One of the great, long-running debates in the NFL centers around the value of pass rushing versus the value of pass coverage. Though the general consensus was (and might still be) that elite pass rushers are a more valuable asset, Pro Football Focus made waves in 2019 when they released a study suggesting that actually, on a broad level, strong coverage is more important in the modern game.
Ryan Pace and the Bears have made their position on the debate plenty clear. While they do have their fair share of money tied up in the secondary (14% of their total cap), their preference for elite pass rushing is obvious; Khalil Mack's $141 million contract is the NFL's largest – in terms of total value – for a defensive player, and Robert Quinn's $70 million deal is the sixth-highest of all linebackers.
"It’s a hard position to find," Pace said on Monday. "You’ve usually got to draft it really high, or you’ve got to pay for it in free agency. It’s a really valued position. I think when you take the pass rush that we have – not just with the two outside linebackers but our interior pass rush too – and you couple that with guys who have ball skills in the secondary – so, our safeties, our corners, including the rookie, our nickel, all those guys have ball skills.
Over 17% of the Bears' cap is tied to edge rushing, with Mack's deal taking up over 12% on its own. Add another 10% of cap space for the defensive line, and it's easy to see the strategy that has Pace spending more on that side of the ball than all but six other NFL teams (DEN, PIT, BAL, MIN, LAC, MIA).
"It all starts with affecting the quarterback," he added. "Hitting the quarterback, getting after the quarterback, affecting his timing. It makes your whole defense better. It’s a passing league. I think if you hit the quarterback, your corners are better, your safeties are better, and it’s just such a valued position. It’s a hard position to find."
It's a strategy that dates back to Pace's time with Sean Payton and the New Orleans Saints. When scouting players, Payton used to ask 'what's the risk of throwing at this corner,' implying that throwing at DBs without ball skills was a relatively safe approach. The outcomes – completion, incompletion, or pass interference – generally still favor the offense.
"If you’re hitting the quarterback, those balls are going to get thrown up," he said. "... we’ve loaded up the secondary with guys who have ball skills, and with a defense that can generate that kind of pass rush, that can equate to a lot of turnovers."