Ryan Pace

Bears keep kicking options open as Robbie Gould replaces Cody Parkey as the elephant in the room

Bears keep kicking options open as Robbie Gould replaces Cody Parkey as the elephant in the room

At the end of Matt Nagy and Ryan Pace’s joint press conference Saturday night at Halas Hall, the Bears’ coach interjected while his general manager fielded another question regarding the team’s uncertain kicking situation. 

“The one thing is just want to say real quick — I’m going to be upfront and honest too with the whole kicking thing, the elephant in the room,” Nagy said. “We already talked to our team about it. It’s good. There’s been so many examples in the last three, four weeks of, whether it’s an individual accomplishment in sports or whether it’s a team accomplishment that I could just throw at you right now, that something bad happened last year or in previous years, and it turned into a great deal the following year. 

“So this right here is half full, not half empty,” Nagy said, holding a half-consumed bottle of water. “So that’s where we’re at right now. So all this kicking stuff and the field goals and everything like that, we’re open. 

“So we can use the, ‘Hey, the Cody Parkey miss.’ It’s ok. It doesn’t hurt me. It’s fine. It’s good. So you guys can say it. We’re good with it, so use it, talk about it. It’s a healthy thing. So we feel good about it and we’re gonna get this thing right.”

The placekicking elephant in the room may no longer be Parkey, though. It’s a kicker far more accomplished, who happens to reside in the Bears' own backyard. 

Pace chuckled when asked Saturday if he’d try to acquire one of the best kickers in the NFL who happens to live in Chicago and wants to be traded. Neither the question nor non-answer answer included the words “Robbie Gould,” but the discontented and possibly-available San Francisco 49ers kicker will loom larger over the Bears’ kicking competition than Parkey’s double-doink at this point. 

The 49ers have no intention of trading Gould right now, of course. There's no rush for San Francisco general manager John Lynch to cave to the demands of a kicker, even one as reliable and accomplished as Gould. For the Bears to even explore the idea of trading for Gould, first he has to be available for a fair price (and anything more than a sixth-round pick, likely, isn't fair). 

So for now, the wide net cast to find participants in the Bears’ kicking competition has brought in an avalanche of players. Signed prior to the NFL Draft were Redford Jones, Chris Blewitt and Elliott Fry; John Baron II was added as an undrafted free agent, swelling the number of kickers on the 90-man roster to four. Several other kickers are expected to be at Halas Hall for rookie minicamp this weekend on a tryout basis. 

With a little over four months until cut-down weekend — the latest possible time for a kicking decision to be made — the Bears’ initial plan is to try to fix their kicking woes on the cheap. That’s the smart way to do it from a roster-building standpoint, especially when Parkey still carries with him a cap hit of over $4 million in 2019 to not play for the Bears. 

But this is an issue the Bears absolutely have to solve in 2019, no matter the cost. Another playoff exit — or, worse, missing the playoffs entirely — thanks to poor placekicking would be a horrendous stain on the franchise and Pace’s tenure as general manager. The history books/Wikipedia pages won't praise a measured, frugal approach to solving this problem if the problem isn't solved at all. 

So the Bears will move forward with the difficult, pressure-packed task of finding a suitable kicker with Gould’s trade demand, at least in the eyes of the fanbase, looming over every update emanating from Halas Hall or Olivet Nazarene University. Before any of these kickers has attempted a field goal in anything more than a tryout, though, Pace is keeping all of his options open to find the answer the Bears need. 

“Maybe it’s a little unorthodox to have four kickers out there,” Pace said. “We don’t care. Let’s increase the competition and let’s let the whole thing battle out. We’re unbiased on it. Our eyes are wide open. If we need to add a veteran, we’re going to do whatever we can to get that situation right. We know the importance of it, and that’s why we’re attacking it in such an aggressive manner.”

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Bears Draft ’19 takeaways: Redefining 'best available' and 'mortgaging the future'

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USA TODAY

Bears Draft ’19 takeaways: Redefining 'best available' and 'mortgaging the future'

The only meaningful takeaways from the 2019 draft weekend don’t even really start for at least another four months, when the regular season begins. Some believe that grading or evaluating a draft can take fully three years, others (this writer included) think it’s evident a whole lot sooner whether a, say Shea McClellin or Eddie Goldman, can or can’t play.

In any case, takeaways of other kinds are eminently possible, certainly for the Bears in just the third draft (2000, 2005) in franchise history in which they selected zero linemen, offensive or defensive. Which of course means next to nothing: In 2000 they landed Brian Urlacher and Mike Brown, and in 2005 they reached the playoffs by increasing their win total from five to 11.

