2021 NFL Draft carries highest stakes of Bears GM Ryan Pace’s career
With his job on the line, Pace’s first three picks of the draft are his best shot at fixing a roster that doesn’t look much different from the one that went 8-8 last season.
Unless the Bears have some preposterous backroom deal with general manager Ryan Pace in which they’re giving him multiple years to turn the team around, this will be the most high-stakes draft of his career.
The low bar for Pace to save his job is probably 10 victories and a playoff berth, and if he wants any shot of clearing it, he needs three instant starters with his first three picks — Nos. 20, 52 and 83 — and a Darnell Mooney-like gem among his fifth-round pick and four sixth-rounders.
That’s what Pace needs, regardless of whether he was willing to admit it in a predraft news conference that began with a pre-emptive apology for avoiding answering any questions.
‘‘For us, the draft’s just about collecting talented players, not just focusing on a need right now,’’ he said. ‘‘That can get you in trouble.’’
He’s right that need-based drafting is how teams sometimes miss out on generational talents, but the Bears made it clear by keeping Pace and coach Matt Nagy that they’re focused solely on this season. And as far as this season is concerned, the Bears need a starting offensive tackle, cornerback and wide receiver.
That’s an extremely difficult target for Pace or any other GM to hit, but it’s a predicament of his own making. The Bears went into this offseason knowing it would take a miracle to make them a contender, and that miracle — Russell Wilson — is staying in Seattle. Pace’s next-best moonshot is a perfect draft.
This team went 16-16 the last two seasons, has shaky depth and had more negatives than positives in free agency. Pace has no more margin of error to absorb a Mitch Trubisky, Adam Shaheen or Kevin White.
The ideal approach is to fill needs by the end of free agency, allowing the luxury of drafting the best available player, regardless of position. But the Bears were out of money — at present, they don’t even have enough salary-cap space to sign their draft picks — and nothing about their plan has been ideal.
That’s especially true at quarterback, where they’ve got 33-year-old journeyman Andy Dalton, 32-year-old journeyman Nick Foles and — oops, that’s all.
It is excruciatingly fitting that in a dream draft in which the consensus is that there are five potential franchise quarterbacks — Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, Mac Jones and Justin Fields — the Bears appear to be well out of reach of any of them at No. 20. It is the curse of the perpetually mediocre.
The first three teams in the draft — the Jaguars, Jets and 49ers — are virtually committed to drafting a quarterback. So even if the Bears trade up, which is not advisable, they’ll be doing so for no better than the fourth choice of those five. And given that the 49ers had to give the Dolphins two future first-round picks and a third to move up from 12th to third, the Bears can’t afford to make the necessary jump.
The cost of trading future picks is never felt in the moment. Quite the opposite, in fact. Who fretted about those distant first-rounders when Pace used them to trade for megastar Khalil Mack? Nobody.
It doesn’t even hurt that much when the team arrives at the draft itself and has to wait until No. 73 to make a pick, as the Bears did in 2019, or until No. 47, as they did last year. The true pain comes two or three years later, when linebacker Roquan Smith is the only first-round investment maturing into his prime. It’s imperative to replenish continuously.
The organization can’t keep doing that to itself — not for the mere privilege of having the fourth or fifth choice among quarterbacks and not with the possibility of a comprehensive rebuild looming in 2022.
Instead, while it wouldn’t be as thrilling as a new quarterback, picking up an offensive tackle, such as Virginia Tech’s Christian Darrisaw or Oklahoma State’s Teven Jenkins, would be prudent Thursday. That immediately would plug the biggest leak in a Bears offense that currently features Charles Leno at left tackle and Germain Ifedi at right.
If no offensive tackle of that caliber is available at No. 20, the Bears could trade down, add an extra pick to replace the fourth-rounder Pace traded for Foles and add a polished playmaker, such as Ole Miss wide receiver Elijah Moore.
There is no foolproof plan for the draft, but the simplest approach is best for the Bears this year: Fill needs.