Khalil Mack era — smart investment yields a disappointing return

Former Bears GM Ryan Pace made the right move to acquire an elite pass rusher in his prime. The only regret is that — unlike the Rams with Aaron Donald — the Bears’ offense forced Mack and the defense to carry too much of the load.

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Khalil Mack (52) had 36 sacks in 53 games over four seasons with the Bears.

Khalil Mack (52) had 36 sacks in 53 games over four seasons with the Bears.

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

As it turned out, the Khalil Mack era was no more successful than the Jay Cutler era or the Brandon Marshall era in the pantheon of Bears bold trade acquisitions. 

One winning season out of four. Two playoff berths. No postseason victories. The general manager who traded two first-round picks to the Raiders to acquire him in 2018 was just fired — just as Jerry Angelo was fired three years after acquiring Cutler and Phil Emery was fired three years after trading for Marshall. 

But it was still a deal worth making, one that Ryan Pace surely doesn’t regret and one the Bears would do all over again. Even more than the Cutler and Marshall acquisitions, the disappointment of the Mack era was a Bears problem more than a Mack problem. 

Mack, who will be traded to the Chargers for a 2022 second-round pick and 2023 sixth-round pick, was a stellar game-wrecker for one season. In 2018, he opened with a Bears debut for the ages against the Packers, had 12½ sacks for the season and finished a distant runner-up to Aaron Donald for the Defensive Player of the Year Award. Mack played at a Pro Bowl level in 2019 and 2020 and was on his way toward a rejuvenating season in 2021 — six sacks in seven games, but with no forced fumbles or interceptions, before a sprained left foot took its toll.

Frankly, he wasn’t worth every penny of the six-year, $141 million contract that made him the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history — not like Donald has been since signing a similar monumental deal a day earlier in 2018. But you can’t ignore one glaring factor that helped create that disparity: The Rams gave Donald an offense to enhance his dominating talent. The Bears did just the opposite — imploding offensively under Matt Nagy to force the Bears’ defense to put the entire team on its back.

When Mack came to the Bears, he was known to most Bears fans as a devastating pass rusher. But, like Julius Peppers and the Blackhawks’ Marian Hossa before him among superstar newcomers, Mack was much more than his sterling résumé. He not only produced, but had a presence and a work ethic that raised the bar for every player on that defense.

It’s not a coincidence that the addition of Mack elevated Vic Fangio’s defense to an elite level in that glorious 2018 season. The Bears ranked in the top 10 in every major statistical category, including first in scoring defense, yards per play, rushing yards, passing yards per play and third-down efficiency. They led the NFL with 27 interceptions and 36 takeaways. They were tied for third with 50 sacks. They scored six touchdowns on defense.

It was up to the Bears to maximize that high-caliber asset, and they couldn’t do it. Their success became a part of that failure. Fangio left to become the Broncos’ head coach, and his departure took much of the bite out of the entire defense under Chuck Pagano and Sean Desai. 

But Nagy’s offense — which figures to be blamed for everything at Halas Hall until further notice — is the biggest culprit. The offense rode the wave of the Mack-led defense in 2018. But it faltered from there and put more and more pressure on the defense to keep up.

The Bears paid a heavy price for Mack. They traded first-round picks in 2019 and 2020, a 2019 sixth-round pick and a 2020 third-round pick to the Raiders in exchange for Mack, a 2020 second-round pick (the Bears took tight end Cole Kmet) and a 2020 seventh-round pick (they took offensive lineman Arlington Hambright). They signed Mack to a contract that eventually hamstrung their salary cap. And now, he’s gone.

But the only regret is that the Bears didn’t do more to make the bold gambit work. Pace made the right move. 

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