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Bears GM Ryan Pace can’t lose his productive mid-round touch in 2019 draft

The Bears found defensive lineman Bilal Nichols 98) from Delaware in the fifth round (145th overall) of the draft last year. Nichols started six games as a rookie. | Jim Mone/AP photo

Bears coach Dave Wannstedt was ridiculed for declaring that “all the pieces are in place” prior to the 1996 season as the Bears — coming off a record-setting season by quarterback Erik Kramer — stumbled to a 2-5 start on the way to a listless 7-9 season.

But that same claim arguably resonates with much more legitimacy as the Bears head into the 2019 draft, coming off a 12-4 season and a playoff berth. Outside of a running back and a kicker, the Bears are not in dire need of front-line help in this draft. If all the pieces aren’t in place, enough of them are for the Bears to contend for the Super Bowl if things fall their way.

Led by Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks and three other Pro Bowl players, their defense is solid after a dominant 2018 season in which they led the NFL in fewest points allowed and most takeaways. And while the offense has plenty of improvement to make after ranking 21st in yards and 11th in points scored last year, the Bears are looking to continuity in coach Matt Nagy’s second season more than an infusion of talent. The need for a running back is obvious after Jordan Howard was traded to the Eagles. But outside of that, the Bears are counting on familiarity and chemistry in the second year of Nagy’s offense to fuel a quantum leap on that side of the ball.

That doesn’t mean the 2019 draft is a free roll for general manager Ryan Pace. Even without a first- and second-round pick and just five picks overall entering the draft, he still could use two or three productive players. Not necessarily for this year (except a running back or a kicker), but for future years, when, theoretically, expensive contract extensions put a premium on cost-efficient players.

Russell Wilson’s four-year, $140 million extension with the Seattle Seahawks this week doesn’t impact the Bears — at least right now. But it’s a reminder of the importance of having productive players on rookie contracts to balance out a massive contract like Wilson’s.

Wilson’s $25.3 million cap hit — the sixth highest in the NFL in 2019 according to spotrac.com — will take up 13.25 percent of the Seahawks salary cap allowance this season. It’s not necessarily prohibitive to have less than two percent of your 53-man roster take up more than 13 percent of your salary cap. But it has proven to be a challenge. When Tom Brady won the Super Bowl in February, his cap figure (22.0 milliion, 12.21 percent) was the highest in at least the last 10 years if not since the advent of the salary cap in 1994.

When the Seahawks won the Super Bowl XLVIII in 2014, Wilson took up 0.49 percent of the salary cap. When they returned to the Super Bowl the following season, Wilson took up 0.6 percent of the cap. As his cap number rose, the Seahawks’ fortunes dipped. They haven’t gotten past the divisional round since.

That’s the challenge every winning team in the NFL faces as it has to pay the price of success. If Mitch Trubisky has a breakout season in 2019 — the third year of a four-year rookie contract — the pressure will be on Pace to sign him to an extension sooner rather than later.

No matter what the number would be for Trubisky — or Leonard Floyd or Eddie Jackson or Roquan Smith or any other keepers who blossom in the next year or two — the easiest solution is to stay hot in the draft and keep those cap-efficient rookie contracts in play.

While Pace has had moderate success in the first round with outside linebacker Leonard Floyd (No. 9 overall in 2016), Trubisky (No. 2 overall in 2017) and inside linebacker Roquan Smith (No. 8 overall in 2018), his best efficiency has been in the middle rounds. His biggest mid-round hits have been safety Eddie Jackson (fourth round, 112th overall in 2017), running back Tarik Cohen (fourth round, 119th in 2017), Howard (fifth round, 150th in 2016), safety Adrian Amos (fifth round, 142nd in 2015) and defensive lineman Bilal Nichols (fifth round, 145th in 2018).

That’s a pretty good haul that bodes well for Pace in this draft — though two of his five picks are in the crap-shoot seventh round (222nd and 238th overall). And unless Pace is planning on jumping into the first or second round — don’t put anything past him — he and his personnel staff have had even more time to evaluate mid-round picks this year.

So with the current make-up of his team, Pace has a little bit of miss room in this draft. But with sustained success the goal, he can’t afford to come up empty.