Expect Ryan Pace, Bears to remain aggressive with limited resources

Expect Ryan Pace, Bears to remain aggressive with limited resources

While Ryan Pace enters the 2019 league year with far fewer resources than he had a year ago, that doesn’t mean the Bears’ general manager has little work to do this time around. 
With five draft picks — the first being the 87th selection — and about $11 million in cap space (prior to the savings netted from Kyle Long’s contract restructuring), Pace and his scouting departments will have in some ways more work to do in the coming weeks and months. 
The Bears, in previous years, have been flush with cap space and top-50 picks. That’s allowed Pace to aggressively draft a quarterback, then rapidly build a competitive roster around Mitch Trubisky. But as the NFL Combine begins this week in Indianapolis, Pace will have a number of critical questions he’ll begin to answer. 
What to do with Bryce Callahan and Adrian Amos?
It’s not impossible to envision the Bears bringing both Callahan and Amos back while still having enough cap space to fill out the rest of the roster. The Bears, on Tuesday, created some more cap space by reportedly re-structuring Long’s contract, lessening the $8.5 million cap hit he was due in 2019. 
But if the Bears have to decide between Callahan and Amos, there are a few factors at play:
Production: Callahan stuffed his stat sheet in 2018, with two interceptions, five pass break-ups, two sacks and 13 total pressures. Amos, meanwhile, had a career high two interceptions (plus one in the playoffs) with five pass break-ups. A slot corner, though, is expected to make more plays than a strong safety in Vic Fangio’s defense, though Amos’ ball skills have lacked in his four-year career. 
Durability: No defensive player was on the field for more snaps than Amos (1,028), who’s proven to be a reliable, durable member of the Bears’ secondary over his four years in Chicago. Callahan, meanwhile, has missed time every year of his career due to injuries and was out for the season’s final three and a half games due to a foot injury suffered halfway through the Bears’ Week 14 win over the Los Angeles Rams. 
Positional need: The rise of 11 personnel has effectively made nickel a team’s base defense, rather than 3-4 or 4-3. Callahan has limited opposing quarterbacks to passer ratings of 74.3 and 78.9 when targeting him in the last two years, per Pro Football Focus, making him one of the league’s more reliable slot corners — when he’s healthy. If the Bears believe they can find a replacement for Amos, through free agency and/or the draft, easier than they can for Callahan, that very well could take precedent over some of his durability issues the past. 
Cost: The Baltimore Ravens signed slot corner Tavon Young to a three-year, $25.8 million contract extension with $13 million guaranteed earlier this month, a deal that likely sets the market on Callahan. That average annual value of $8.6 million is pricey, but shows how valued slot corners are in today’s NFL. The highest average annual value a safety received on a multi-year contract in 2018 was $5.45 million, though last year’s market was shallow for safeties while this year’s is deep. Amos very well could cost less than Callahan. 
The point here is there’s not necessarily a clear-cut answer for Pace. Committing a decent chunk of cash to two safeties — Eddie Jackson will be due for a rich extension in a year — may give the Bears some pause about keeping Amos. But Callahan’s durability remains a question mark, too. 
Can more cap space be created?
The Bears will gain some salary cap relief in re-structuring Long’s contract, but Pace could continue to seek out ways to generate cap short-term cap space while Mitch Trubisky is owed less than $10 million in each of the next two seasons.
Whether it’s though converting some of Khalil Mack’s 2019 salary into a signing bonus, releasing a few players to clear cap space or something else, Pace will have to get creative before he can get aggressive. But Pace has a reputation for being aggressive when it comes to roster construction, so don’t rule anything out in the coming weeks. 
Drafting resolutions
The Bears only have those five mid-to-late-round picks, but Pace has had success unearthing quality players that late before: Adrian Amos, Jordan Howard and Bilal Nichols were fifth-round picks, while Eddie Jackson and Tarik Cohen made the Pro Bowl less than two years after being fourth-round picks. 
The Bears have clear need at running back, a position that usually isn’t in high demand in an NFL draft. That’s a good thing, potentially pushing players with second-round talent to the third round, third round talent to the fourth round, etc. 
But Pace has always drafted for the best player available, not for need. A year ago, when the Bears had a clear need at outside linebacker and were months away from the Mack blockbuster even being a realistic possibility, Pace waited until the sixth round before drafting an edge rusher in Kylie Fitts. 
So even if the Bears enter the draft with the same depth chart at running back they had in 2018, it doesn’t mean Pace will over-reach to take a running back on whom he and his scouts don’t have conviction. Still, running back likely will be a major focus for the Bears’ front office and coaching staff this week in Indianapolis. 

