Ryan Pace

The Bears were right to let Cam Meredith go…and to draft Anthony Miller 

The Bears were right to let Cam Meredith go…and to draft Anthony Miller 

Cameron Meredith is one of those guys you love to root for — a local kid who scrapped his way onto the Bears’ roster as an undrafted free agent, then put together a promising second season (66 catches, 888 yards) and was seemingly on his way to being a big part of a long-hoped-for offensive turnaround in Chicago. 

So when Ryan Pace and the Bears did not place a second-round tender on Meredith, and then decided against matching the New Orleans Saints’ two-year, $9.5 million offer sheet for him, it felt like an odd decision at the time. Here’s what was written on this site, by this author, about the move:

“But whatever the reason, the Bears now have a clear need for a wide receiver. And Ryan Pace has opened himself up for plenty of second-guessing after committing so many resources to building the best possible structure around Trubisky this offseason. The Bears could've ensured Meredith would be on the team in 2018 had they placed a second-round tender on him, which cost about $1 million more than the original round tender but would've cost whatever team signed him a second-round draft pick.”

Consider this, then, a mea culpa: Pace made the correct call on three fronts: 1) not placing a second-round tender on Meredith, 2) not matching the Saints’ offer sheet and 3) filling Meredith’s void by drafting Anthony Miller. There’s no second-guessing here. 

Had Pace put that second-round tender on Meredith, no team would’ve approached him with an offer sheet — the knee injury he, cruelly, suffered in the 2017 preseason was serious enough to overlook his productive 2016. It only would’ve cost the Bears an additional $1 million to put that second-round tender on him, but then they would’ve been stuck with a guy who wasn’t healthy while making a shade under $3 million. 

Meredith was inactive for the Saints’ first two games of the season, and while his snap count and usage increased from Weeks 3-5 — finishing with a five-catch, 71-yard showing against Washington — that Oct. 8 game was the last time he was targeted. After playing 86 snaps in his first three games, Meredith only played 40 snaps in his last three before being shut down for the season. 

But it’s not just that the Bears made the right call to let Meredith go. Replacing him with an over-the-hill Dez Bryant might’ve been fine, but a better option would be an improving rookie draft pick. 

And Miller, who the Bears drafted by trading a fourth round pick to the New England Patriots to get back into the second round, is playing like he’s just that. 

Miller caught a career-high five passes for 49 yards against the Buffalo Bills last week, and has consistently been running open since returning from a shoulder injury after the Bears’ off week. Had Mitch Trubisky made accurate throws, Miller probably could’ve had three touchdowns in Week 7 against the Patriots, for example. 

“He’s got it physically, we all know that,” wide receivers coach Mike Furrey said. “But I think from the mental aspect of understanding the concept of our schemes, understanding defenses, understanding holes now — kind of how to slow down against certain coverages and all that good stuff. It’s starting to slow down, the game is starting to slow down for him. And he’s just, every week, he’s grinding to get better. 

“He’s in the film room more because he can understand it now. He can study the opponents, he can know if it’s single high or if it’s shell and all that good stuff that helps you out and kind of gives you a tidbit here before we go, before you start, and he’s done a great job of that and hopefully — he will continue to improve on that.”

The Trubisky-Miller partnership, too, is one that could be a boon for the Bears’ offense for not only 2018, but for at least the next three seasons. 

“He’s done a great job digesting all of it and just figuring out where he fits in all the concepts — how to run routes against man and against zone — and he puts his own little flavor on everything. So we just got to continue to get him the ball in open space, find those mismatches when a guy is on him and then take advantage of it. But he's done a great job. He's continuously getting better each week. And the more that me and him can throw and get on the same page and continue to build that great chemistry, the better we'll get as an offense. 

The Bears liked Meredith, and gave him the respect of telling him in person that his hometown team wouldn’t be matching New Orleans’ offer back in April. Pace and this coaching staff would’ve been happy to see him be healthy and succeed with Drew Brees in New Orleans. 

But keeping him, as it turns out, very well could’ve held this offense back. Instead of an ascending Miller, the Bears would have to overcome an injured Meredith. 

So give Pace and the Bears’ front office credit. The move that was called the Bears’ biggest offseason mistake actually wasn’t a mistake at all.

Making a realistic prediction for the Bears in 2018

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USA Today

Making a realistic prediction for the Bears in 2018

It’s been a long eight months of predicting, analyzing and wondering what the Bears will look like in 2018. 

From hiring Matt Nagy to adding Allen Robinson, Trey Burton and Taylor Gabriel, to drafting Roquan Smith and Anthony Miller, to trading for Khalil Mack and all the moves in between, the Bears have had one of the busiest and most aggressive offseasons in the NFL. We’ll finally begin to find out how all those pieces fit — with Mitch Trubisky still the focal point of this team — on Sunday night. 

“Sky's the limit,” Trubisky said. “I have very high goals for myself and this team, but you try not to look ahead. And then you don't look at things like a success or failure, you try to look at it one game at a time and we've got a great opportunity this week.”

