Change is in the air at Halas Hall.
You’ve felt it for weeks. But now you’re starting to hear it too.
With head coach Matt Nagy seemingly on his way out, the Chicago Bears have also begun to do their homework on potential general manager replacements for Ryan Pace, according to multiple league sources. That homework has included gauging back-channel interest from at least one college scouting director employed by another club, which isn’t uncommon practice when contemplating a major change.
That development does not necessarily mean a GM change is imminent, however. One complicating factor is that it’s unclear how high up the change will go. One source cautioned that the organization is likely contemplating many different options right now.
That matters because there is still a very strong respect for Pace inside the walls of Halas Hall. Because of that respect, many believe Pace could be retained, either as the general manager or under a new title resulting from organizational reshuffling above him. And there are two major reasons behind the support that still exists for Pace:
1. Despite the typical ups-and-downs of a rookie quarterback, there is a nearly unanimous feeling inside Halas Hall that Justin Fields is already the most talented quarterback that has ever played for the organization. And despite the sting that still burns from drafting Mitchell Trubisky four years ago, Pace is the one most responsible for selecting Fields. Some inside the organization believe Fields will end up being the best quarterback from a loaded draft class that saw five QBs drafted in the top 15, and the fact Pace landed Fields after originally holding the 20th overall pick matters.
2. The recent success of the Arizona Cardinals (10-3) and Los Angeles Chargers (8-5) is providing hope that patience could pay off if Pace is retained. In 2018, Cardinals general manager Steve Keim survived a 3-13 record, the drafting of quarterback Josh Rosen, and a DUI before being allowed to hire his third head coach (Kliff Kingsbury) and fix the quarterback position (Kyler Murray) with the No. 1 overall pick. He and Chargers GM Tom Telesco were both hired in 2013, two years before Pace in Chicago. Last year, Telesco hired his third coach (Brandon Staley) a year after drafting his franchise quarterback (Justin Herbert) No. 6 overall.
Those situations aren’t exactly the same as Pace’s situation in Chicago — Keim worked his way up through the Cardinals organization, starting as a scout in 1999, for example — but they do provide strong examples of GM stability paying off after drafting a successful young quarterback.
The truth is, the evaluation of Pace’s seven years in Chicago is not as cut-and-dried as some would like it to be. No one would blame the Bears for moving in a different direction, but the case for keeping Pace might be stronger than you think.
Back in 2017, near the end of Pace’s third season in Chicago, I wrote a lengthy evaluation of the GM with five main factors in mind: the record, the coaching hires, the NFL Draft, free agency/trades and the football building (a.k.a everything and everyone else he oversees). The conclusion then was that Pace needed more time and deserved the opportunity to hire another head coach. Four years later, there’s even more to consider, especially because the second head coach he hired has not worked out.
46-65. That includes an 0-2 record in the playoffs. Not good enough.
While the Bears never really said it, the first three years of the Ryan Pace era were a full rebuild. There was almost nothing to work with, so Pace stripped down the roster and built it back up. When the dust settled, there were only a handful of holdovers from the Phil Emery days, including left tackle Charles Leno Jr., right guard Kyle Long, cornerback Kyle Fuller, punter Pat O’Donnell and special teamer Sherrick McManis.
The Bears went 14-34 in Pace’s first three years with John Fox as the head coach. By the end of the 2017 season, it was obvious the defense was starting to come together, while rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky provided some hope on offense.
In 2018, under new head coach Matt Nagy, the Bears finally took off and went 12-4 before bowing out of the playoffs in horrific fashion on kicker Cody Parkey’s “double-doink” as time expired.
The Bears have failed to make progress since 2018. 2019 was a terribly disappointing season that began with Super Bowl aspirations and ended with the admission that Trubisky was not the long-term answer at quarterback. 2020 was an odd season played in front of empty stadiums because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Bears only made the playoffs because the NFL expanded the postseason to 14 teams. The wild card loss to the New Orleans Saints only confirmed what we already knew — the roster was not good enough to realistically compete for a Super Bowl.
Following the 2020 season, Bears chairman George McCaskey and team president Ted Phillips announced Pace and Nagy would return, but insisted they needed to show progress. That progress never arrived. With four games remaining in the season, the Bears are just 4-9.
The Coaching Hires
By winning percentage, only Abe Gibron (.268) ranks worse than John Fox (.291) among all coaches in Chicago Bears history, but it would be unfair to call the Fox era a complete disaster, Fox helped repair a culture that was completely destroyed during Marc Trestman’s two years as head coach. He also brought in defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who was instrumental in rebuilding a defense that eventually became the league’s best by 2018.