But the 2019 NFL Draft has its own takeaways.

“Best available?” Not exactly

The Bears adhered to the philosophy of selecting the best player available regardless of position.

But it’s not that simple. “Best available” should in fact be defined as “best guy we can get” or “best within reasonable reach for a reasonable price.”

“Best available” has been loosely presumed to mean the best talent when the team’s draft turn comes. But the Bears have traded up for their first selection in three of the last four drafts, and in each case, not at all coincidentally, the targeted player fit a priority positional need.

In 2016 it was edge rusher Leonard Floyd. In 2017, quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. This time it was Iowa State running back David Montgomery, a move up that vaulted 14 spots (vs. up two for Floyd, up one for Trubisky).

General manager Ryan Pace said going into the draft that he liked the state of the running-back collection after the trade-away of Jordan Howard and signing of free agent Mike Davis. Maybe the “liked” reference was for the benefit of Davis, who chose Chicago in free agency.

The reality is that the Bears could’ve held still at their initial No. 87 and taken best-available at that point. But Pace and coach Matt Nagy clearly viewed running back to be much more of a need area than any pre-draft indication, which is of course the normal subterfuge/misdirection/misinformation that has become de rigueur for most teams’ pre-draft utterances, certainly for the Bears. That they traded sharply up to No. 73 for Montgomery suggested not exactly desperation but clearly that the Halas Hall draft room had a generous helping of concern that Montgomery would not still be there for them at No. 87.

Notably perhaps, the Eagles traded for Howard, then went running back in the second round with Miles Sanders. Howard is in a contract year; good luck with that.

Mortgaging the future vs. picking up the pace

The willingness of Ryan Pace to trade away draft capital has had a study in franchise management. Draft picks are the true future of football operations, and Pace has been willing to deal away two No. 1’s last September, a No. 2 last draft and two No. 3’s the draft before that. David Montgomery was the first third-round pick Pace has actually used since 2016, and he gave away a fourth-round pick (2020) to get that.

But far from giving away keys to the Bears’ future, dealing away multiple high picks for Khalil Mack, Trubisky and Anthony Miller in fact accelerated the pace getting to that future, with talents calculated to make the future the present – which effectively began happening last season. Montgomery in particular was a pick to make a 12-4 team better, not rebuild one.

Expecting immediate RB impact

Not to put any added pressure or expectations on David Montgomery, but every time in the last 20 years when the Bears invested a third or higher-round pick in a presumed No. 1 running back, their win total spiked up, often dramatically. 

Draft RB Win increase
2001 Anthony Thomas 5 in 2000, 13 in 2001
2005 Cedric Benson 5 in 2004, 11 in 2005
2008 Matt Forte   7 in 2007, 9 in 2008

(The exception was 2007 when Garrett Wolfe was selected in the third round. But Wolfe was to be a change-of-pace back from Benson, not the starter.)

Giants general manager Dave Gettleman, meet Ryan Pace…

Beyond the obvious ones in Detroit, Green Bay and Minnesota, a number of draft scenarios will have trickle-down effects on the Bears because of the schedule.

Recalling the firestorm around Ryan Pace two drafts ago when he traded up from No. 3 to No. 2 with the intention of making absolutely certain that the Bears were getting quarterback Mitchell Trubisky… .

The spirited disagreement between ESPN draft linchpins Mel Kiper and Todd McShay regarding the selection of Duke quarterback Daniel Jones by the New York Giants with the No. 6-overall pick of the first round carried some the emotions and arguing points that the Trubisky move and selection caused.

One of the debate points with Jones, as with Trubisky, was whether he in fact was worth a supremely high No. 1 pick. Trubisky had 13 starts and was clearly Pace’s target all along. Jones, like Trubisky, came from the sometimes football-suspect ACC but was clearly the target of Giants general manager Dave Gettleman.

Pace chose Trubisky ahead of highly-regardeds Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. Gettleman snapped up Jones instead of Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins, who ended up going 15th to Washington, meaning that Gettleman and the NFC East will presumably get to evaluate the Jones-vs.-Haskins call twice a year. Mahomes and Watson also went to teams (Kansas City, Houston) that traded up for them.

So one overarching Jones question is the same one Pace faced and faces with Trubisky: Did their teams get the right one?