It’s important to keep context of Sunday night’s curtain-lifter against the Green Bay Packers as one of 16 games. If the Bears lose, it’s more of the same — the Packers would move to 17-3 against the Bears in their last 20 meetings. If the Bears win, it would be statement win for Nagy (though his four predecessors also won their first game at Lambeau Field) but wouldn’t mean this team has arrived on the playoff scene just yet. 

So as we look at a realistic expectation for 2018, let’s view it in these sub-categories:

1. The growth of Mitch Trubisky

While the addition of Mack justifiably rocketed the Bears’ defense back into the spotlight, the majority of the big moves made by Ryan Pace since firing John Fox were with the quarterback in mind. The Bears believe the right structure is in place around Trubisky, both on the field and in the Halas Hall quarterback room, for the 2017 second overall pick to make a significant step forward in his development this year. 

Trubisky has gone from having a dearth of weapons surrounding him to a wealth of options, from Robinson to Burton to Gabriel to Miller to Jordan Howard to Tarik Cohen. Chase Daniel was brought in to not only back up Trubisky, but to be a resource for him with his extensive knowledge of Nagy’s system. Dave Ragone was retained as the lone holdover from last year’s offensive coaching staff, while Mark Helfrich — another former quarterback — was hired to help build the offense with Nagy. 

All those moves point to the Bears giving Trubisky the best platform possible to improve in his second year in the league. It’s now on the quarterback to follow through. 

What can that follow through look like? Since 2008, there have been 20 former first-round quarterbacks who’ve started at least 10 games in their second season in the NFL. The median numbers for those guys:

Completion percentage: 60.1
Yards: 3,294
Touchdowns: 20
Interceptions: 10
Passer rating: 84.2

That actually looks like a fairly realistic projection for Trubisky’s numbers this year. At one end of the second-year spectrum, there’s the 2017s put together by Carson Wentz and Jared Goff, who are the only two quarterbacks in that 10-year span with a passer rating over 100. At the bottom are guys like Jake Locker (passer rating: 74), Tim Tebow (72.9) and Sam Bradford (70.5). And in the middle: Andrew Luck (87), Jameis Winston (86.1, 10th) and Ryan Tannehill (81.7, 12th). 

Trubisky very well could be better than the average second-year, first-round quarterback. It’s more likely he’s better than average than down in the range of Locker, Tebow and Bradford (who ineffectively operated a dour offense for 10 games with the St. Louis Rams in 2011). 

But if those average numbers are what Trubisky spits out in 2018, that would represent a positive step in his development and could give the Bears shot at playing meaningful games in December. 

2. An improved defense

Three of the Bears’ most important defensive players will begin the season without being 100 percent: Khalil Mack, Leonard Floyd and Roquan Smith. 

Those three players will play on Sunday in Green Bay, and very well could make a significant impact on the outcome of the game. But the larger point here is this: All three players should be better versions of themselves by mid-October than they will be in early September. 

The Bears set their sights on being a top five defense before  Smith and Mack were added. The belief inside Halas Hall has been the continuity achieved by retaining Vic Fangio and his coaching staff, as well as cornerbacks Prince Amukamara and Kyle Fuller in free agency, would vault this group from being a top 10 group that wasn’t good enough to prevent 11 losses to a top five group good enough to compete for the playoffs. 

Given how much money Pace has poured into this defense — capped by Eddie Goldman’s four-year contract extension — it’s not unfair to expect the Bears to be a top-five defense. That’s a bold shout for a team that hasn’t had a defensive Pro Bowler since 2013, but only three teams will spend more on defense than the Bears in 2018:

At the least, this defense should be better it was last year, when it ranked ninth in points allowed but was closer to the middle of the pack in DVOA. 

3. Growing pains

Nagy has stressed his offense will take time to be fully grasped and implemented — after all, it took five years for that to be the case with the Kansas City Chiefs. Here’s how Helfrich summed up the offense’s play leading up to Sunday Night Football:

“At times, extremely sharp,” he said. “At times, extremely dull.”

Nagy, Helfrich, Ragone and the rest of the coaching staff have a plan in place for Sunday, and have spent the last few weeks narrowing things down to determine what plays work for Trubisky and what plays don’t. 

Even the Goff-Sean McCoy pairing last year had a lull (a three-week stretch between Weeks 5 and 7 in which Goff managed only two touchdowns against three interceptions). The same could happen for Trubisky, and if and when that happens, it’ll be a prime opportunity for the defense be tested (again — they couldn’t prevent the Bears from losing 11 games in 2017, and that’s something that has to change in 2018).  

How quickly and effectively Trubisky comes out of that nadir will be telling in his development, too. Goff, for what it’s worth, was lights out to end the 2017 season, throwing 12 touchdowns against 13 interceptions with a passer rating of 103.6. 

The larger point here, though: The Bears have found ways to lose games more frequently than win games in the last few years. Until they prove that the roots of losing are gone, these growing pains will be to be expected. 

4. A loaded NFC

The Bears could very well be a significantly improved outfit in 2018…and still finish well outside the playoff picture. A 16-game schedule lends itself to parity, but the NFC has a number of stacked teams on paper.

