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How do you like him now? Ryan Pace’s gumption bears fruit with Khalil Mack trade

Bears general manager Ryan Pace was criticized, even ridiculed, when he traded four picks to move up one spot in the 2017 draft — from No. 3 to No. 2 — to acquire North Carolina quarterback Mitch Trubisky. It wasn’t unreasonable. Not only did it seem like Pace was bidding against himself, but it didn’t seem worth the price, with Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes as fallback options if Trubisky wasn’t there at No. 3.

It remains to be seen how prudent that move was, but that episode no doubt crystallized a Pace modus operandi: When he believes in something, he has the gumption and fortitude to pounce on the opportunity and make it happen, regardless of what anybody else thinks.

That aggressive m.o. came in handy Saturday, when Pace pulled the trigger on the deal of the year — trading first-round picks in 2019 and 2020 to the Raiders for holdout All-Pro linebacker Khalil Mack after agreeing to a six-year, $141 million contract with $90 million guaranteed that makes Mack the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history.

It’s a stunning move for a rebuilding team that cherishes draft picks as much or more than most and is not considered a playoff contender. But this gambit says more about Pace’s style than anything — that there’s a method to his madness. Yes, the same general manager who paid $18 million to Mike Glennon and supposedly got snookered by 49ers rookie GM John Lynch to get Trubisky also stepped up to get Mack — at 27, the youngest onetime Defensive Player of the Year ever traded.

Khalil Mack (pressuring Jay Cutler in 2015) had 36.5 sacks in the last three seasons with the Oakland Raiders. | Charles Rex Arbogast, AP photo

Khalil Mack (pressuring Jay Cutler in 2015) had 36.5 sacks in the last three seasons with the Oakland Raiders. | Charles Rex Arbogast, AP photo

When two seemingly conflicting universal NFL truths converged — you build through the draft; elite pass rushers rarely are available — Pace realized correctly that the latter trumps the former.

“Elite defensive players in their prime are rare, so when we knew we had a legit shot to acquire him, we did everything we thought necessary to get him,” Pace said in a statement.

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No matter how the Mack trade works out, Pace has to be lauded for making an earthshaking move that seemed like a pipe dream. The Bears have made the playoffs five times since the end of the Mike Ditka era in 1992 — that’s tied with the Raiders and Redskins for the fewest in the NFL among teams in the league at that time. Division rivals acquiring devastating pass rushers are two of the biggest reasons for that drought — the Packers signing Reggie White in 1993, the Vikings trading for Jared Allen in 2008.

The Bears took their shot by signing 30-year-old Julius Peppers as a free agent in 2010 and reached the NFC Championship Game in his first season. Acquiring Mack in the prime of his career — 40½ sacks in four NFL seasons, including 36½ in his last three seasons — gives the Bears an even better chance for an even bigger payoff.

The momentum from this move is palpable. It’s unlikely any player will match the culture-shifting lift that White gave the Packers. But acquiring Mack does more than just give Vic Fangio a dominant chess piece to play with. It sends a message that Pace believes the Bears are closer than anybody thinks. He’s not giving up first-round picks if he thinks they’ll be in the top 10 or even top 15. Coming off seasons of 6-10, 3-13 and 5-11, he’s building for the future but also trying to win now — that’s sure to resonate on a team that already enters the season feeling pretty good about itself.

Pace still has a lot to prove as an NFL general manager. He’s resolute to a fault. He’s not afraid to make a mistake. He’s not worried about the worst-case scenario. And he doesn’t care about public perception. It’s harder to quarrel with his style now. It stuck Bears fans with Glennon. But it also got them Mack.