But pairing a 60-year-old head coach with a 38-year-old general manager always seemed odd and created an interesting power dynamic. Pace ultimately had final say in hiring Fox, but he was heavily influenced by McCaskey, Phillips and Ernie Accorsi, who was hired as an advisor at the time. By 2017, it was obvious Pace needed to hire a new coach he could fully trust, and in hindsight, that should have happened before the 2017 NFL Draft when Pace was not fully transparent with Fox about his intentions to draft Trubisky. 2017 was the same year the Rams hired Sean McVay and the 49ers hired Kyle Shanahan.
That led to Matt Nagy arriving in 2018. Pace and Nagy immediately developed a bond during the interview process and that bond has stayed strong throughout the team’s struggles over the last three seasons. But Nagy was ultimately hired to fix the offense and develop Trubisky, neither of which happened.
And then there’s the key coach that got away. When Fangio departed for the Denver Broncos after the 2018 season, the Bears could have promoted outside linebackers coach Brandon Staley to defensive coordinator. Instead, Nagy rushed to hire former Colts head coach Chuck Pagano, who brought his former defensive coordinator, Ted Monachino, with him to coach outside linebackers. Staley wanted to stay, but instead went to Denver with Fangio. One year later, the Rams hired Staley to be their defensive coordinator. And in January, Telesco hired Staley to be the Chargers head coach. Ultimately, the head coach deserves the majority of the credit/blame for coordinator hires, but Staley was a holdover from Fox’s staff and was highly respected in the building. Pace and Nagy often talk about their collaboration and there’s no question letting Staley leave the building was a mistake.
The NFL Draft
It’s been a wild ride. Let’s put it that way.
Defining success in the NFL Draft can be very subjective and depending on who you ask around the league, you’ll get varying opinions and moving goal posts. This is where I’ll lean on my database of Bears player grades that go back to the 2013 season, before Pace even got to Chicago.
My system sorts players into six categories: blue chip, long-term starters, starters, fringe starters, reserve/special teamers and below replacement level. Fair expectations for draft picks are dependent on draft position. You’re obviously going to expect more from a top 10 pick than a seventh round pick. Thus, if we evaluate the totality of Pace’s draft picks based on a combination of draft position and performance, we get a better picture of how much success he has had in the NFL Draft. Typically you need three years worth of data to fairly assess a draft pick, but since recent draft history is going to factor in Pace’s future, we’ll hedge and include the 2020 NFL Draft (with almost two seasons of data), but not the 2021 NFL Draft.
|Draft Position||Expectation||Total (2015-20)||Draft Hit Rate|
|Top 10||Blue chip players||1/4||25%|
|Top 50||Long-term starters||2/5||40%|
|Rest of 2nd/3rd||Starters||2/5||40%|
|6th/7th||Reserve special teamers||2/10||20%|
Most of football is data collection and subjective judgements of that data. That’s essentially what we’re doing here. Expectations might vary by talent evaluator, but in this case, I expect top 10 picks to become blue chip players, top 50 picks to become long-term starters and the rest of the second/third rounds to produce players who become starters. In the later rounds, you’re hoping for fringe starters, backups and special teams stalwarts.
In the end, it spits out a hit rate of 38.5 percent for Ryan Pace.
So is that good? According to one former league executive consulted for this story, a team consistently drafting in the top 10 (and remember, that means higher picks in each round throughout a draft) should be batting over .500. The Bears had top 10 picks in each of Pace’s first four seasons. That same executive offered up a simpler way to evaluate picks: For every seven draft selections, do you find three starters? And using this method, undrafted free agents (UDFAs) can help boost the hit rate.
|Expectation||Total, including UDFAs (2015-20)|
|Blue chip players||1|
|Reserve special teamers||8|
By simply looking at the totality of Pace’s draft selections and UDFAs, we find that he found 13 starting-caliber players with 39 total picks from 2015-20. That’s essentially 2.3 starters for every seven draft picks, which is below the goal of 3.0.
There are a couple of other factors that matter. Many have criticized Pace’s aggressiveness in the draft over the years. He’s not afraid to sacrifice draft capital to trade up and he showed no hesitation to trade away 2019 and 2020 first round picks for Khalil Mack. Still, for all the trades, he has made 46 picks in seven years, an average of 6.57 per draft, just slightly below what teams start with every season.
