The Bears’ new draft room is from the future.
At the front of the room is a digital, wall-length board connected to the Bears’ scouting database. With one click, the team can pull up measurements, highlights, interviews they conducted with draft picks and comparisons to current NFL players.
Brad Goldsberry, the Bears’ football research and analytics coordinator — and a former MIT football player — can post analytics on each of the college players available.
“It’s kind of endless,” general manager Ryan Pace said.
Pace didn’t need any of those fancy gadgets Thursday night, when the Bears sat out the first round of the draft. He joked that the screens would be perfect for playing Khalil Mack highlights instead. The star outside linebacker is the reason the Bears went without a first-round pick, the result of a Sept. 1 trade with the Raiders that continues to send shockwaves throughout the league.
The move — to trade future assets for the opportunity to make Mack the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history — will be forever tied to Pace.
And he’s fine with that.
“Very comfortable,” Pace said. “I think all of those decisions that we make are huge decisions. And it’s not just me. It’s obviously our whole organization. And when you bring a guy like Khalil in, I think the longer you’re around him, it’s not just the player, it’s his work ethic and it’s his professionalism and it’s everything he is as a person.
“And to have your best player be absolutely one of your harder workers is a great thing to have as a franchise.”
Two years earlier, from more archaic digs — the Bears’ old draft room had magnets that sorted the picks by draft order on one wall and by team on the other — Pace made another franchise-defining move. He traded four draft picks to the 49ers to move up and take quarterback Mitch Trubisky.
The next January, he plucked offensive coordinator Matt Nagy from the Chiefs to be a first-time head coach. Eight months later, he traded for Mack. Nagy was named Coach of the Year in February, and Pace was voted Sporting News Executive of the Year in March.
What does Pace have planned for an encore in 2019?
So far, not much. The Bears were judicious in free agency and limited by their lack of high draft picks.
For the first time since he was hired in 2015, Pace didn’t spend the offseason overhauling his team. But that doesn’t mean he’s relaxing.
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Akiem Hicks rarely walks past an empty general manager’s office.
“I see him putting work in all the time,” the Pro Bowl defensive lineman said. “Anytime I’m upstairs, he’s in his office, pounding away.
“If your ownership and GM put in this kind of work, why can’t you as a player?”
Pace brings that drive to the weight room, where he’s a frequent participant. The former Eastern Illinois defensive end still treats his body as if he were one, even if, at 42, he uses long bike rides to scratch the competitive itch.
Hicks has known Pace longer than any Bears player. They met in 2012, when the Saints, for whom Pace was a deputy, drafted the defensive lineman.
“He’s probably one of the most fit people in this building, and I’m not kidding,” Hicks said. “He’s an athlete himself.”
That was clear to Roquan Smith last year when the linebacker had dinner in the northern suburbs with Pace as part of the pre-draft process. He realized quickly that he could pick Pace’s brain. He knew he’d be drafted anywhere from Nos. 6 to 14, but he had a strong feeling he’d go to the Bears at No. 8.
“He had been around the league for a while — and played ball,” Smith said. “So it was good just to talk to him and talk through things and tell him how I feel and he tell [me] what he was like looking for in prospects.
“If I was there — like if I was available — he would probably get me based on the things he was saying.”
Taking Smith proved wise, even after a prolonged preseason holdout about contract protections. Trubisky earned a Pro Bowl nod as an alternate last year. Pace gave 2016 first-round pick Leonard Floyd a fifth-year option, keeping him on the team through 2020.
They didn’t do the same for Pace’s first-ever first-round pick, receiver Kevin White, who left via free agency after injuries and ineffectiveness limited him to 14 games out of a possible 64. Drafting White is the biggest error Pace has made as a GM — though signing quarterback Mike Glennon and cutting kicker Robbie Gould are close.
Now, in the middle of his fifth draft, Pace said he has learned from previous mistakes.
“Always, you’re getting better with each one of these experiences,” he said. “You get better because you become closer as a staff. So I know, ‘OK, this scout might be a hard grader on this position and an easy grader on this position.’ You kind of have a feel for your staff.
“You definitely learn, for me, [from] the mistakes we have. We talk about them all the time. What did we learn from this? And how can we prevent it going forward? And those measures are in place.”
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Chairman George McCaskey was standing in front of running back Tarik Cohen on Monday when he was asked about Pace’s strength through his first four drafts.
“You want to be successful in as many rounds as you can be, but that’s not always going to work out,” McCaskey said. “We’ve had our share of hits and misses. That’s the whole idea — to have more hits than misses.
“There’s a hit behind me.”
Cohen, who made the Pro Bowl as a kick returner in his second season, is one of the gems Pace has uncovered on the final day of the draft. Within seven picks in the fourth round in 2017, Pace drafted the Lilliputian running back and future All-Pro safety Eddie Jackson, whose stock fell after he broke his leg at Alabama.
Pace’s fifth-round finds came in back-to-back years: safety Adrian Amos in 2015 and running back Jordan Howard in 2016.
Bilal Nichols could prove to be the next fifth-round steal. Uncovering him at FCS-school Delaware last year was a team effort, Pace said, starting with regional scouts and extending to film work. When the Bears saw Nichols had the traits they value in a defensive lineman, they flew defensive line coach Jay Rodgers out to give Nichols a private workout. Rodgers came back wowed.
“Really jumping on the table for Bilal,” Pace said. “When you have those things as a decision-maker, it gives you confidence to pull the trigger.”
But doing so takes guts, Hicks said.
“You have to be able to look past whether a guy put up 40 reps on the bench press or ran a 4.3 [in the 40-yard dash],” Hicks said. “That guy’s going to be talented.
“But what do you want to build your team on? Do you want to build your team on guys that put up great numbers, or do you want to build your team on guys that love the game of football, are dedicated and have a real passion for playing the game?”
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Pace’s challenge doesn’t end with the final pick of the draft Saturday. The second the draft ends, the Bears will scramble to sign 18-20 college players who weren’t taken.
“It feels like the floor of Wall Street,” Pace said.
The Bears know how much money they want to spend at each position, and they’ll have a list of the players to target. Many of the team’s 30 pre-draft visits at Halas Hall were recruiting trips for potential free agents.
“The first time you’re calling a college free agent, if that’s the first time he’s heard from you right then,” Pace said, “then you’re already way behind.”
Pace has found success there, too. Cornerback Bryce Callahan, part of his first undrafted free-agent class, landed a three-year, $21 million deal from the Broncos in March. Defensive lineman Roy Robertson-Harris and tight end Ben Braunecker combined to play more than 800 snaps last year.
Pace’s personality helped land them.
“He’s a person that makes you feel like he genuinely cares about you,” Hicks said. “That’s really special coming from a man in the position he’s in.”
Pace is chasing an encore. So are Nagy and the 12-4 Bears.
So what will it be?
“I think we all know that answer” Nagy said. “The only one that really matters is the trophy at the end of the year.”