Finding the 'It Factor' – Teams pondering draft mega-deals need to study Bears’ hits, misses trading No. 1’s


Finding the 'It Factor' – Teams pondering draft mega-deals need to study Bears’ hits, misses trading No. 1’s

At some point of Thursday’s first night of the draft, history says that some team will push a big pile of draft chips over in front of another team at the NFL table in return for the latter’s pick. Some of those will work out; others will be considerably less than successful.

Just ask the Bears. Ask them why some of those mega-deals work and others don’t.

Last year it was Arizona trading up from No. 15 to Oakland’s spot at No. 10, taking quarterback Josh Rosen. The deal netted little, unless you believe that the NFL’s worst record and this year’s No. 1-overall pick count for something.

In 2017 it was the Bears going all-in for a one-spot move and Mitchell Trubisky. The Bears at least cashed one playoff check. Kansas City traded two No. 1’s and a 3 to move from 27 to 10 for Patrick Mahomes. Two slots later Houston traded two No. 1’s to move from No. 25 to 12 for Deshaun Watson.

The Bears, Chiefs and Texans all cashed playoff checks last offseason.

In 2016 the Rams traded up from 15 to No. 1 overall for Jared Goff. Philadelphia jumped from No. 8 to No. 2 for Carson Wentz. Both teams were in the 2017 and 2018 postseason, the Rams in the last Super Bowl.

In the might’ve-been category, Bears general manager Ryan Pace pondered a move from No. 7 to No. 2 in 2015 in a quest for Marcus Mariota but judged the price too steep.

The Cardinals’ Rosen gamble and the Bears’ for Trubisky – plus three other Bears mega-deals – offer case studies on the do’s and don’t’s of blockbuster trades involving top draft picks.

Three times in the past decade, and once 10-plus years before that, the Bears rocked the NFL with franchise-altering trades for what they hoped would be franchise-defining talents. Twice they appear to have gotten what they bargained for; twice, not so much, for intriguingly similar reasons.

These deals form a collective object lesson for teams (Oakland? Arizona?) contemplating the kinds of trades this week that the Bears made that brought them Jay Cutler, Khalil Mack, Rick Mirer and Mitchell Trubisky. Only the Bears-49ers deal that secured Trubisky represented a specifically draft-weekend trade; Cutler happened 10 years ago, ahead of the 2009 draft, Mirer was moved in February 1997 for a Bears No. 1 and Mack was a late-preseason deal.

But the four together serve as a collective trail of breadcrumbs regarding what is typically the difference between those kinds of blockbusters working out vs. blowing up on the acquiring team, in those cases the Bears, this draft, someone else.

Finding “It”

The critical element is, pure and simple, football character. It’s not talent. It’s the “It Factor.”

“The competitiveness, a guy playing with, we call it ‘dog’ or energy or swagger, those kinds of things,” Pace said. “There's more specific things I don't want to get to, but I would just say you can feel a guy's football character on tape and we're really strong on that.”

Mack and Trubisky have that essential football character, the “It Factor;” Cutler and Mirer didn’t. And the results reflected it.

The Cleveland Browns snagged “undersized” quarterback but leadership-heavy Baker Mayfield and improved by seven wins last season and by four prime-time games going into this one. Irrespective of any trade situations here, the Browns, like the Bears, can vouch for what happens without “It” – Johnny Manziel, Brandon Weeden, Brady Quinn.