Of course, the context of the individual picks matter too. No matter how you dice up the numbers, no move Pace has made in seven years was as important as the decision to trade up and draft Mitchell Trubisky No. 2 overall. Every other move Pace made hinged on the quarterback being the right pick. And Trubisky simply wasn’t the right pick.
Since 2017, the flawed evaluation of that year’s quarterback class — which also included Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson — has been well documented. Perhaps if Pace had a plethora of other home run picks to fall back on, it could save him, but the data suggests he doesn’t.
Roquan Smith is the only “blue chip” player among Pace’s draft picks, despite having four cracks in the top 10. Eddie Goldman, David Montgomery and Jaylon Johnson are the three “long-term starters.” Cody Whitehair became a long-term starter, but has graded out simply as a “starter” over the course of his six-year career. While fourth- and fifth-rounders like Adrian Amos, Eddie Jackson, Tarik Cohen, Bilal Nichols, and Darnell Mooney have been very good value picks, it’s impossible to ignore that only three of 11 picks from the first three rounds of the 2015-2018 NFL Drafts have received second contracts with the Bears (and that includes Roquan Smith who only had his fifth-year option picked up so far, but seems like a lock to be extended). Five of those 11 picks (Kevin White, Hroniss Grasu, Jonathan Bullard, Adam Shaheen and Anthony Miller) failed to even play 48 games in a Bears uniform, which is the equivalent of three seasons. The Bears also allowed Leonard Floyd and Amos to leave and have watched them become better players on different rosters.
If there’s one thing that could save Pace, it’s hope. His drafts have been trending up, with the 2018, 2019 and 2020 drafts each producing at least one long-term starter, despite only one first round pick in those three years. Montgomery is actually on the fringe of “blue chip” status as a third-rounder, while Jaylon Johnson appears headed in that direction too as second-rounder.
And then there’s 2021, which has been left out of the conversation to this point.
But it matters. A lot.
Unlike the flawed process that led to the selection of Trubisky, the process that led to trading up from No. 20 to No. 11 for Justin Fields was shrewd and should be applauded. Regardless of what happens in Fields’ career, no one is going to criticize that trade/selection three years from now. As I reported in the aftermath of the draft, the Minnesota Vikings heavily coveted Fields and there’s a strong belief inside Halas Hall that the Bears would be facing their young quarterback twice a year for a long time had they not leapfrogged the Vikings, who were also in discussions with the Giants for the No. 11 overall pick. Time will tell, but if the Bears indeed landed the best quarterback from a loaded 2021 quarterback class after initially holding the No. 20 pick, that is absolutely something Pace should get a lot of credit for. Does it make up for passing on Patrick Mahomes? Not quite, but it does show growth as a general manager compared to process that played out in 2017.
On the other hand, the jury is still out on No. 39 overall pick Teven Jenkins, while late-round picks Larry Borom Jr., Khalil Herbert and Khyiris Tonga appear to be early hits. It’s too early to know, but it’s possible the 2021 class produces at least three starters, and maybe even four, which would be the most in any of Pace’s classes. Only the 2016 and 2018 classes produced three players that played at a starting caliber level, although I suspect the 2020 class will get there too if tight end Cole Kmet continues to improve. It’s a projection, but that means three of the last four draft classes could hit that three-starter benchmark.
As I said, the NFL Draft has been a wild ride under Pace. The Trubisky pick was a catastrophic failure that frankly cost the Bears a possible Super Bowl window with an elite defense. Maybe the Fields pick will provide redemption. It would not be surprising if Pace is forever known as the general manager who finally landed a true franchise quarterback for Chicago Bears.
Of course, that was the hope after the 2017 season too. And in many ways, the totality of the NFL Draft situation is the same. Some good, some bad, with hope riding on a rookie quarterback.
Teams who end up with salary cap problems typically get there because they don’t draft well enough. In the Bears case, that is true, but the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t help either.
Early in Pace’s tenure as GM, he stayed away from top-dollar free agents, typically gave out one decent-sized contract a year, and — with a few exceptions — avoided signing players over the age of 30. His first big signing was Ravens pass rusher Pernell McPhee, who fit the 3-4 defense the Bears were transitioning to, but that money ($15.5 guaranteed) paled in comparison to the $90 million guaranteed Pace would later give Khalil Mack or even the $30 million guaranteed he gave Robert Quinn. McPhee only played three seasons for the Bears and never even played at a starting caliber level, but his contract never really hurt either. The same could be said about lesser free agents like Antrel Rolle, Eddie Royal and Alan Ball. One larger blemish was the Ray McDonald signing, which was more of a PR disaster than anything else, but it’s fair to wonder how much that experience influenced Pace’s approach going forward because he has mostly avoided players with any off-the-field issues.
