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Five things we learned from Bears GM Ryan Pace’s pre-draft press conference

Bears general manager Ryan Pace is slated to pick first at No. 87 overall Friday night.. | Tim Boyle/For the Sun-Times

For Bears general manager Ryan Pace, gamesmanship starts days before the NFL Draft — even when he doesn’t have a pick until the third round.

During his annual pre-draft news conference Tuesday, Pace, as usual, refused to tip his hand, even on a benign question about college running back depth.

“It’s good,” he said playfully. “I think I’m going to say that about every position you ask about.”

Sorting through the platitudes, there was still plenty to glean from Pace — from his decision to trade running back Jordan Howard to how aggressive he plans to be when the draft starts Thursday.

Here are five things we learned:

He got all he could for Howard

The Bears’ internal discussion about Howard’s value wasn’t limited to one conversation, Pace said — it was debated throughout coach Matt Nagy’s first season. When the Bears signed former Seahawk Mike Davis in March, it strengthened them at running back and allowed them to make a trade.

What the Bears got back for Howard — the Eagles’ sixth-round draft pick in 2020, which could improve to a fifth-rounder based on performance — didn’t seem like a lot. But Pace was clear he got the most he could for Howard, whose salary balloons to $2.025 million in 2019, the final season of his rookie deal.

“When you talk about trades, I think there’s always a narrative out there: ‘Oh, you could get this,’ ” Pace said in his first public comments about the March 13 trade. “This is the reality. You know what I mean? We work those channels all the time. We’re doing them right now. That’s the reality of what it is.

“We feel good about it. We feel good moving forward. We feel really good about that [running back] room, and we wish Jordan the best.”

No ‘huge needs’

The Bears clearly have room for another running back. In listing his depth at the position, Pace mentioned Tarik Cohen; a practice squad player, Ryan Nall; and a wide receiver, Cordarrelle Patterson.

But Pace claimed that, despite trading Howard, the Bears don’t necessarily need to add a rusher. He said Davis is “built to handle a lot of carries” even though he averages only 6.7 per game in his career.

“Right now, I know running back’s been talked about a lot, but we feel good about that position,” Pace said.

It’s lying season. Either Pace is bluffing or he’s trying to prepare Bears fans for the possibility that they don’t add a running back in the draft.

“I think there’s probably always a storyline with every draft,” he said. “I understand why it’s that way, but I don’t feel like we go into this draft saying, ‘Man, we have to take this position or we’re in trouble.’ We’re in good shape.”

The Bears could draft a running back as high as No. 87 or wait until the draft’s final day. The goal, Pace said, is to find a starter at any position with the third-round pick. But the Bears don’t have many glaring holes and could draft for depth instead.

“There’s no pressing, huge needs,” he said. “We can honestly select the best players. That’s a great spot to be in.”

The Bears will be aggressive — to a point

Pace has a history of moving up in the draft to get the player he wants. But he was clear: The Bears, without a first- or second-round pick this year or a first-rounder in 2020, won’t magically find their way into the first round Thursday.

“It’d be hard,” he said, “just because we don’t have a lot of ammunition.”

That doesn’t mean he won’t try to maneuver in the back end of the third round.

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“It’s kind of a no-regrets mindset,” he said. “If there’s a player there falling that we have great value on, we’re going to explore it. There’s certain players where we could say, ‘Man, we value [this guy] so high, if he’s falling to this point, we’ll consider going up for him.’ Or, ‘Hey, there’s enough good guys, we’re going to stay right here.’ Or if they’re all coming off [the draft board], maybe we back up.”

With only five picks in this draft, could the Bears be tempted to trade down to acquire more assets? If there’s a group of players — or a “cloud,” in Pace-speak — they’d consider it.

Pace estimated the Bears will sign between 18 and 20 college free agents after the draft. They’ll be aggressive on that front, believing that a 12-4 team with obligations to only five draft picks will be a popular destination for free agents trying to make the team.

The pressure is on to select the right players.

“I feel like we have this momentum,” he said. “To keep this momentum going, we need to nail this draft.”

Locking into the third round

Although he’s still trying to scout as many players as possible, Pace admitted there’s a luxury to having a limited number of picks: It has allowed him to lock in on players expected to be chosen after Day 1.

“You can focus more on these mid-round-type of players,” he said. “But again, you just don’t know what’s going to happen if guys fall or whatnot. But, yeah, I would say I’ve spent more time in the mid-round area in this draft than I have in the past.”

Despite his joking about running back depth, Pace maintains this year’s draft is deep across the board because of the record number of underclassmen. One hundred thirty-five players entered the draft despite having college eligibility remaining, topping last year’s record of 119.

The “cloud” of quality third-round players is larger than in the past, he said.

“We are in a good position to be picking where we’re picking,” Pace said. “We feel very certain that we can get a good player at our pick — or picks.”

A group effort

At this time last year, Pace knew he and Nagy had similar opinions on players. This year, Pace can almost read Nagy’s mind. He can predict the adjectives — some good, some pejorative — Nagy would say while studying film.

“Sometimes I can watch a guy and I can say, ‘Man, I know Matt is going to love this guy’ or ‘I know Matt is not going to like this guy,’ ” Pace said. “We just kind of work together through those times, and it really never stops.”

Pace knows what Nagy likes to see when the two text each other video clips: a competitive swagger.

“The longer you’re together, the more you understand how each other thinks,” Pace said.

Last week, NFL Network reported that the Raiders sent their scouts home to protect the secrecy of their draft room. That’s not the case at Halas Hall, where Pace said all the team’s scouts — plus Nagy — will occupy their new state-of-the-art draft center.

“I think, by nature, everybody in my role is a little paranoid,” Pace said. “We’ve been together for a long time now, and we have a tight group. Continuity. We’re all in there together. And they’re going to come in tonight and we talk through scenarios. So it’s still very collaborative all the way through.”