Like so many first-time general managers, Ryan Pace came in with the right idea.
“In a perfect world, you address a lot of your needs in free agency to open up the draft for the best player available,” Pace said at the scouting combine in 2015, a month after being hired by the Bears.
Pace no doubt didn’t expect a perfect world, but he probably didn’t anticipate one this imperfect. With the imminent signing of Robert Quinn to a five-year, $70 million contract and the release of outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, Pace is doing exactly what he wanted to avoid: throwing good free-agency money after failed or underperforming draft picks.
Whether it’s unfortunate draft timing, bad injury luck or misevaluation, Pace’s misses are adding up. Wide receiver Kevin White, the seventh overall pick of Pace’s first draft in 2015 — three picks after Amari Cooper went to the Raiders — was rarely healthy and never productive. Floyd, the ninth overall pick of the 2016 draft, did everything but what he was paid to do — sack the quarterback.
Quarterback Mitch Trubisky is unlikely to justify Pace’s aggressive move to get him at No. 2 overall in 2017. Trubisky might make it yet, but if the No. 2 pick in the draft is still learning to read NFL defenses heading into Year 4, you drafted the wrong guy.
Considering that Pace had four top-10 picks in his first four seasons as GM, his poor record in the first round is particularly glaring. Linebacker Roquan Smith, the eighth overall pick in 2018, looks like a winner, but still with a lot to prove after an uneven second season.
So instead of playing from strength in free agency, Pace has had to address draft misjudgments. He signed Allen Robinson to a three-year, $42 million contract after White failed. He signed Quinn to replace Floyd — money that could have been used to attract tight end Austin Hooper. And even that need at tight end is a symptom of the problem. Pace would not have had to make that such a priority if Adam Shaheen had become the matchup nightmare he envisioned when he drafted the tight end in the second round in 2017.
And the one draft pick who can make it all better — Trubisky — is forcing Pace’s hand in free agency. Whether Pace signs a starter to replace Trubisky or a proven backup to challenge him, he’s almost certainly going to spend more money on a quarterback than if Trubisky had lived up to his draft status.
Trubisky will be the first-round pick who defines Pace’s tenure, but Floyd’s inability to develop into a difference-maker is particularly lamentable for Pace. Floyd had his moments where he was the athlete Pace envisioned. He learned the position well. He had the Vic Fangio seal of approval. And Pace’s as well.
“We’re happy with Leonard,” Pace said after the 2019 season. “I know the stats don’t always say it, but Leonard does a lot of things that may be a little bit undervalued. There aren’t a lot of outside linebackers [with] the versatility he provides. Would we like more production from him? Yeah. But there’s a lot of things he does that we like.”
Unfortunately, Floyd could do everything but what is valued most at his position. He had eight sacks in 31 games with Kahlil Mack on the field — a wind-aided total in a defense with Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, Danny Trevathan and Smith also in the front seven.
To Pace’s credit, he acknowledged the reality of that deficiency with the signing of Quinn, who had 11½ sacks for the Cowboys last season and wreaked even more havoc by advanced-stat measurements. It looks like an upgrade, but it’s a costly upgrade. And worse, another one.