Ryan Pace inherited a mess when he was hired as general manager of the Bears. It required a roster teardown and a simultaneous rebuild. He had to do a few things he might not have done with a stronger hand: hiring John Fox. Overpaying for Pernell McPhee. Paying a premium to draft Mitch Trubisky. And overpaying Mike Glennon.
Still in a tough spot after 14 victories in his three seasons, Pace is slowly emerging from that position of weakness. With the hiring of Matt Nagy, the re-hiring of Vic Fangio, the promise of Trubisky and a strong offseason in free agency and the draft, the Bears are targeted as a potential surprise team for 2018. But Pace has one more overpayment to make to keep that momentum going — finding a compromise that gets rookie holdout Roquan Smith into training camp sooner rather than later.
It’s not ideal, though it’s unlikely to become disastrous. NFL teams didn’t become billion-dollar entities by making unnecessary contract negotiation concessions. But while these ancillary contract issues in an era of slotted salaries seem like a strange hill for either side to die on, the Bears and Pace are on the spot, whether they know it or not.
Their defense can survive without Roquan Smith — the Bears return virtually every starter from a defense that ranked 10th in total yards, 11th in yards per play and ninth in points allowed last season. But a franchise that has has not made the playoffs in the last seven seasons, has made just one playoff appearance in 11 seasons since reaching the Super Bowl in 2006, has fired two general managers and three head coaches in the last seven years and has generally been wracked by dysfunction for decades can ill afford the drama of having a top-10 draft pick on the sidelines into the regular season.
Pace has been impressively resolute in his decisions with little or no regard for outside perceptions in his three years as GM. But there’s a fine line between being resolute and stubborn and he’s treading that fine line here. After giving Glennon $18.5 million for four starts, giving in on a “language-type deal” to sign Smith — whose holdout is at 14 days and counting — might be a small price to pay to kick the turnaround into a higher gear.
2. In one regard, you can’t blame Pace for holding his ground. The slotted rookie salary structure created in the 2011 collective bargaining agreement virtually eliminated rookie holdouts.
Now it seems like agents need to pick fights to regain some of their lost relevance to the process — and gain a hook to recruit future clients. Every concession is a foundation for another demand, so it’s no wonder teams want to nip this thing in the bud. That’s why this thing could go longer than anybody thought.
3. Though Smith is missing time learning Vic Fangio’s defense and developing chemistry with his teammates, his holdout isn’t as costly as it used to be. Smith has held out for 14 days and has missed eight practices. When Cade McNown held out in 1999, he missed 11 days, but 16 practices — when teams had two-a-days and no mandatory off days.
If Joey Bosa’s holdout in 2016 is any kind of barometer, conditioning will be Smith’s biggest challenge. Bosa suffered a hamstring injury almost immediately after ending his 31-day holdout and missed the first four games of the regular season. But he still had 10.5 sacks in 12 games and won the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year Award.
4. Perhaps with a little irony if Smith remains unsigned, this will be a week of celebration of Brian Urlacher’s great career with the Bears, heading into his enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday in Canton, Ohio.
For what it’s worth, Urlacher, the ninth pick of the 2000 draft, signed his rookie contract on June 16 — a notable achievement for the Bears after back-to-back contentious holdouts with running back Curtis Enis in 1998 (25 days) and McNown in 1999 (11 days). Enis and McNown were washouts. Urlacher won the Defensive Rookie of the Year Award, the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2005 and made the Pro Bowl seven times in his first eight seasons en route to the Hall of Fame.
5. Though he played in the 21st century and had unique, multi-positional skills, Urlacher adhered to an old-school approach when he was drafted: Don’t sweat the little stuff, get in camp, prove yourself and you’ll be rewarded. Maybe that mindset is not for everybody, but in a sport where your success depends on 10 other players, there’s merit to it.
“I wanted to be in camp,” Urlacher explained after signing his rookie contract. “It’s good for myself and the fans especially. Everybody is down on you if you don’t go to camp. You’re behind. It hurts you. It hurts the team. Now I’ll be on the right page with everybody.”
After three seasons — with two years left on his rookie deal — Urlacher signed a nine-year, $56.65 million contract in 2003.
6. Bears coach Matt Nagy acknowledged that “a few” other teams have given first-round picks what Smith is asking for. But that might not force the Bears’ hand.
Back in 2000, when the agent for holdout rookie safety Mike Brown claimed other second-rounders had been given voidable years he was seeking, Bears’ negotiator Jim Miller’s response typified the way NFL teams think:
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“If five of my friends jump off a bridge — No. 1, I’m going to say, ‘Why did that do something stupid?’ ” Miller said. “And No. 2, I’m not going to do that. It just doesn’t make any sense. I don’t know why other [teams] did it.”
7. Back on the actual football field … Mitch Trubisky’s spate of interceptions in practice looks like a red flag, but picks are considered growing pains to coach Matt Nagy. In fact, Nagy said the offense is ahead of schedule.
“Our guys have picked up everything that we’ve asked them to do,” Nagy said. “There have been mistakes, but they’re way ahead of the learning curve. So that’s exciting and it tells me that once we get to the regular season we can do more than I initially thought. But we will be growing throughout the season.”
8. Standout campers: 1. wide receiver Anthony Miller; 2. cornerback Prince Amukamara; 3. inside linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski; 4. wide receiver Javon Wims; 5. outside linebacker Kylie Fitts.
9. Red flags: Outside linebacker Aaron Lynch hasn’t practiced since the first day of camp because of a hamstring injury. With Roquan Smith unsigned, Danny Trevathan’s lingering hamstring injury that has kept him from the first eight practices becomes more problematic.
10. The over/under date on Roquan Smith signing his contract: Aug. 10, the day after the Bears’ second preseason game.
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