Pace’s second free agent class is probably his best, as he landed both Akiem Hicks and Danny Trevathan. Hicks has been a blue-chip player, while Trevathan provided four years of long-term starter-level play before his game tailed off in 2020. With an original contract of just two years and $10 million, the Hicks signing has to be considered one of the best value signings in the NFL since 2016. He later signed a four-year extension worth $48 million, and the Bears have gotten their full return on investment despite recent injuries. Bobby Massie and Josh Sitton also played like starters on the offensive line. There were really no poor signings in 2016.
2017 was a much different story, as Prince Amukamara was the only signing that worked out in any capacity. Before Pace drafted Trubisky, he signed quarterback Mike Glennon to a three-year contract that included $18.5 million guaranteed. That has to be one of the biggest overpays in the NFL since 2017. The rest of Pace’s free agent list from that year is tough to look at: Markus Wheaton, Dion Sims, Quintin Demps, Marcus Cooper, Kendall Wright and even Victor Cruz. Again though, none of those signings hurt the Bears’ salary cap all that much. Even the Glennon contract was easy to get out of.
2018 was when things started to change, and rightfully so, as Pace felt like the rebuild was over. It started with placing the transition tag on Kyle Fuller in the offseason, which wasn’t a bad move, but resulted in a backloaded contract structured by the Packers that the Bears had to match. In hindsight, it was the first sign of future salary cap issues to come. Pace also signed wide receiver Allen Robinson, which was a great signing, but also marked the first of a series of moves that were necessary because of failed draft picks. They needed Robinson because Kevin White didn't work out. Taylor Gabriel and Trey Burton were solid players in 2018, but the Bears ultimately overpaid for both. And kicker Cody Parkey never even got to Year 2 of his four-year, $15 million deal because he was consistently unreliable and cost the Bears a playoff win.
2019 was a quieter year in free agency and there weren’t any bad signings, but when you look back and see that Montgomery is the only player acquisition from 2019 playing at a high level for the current team, it’s a year that hurts. The Bears also downgraded significantly at safety by letting Adrian Amos sign with the Packers before signing former Packer Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
And then there’s 2020, which marked a significant shift in philosophy after a very disappointing 2019 season. For the first time under Pace, the Bears went out and spent significant money on players over 30, signing Quinn and Jimmy Graham, while opting to re-sign Danny Trevathan over Nick Kwiatkoski. This is, again, where failed draft picks factor into the equation because the Quinn signing happened because Leonard Floyd didn’t work out. And Graham was signed because Adam Shaheen didn’t work out. Meanwhile, literally at the same time, the world was shutting down due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the Bears did not foresee a -7.92 percent salary cap drop coming in 2021 due to a season without fans in the stands. The timing was terrible and left the Bears searching for every penny of cap space in 2021. Quinn struggled mightily in 2020 before playing like an All-Pro candidate this season with 14 sacks.
Still, the Bears found enough space this spring to pay veteran quarterback Andy Dalton $10 million, a move that was heavily criticized at the time and seemed unnecessary after the Bears landed Fields in the draft. Very little of the Bears’ spring bargain shopping has paid off (although you could make strong argument for Angelo Blackson), but three training camp signings have proven to be very successful as left tackle Jason Peters, linebacker Alec Ogletree and tight end Jesse James all joined the team with plenty of veteran experience. Still, Pace left very little depth at cornerback after releasing Kyle Fuller and signing Desmond Trufant, who didn’t even make the team. The depleted secondary is something he must own.
As for trades, the biggest problem with the Mack trade is that the quarterback didn’t work out. The Bears knew they had a three-year window with Trubisky on his rookie deal through 2020. No matter how you look at the Mack compensation, it worked out for the Bears. The Raiders drafted running back Josh Jacobs and cornerback Damon Arnette with the picks they got from the Bears. In those same drafts, the Bears drafted Montgomery and Johnson, making better picks in later rounds at the exact same positions. The Raiders also sent back a second-round pick that turned into Cole Kmet.
But again, the quarterback didn’t work out. And that led to the 2020 trade for Nick Foles, who struggled and is now the team’s third-string quarterback. The fourth-round pick they sent to Jacksonville in that trade was the compensatory pick the Bears received for letting Amos go in 2019. Ouch.