The second question wasn’t really one, as far as Kiper was concerned, and as far as multiple NFL luminaries were concerned about Pace-Trubisky. Kiper was adamant that Gettleman was convinced that Jones was the franchise heir to Eli Manning, the Giants should absolutely not have waited until their second No. 1 at No. 17. Citing the thinking of then-Philadelphia coach Andy Reid back in 1999, when at No. 2 overall he sent Eagles fans rushing for pitchforks and torches for the choice of Donovan McNabb instead of presumed auto-pick Ricky Williams, Kiper said simply that if it’s your guy, you go get him. Period. End of story.

McShay disagreed, although it felt that he was speaking from the standpoint of Jones just not being worth that high a pick.

Pace received personal attaboys from Jon Gruden, Bill Polian, Ron Wolf, among others, for doing exactly what Reid and Kiper felt you did: Don’t risk losing the guy if you have concluded that he is THE guy. Pace wasn’t willing to risk, and did what he had to do to guarantee the Trubisky pick. Critics said that he was bidding against himself in giving so much draft capital to move up one slot, but legendary scrivener Peter King reported in his tremendous “Inside the 49ers draft room” piece for Sports Illustrated that San Francisco did indeed have another team interested in that No. 2 pick.

Pace has since been largely vindicated by both Trubisky’s emergence and by his evident draft acumen reflected by subsequent picks: Tarik Cohen, James Daniels, Eddie Jackson, Anthony Miller, Roquan Smith and others.

Gettleman GM’ed the Carolina Panthers to a Super Bowl (loss) and a 40-23-1 record and did draft running back Saquon Barkley among four rookie starters in 2018. But the Giants went 5-11 last year, the Manning situation has deteriorated and Gettleman needs Jones to be a draft hit, presumably sooner than the three years he said might be Jones’ gestation period.

Feeling old

Nice to see Mississippi wide receiver D.K. Metcalf drafted in the second round by Seattle. Metcalf is the son of former Bears guard Terrence Metcalf, selected in the third round of the 2002 draft. Yes, you feel old when the sons of players you covered when they were drafted, are drafted.

Denver hires Vic Fangio as head coach, then drafts heavy ‘O’

You could wonder if new Denver Broncos head coach Vic Fangio is looking over at football chief John Elway in the Broncos draft room and thinking, “Boss, none of this came out in the interview.”

Elway, whose Broncos host the Bears in game two, gave defense-based John Fox Hall of Fame-bound edge rusher Von Miller with the first pick of the Fox era in Denver. But perhaps because the Broncos’ offense was a lowly 24th in scoring and yardage last season, Elway went all-in for offense with three picks in the first 42, the last of those coming via trade-up to select Missouri quarterback Drew Lock.

Whether or not Elway knows what he’s doing with personnel has been open to some question, specifically regarding quarterback selections. Lock is the sixth quarterback drafted by Elway since 2011. None of Elway’s other five is still on the roster.

Since getting whatever Peyton Manning had left and reaching one Super Bowl (loss) with John Fox in 2013 and a second (win) with Gary Kubiak in 2015, Manning has saddled the franchise with a succession of quarterback failures, most recently veteran Case Keenum for 2018. This on top of five failed quarterback draft picks, all contributing mightily to a 20-28 record over the three seasons since that Super Bowl victory over Ron Rivera and the Carolina Panthers.

Elway fired Vance Joseph after last season and made former Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio the Broncos’ third head coach in four years. Apparently going either straight best-available or with confidence in Fangio’s defense, Elway went all-in for offense: Iowa tight end Noah Tant in the first round, then Kansas State tackle Dalton Risner and quarterback Drew Lock from Missouri in the second, the latter via a trade-up.

Elway may not be doing Fangio any favors. Lock represents a potential alternative to paying Joe Flacco in the $20 million’s next year. But recent high-pick/undrafted free agent Missouri quarterbacks (Blaine Gabbert, Chase Daniel) haven’t been alternatives to much of anything. 

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Draft ’19 takeaway: Another no-regrets Ryan Pace on-the-clock trade strike underscores “win-now” message

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USA TODAY

Draft ’19 takeaway: Another no-regrets Ryan Pace on-the-clock trade strike underscores “win-now” message

Sometimes—most times in fact—the draft goes its own way and decides in large part who is drafted where and by whom. The Bears trading up 14 slots in the third round to land Iowa State running back David Montgomery has the look of one of those occasions, as well as representing further evidence of the win-now mindset that is firmly in place at Halas Hall.

Or maybe not just “win-now” – “draft-now” as well.

