The Chicago Bears came out of the 2019 NFL Draft better and potentially a bit deeper than they came into it, despite having limited cracks at this year’s class.
They addressed their most immediately pressing offensive need (running back) by selecting Iowa State’s David Montgomery and Florida Atlantic’s Kerrith Whyte Jr., grabbed a possible future target for Mitchell Trubisky in Georgia receiver Riley Ridley, and added special teams/defensive back help in late-round cornerbacks Duke Shelley (Kansas State) and Stephen Denmark (Valdosta State).
And that doesn’t even cover their incredible undrafted free agent pickups, headlined by wide receiver Emanuel Hall (Mizzou), tight end Dax Raymond (Utah State) and offensive guard Alex Bars (Notre Dame).
Since then, the Bears have even traded for what could be their kicker of the future, shipping a 2021 conditional seventh-round pick to Oakland for the strong-legged Eddie Pineiro.
All in all, the Bears have set themselves up well to compete for supremacy in the NFC (and perhaps beyond) while stocking some very good talent to replenish inevitable roster turnover at key positions.
However, more than a few pundits are wondering whether or not Ryan Pace’s aggressive strategies in the NFL Draft needs to change if the Bears are going to truly build long-term success.
Those alarm bells were resoundingly tripped, due to Pace’s much-debated trade up from pick No. 87 to No. 73 to draft Montgomery, swapping 2019 late-round picks and giving up next year’s fourth-round pick to the New England Patriots.
That marks the third time in Pace’s five-year tenure as general manager that the Bears have moved up to take a player with their first pick in the draft. The other times, they moved up from No. 13 to No. 9 to grab outside linebacker Leonard Floyd in 2016 and dropped jaws around the league by trading up one spot in 2017 to take Trubisky at No. 2 overall.
Let’s also not forget the other monstrous trade Pace made to help revamp the Chicago Bears: acquiring Khalil Mack from Oakland for four picks, including 2019 and 2020 first-rounders and their 2020 third-round selection. Last year’s trade for wide receiver Anthony Miller that mortgaged this year’s second-round pick was another example of extreme yet calculated aggressiveness.
That’s a great deal of high-round capital on which the Bears will miss out during what could be a championship window with Trubisky on his rookie deal. And it’s starting to make Bears fans nervous.
Sure, the Bears have a well-developed core of talent right now with most of their star players present and accounted for over the next two seasons at least. They’re no longer desperate for talent across the board; what they chiefly need is depth and players who can fill vacancies as the likes of Taylor Gabriel, Trey Burton and Prince Amukamara depart in the near future.
That being said, Pace’s penchant for trading picks gives them fewer shots to replenish their ranks naturally in the draft, putting more pressure on the team to nail their picks.
But in Pace’s mind, his way of doing things still maximizes what the Bears did in this draft. Here’s what he said to The Athletic’s Adam Jahns about his approach:
“It doesn’t matter that we only have five draft picks or that we’re picking in the later part of each of these rounds or we don’t have a pick until in the third round…That doesn’t matter. We need to maximize this draft.”
Lots of picks? Not many picks? Apparently, it doesn’t matter; I have to get the players I want, says Pace. That’s…bold.
So who, if anyone, is right here? Pace or the detractors?
The best answer, for now, is that we don’t really know yet. Only time will truly tell if Pace’s strategies work out.
But here’s why I’m willing to give Pace the benefit of the doubt on his aggressive draft policies (for now).
As much as stockpiling draft picks gives you more opportunities in theory to grab potential starters or contributors, because there’s an extent to which the whole thing is a crapshoot no matter what. Fans often love the idea of having as many draft picks as possible, as it means more bites at the apple. But you also have to keep in mind that the best bites still come when before the apple dries out.
In the Bears’ case this year, the difference between picking No. 73 and waiting until No. 87 may very well have been substantial.
These numbers from National Football Post suggest picking in late-second/early-third round yields players that are twice as likely to start as a rookie and earn Pro Bowl/All-Pro selections than players taken in the late-third/early-fourth round. After that, the odds of success keep dropping.
With that in mind, do you hold onto your picks, or do you trade down and out of your spot in the Bears’ situation to grab more (likely lower quality) picks or take a shot at getting a player you think will contribute immediately (possibly long-term)?
Quantity in and of itself only helps probabilities of success on paper, not the actual outcomes. The pre-Pace years in Chicago showed that.
I myself am a firm believer in quality over quantity, and sometimes that means taking a risk to see if you can get more out of less.
That’s why you trade up one spot to take Trubisky — by far the safest while also not being the least talented quarterbacks in the 2017 draft class. Yes, having Patrick Mahomes right now would be incredible, knowing what he is now. But he would likely not have been this player if John Fox has gotten his hands on him.
But I digress slightly. The point is, sometimes you need to make sure you get what you want rather than settling for more less-desired substitutes.
I would absolutely not have been happier if the Bears had passed on Montgomery at No. 73, then taken someone like Damien Harris at No. 97. Analytics might view running backs as fairly replaceable (fair point), but they’re not all created equal. Montgomery, more than Harris, strikes me as a player that could actually be worth keeping around past his rookie deal. Harris doesn’t really do that for me, personally.
Also – and this is an important point – Pace knows how to recoup value.
In the past, Pace’s trade-ups have often been accompanied by trade-downs that the Bears have turned into solid value.
For example, in 2016, they traded down twice in the second round and netted Cody Whitehair, Deon Bush and Nick Kwiatkoski as a result.
Also, after trading up for Trubisky in 2017, they shipped their second-round pick to Arizona for the 45th-overall pick (Adam Shaheen), an extra fourth-round pick they used on Tarik Cohen (!) and a sixth-round pick that the Bears traded (along with the extra 2017 fourth-rounder they picked up in a previous trade) to nab Eddie Jackson (!!).
Pace has referenced the Patriots as a blueprint for his style (and not just a business partner), noting that they’re unafraid to move up and down at a moment’s notice. No one is saying that Pace is Bill Belichick (or even in the same ballpark), but it’s notable that good teams do take some risks from time to time and know how to make those moves pay off. So far, the results seem to favor Pace more than punish him.
And though they didn’t move down for extra picks this year, they still arguably came out on the right side of things because of how attractive Chicago has become for priority undrafted free agents. That allowed them to gamble on trying to focus on grabbing their favorite players rather than simply stocking up on picks.
Is Pace playing a risky hand? Yes.
Should he do this forever? No. In the end, relying on undrafted guys (regardless of how talented) and limiting their chances at top-of-the-draft talent could catch up to him if it continues unchecked.
But for now, Pace has made his aggressive approach work for him and for the Chicago Bears as he has constructed a true playoff contender in the Windy City.
The challenges at keeping it all together are about to hit in earnest after this season. But if we know anything about Pace, he’ll attack that task just as hard as he’s gone after everything else.