The Bears have a lot to prove on the field, but general manager Ryan Pace — the lowest-rated established general manager in the NFL by NFL.com — seemed to turn a corner over the weekend in the court of public opinion.
Day-after draft grades are the ultimate ‘‘for entertainment purposes only’’ endeavor. No draft can be graded accurately for two or three years or more. But in the context of the Bears’ futility in the post-Lovie Smith era, the almost-universal day-after acclaim for Pace’s 2018 draft is in itself a step forward for a team that has been so easy to bash — and deservedly so — in recent seasons.
Analysts love the Bears’ draft. A year after their draft was panned even after they took the highest-rated quarterback on a lot of NFL draft boards, they are getting high marks for drafting Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith (‘‘the draft’s best linebacker’’), Iowa center James Daniels (‘‘maybe the draft’s best center’’), Memphis receiver Anthony Miller (‘‘the draft’s most underrated receiver’’), Western Kentucky linebacker Joel Iyiegbuniwe (‘‘a hybrid defender who will make an impact on special teams’’), Delaware defensive tackle Bilal Nichols (‘‘an athletic big man that will fit in the rotation right away’’), Utah edge rusher Kylie Fitts (‘‘can be a beast of a situational pass rusher’’) and Georgia receiver Javon Wims (‘‘can win downfield for Mitchell Trubisky’’).
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The same critics who gave Pace C’s and D’s after he drafted Trubisky last year gave him A’s and B’s this year: NFL.com (A), Sports Illustrated (A), USA Today (A), the New York Post (A), the Sporting News (B+), ESPN’s Mel Kiper (B+) and the Washington Post (B).
Who knows how it will turn out, and history shows they all can be wrong. By any measurement, however, this draft looks like progress for Pace.
Even drafting Trubisky last year was tainted by awkwardness: trading up when he might not have had to; Mike Glennon’s obvious discomfort at the Bears’ draft-night gala; then-coach John Fox being out of the loop on the whole thing. This year, though, even Pace seemed willing to acknowledge he’s better at this now than he was as a rookie GM in 2015.
‘‘I think you learn from all these experiences,’’ Pace said. ‘‘I feel like you’re always getting better. I’m always improving. Our scouts are always improving. And I think the longer we’re together as a personnel department, the more feel I have for everybody.’’
Last week, Pace was the lowest-rated established GM in the NFL by NFL.com’s Gregg Rosenthal. In the aftermath of a 5-11 season, he was criticized for pushing the reset button in firing Fox.
It’s hard to quarrel with the rating, considering Pace’s Bears teams have won 14 games in three seasons. But the notion that Pace is starting over is off the mark. When Pace was hired in 2015, he inherited the 30th-ranked defense in the NFL in points allowed and an offense that was ranked 23rd, even with Jay Cutler, Matt Forte, Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Martellus Bennett.
After tearing all that down, Pace now has the ninth-ranked defense in the NFL, a franchise quarterback in place and a coach who presumably is better equipped to make the most of him. No doubt the bar is low — and if Matt Nagy has no better luck with injuries, he likely will suffer the same fate as Fox — but that’s still progress. And the draft was another indication that the Bears’ arrow finally is pointing up.