A more vindictive NFL general manager would not have traded a malcontent such as Martellus Bennett to the one team that could make him look the best and the Bears look the worst.
But that’s what Ryan Pace did when he sent Bennett, a former Pro Bowl tight end in his prime, to the Patriots in March 2016 for not much in return — in effect moving up 77 spots in the draft by acquiring the 127th overall pick, a fourth-rounder.
“Honestly, it was really the best offer we had,” Pace told the Sun-Times this week.
As it turned out, being traded to the one team that could handle his act was predictably a benefit for Bennett. He helped the Patriots win Super Bowl LI after the 2016 season, then signed a three-year, $21 million contract with the Packers — a deal Green Bay would come to regret.
The Bears didn’t get much out of it, at first. They used the fourth-round pick from the Pats to select Northern Iowa cornerback Deiondre’ Hall, who made minimal impact in two seasons before being traded to the Eagles before the 2018 season for a seventh-round pick in 2019.
But the Bennett deal is paying dividends after all. The Bears used the seventh-round pick they acquired in the Hall trade to draft Florida Atlantic running back Kerrith Whyte, whose speed is particularly intriguing in a Matt Nagy offense. And — indirectly, but not insignificantly — the Bennett trade helped Pace build a rapport with the Patriots that bore fruit in this year’s draft when they traded up 14 spots in the third round to select Iowa State running back David Montgomery as a missing piece to the Nagy offense.
The Bears traded the 87th overall pick, a fifth-round pick (162nd overall) and a fourth-round pick in 2020 to the Patriots for the 73rd overall pick. The Bills took FAU running back Devin Singletary at No. 74.
The Bennett deal was one of three trades between the Bears and Patriots involving starting players that preceded the Montgomery acquisition. The Bears traded linebacker Jon Bostic to the Patriots in 2015. Last year, they traded their second-round pick in 2019 and a fourth-round pick in 2018 to the Patriots for a second-round pick (51st overall) in 2018 that they used to select wide receiver Anthony Miller.
So Pace can take some satisfaction that the Bennett trade at least indirectly helped lead to the Montgomery deal.
“Yeah,” he said. “I think anytime you do trades with these clubs, you get more comfortable working with the people at both ends. Nick Caserio [the Patriots’ director of player personnel] and I have a good relationship, so I think it’s easier to be open and honest and get to the point.
“And the Patriots are one of those clubs that are aggressive — they’ll go up; they’ll go back. They’re just easy to work with on things like this. We have a history of doing deals with them, and I think it speaks to them and to our relationship.”
In a year in which the Bears did not have a first- or second-round pick, the selection of Montgomery is the key to the Bears’ 2019 draft. It exemplifies Pace’s aggressive approach to filling a need and maximizing limited draft capital. With his vision, patience, versatility and pass-catching ability, the 5-10, 222-pound Montgomery is expected to be not only a replacement for the departed Jordan Howard, but a missing facet to Nagy’s offense that will fuel a quantum leap on offense in 2019.
Pace’s and Nagy’s conviction on Montgomery as a fit for the offense and the consensus among coaches and scouts made him the top target and one worth trading up for. But he wasn’t the only one.
“I think there’s a little bit of a narrative that he was the one-and-only guy, and if we don’t get him, we’re screwed. It wasn’t like that,” Pace said. “It was more [like], there’s a group of players that we’re hopeful will be in this area of the draft, where our original pick was at 87. But then there’s a couple of players that, ‘Hey, man, if they’re within reach, because we had a consensus on them, then let’s be a little aggressive and go get them.’
“So once we realized, ‘Hey, this is realistic. This is a fair trade for us. This is within reach.’ [We decided], ‘Let’s go get a player that we value and have consensus on.’ ”
The deal with the Patriots went down to the final minute the Bears would’ve been on the clock at 73. Time was running out.
“We were calling teams in that whole area [around the 73rd pick],” Pace said. “And the Patriots are just the one that it ended up working out with. There’s only five minutes between picks, so we kind of had to hustle through it. By the time it was all agreed upon, we were on the clock with one minute to go.”
That, again, is where the background with the Patriots came into play. Pace and Joey Laine — his close confidant and the Bears’ director of football administration — worked the phones with Caserio.
“When it came down to those final minutes, it’s Joey Laine and I working together on it,” Pace said. “I talked to Nick Caserio originally, and Joey’s on the phone with the points chart [which details the value of each draft pick] and working things on his computer.
“Just me working with Joey as long as I have [since 2005 with the Saints] and us having done deals with the Patriots before — even though it got kind of tight, it was never stressful. I think it just comes with familiarity with the people you’re working with. And trust.”
Pace is among the more active general managers in the draft, and one factor that helps make these deals work — including this one — is Pace’s history of paying a fair price. He doesn’t lowball anyone. If anything, he overpays. But he often gets what he wants.
“There has to be a win-win for both sides,” Pace said. “A lot of times trades don’t happen because somebody’s being unrealistic. As long as you’re realistic and fair and understand both teams’ perspectives, I think that’s how these deals get done.”
After high-fives around the draft room, Pace & Co. got back down to business. The Bears had only five picks, including the 205th, 222nd and 238th. But Pace is particularly satisfied with what he got: Georgia wide receiver Riley Ridley (fourth round, 126th overall), Kansas State cornerback Duke Shelley (sixth round, 205th), Whyte (seventh round, 222nd) and Valdosta State cornerback Stephen Denmark (seventh round, 238th).
In Pace’s first draft with the Bears in 2015, he had six picks, including four in the top 106, and ended up with nose tackle Eddie Goldman and safety Adrian Amos. This time, he had only one pick in the top 125. And while it remains to be seen how productive this draft becomes, Pace already can see that he and his staff are making progress with the draft process.
“The more that I’m reflecting back on this draft, there’s a ton of satisfaction with it,” Pace said. “We had limitations in place, which present challenges, but I’m proud of the way our guys handled those challenges. I feel really good about how we came out of this thing.
“We just finished the rookie minicamp, and you see the guys perform well and pretty much show what we saw on film. And in some cases, they exceeded it as a first impression. It’s just a really good feeling . . . limited picks, picking a lot later in those [late] rounds and coming out with guys we’re excited about.
“I think it does speak to us — the longer we work together, the more familiar we are with each other. Just like anything, you get better and you get more efficient at it. I feel like we’re clickin’ on all cylinders right now.” V