Ryan Pace returns to New Orleans with Bears building blocks in place
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Adam L. Jahns’ “Inside the Huddle” columns appear in game-day editions of the Sun-Times.
General manager Ryan Pace should feel good about his homecoming this weekend in New Orleans.
After 14 years, he left the Saints for the Bears in 2015, and his rebuilding efforts in three offseasons finally are bearing fruit.
Simply put, there’s hope because building blocks have emerged. With a victory against the Saints, Pace’s squad would be a .500 team before its bye week.
With the Bears playing the Saints for the first time since his departure, here’s an overview of what Pace has built:
1. Hope at QB
Pace’s move to trade up for quarterback Mitch Trubisky didn’t surprise the Saints. They know Pace acts with bold conviction.
The Saints liked Trubisky, too. It’s no secret around the NFL that they’ve been eyeing an heir apparent to Drew Brees to groom.
Pace’s fate, of course, is tied to Trubisky, and Trubisky’s story will unfold in time. Brees wasn’t named to his first Pro Bowl until his fourth season.
On the field, the Bears have protected Trubisky with their running game and defense. As expected, he has much to learn, though his decision-making and ball security have been positives.
But there’s more to Trubisky.
As Pace hoped, Trubisky is changing the Bears’ culture. His tireless work ethic, take-charge demeanor and accountability have impressed his teammates, young and old.
They believe in him even though he hasn’t accomplished much on the field.
“He’s a special kid,” linebacker Danny Trevathan said.
2. Top-10 defense
When Pace arrived, he promised to rebuild the Bears’ defense, which was reeling after its two worst seasons in franchise history.
Pace’s mission isn’t accomplished, but with the help of coach John Fox and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, the Bears have the NFL’s seventh-best defense.
Of the 24 defensive players on the active roster, only three are from the previous regime: cornerback Kyle Fuller, linebacker Christian Jones and special-teams ace Sherrick McManis.
Fuller is the only full-time starter. Outside linebacker Willie Young is another holdover, but he’s on injured reserve with a triceps injury.
3. Productive picks
Pace should be judged more by his draft hits than his free-agent misses.
Wide receiver Kevin White — Pace’s first draft pick — hasn’t panned out because of injuries, but 14 of Pace’s 20 draft selections are on the active roster. Of the 14, six are full-time starters.
Beyond Trubisky, a young core has been established. It includes running back Jordan Howard, outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, nose tackle Eddie Goldman, center Cody Whitehair, safety Eddie Jackson, running back Tarik Cohen and — after his re-emergence and big plays this season — safety Adrian Amos.
The team also views linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski as a long-term starter, but he has been sidelined by a chest injury since Week 2. Tight end Adam Shaheen and defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard also could turn into difference-makers by this time next year.
Good teams also routinely find players who are undrafted free agents. The Bears struck gold with wide receiver Cam Meredith (injured reserve) and nickel back Bryce Callahan.
Linebacker John Timu, defensive lineman Roy Robertson-Harris, outside linebacker Isaiah Irving and wide receiver Tanner Gentry are undrafted signings who have roles.
4. Big-money backup
The Bears’ faulty evaluation of quarterback Mike Glennon isn’t as damning as some critics make it. At the very least, it provided cover for the Bears’ pursuit of Trubisky.
Saying goodbye to Jay Cutler meant multiple swings at quarterbacks were required. The Bears’ plan called for signing the best available free agent and targeting one of the best quarterbacks in the draft.
In free agency, the Bears’ decision came down to Glennon or Brian Hoyer, who signed a two-year, $12 million contract with the 49ers after playing on a one-year, $2 million contract.
The 49ers benched Hoyer in Week 6 for rookie C.J. Beathard, a third-round pick from Iowa.
Teams always overpay in free agency. At the time, the Buccaneers offered to make Glennon the NFL’s highest-paid backup, surpassing Chase Daniel’s then-average of $7 million.
The Bears signed Glennon to a three-year contract but protected themselves by guaranteeing him only one year and $18.5 million.
5. Free-agent hits
The Bears overestimated Glennon’s potential, but Pace deserves credit for convincing defensive lineman Akiem Hicks to sign with the Bears over the Patriots in free agency. The Bears also signed All-Pro guard Josh Sitton almost immediately after the Packers released him.