But overall, Pace’s non-quarterback trades are pretty good. The fifth-round pick he got for Brandon Marshall in 2015 turned into Amos. The sixth-round pick he received for Jared Allen turned into Kwiatkoski. He recouped a fourth-round pick for Martellus Bennett and salvaged some poor draft picks by flipping them for draft capital. For example, Pace somehow turned Adam Shaheen into Khalil Herbert and Khyiris Tonga in this year’s draft. And he managed to get a 2022 fifth round pick for Anthony Miller, who is on his third team this year.
Pace also deserves credit for adding returner Jakeem Grant in exchange for a 2023 sixth round pick. Grant was just named NFC Special Teams Player of the Week.
But then there are the players who got away. There aren’t many of them, but there are a few that sting — none bigger than kicker Robbie Gould. Gould never should have been released before the 2016 season and it created a major kicking void that lasted four seasons before Pace stumbled on Cairo Santos late in training camp last year. Gould came back to Soldier Field in 2017 with the 49ers and single-handedly beat the Bears 15-14 with five field goals. He was then in the building as a fan for the wild card game the following season when the Bears lost to the Eagles on Parkey’s double-doink. It's not a good look when the best kicker in the stadium is sitting in one of your suites as you lose on a missed field goal.
Losing Amos also stings, particularly because he’s become such a reliable player for the Packers. It’s also a bad look that Floyd has had more success with the Rams, while Cordarrelle Patterson has 10 touchdowns this year for the Falcons with offensive coordinator Dave Ragone, who was on Nagy’s staff in Chicago.
But other than that, there really aren’t any examples of players Pace should not have let go. Too much emphasis has been placed on letting Leno and Fuller go this year. Even players like Lance Briggs, Matt Forte, Jay Cutler, and Alshon Jeffery were let go at the right time. Many — including myself — criticized Pace for not matching an offer from the Saints for wide receiver Cam Meredith in 2018, but that turned out to be a very smart move as Meredith was never the same player after his 2017 knee injury.
The Football Building
Pace’s biggest problem in this area is that he hasn’t publicly taken more credit for the advancements the organization has made under his watch. While it’s a lie that Ted Phillips doesn’t have a voice/influence in football matters, he has given Pace a lot of freedom to upgrade the team’s football operations. That included Pace hiring over 30 new positions in his first year as general manager, upgrading the team’s support staff, sports science staff and training staff. The reality is that the Bears trailed behind Northwestern in those areas before Pace arrived. He came from New Orleans and immediately helped bring the Bears into this century in terms of football resources.
Pace was also a major factor in the 162,500 square-foot expansion of Halas Hall that was finished in 2019. Phillips wrote the checks, but Pace’s vision will always be behind the new facilities whether he’s here or not. From extra practice fields, to the locker room, to the weight room, to recovery options, to virtual reality sessions, to player dining options, the Bears are now near the top of the league in resources/amenities available at Halas Hall. They didn’t know it at the time, but the expansion also allowed the Bears to better manage the COVID-19 pandemic when the NFL put strict limits on meeting space and required lockers to be spread out.
Pace’s influence in this area could carry significant weight because of the Bears’ vision for a new stadium. In a year in which the Bears visited both Sofi Stadium in Los Angeles and Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, Pace has been able to gather more information about new stadiums around the league. And based on the impressive Halas Hall renovation, the GM’s vision should be trusted more than Phillips’ vision, which once resulted in the current version of Soldier Field.
While there are obvious faults with roster construction that have been detailed in this space, there’s little doubt Pace has played a large role in upgrading the overall football operations at Halas Hall. He is very detail oriented in that regard, constantly looking into ways to improve things like travel, rest and meals. That won’t change with him around in any capacity.
The Overall Verdict
If you’ve made it this far, you probably have a better idea why Pace is held in higher regard inside than the Bears organization than he is on the outside by fans and media.
The argument for keeping Pace is one centered on being optimistic about the future. And the argument for change is one centered on very fair questions and criticism about Pace’s last seven years.
When I last went through this exercise in 2017, I wrote that Pace will “ultimately be judged on his second coaching hire and Mitch Trubisky.” For the majority of fans, it’s that simple and that’s understandable. For most organizations, it would probably be that simple too.
But the Bears have made it very clear over the years that they aren’t most organizations. At this point, many different avenues of change appear to be on under consideration, and that includes the general manager.
But what exactly transpires over the next month is less clear. The clock is ticking. Teams can begin interviewing head coaching candidates beginning Dec. 28 if they have a vacancy. The Raiders and Jaguars are already in line. But who would be doing the interviewing? And who would even be the one to fire Nagy?
The faster the Bears make these decisions the better. They can’t get it wrong this time.
Not with Justin Fields at stake.