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2021 NFL Draft: Ryan Pace hits jackpot with QB Justin Fields, OT Teven Jenkins

With his job on the line, Pace delivered a quarterback and offensive lineman who could turn the franchise around, and that’ll be enough to save it

This looks like the best draft class of Pace’s career.
AP Photos

With minimal draft capital and hardly anyone believing he could pull it off, Bears general manager Ryan Pace aced the draft in a way that could save his career and turbocharge a franchise that sputtered to a .500 record over the last two seasons.

There was a steep cost, but Pace landed a guy who many believed was the second-best quarterback in the draft by trading up to get Justin Fields at No. 11 on Thursday and followed it by swooping in for Oklahoma State offensive tackle Teven Jenkins in the second round at No. 39 overall. Jenkins was widely projected to be a first-rounder, and when Pace saw him slip well into the second, he couldn’t resist.

The payoff might not be immediate, but the Bears believe — with good cause — that they have a star quarterback and someone to protect him for years to come. It’s been a long time since the excitement over a draft was so palpable and the hope so legitimate.

“I think me and him are going to be great things for this city and great things for this team,” Jenkins said of Fields.

He continued, “I definitely feel like both of us will grow old on this team. I have a very strong feeling about this.”

If Jenkins is right, no one’s going to care what Pace gave up to make this happen.

After trading away a 2021 fifth-round pick and the Bears’ first- and fourth-rounders in ’22 to the Giants to jump from No. 20 to 11 for Fields, it looked like Pace was totally out of ammunition for another big swing.

Instead, with Jenkins drifting, he made a deal with the Panthers to swap spots in the second round, moving the Bears up from No. 52 to 39. It cost Pace his third-round pick (No. 83) and a sixth-rounder (No. 204). He also picked up the Panthers’ fifth-round pick (No. 151).

That 2022 first-rounder is the only one of those outgoing assets that truly stings, but everyone will get over that quickly if Fields and Jenkins catapult the Bears back to relevance.

“We feel really good right now,” Pace said late Friday. “It’s a good feeling at Halas.”

Put simply, Pace prioritized quality over quantity. He went into the first two days of the draft with Nos. 20, 52 and 83 and walked out with two elite prospects, and the price to jump up and get Fields was pretty reasonable thanks to so many quarterback-starved teams inexplicably bypassing him.

“We feel really fortunate to be able to get Justin [where] we were able to select him,” Pace said. “The excitement throughout our whole building, you could feel it... what he’s gonna do for the future of our organization.”

It’s very likely Fields and Jenkins will be the only long-term contributors that come from this draft class. And that’s fine.

The Bears’ most obvious, debilitating deficiency in the big picture is their lack of a franchise quarterback. Their most glaring problem in the immediacy is that they’re not sure if they have one viable starting offensive tackle, let alone two. Pace solved both of those problems, and he’ll just have to find a way to cobble together answers at cornerback and wide receiver between his late-round picks and the existing depth chart.

It’s worth it. Those are easier issues to resolve than having a net-negative at quarterback and a shaky offensive line making everything worse.

Fields gives the Bears something they’ve never had. He was infinitely more impressive than Mitch Trubisky as a college quarterback. His ceiling is infinitely higher than Pace’s mismatched collection of castoff quarterbacks like Andy Dalton, Nick Foles and Mike Glennon. And most of all, Fields is infinitely more thrilling than anyone who has played quarterback for the Bears in recent memory — maybe ever.

Now that they have Jenkins, they might be able to protect him, too. He played left and right tackle in his 35 starts at Oklahoma State, and Pro Football Focus’ charting had him at two sacks allowed in 1,129 pass-blocking snaps.

Even with him being a rookie, that sounds like a better solution at right tackle next season than Germain Ifedi. If Jenkins is as good as the consensus believes, he could replace Charles Leno at left tackle after that.

If Pace supplies the Bears with fixtures at quarterback and left tackle, he deserves to stay. With his job on the line, he delivered the best draft of his career.