Count Hicks and Sitton among Pace’s hits in free agency.
When healthy, inside linebackers Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman, outside linebacker Pernell McPhee and cornerback Prince Amukamara also have made meaningful contributions.
Wide receiver Markus Wheaton (torn groin) and safety Quintin Demps (broken arm) might join safety Antrel Rolle, wide receiver Eddie Royal and cornerback Alan Ball among Pace’s misses.
But similar to Glennon, the Bears protected themselves through the structure of their contracts. Wheaton and Demps can be released after this season with minimal financial impact.
Overall, Pace has kept to the team’s price parameters in free agency. As a result, the salary cap is unlikely to be an issue in the near future.
Pace also has gotten good bang for his buck by filling out his roster with lower-tier free agents who can start. Wide receiver Kendall Wright is the most recent example after linebacker Sam Acho, defensive end Mitch Unrein and cornerback Tracy Porter.
6. Questions at receiver
Pace has been criticized for allowing Alshon Jeffery to leave via free agency. But the Bears understood the market for the injury-prone wide receiver.
Jeffery wanted a long-term deal, but in the end, he signed a one-year, $9.5 million deal with the Eagles that includes more in incentives.
Jeffery’s departure stings because of the Bears’ attrition at the position.
The Bears’ top three threats haven’t been available: Meredith (torn anterior cruciate ligament), White (broken shoulder blade) and Wheaton (appendectomy, broken pinkie, torn groin).
Follow me on Twitter @adamjahns.
@SVPainter: Are the #Bears receivers really that bad or is it a matter of [Mitch Trubisky] not reading the field that well? Would a star WR1 really make a difference?
A: Of course, a star would help. Texans rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson has benefitted from having DeAndre Hopkins. But the Bears’ passing game isn’t producing for many reasons. It starts with choice. Coach John Fox wanted to run the ball against the Ravens and Panthers. Attrition at receiver is also a factor. Tanner Gentry, an undrafted rookie, led receivers in playing time the last two weeks. Trubisky’s learning curve is another reason. He has been indecisive and missed open throws. And play-calling also comes into play. Offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains rarely changed Trubisky’s launch points the last two weeks.
@Chris_So_JDM: Not sure if you’ve covered this, but with all of the rookies making plays on the field, when will Adam Shaheen join the party?
A: Shaheen actually is on the field. He played 19 snaps against Panthers, which was more than Kendall Wright and Tarik Cohen combined. Shaheen played the same amount against the Ravens. My advice: Be patient with Shaheen because the Bears are. He’s a second-round pick, but he’s still making a considerable jump from Division II Ashland (Ohio).
It’s not easy to get to Saints quarterback Drew Brees. He has been sacked only five times in six games.
“Yeah, we’re going to bump those numbers up this week,” defensive lineman Akiem Hicks said. “As a front, we’re excited to get a chance to get after this team.”
Brees has been sacked only 2.2 percent of the time when dropping back to pass. The Ravens’ Joe Flacco (6.6 percent) and the Panthers’ Cam Newton (8.7 percent) have been sacked at significantly higher rates.
Only Vikings backup Case Keenum (2.1 percent, four sacks in five starts) has been sacked less — and he played well against the Bears after he replaced Sam Bradford in Week 5.
Getting to Brees involves more than being aggressive up front. It takes teamwork.
“He gets [passes] out quick,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “Their line is doing a good job of protecting. He’s got really good pocket feel. He’ll step one way or the other to avoid pressure. You need a good, even rush on this guy because he can manipulate the pocket, and he does throw it quick.’’
A need for speed
All eyes should be on Bears rookie do-everything Tarik Cohen in the Superdome. It will be the first time the Bears play indoors on turf this season.
When asked, Cohen quickly mentions that he played in the Georgia Dome in college.
But he did more than that.
In the inaugural Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl at the Georgia Dome on Dec. 19, 2015, Cohen ran for 295 yards, including touchdowns of 83, 74 and 73 yards, to lead North Carolina A&T to a 41-34 victory against Alcorn State. He also gained 52 yards on a screen pass.
“I’ve played on turf, and I feel like I’m faster,” Cohen said. “But I feel like everybody is faster on turf. I feel like it’s going to be a good surface.”