Bears general manager Ryan Pace is entering his third season on the job, and there’s some measure of pressure on him to see his crop of talent, especially his draft acquisitions, come to fruition.
If this NFL offseason has taught us anything, it’s that general managers – once considered a more steady, secure position than, say, head coaches – are on hot seats now more and sooner than ever. A shocking five GMs were fired following the end of last season, including three after April’s draft, and all five come from scouting backgrounds similar to how Pace developed as a talent evaluator.
Some of the pressure on Pace to see more results is a bit unfair, it should be noted. After all, his 2016 draft class was a highly productive one last season, as six rookies contributed regularly. Even with a slew of veteran injuries that thrust the rookies into larger roles, it’s hard to deny what we saw in that group.
His first three selections last year – Leonard Floyd, Cody Whitehair and Jonathan Bullard – are heavy contributors. Fourth-rounder Nick Kwiatkowski, at the very least, profiles as a useful reserve and special-teamer. Fifth-round running back Jordan Howard was a terrific surprise and locked in for a starring role.
Of course, the 2015 class remains very much a mixed bag until further notice. Second-round nose tackle Eddie Goldman and fifth-round safety Adrian Amos project to be significant contributors this season. But first-round WR Kevin White remains a serious enigma, one who must prove he can not only stay healthy (four games played in two seasons) but also show he can contribute at a level commensurate with his lofty draft status (seventh overall selection).
One week into training camp, we’re really no closer to finding out if White can rise up as a major target in the passing game. The physical tools are there, but the health and mental aspects are unanswered concerns. A former junior-college receiver who played two years of Division-I ball in a spread offense (on one side of the field, no less), White has not yet proven in his limited pro experience he can master the finer points of playing the position and translating that to dominance.
But Pace’s biggest gamble – and the selection by which he ultimately will be judged – might not come to fruition anytime soon. The Bears’ bold and costly move up one slot in April’s draft to select North Carolina quarterback Mitchell Trubisky with the second overall pick is one that might not be able to be fully measured for years.
After all, it appears Mike Glennon will be the starter to open the season, and he could remain in that role throughout. It depends, of course, on how Glennon performs and how ready Trubisky shows himself to be, among other factors. Head coach John Fox’s job status is a wild-card factor that can’t be overlooked; if he’s fighting for his job, does he consider inserting Trubisky into the lineup down the stretch as a Hail Mary to help his job security? Jeff Fisher attempted that last season with the Los Angeles Rams and No. 1 overall selection Jared Goff, and it didn’t turn out well.
Quarterback selections are tricky. There were whispers that Aaron Rodgers was overmatched early in his Green Bay Packers days, stuck behind Brett Favre, and that doubt over the pick had trickled into some corners of their facility. We know how that ended up. So Pace cannot fairly be judged on the Trubisky pick for another few years at the very least, and yet that kind of patience and perspective often is missing when it comes down to making crucial job decisions in management.
Will Pace’s other picks help buy him more time? Our best guess right now is yes.
First off, Pace signed a five-year deal in January 2015, so he’s under contract through 2020 (unlike Fox, whose four-year deal that was signed the same month runs out in 2019). Bears management, sources have told us in the past, consider Pace and Fox to be two separate entities not tied together in any way, job security-wise.
Plus, there is star potential in the draft picks the Bears have made outside of Trubisky. Floyd has a chance to be a star pass rusher. Howard could be the bell-cow back for the next few years. Whitehair has the makeup of a decade-long starter and leader. Goldman, Bullard, Amos and others have starter potential.
And don’t forget about this year’s other selections. Second-round TE Adam Shaheen has opened eyes early in camp, as has fourth-round RB Tarik Cohen; they’re quickly becoming fan favorites as small-school wonders. Like Trubisky, fourth-round S Eddie Jackson might be a wait-and-see prospect, but he has a high ceiling as well.
Pace should feel confident about his draft picks and his undrafted pickups such as Cameron Meredith and Bryce Callahan. Some of the Bears’ recent free-agent moves have been strong (Akiem Hicks, Danny Trevathan, Bobby Massie), while others (Jerrell Freeman, Glennon and the rest of this year’s additions) at least have the chance to prove themselves as being worth the investment. Pernell McPhee looks like money poorly spent, but that’s predominantly because of a slew of injuries.
All told, Pace has done solid work. Despite the pressure on him, his outlook appears pretty solid to continue building a team that has gone 9-23 since his and Fox’s arrivals.