Ryan Pace’s prove-it plan could pay off for the Bears

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Seated in a courtyard with several reporters at the NFL annual meetings just more than a week ago in Phoenix, Bears general manager Ryan Pace tried to describe what he sees when he’s seated at Halas Hall.

There is a depth chart, and it’s covered in green magnets. And green means Pace has plenty of work to do.

Every green magnet signifies a need on the depth chart, one that requires work to fill under Pace and coach John Fox after a 5-11 season and mass firings.

‘‘Wherever we have needs, we have green magnets — and we have a lot of green magnets,’’ Pace said. ‘‘We have a lot of needs, and one of the competitive parts of you wants to fix it all right now, you know?’’

Nearly four weeks into free agency, Pace’s patience and long-term planning definitely have overruled his competitive side of looking for a quick fix. For a team that had one of the oldest rosters in the NFL last season, it’s the right move, too.

Under Pace, the Bears have been aggressive and have taken calculated risks in free agency. But they also have been frugal, whether it’s not guaranteeing defensive end Ray McDonald any money or signing potential starters to veteran minimums.

Pace’s preference for one-year, prove-it deals, as he describes them, might turn into long-term gains. The Bears are among the league leaders with 14 free-agent signings, but five players are from the 2011 draft class, meaning it’s their second contract.

Of those five players, only outside linebacker Pernell McPhee received a long-term deal. Linebacker Mason Foster, defensive end Jarvis Jenkins, outside linebacker Sam Acho and running back Jacquizz Rodgers have to prove they are worth committing to. That starts with offseason training, which begins April 13.

‘‘It definitely motivates me,’’ Foster said in a phone interview. ‘‘I know the player that I am and the player that I can be. Since I’ve been in this league, I’ve made a lot of plays, but I want to show everybody I can be the elite player I know I can be and do it at a consistent level.

‘‘It’s a one-year deal, so it’s really not about the money. It’s past the money. I just want to be in a great situation and win games, so I’m not worried about money. I want to come in, be part of a great situation, a great team and a great city that I can grow and build with.’’

It’s a low-risk, high-reward situation. Pace has brought in players in their mid-20s who have starting experience and could have productive seasons ahead of them. Foster, Acho and Rodgers all were signed to minimum-salary contracts. Jenkins has a total guarantee of $330,000.

Foster should be penciled in as one of the starting inside linebackers and Jenkins and McDonald as the starting defensive ends in the Bears’ new 3-4 scheme under coordinator Vic Fangio.

‘‘I just turned 26,’’ Foster said, ‘‘so I’m looking forward to coming in there and doing my thing and, God willing, sign a long-term deal and ending my career as a Bear.’’

Former GM Phil Emery signed plenty of players to big deals during his three seasons, and all the money he spent helped lead to his demise. But two of Emery’s best free-agent signings, defensive end Willie Young and guard Matt Slauson, were players in search of their second deals after their rookie contracts.

Young received a three-year deal with only $3.95 million guaranteed, and he had 10 sacks last season. A year earlier, though, Emery executed the same one-year, prove-it plan Pace is using now to sign Slauson after his four seasons with the New York Jets. Slauson started all 16 games at left guard in 2013 and was rewarded with a four-year contract worth up to $12.8 million.

Players often say it’s one of their goals to reward a team that has shown faith in them, especially when the team that drafts them says goodbye.

‘‘What appealed to me most about Chicago is that they really wanted me, and, on a human level, there’s something to be said about being wanted,’’ Acho told the Bears’ website. ‘‘They saw my ability, they saw my potential and they said, ‘We want you to be a part of this team.’ ’’

Email: ajahns@suntimes.com

Twitter: @adamjahns

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