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Rookie of the Year? Jury still out on GM Ryan Pace's impact

First-year general manager Ryan Pace (right) has the Bears heading in the right direction, but with a long way to go to become contenders. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)

Though there’s no question the Bears defense is much improved over last season — when back-to-back 50-to-something losses to the Patriots and Packers left an indelible stain on Mel Tucker’s tenure in Chicago — Vic Fangio still struggled to identify “building blocks” for next season.

“Goldman [rookie nose tackle Eddie Goldman] was the highest draft pick we had and he progressed and improved, so we’ll feel good about him moving forward,” Fangio said this week at Halas Hall. “Amos [rookie safety Adrian Amos] played a lot of football. Hopefully he can take the next step next year. A lot of those guys will improve over the offseason without even doing anything. Everything will become clearer and easier for them. So there are those two guys.

A pause.

“Give me some names here,” Fangio said, asking for a little help at his press conference.

That’s a perfect illustration of where the Bears are with one game to go in John Fox’s first season with the Bears. You know they’re better off than they were last year at this time under Phil Emery and Marc Trestman, even though they’re only one game better (6-9 compared to 5-10) in the standings. But it’s difficult to identify specifically where the upgrades are. Goldman looked competent as a rookie starter at nose tackle, but even with four-and-a-half sacks he’s not even in the ballpark of Tommie Harris. And Amos has played every snap on defense this season. But to the naked eye, there was little evidence, if any, that he’s a future Pro Bowler. His only advantage over Chris Conte last season is that he stayed healthy. Amos has no interceptions, no forced fumbles and no fumble recoveries. His only “impact” plays are a sack and three tackles for loss.

It’s a testament to the extent of the rebuilding job at Halas Hall that the Bears had no breakout stars anywhere this season. The Bears had no players voted to the Pro Bowl for the first time since 1998 and nobody was even that close. Outside linebacker Pernell McPhee, the marquee free-agent signing, was good-but-not-great when he was healthy, but too often a non-factor when he wasn’t. Antrel Rolle, a three-time Pro Bowl safety, provided leadership and experience but few impact plays and also couldn’t stay healthy.

In Fangio’s first year with the 49ers in 2011, linebacker NaVorro Bowman blossomed into a playmaker. Cornerback Carlos Rogers and safety Dashon Goldson made the Pro Bowl for the first time. Of course, that team has a much better foundation already in place.

The Bears have no overt building blocks because nearly a full season into the Ryan Pace era, they still are excavating to lay the pillars. In moving Kyle Long prior to the season opener, they turned a Pro Bowl guard into a mediocre right tackle, with the expectation that he eventually will be Pro Bowl tackle. Most experts think it’ll work, but Long’s recent struggles there turned near-certainty into a little doubt. That’s the kind of year it’s been at Halas Hall. There are no sure things.

If you were looking for beacons of progress, this season was a disappointment. The Bears have upgrades, but No. 1 is John Fox, No. 2 if Vic Fangio, No. 3 is Adam Gase and No. 4 is Dowell Loggains. No. 5 might be Jay Cutler, but that’s only because of Nos. 1, 3 and 4.

The notable absence from that list is GM Ryan Pace, who fits the current theme at Halas Hall: He sure looks like an upgrade over Phil Emery, but the preponderance of tangible evidence isn’t there yet.

Pace did hire Fox, which puts him ahead of Emery — whose hiring of Trestman over Bruce Arians was a fatal mistake. But, thanks to Kevin White’s season-ending stress fracture, Pace still has a long way to go in the personnel part of it. Overall, he hasn’t gotten the bang for his buck in free agency. And while Goldman, Amos and running back Jeremy Langford — and perhaps center Hroniss Grasu _ look like keepers, it’s not like any of them have made that indisputable.

If Emery had hired Arians instead of Trestman, he might still be here now — which would be an interesting scenario. Would the Bears be better off with Emery/Arians or Pace/Fox? That’s a good debate today. Pace could make it a moot point a year from now. But at some point the Bears will have to stop going step-by-step and take a quantum leap. The “first-year” card has just about expired.