Cutler, Mirer: leadership-lite

If there is a jolting difference that sticks out, it is that Pace very clearly has made football character a priority (Mike Glennon notwithstanding). Others haven’t.

Those inside Halas Hall at the time recall the personnel staff asking for evaluations of Cutler by the coaching staff. Those were done and included prescient, serious reservations about Cutler’s leadership and personality.

Those were disregarded by the dealmakers as not significant. They were. Cutler's Chicago teammates said all the right things about him, even as he was shoving one offensive lineman coming off the field, told another to shut up and play his own position at another point and was telling one position coach, on the practice field, to back off his fundamentals.

Cutler took a Lovie Smith team that reached the 2005 postseason behind Kyle Orton and the 2006 Super Bowl with Rex Grossman, and missed the playoffs four of his five Smith years, then in both of his Marc Trestman years and both of his John Fox years. Grossman and Orton were a combined 40-24 in Chicago. Cutler was 51-51.

Cutler simply wasn’t worth what the Bears gave up for him. It seemed obvious at the time (certain commentators who will remain nameless here were roasted for saying so at the time) and it proved out. He was in Chicago exactly what he’d been in Denver. He was the same middling quarterback with suspect “weapons” as he was with Pro Bowl’ers Martellus Bennett, Matt Forte, Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall, behind an offensive line that included Jermon Bushrod and Kyle Long, both Pro Bowl players.

Mirer was a disaster after the Bears chose to ignore his dismal four years with the Seattle Seahawks and give away. Mirer seemed perceptibly overmatched by the game when he was given three starts in ’97, all losses. He had no confidence and, worse, inspired none.

On the other hand, Mack and Trubisky… 

A rookie Trubisky told veteran Pro Bowl guard Josh Sitton to shut up in a 2017 huddle (no one is supposed to talk in there except the quarterback), which Sitton respected and recounted. Not the same thing as embarrassing or disrespecting. Head coach Matt Nagy on more than one occasion last season made mention of Trubisky’s reactions to adversity and mistakes.

Football character. There is something to be said about a rookie quarterback who earns a complimentary nickname – “Pretty Boy Assassin" – from the defense for what he was doing to them running scout team. The defense’s nickname for Cutler doesn’t clear NBC censorship standards.

Mack brought with him from Oakland not only sacks, but also a mindset that took root in and resonated with an already-strong defensive unit.

“When you bring a guy like Khalil in,” Pace said, “I think the longer you’re around him, it’s not just the player, it’s his work ethic and it’s his professionalism and it’s everything he is as a person. And to have your best player be absolutely one of your harder workers is a great thing to have as a franchise.”

Football character.

The unfortunate reality is that character is harder to assess than talent. But as a handful of Bears transactions involving all-important high-round draft choices (and quarterbacks) have repeatedly demonstrated, arm strength, size, 40-times, all that stuff, don’t make up for a missing “It” factor if that targeted player doesn’t have “It.”

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Bears.

SportsTalk Podcast: Robbie Gould continues to toy with Bears fans... is a potential deal in sight?


SportsTalk Podcast: Robbie Gould continues to toy with Bears fans... is a potential deal in sight?

0:00 - The Cubs crush the Dodgers as El Mago puts on another show at Wrigley. Meanwhile, is the bullpen the biggest reason why they are above .500?

5:00 - One day away from the NFL Draft. Is Kyler Murray a lock to be the #1 pick. Will the Bears move up to the 2nd round?

8:00 - Robbie Gould continues to dominate the conversation with Bears fans. Hub gives his insight on a potential deal.

10:00 - Frank Thomas and Chuck Garfien join the panel to talk White Sox. They discuss when the top prospects should get called up and if now is the time for the Southsiders to add veterans like Craig Kimbrel or Dallas Keuchel.

Listen to the entire podcast here or in the embedded player below.

Sports Talk Live Podcast


Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Bears.