Bears general manager Ryan Pace was clear on one point of franchise philosophy:
“I don’t think you can have enough good pass rushers,” he said during the NFL owners meetings. “I think Seattle is an example of that. So if the right pass rusher is there in the first round, we’ll take that.”
What Pace, himself a former college defensive end, has done in his first pass through free agency as GM has been eminently consistent with his beliefs, particularly with a defense switching to a rush-focused 3-4 scheme.
But the growing question is whether or not there in fact is an “enough,” and whether Pace and coach John Fox are preparing to strike in a direction breaking from their respective experiences in New Orleans (Pace) and Denver/Carolina/New York Giants (Fox).
That looming other “direction” is wide receiver.
It’s both a matter of what Pace has done — cut Brandon Marshall, sign multiple pass-rush options in free agency — and what he hasn’t done — pursue a top starter-grade wideout…yet.
And there are enough trace elements of elite-receiver targeting in Pace’s background to form more than idle musing that he would go there.
Both Pace and Fox come from organizations with draft traditions deeply rooted on defense. Fox was with the New York Giants when GM’s George Young and Ernie Accorsi also went for running backs high in drafts, which Fox continued when he went to Carolina.
But consider: Pace was hired in 2001 as a Saints assistant. New Orleans selected Donte’ Stallworth with the 13th pick of the 2002 draft, Devery Henderson in the 2004 second round, Robert Meacham 27th in 2007, and Brandon Cooks with the 20th in 2014.
All wide receivers.
The Denver Broncos chose defensive players with all four of their first picks in Fox’s tenure there. And Carolina’s drafts for Fox were defense-oriented at the top.
But the New York Giants used the No. 7 pick in 1997, Fox’s first year as Giants defensive coordinator, on Florida wideout Ike Hilliard. Last year, Fox’s last in Denver, the Broncos took wideout Cody Latimer in the second round.
Past choices in drafts don’t definitively show what GMs and coaches will do in the present or future. But the patterns that Fox and Pace witnessed and were part of represent some of their experiences on how successful franchises built themselves. All of which make the trails of breadcrumbs worth studying.
Looking for the 'enough'
Pace has been good to his and Fox’s words on pass rushers in free agency. Teams frequently address what they consider their primary needs in free agency, thus giving themselves options in the draft for best-available-athletes and/or a specific job (quarterback). Pace, Fox and the Bears went aggressively after rush-linebackers but notably did not address a gaping void at wide receiver created with the release of Marshall.
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That solution may lie in the draft, with the Bears among those hosting a visit by West Virginia wideout Kevin White earlier this month and expected to visit with Alabama’s Amari Cooper. Both are possessed of speed found nowhere on the Bears’ current wide receiver depth chart.
Already stocking pass rushers
Coincidentally, former GM Phil Emery’s signature signings in 2014 were defensive ends for a 4-3: Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston, Willie Young. Pace has waded into his own first free agency with signings targeting pass rushers, but for a 3-4.
Pace’s acquisitions project to six new starters on defense: two-thirds of the defensive line (Jarvis Jenkins, Ray McDonald), three-fourths of the linebackers (Sam Acho, Mason Foster, Pernell McPhee) and half of the safeties (Antrel Rolle).
The cluster of linebacker transactions, combined with the stated plan to move Lamarr Houston from end back to outside linebacker, spotlighted pass rushers: Acho, McPhee, plus Houston. Houston’s return from a torn ACL makes him less than a given. But the Bears also have Allen, David Bass and Young as competition for edge-rusher spots, in addition to Jonathan Bostic and Shea McClellin competing for roster spots on the inside.
Complicating the equation (and that is in fact one of ideas behind the switch to a 3-4: becoming complicated) is that both Acho and McPhee are mobile and have rushed from inside starting points.