a great litmus test for how you feel about the team in general. Roquan Smith is done for the year, and it doesn’t feel like Danny Trevathan is ready to return yet. The Bears will likely have to win out with Nick Kwiatkoski and Kevin Pierre-Louis, and while that was certainly never the plan, it also may not be the disaster that many think. 

“It’s unfortunate with some of the injuries that we’ve had this year,” Matt Nagy said on Monday. “But it’s a part of the game. It’s a physical game. I just like the fact that our coaches are preparing our depth guys to come in. It’s no slight on the other guys — the depth of guys that are coming in and playing, we like that.”

The Bears coaches, particularly on defense, have raved all year about the depth across all three levels. How Kwiatkoski and KPL – both UFA’s after the season – play is quietly one of the more important storylines in a final three weeks that’s already not lacking for narrative substance.

“I think they both can do the jobs,” inside linebackers coach Mark Deleone said. “There’s a perception about Kwit that I think, this year, he’s shown that he has coverage skills, and he’s done really well this year when we’ve put him in those situations. I feel comfortable with both of them – they play different positions, but they do a lot of the same jobs. I don’t feel like we’re changing the way those two guys play, based off who’s in the game.”

The good news is that so far, things look good. Though he’s only appeared in seven games, Nick Kwiatkoski’s overall grade (79.8), per Pro Football Focus, is already the fourth-highest on the defense. 

“I think he’s productive,” Deleone said. “Every single game he’s played serious minutes in, he’s made a lot of plays. And that’s something that, and I really believe this, that good linebackers make tackles. And he’s made a lot when he’s played.”

The only players with higher scores? Sherrick McManis (!), Khalil Mack, and … Kevin Pierre-Louis. After logging the second-most snaps (46) of his 68-game career, KPL was PFF’s highest-graded player on the Bears’ defense. 

“It’s not college anymore, where certain players supposedly have to do everything,” he said on Monday. “We have the right pieces, so I just have to make sure I do my job, and the rest of the team is going to have my back.” 

Deleone said that if Kwiatkoski and KPL are in fact the starters in Green Bay this Sunday, Kwiatkoski will wear the green dot. Even still, facing Aaron Rodgers and a Packers’ run game that ranks fourth in DVOA is a lot to ask, and possibly (probably?) getting Akiem Hicks back will be critical to helping both ILBs. The team’s still working to gauge where Hicks is physically, and for the first time since suffering the injury, he’ll be going against blocks in practice.

“I’ve always thought that Akiem has been an integral part of this defense,” defensive line coach Jay Rodgers said. “When he’s on the field, he obviously has more impact than when he’s off the field. But his impact off the field has been great so far.” 

Getting Hicks back in time for the Packers game may be especially good news for Leonard Floyd, who, for whatever reason, has a fun tendency of putting together huge games against Green Bay. Floyd is well on his way to another divisive and all-around confusing season: sack loyalists see a bad player, the analytics see a productive player, and the Bears see a great one.

“I think there are a lot of DBs that would love to have some of his traits,” outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino said. “I think there’s a lot of defensive linemen that would love to have some of those traits, and they just don’t. He’s got that package, and if we can get him to finish those rushes and drive those sack numbers up, I think that we’d all be talking about him differently.”

The ifs are doing a lot of heavy lifting in that quote, and eventually the Bears are going to have to decide if they want to pay top dollar for a player whose best contributions can only be described because they ‘don’t show up on tape.’ For what it’s worth, Monachino also said that he can’t think of too many players that he’s asked more from than Floyd, and that every week the edge rusher is in the conversation for “who does [their] job best on our defense.”

Especially with Kevin Tolliver filling in for Prince Amukamara, the Bears’ defense looks as unfamiliar as it has during the Khalil Mack era, and at the worst time. They’ve always been proud of their depth, and now their playoff odds – not to mention offseason budgetary plans – directly rely on it. With all that in mind, you can understand why Matt Nagy’s still looking for this season’s silver lining.