Bears general manager Ryan Pace said coach John Fox would stop in his office last season and make a demand.
Fox would say, “Hey, I want throwback players,” Pace said, smiling.
It was a description Pace used to encapsulate inside linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski, a productive player from West Virginia who was one of three fourth-round selections made by the Bears during Day 3 of the draft on Saturday.
But it also was a reflection of the overhaul of the Bears’ roster, particularly on defense, where three new starters were added in free agency and where six of their nine draft picks from this year play.
The Bears keep adding players that fit their new brand under Pace and Fox. After a season together, Pace’s personnel department understands Fox’s coaching staff’s preferences much better, and vice versa.
“The common trait with all these guys I would say is toughness and instincts,” Pace said at Halas Hall after the draft concluded. “[It’s] something we’ve emphasized and something we’ve drafted [Saturday] for sure.”
Fox, for one, will never underestimate toughness as a personal attribute. He downright demands it.
“So much of this game is dependability,” Fox said. “If they’re in the training room or not at practice … we have a sign in our locker room: Fail to prepare, prepare to fail.
“Well, if you’re not out there, it’s hard to prepare real well. That dependability –and that’s kind of playing through ‘owies,’ as I call them — I think is critical.”
Pace emphasized that the Bears maintained a best-player-available approach throughout the draft. It’s why he passed on a young quarterback to groom behind starter Jay Cutler and why he didn’t select a tight end, even though the position was a major need.
“[Defensive coordinator] Vic [Fangio] and [offensive coordinator] Dowell [Loggains] have been lobbying in my office over the last two weeks and dragging each other out of there,” Pace said. “It’s just the way it worked out, man. We were taking best player available, and it just happened to be on the defensive side of the ball. We’re fired up about it.”
But it’s also a best-player-available approach that fits Fox’s and Fangio’s player preferences better.
The Bears’ defense, a surprisingly capable group in 2015, will look significantly different in 2016. The Bears made upgrades in free agency by signing inside linebackers Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman and defensive end Akiem Hicks.
Then they filled needs in the draft. Fox and Fangio got the speed rusher they desperately wanted in outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, the Bears’ first-round pick who will complement power rushers Pernell McPhee and Lamarr Houston.
Third-round pick Jonathan Bullard — he “has the juice to get up the field,” Fox said — could be Day 1 starter at one end in the Bears’ base 3-4 defense if he beats out Ego Ferguson and Mitch Unrein.
Safeties Deon Bush and DeAndre Houston-Carson, two Day 3 selections, are hard-hitting, willing tacklers — qualities that Fangio and secondary coach Ed Donatell valued for their top-rated 49ers defenses.
Fourth-round selection Deiondre’ Hall’s freakish arm length and long reach is a natural advantage that can improve the Bears’ secondary, which struggled to force turnovers last year, whether he’s at cornerback, nickel back or safety.
It all looks good on paper. Fangio definitely has plenty to work with, but every team likes its draft class.
Still, there seems to be a plan in place with Pace and Fox.
“Again, all these guys have to be developed,” Fox said. “It’s a level jump. They understand that. We have our work shoes on to make that happen.”