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‘They’re going for it’: What Khalil Mack means to Ryan Pace’s overhaul of Bears

When it came to parting with two first-round picks to acquire outside linebacker Khalil Mack, Bears general manager Ryan Pace took solace in the 2020 second-round pick he received in return from the Raiders.

“In that draft, we’re going to have two [second-rounders],” Pace said. “We’ve proved that in the second round we can get high-caliber players.”

That’s an accurate assessment, particularly with rookie wide receiver Anthony Miller about to follow in the footsteps of nose tackle Eddie Goldman and center Cody Whitehair by having a major role in Week 1.

Coach Matt Nagy had big plans for tight end Adam Shaheen before he sprained his right foot and ankle, too. Rookie James Daniels also is expected to replace Eric Kush at left guard at some point this season.

Bears general manager Ryan Pace discusses the trade for Khalil Mack. | Tim Boyle/For the Chicago Sun-Times

“You’re talking about draft capital and also the financial resources you’re giving up, but fortunately we’re in a really good place with our salary cap,” Pace said. “Our roster can handle this right now.”

Pace said his depth-chart board is no longer filled with green magnets. The needs and holes aren’t the same as when he took over in 2015.

“We’re a young team with a lot of depth we feel good about,” Pace said.

The acquisition of Mack signals that Pace’s overhaul of the Bears’ roster is complete. His plan has officially transitioned from rebuilding to winning. Mack — a star in a premier position — was the missing piece for what the Bears envision as their turnaround.

“They’re going for it,” cornerback Prince Amukamara said.

That’s the message from management, but it took time to reach this point, regardless of the quick fix that was promised with John Fox’s hiring. Pace inherited one of the NFL’s oldest rosters and also significant cap-consuming contracts, starting with Jay Cutler’s.

Only nine players on the Bears’ 53-man roster were on the Bears’ Week 1 roster in 2015, when they lost to the Packers 31-23 at Soldier Field. That roster included three current starters: safety Adrian Amos, cornerback Kyle Fuller and guard Kyle Long, who played right tackle that year. Wide receiver Kevin White was on the physically unable-to-perform list.

Pace wiped out most of the Phil Emery/Marc Trestman era. Only four of Emery’s 20 draft picks over three years remain: Long, Fuller, left tackle Charles Leno Jr. and punter Pat O’Donnell. Beyond those four, special-teamer Sherrick McManis is the only other player from the 2014 opening-day roster on the 2018 roster.

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“I was told that [this would happen],” Leno said. “They said that when a new GM comes in and a new head coach comes in, things will change, and you’ve got to work to stay here. That’s all I’ve been doing.”

Pace signed Leno, Long, Fuller and O’Donnell to second contracts. McManis, 30, also got a new deal. But Pace’s most important move remains the drafting of quarterback Mitch Trubisky. Every rebuilding effort requires a new quarterback to build around.

Trubisky’s arrival led to Nagy’s hiring and a shift in Pace’s spending habits at other positions. The Bears needed new, young help, and wide receivers Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel and tight end Trey Burton were signed.

But the organization’s belief that Trubisky will excel while playing out his affordable rookie contract also made acquiring and signing Mack to a six-year, $141 million extension worth every effort.

Pace sees a young core in place on both sides of the ball. Other than Fuller, Pace is responsible for every projected starter or key reserve on defense.

On Saturday, Mack was added to the mix.

“The youth of our team, the depth of our team, the financial health of our team and then getting that second-round pick back was important,” Pace said of the trade.

A transcendent talent became available, and the Bears got him.

Overhaul complete.

“We want to win, and we want to do it right now,” Leno said. “I love the direction that we’re heading in.”