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…