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

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USA TODAY

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… 

Three questions for Bears CBs: Will continuity breed success?

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USA TODAY

Three questions for Bears CBs: Will continuity breed success?

 

Pre-camp depth chart

Outside corner

1. Kyle Fuller
2. Marcus Cooper
3. Michael Joseph
4. Tyrin Holloway

1. Prince Amukamara
2. Sherrick McManis
3. Kevin Toliver II
4. Rashard Fant
5. John Franklin III

Nickel corner

1. Bryce Callahan
2. Cre’Von LeBlanc
3. Jonathon Mincy

1. Can Kyle Fuller build off a 2017 breakout?

A year ago, it would’ve been unbelievable to hear Fuller would be fifth highest-paid cornerback in the NFL by average annual salary, ahead of two guys (A.J. Bouye and Stephon Gilmore) in whom the Bears had interest in free agency. This was a guy who — justifiably, given he missed all of 2016 with an injury — didn’t have his fifth year option picked up and wasn’t even assured of a roster spot coming into training camp.

But Fuller earned that paycheck with an outstanding season. Consider:

No cornerback was targeted more times than Fuller last year, even though only 51 percent of those targets were caught and he led the NFL in passes defended with 17, according to Pro Football Focus. Fuller held opposing quarterbacks to a rating of 69 when they threw his way, good for 17th among all cornerbacks.

“His preparation Is second to none,” fellow cornerback Prince Amukamara said. “How he prepares for games and how he anticipates what’s going on —  I feel like I prepared enough but when I watched him and how he does it before games there’s a lot I can learn from him and I’m just glad he’s back because he’s going to improve my game a little more and hopefully I can help him improve his.”

Why opposing teams targeted Fuller so much when Amukamara allowed a higher quarterback rating (89.1), didn’t have an interception and only broke up five passes is still a head-scratcher of sorts. But if Fuller wasn’t respected last year by opposing offensive coordinators, he will be in 2018.

So the goal for Fuller will be to be even more stifling when the ball is thrown his way. Adding a few more interceptions — he only had two last year, and both came in December — would go a long way toward him earning that four-year, $56 million offer sheet the Bears had to match.

2. Where will the interceptions come from?

The Bears are the only team in NFL history to record eight or fewer interceptions in three consecutive seasons, and Ryan Pace doubled down on an outside cornerback pairing of Fuller and Amukamara that only produced two interceptions in 2017. Nickel corner Bryce Callahan showed a bit of a playmaking streak last year with two interceptions (and a pretty sweet punt return touchdown in Week 1).

But that only accounts for four picks, a number which was equaled or eclipsed by 13 cornerbacks in 2017. All the pressure to get takeaways isn’t on Amukamara, Fuller, Callahan and a handful of reserves — Eddie Jackson and Adrian Amos will need to contribute more too — but given the questions surrounding the Bears’ pass rush, increasing the interceptions generated from this unit will be important for the overall success of the defense.

So if you see Fuller or Amukamara pick off Mitch Trubisky in Bourbonnais, perhaps look at it as good thing (it’ll be a learning experience for Trubisky, too, which isn’t a bad thing either).

3. Will any of the intriguing UDFAs make the team?

The Bears, a little surprisingly, didn’t draft a cornerback in April, but did sign a handful of undrafted free agents that will have an opportunity to fight for a roster spot in training camp. Two players in particular will be interesting to watch in July and August: Kevin Toliver II and John Franklin III.

Toliver is a former five-star recruit who didn’t live up to that hype at LSU, only intercepting two passes in 31 career games. The 6-foot-2 Toliver has projectable size and length, but his lack of production was why he went undrafted after leaving Baton Rouge following his junior season. He’s the kind of high-upside guy undrafted free agent who could garner some attention in training camp with a few good practices, but will have to consistently prove to the defensive coaching staff and special teams coordinator Chris Tabor he’s worthy of a roster spot.

Franklin may be more of a long shot, but the former “Last Chance U” star nonetheless will be a fascinating watch in Bourbonnais. The former quarterback-turned-receiver is now trying to not only make an NFL roster, but is trying to do so while learning an entirely different position on the side of the ball on which he’s never played before. Franklin had a healthy perspective on learning how to play cornerback during OTAs and minicamp (https://www.nbcsports.com/chicago/bears/last-chance-u-john-franklin-iii-chicago-bears-nfl-defensive-back-quarterback-wide-receiver), and the Bears saw something in his raw speed and athleticism to give him a shot on defense. It’d be a surprise if Franklin earned a spot on the 53-man roster, but it’d be one heck of a story if he even wound up on the Bears’ practice squad come September.

Allen Robinson appears on latest 'Big Guys in a Benz'

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USA TODAY

Allen Robinson appears on latest 'Big Guys in a Benz'

New Bears wideout Allen Robinson appears on the latest episode of 'Big Guys in a Benz' hosted by Anthony Adams. In the episode, Robinson touches on a number of topics from growing up rooting for the Minnesota Vikings despite being from Detroit, his favorite Chicago baseball team and how he went about free agency.

When asked where the Bears were ranked when looking at teams in free agency, Robinson said the Bears were No. 1 on his list.

...especially once they hired coach Nagy, you know, I had been watching his work over the past couple of years and I know it's a system that I would definitely fit into and flourish in. 

As far as growing up a Vikings fan?

Bears fans can forgive Robinson as he grew up idolizing Hall of Fame wide receiver Randy Moss. He went on to explain that once a year for his birthday he would get to go see the Vikings play in Detroit. Things came full-circle for Robinson when he was able to train for four weeks straight with Moss last summer, which Robinson said "took his game to the next level". 

When pressed to choose White Sox or Cubs, Robinson quickly responded "Cubs", making his allegiance to the North Siders known. 

And though the interview didn't touch on Robinson's ACL rehab, it did show how Robinson is quickly endearing himself to Bears fans as he prepares for a bounce-back season.