The process of replacing Vic Fangio with Chuck Pagano as defensive coordinator was a simple change within the evolving organization that is the Bears. That kind of step hasn’t always been so simple, however.
What was immediately clear, as general manager Ryan Pace and head coach Matt Nagy did their joint year-in-review briefing, was that the high-level staff hiring decision belonged to the head coach, a statement in itself.
Pace was asked what drew the Bears toward Pagano. “Really, those are Matt’s hires,” Pace said, turning to Nagy, “so he’s better to speak on that.”
For an organization that once told an incoming Mike Ditka that he’d be keeping Buddy Ryan as defensive coordinator, and told Marc Trestman that his defensive coordinator would be Mel Tucker and that the Bears would remain a 4-3 team, the process revealed both a confidence in the head coach as well as well-defined areas of responsibility. That has not always been the case.
Where Ryan would tell Ditka to get out of the defense’s meetings, Nagy was largely hands-off as far as Fangio’s operations and views Pagano as a continuation rather than a makeover.
“We're in a position here where they both have the 3-4 scheme family,” Nagy said. “We've talked about it before where you see all these ‘11’ [one back, one tight end] personnel offenses that teams are playing, you're in more ‘sub’ defense, four down [linemen]. You're talking about a minimal part of the game as far as 3-4 versus sub.
“But then there's the language part of it and where they're at. Again, there's some familiarity there. You got to remember, Vic and Chuck worked together in Baltimore.”
Pagano takes over a defense that will include linebacker Leonard Floyd for at least the next two years, with Pace stating that the team would pick up the fifth-year option on the 2016 ninth-overall pick. The price will be north of $14.2 million but “he played well and we’re happy where he’s at,” said Pace, who did not pick up that fifth year for his first No. 1 pick, Kevin White, last offseason, nor the fifth-year option for 2014 No. 1 Kyle Fuller, drafted by former general manager Phil Emery.
“I feel like Leonard is still going [up] and I think he felt that as the season was still going on, so [picking up the option] is something we plan on doing.”
Floyd did not post dominant sack numbers opposite Khalil Mack but started all 16 games for the first time in his three seasons. Playing 75.4 percent of opponents’ snaps was a jump from 55 percent in 2017 and 49.9 percent in 2016.
The Bears still have starting safety Adrian Amos and nickel corner Bryce Callahan heading into unrestricted free agency but have nearly two months before the opening of free agency on March 13.
“We have 14 UFAs so we have to go through all of them, some of whom are starters, some of whom are key players,” Pace said. “And that’s kind of where we’re at right now, with our coaches and scouts evaluating our own roster. We need to get that right first and then establish the offseason plan.”
The offseason plan is not expected to include lavish spending. For one thing, the foundation has been solidified with a roster that includes five Pro Bowl players, four on defense. For another, the Bears have an estimated $20 million in available cap space, enough to get business done but not likely enough for another Khalil Mack gambit or a play for the likes of running back Le’Veon Bell or a pricey replacement at right tackle to replace Bobby Massie. The Bears already have linemen Charles Leno and Kyle Long at tickets above $8.5 million this year, plus center Cody Whitehair hitting free agency after 2019.
“That’s my job, to ensure the roster is always getting better, whatever avenue that is,” Pace said. “Whether it’s cap space or draft picks, we’re going to strive to improve this roster in every area.
“I think back. There was a draft in 2012 in an organization I was part of [New Orleans]. We didn’t have a first-round pick. We didn’t have a second-round pick. But we had a third-round pick, and that was Akiem Hicks. There’s ways for us to nail this offseason even when the resources are a little bit more limited.”Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Bears.