Bears general manager Ryan Pace isn’t big on news conferences — he only holds them on special occasions. But the one before the NFL Draft is one where he particularly can’t hide his disdain.
“The yearly pre-draft press conference . . . always fun,” he said sardonically Tuesday upon greeting reporters at Halas Hall.
Most laughed in response because they get it: As much as reporters crave information, it makes no sense for Pace to show any bit of his hand or give any inkling of the Bears’ thinking two days before the draft. It’s inherently counterproductive.
Of course, it’s an opportunity to disseminate misinformation as well. In 1975, Bears GM Jim Finks had almost every paper in town talking up Texas A&I running back Don Hardeman at No. 4 overall in that year’s draft. Instead, the Bears took Walter Payton from Jackson State — and later said they were so in love with Payton they’d have taken him first overall if they had the top pick.
The next year, Finks said, “I would say our priorities would have to be the defensive secondary, including linebacker.” Then he took Wisconsin offensive tackle Dennis Lick at No. 8. The Bears didn’t take a cornerback until the fourth round. They didn’t take a linebacker until the seventh.
Pace insists he doesn’t like to play those sorts of games.
“I don’t spend a ton of time and energy into putting out those smokescreens or misleading [people],” he said before last year’s draft. “[At] this time of year, I think it’s OK to be a little boring in these moments, and we can have more thorough discussions after the draft.”
We’ll see just how much Pace doesn’t like smokescreens for this year’s draft — which opens at 7 p.m. Thursday in Nashville, Tennessee — because he sure seemed to be creating one Tuesday. He made a point of dismissing the widely held notion that, after trading Jordan Howard to the Eagles last month, the Bears are focused on a running back. They have picks in the third round (87th overall), fourth (126th), fifth (162nd) and seventh (222nd, 238th).
“I kind of know what the narrative is out there,” Pace said when asked about the depth at running back this year. “I know running back’s been talked about a lot, but we feel good about that position.”
With Howard gone, Pace said he feels comfortable with Tarik Cohen, newcomer Mike Davis and 2018 undrafted free agent Ryan Nall (who was on the practice squad last year). He mentioned wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, who had 42 carries for 228 yards and a touchdown with the Patriots last season.
But with all due respect to the affable Pace, not many were buying it. It’s not unfathomable that in coach Matt Nagy’s offense, the current group could get the job done. But by the same token, if Nagy is looking for his Kareem Hunt, the 87th pick is still a place to do it. Hunt himself was the 86th pick of the 2017 draft before leading the NFL in rushing with 1,387 yards as a rookie in Andy Reid’s offense that Nagy coordinated.
In fact, in the last five seasons alone, there have been five running backs available at No. 87 that have made the Pro Bowl — the Steelers’ James Conner (105th in 2017), the Falcons’ Devonta Freeman (103rd in 2014), Howard (150th in 2016), the Dolphins’ Jay Ajayi (149th in 2015) and the Broncos’ Phillip Lindsay (undrafted in 2018). And that doesn’t include Cohen (who made the Pro Bowl as a kick returner) or Hunt and the Cardinals’ David Johnson (who were picked 86th overall). So while you can’t blame Pace for being happy with his guys, there’s a good chance a running back will be the best player available sooner rather than later.