Ryan Pace’s first three free-agent classes as the Bears’ general manager have rightfully been panned. He had a big hit in defensive end Akiem Hicks, but way too many misses — including a particularly wild swing-and-a-miss with quarterback Mike Glennon that cast doubt on Pace’s judgment. How could somebody who came of age in the NFL as a pro personnel guy miss that badly on a quarterback with three years in the league?
Pace hasn’t explained how he botched that move, or what lessons he might have learned from that mistake — saying, “I have no regrets in us being aggressive in attacking that position. It’s that important.” (For what it’s worth, even Phil Emery acknowledged a lesson learned in drafting Shea McClellin in the first round: “In terms of pure defensive ends, probably make sure they’re a little bit longer and a little bit heavier,” Emery said at the 2014 combine.)
Regardless, Pace at least mitigated the damage. Glennon will be cut, albeit with a lingering $4.5 million dead cap hit, according to spotrac.com. And by drafting Mitch Trubisky with the No. 2 overall pick last year, Pace already has a potential franchise quarterback in place (though the specter of Deshaun Watson becoming the next big thing still looms to haunt Pace). It could have been worse if the Bears still were searching for a starting quarterback this offseason.
Be that as it may, even with a dubious record so far, Pace is likely to fare much better in free agency this season — and beyond, presumably — for two simple reasons: He doesn’t have to reach as much, and he has a legitimate foundation on both sides of the ball.
Pace inherited a mess when he was hired in 2015 — that included a tear-down and a rebuild. The Bears defense ranked 30th in yards and 31st in points in 2014. The offense was 21st in yards and 23rd in points and spinning its wheels with a stagnating Jay Cutler and two problematic weapons in Brandon Marshall and Martellus Bennett.
Free agency can fortify a good football team but it rarely if ever turn a bad one into a good one. “A lot of times guys become free agents for a reason and we’re mindful of that,” Pace told reporters at the NFL Combine last week. Desperate for playmakers when he arrived, Pace could not heed that NFL truism when he splurged on linebacker Pernell McPhee in 2015.
The Bears’ need for help was so acute — on multiple levels — when Pace arrived that McPhee and safety Antrel Rolle were named defensive captains before even playing one game for the Bears after signing as free agents in 2015. In fact, five the 12 offensive/defensive captains in the Pace era have been free agent acquisitions in their first season with the team. Unless you have a transformative player like Reggie White, that’s not supposed to happen.
Though the Bears won fewer games last year (five) than in John Fox’s first season (six), they are in better shape to benefit from free agency. Their defense ranked 10th in the NFL in yards and ninth in points. And their offense has a quarterback who can turn the wind at their back instead of in their face with significant — but not impossible — second-year development.
This assumes three things: (1) That Matt Nagy, Mark Helfrich and Brad Childress do a better job of getting receivers open than Dowell Loggains did; (2) that Trubisky takes a significant step forward in his second season; and (3) that the Bears avoid the injuries that short-circuited the Fox regime.
Even in that scenario, the Bears have a long way to go. But free agency won’t be the “treacherous waters” — as Pace referred to them at the combine — that they’ve been in the past.
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