As Friday’s second round finished and the third round unfolded, Montgomery was one of those hoped-for players who was within reach--in this case, on the draft board when New England’s turn approached at No. 73--and whose evaluation grade stood out above most of the prospects the Bears saw as still available.

“[Montgomery] was a player we identified on the board where that [grade-evaluation] ‘magnet’ kind of sticking out where we valued him,” said GM Ryan Pace. “And so we kind of operate with a ‘no regrets’ mindset, so let's go ahead and move up and acquire this player at that point….

“His name was sticking high enough on our board where we wanted to make sure we got him. We didn’t want to risk him going off before our pick… . It was really, seriously ‘take the best player.’ It worked out that that’s the position. This guy checks all the boxes for us not only as a player but the person that he is. The draft really fell in our favor tonight.”

It helped that the Bears and the Patriots have developed a good relationship, leading to joint training-camp practices as well as deals such as Martellus Bennett to New England, or the trade with the Patriots last draft to move up to select Anthony Miller in the 2018 second round.

The relationship mattered, because the time allowed for picks shrinks from 10 minutes in the first round to seven in the second and five in the third.

“We were working the phones right there, in that area of the draft,” Pace said. “We’ve done several trades with the Patriots now. They’re great to work with. [Patriots personnel director] Nick Caserio and coach [Bill] Belichick. And in our draft room, Joey Laine [director of football administration] does a really good job of working with me to ensure that we can make that happen.

“Because in this round, the clock’s clicking down pretty fast. It can get kind of tense as you’re getting within one minute [of needing to call in the pick]. But we made it work.”

The deal was GM Ryan Pace’s ninth in the past four drafts, which obviously does not include trading away Brandon Marshall (two months after Pace was hired) or Jordan Howard, or the deal to acquire Khalil Mack.

Throw in some lower-profile trades (Ryan Groy to New England, Dontrelle Inman from San Diego, Khari Lee from Houston) and Pace’s operating style becomes amply evident. Multiple analysts posited that the Bears would have to trade up for Montgomery, and Pace did that, marking the third time in his last four drafts (Montgomery, Mitchell Trubisky in 2017, Leonard Floyd in 2016) that he has moved up for a targeted player with his first pick in that draft.

Diminishing options, but….

The Bears also are looking for quality additions in the secondary. But 11 defensive backs went off the board in the span of the second round’s 32 picks. With the two DBs that went in the final six picks of round one, the chances of a gem falling through the cracks to the Bears down at the 23rd pick in the third round, No. 87 overall, dropped from hopeful to not-so-much. Among position groups, only the defensive line (11 in the first round alone) saw that kind of run through the first two rounds.

Meaning: Even a strong draft for defensive backs was somewhat over-picked well before that first Bears draft pick happened.

What the earlier runs on those two defensive groups did however, was to leave meat on the draft bone elsewhere. Like running back for instance. Five running backs were selected in the third round vs. only three corners and two safeties in Friday’s final round.

Exactly two running backs were taken in the first two rounds/64 picks: Alabama’s Josh Jacobs to Oakland and Penn State’s Miles Sanders to Philadelphia.

But then Darrell Henderson, a Memphis teammate of Bears wideout Anthony Miller, was gone to the Rams with pick six of the third round. Perhaps getting indications that the demand for running back was about to spike – the Buffalo Bills grabbed Florida Atlantic’s Devin Singletary one pick after the Bears moved on Montgomery– the Rams traded up for Tampa Bay’s slot at No. 70, giving the Buccaneers two third-round picks (94, 99) for the chance to land Henderson.

Henderson, Montgomery and Singletary made it three running backs in the span of five picks. Alabama’s Damien Harris went at No. 87, the Bears’ original spot going into the draft.

The Bears, already picks-lite by virtue of deals last year, gave the New England Patriots that pick at 87 plus a fifth-round pick (No. 162) this year and their fourth-round pick in 2020. They also received New England’s sixth-round selection at No. 205

With the 2020 first- and third-round picks given to the Raiders in the Khalil Mack trade, the Bears finished Friday with Oakland’s second-rounder in 2020, but no 1, 3 or 4.

But Pace and staff determined that getting what is likely a day-one contributing running back with versatility fixes the main shortcoming of an emerging offense under Matt Nagy, for a team that finished 12-4 but lost its wild-card playoff game when running backs accounted for just 16 touches and 63 total yards.

It is all about the win-now mentality.

“For us, I say it all the time, Matt and I say it, ‘No regrets,” Pace said. “If we see something, we identify something and we have consensus on it, then we’re going to make it happen.”

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