To wit: The Philadelphia Eagles, Minnesota Vikings and Los Angeles Rams look like the class of the conference; the NFC South should be a competitive three-team race between the New Orleans Saints, Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers, all of whom made the playoffs in 2017. Rodgers is back for the Packers, and if he's healthy, it's dangerous to bet against Green Bay. The San Francisco 49ers will ride a wave of momentum into the season. 

With only six playoff spots up for grabs, here’s how a playoff scenario could play out:

NFC East: Eagles
NFC North: Vikings
NFC South: Falcons
NFC West: Rams
Wild Card 1: Saints
Wild Card 2: Packers

That would knock the Panthers and 49ers out of the picture. It’s not inconceivable that 10 wins will be required to make the playoffs — and even then, there’s a possibility a 10-win team could still be left out of the playoffs, based on the talent of the first and second tier in the conference. 

The point being: The Bears will need an awful lot to fall in place — and not go wrong — to be legitimate playoff contenders in 2018. It’s not out of the question, it’s not impossible, but a more realistic optimistic projection would be for the Bears to be playing meaningful games in December (a month that ends with the Rams and Packers at home, and the 49ers and Vikings on the road). 

But if the Bears see positive development from Trubisky, get strong play out of a defense that has a young core locked down and plays competitive football even when losing, that would represent an encouraging season. The window to win for this franchise was pried open in 2018 with the Mack trade, but will stay open long after the final game of this regular season. 

So with that being said, here’s an official prediction of the Bears’ record — one that comes with encouraging play, but play not quite good enough to make the playoffs just yet: 

8-8. 

Ryan Pace makes a compelling counter to the ‘draft capital’ argument in Khalil Mack blockbuster

Ryan Pace makes a compelling counter to the ‘draft capital’ argument in Khalil Mack blockbuster

For those worried Ryan Pace shipped away an egregious amount of draft capital to acquire Khalil Mack, the Bears’ general manager offered a compelling counter-argument on Sunday. 

Pace traded his 2019 and 2020 first-round picks to the Oakland Raiders for Mack, and coupled with a draft-day trade to move back into the second round and pick Anthony Miller this year, the Bears won’t have a selection until the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft. They won’t have a pick in the first round of the 2020 draft, either. 

“When we look at this next draft, right, our first-round pick is Khalil Mack and our next round pick is Anthony Miller,” Pace said. 

And while the Bears won’t have that first-round pick in 2020, they will have two second-round picks after securing the Raiders’ selection in exchange for a third-rounder as part of the Mack trade. Getting that second-round pick back was important for Pace as part of the deal — and while he’s not going to say it, if the Raiders are indeed building toward their move to Las Vegas in 2020, that second-round pick could be a high one. 

“The next draft we have two (second-round picks). I’ll take that,” Pace said. “We can do some damage there.”

Another part to this for the Bears: Parting with two-first round picks would look better if the team can meet the winning expectations that have been — and should be — set by Pace’s aggressive moves to add talent around Mitch Trubisky over the last six months. Parting with, say, the 17th and 24th overall picks in successive drafts (or, if you’re in the deep end of optimism, two No. 32 picks) is far more palatable than the third and eighth selections, which the Bears have owned in the last two years. 

It’s unlikely the Bears, too, would’ve found a generational Hall of Fame talent like Mack in the next two drafts. They could’ve, sure, but players like Mack and Aaron Donald and Von Miller — the last three highest-paid defensive players of all time — are incredibly rare and hard to find.

Mack is as close to a sure thing as possible, having established himself as a dominant pass-rusher who’s also one of the more reliable players in the NFL. Mack has never missed a game in his career and played a little under 90 percent of the Raiders’ defensive snaps from 2014-2017. 

“When a guy like this becomes available in the prime of his career and not just the physical talent; the person that he is, too, and I think you felt a little bit of that, today, you've got to be willing to act,” Pace said. “We're never going to be a team that's going to sit back — we talk about, (don’t) sit on your hands. It's very easy in our league to play it safe and play it cautious, and not that we're going to be reckless, but we're going to be aggressive.”

The Bears, according to The Athletic’s Michael Lombardi, were the only team to offer the Raiders two first-round picks for Mack. But if the Bears really wanted to, they could probably trade back into the first round with one or both of their second-round picks in 2020 — and given Pace’s draft-day aggression in years past, consider that option on the table two springs from now. 

This isn’t to say the Bears didn’t get up a lot to get Mack. They did. 

But it’s also hard to argue with Pace’s rationale: If a player like Mack is available, you do what you can to go get him. 

Maybe view it this way: The Bears traded their 2020 first- and third-round picks for Mack (their 2019 “first-round pick”) and a second-round pick. And that’s more than palatable to get a player of Mack’s caliber. 

“You're talking about draft capital and also financial resources you're giving up, but fortunately we're in a really good space with our salary cap, and so our roster can handle this right now,” Pace said. “We're a young team with a lot of depth we feel good about. … I think the youth of our team, the depth of our team, the financial health of our team and then getting that second round pick back was important.”