General manager Ryan Pace is an easy target for disgruntled Chicago Bears fans who expect more from a team that’s been under his watch since 2015. He’s been trusted by the organization with some of the biggest decisions in the sport, including two head coaches and two first-round quarterbacks, yet the Bears remain part of a cluster of teams that consistently finish at or around .500 and rarely are in the discussion as a true postseason contender.
Chicago’s struggles on offense have been traced to Pace’s decision to hire Matt Nagy in 2018, who was paraded as the chosen one that would finally breathe life into an offense that flatlined many years ago. But Nagy’s failures have only magnified Pace’s questionable decision-making, leading to the increased heat surrounding his job stability. But is it fair to say Pace has been an absolute failure? Not really. In fact, he’s been somewhat ‘in the zone’ as a talent evaluator and has stocked the Bears’ roster with quality building blocks in the last couple of NFL drafts.
Let’s start with the 2021 draft. This one’s obvious, right? Pace hit a home run in the first round with Justin Fields, who’s beginning to find his NFL legs and is on the launching pad of legitimate superstardom. He landed Teven Jenkins in the second round, who’s finally getting healthy and looks like he’ll be in the mix for a starting offensive tackle gig at some point before the end of the regular season. Larry Borom, Chicago’s fifth-round pick, has already established that he has enough talent to be a competent starting tackle, too. In the sixth round, Pace snagged Khalil Herbert, who at times looked like the best rookie running back in the league this year. There was even Khyiris Tonga, the seventh-round behemoth from BYU, who provided quality reps while Eddie Goldman made his way back to the field.
Let’s review 2020. Second-round picks Cole Kmet and Jaylon Johnson have established themselves as core players midway through their second seasons. Johnson made an immediate impact as a rookie and is now a legitimate shutdown corner, while Kmet's slow-but-steady development appears to be turning the corner. He had his best game as a pro against the Pittsburgh Steelers and looked every bit the part of a quality playmaking tight end. The fifth round produced Trevis Gipson, whose future is bright as a pass-rusher, and Kindle Vildor, who’s proving he has starter’s ability this year. And there’s also Darnell Mooney, one of the biggest steals of the 2020 draft and arguably the Bears’ most exciting offensive playmaker.
That’s back-to-back draft classes that produced a total of 10 players who will either be critical starters or high-end rotational players. It’s a success rate that’s rare for a talent acquisition process that, at best, results in a 50% hit rate.
The 2019 draft class wasn’t as fruitful, but it did produce David Montgomery, who’s emerged as one of the NFL’s best all-around running backs. In 2018? Pace hit a home run on Roquan Smith and added quality starters in James Daniels and Bilal Nichols.
And remember: Pace parlayed a significant chunk of his draft capital into Khalil Mack in a trade that every Bears fan supported at the time, and continues to support through 2021.
It’s clear that since the wild swing and miss on Mitch Trubisky in 2017, Pace has recovered and built a quality core of young players through the draft. But talent can only go as far as a coaching staff leads it, and it brings us back to what may be Pace’s biggest failure to date, the hiring of Nagy. It’s an unerasable blemish on his resume that, in a weird way, has gotten stronger through the years.
Now, it’d be unfair to ignore another major area of team-building where Pace has been a disaster: free agency.
Pace’s list of free-agent misses should come with an advisory warning. It’s that bad. Names like Mike Glennon, Dion Sims, Cody Parkey, Markus Wheaton, Antrel Rolle, Eddie Royal, Quintin Demps, and Trey Burton stand out as the worst of the worst. These are critical mistakes that have each contributed in their own way to the current state of the Bears. Sure, Pace has some good signings too, like Akiem Hicks, Allen Robinson, Danny Trevathan, and others, but they’re few and far between.
Still, the best NFL teams build through the draft. And like quarterbacks, sometimes it takes young general managers a few years to reach their potential. Pace was just 37 years old when he was hired by the Bears; he was the youngest general manager in the league at the time. Maybe some of his early blunders were more about inexperience than lack of ability, and if the last few draft classes are any indication of his development on the job, he’s getting better.
The question that now looms over Halas Hall is whether Pace has run out of time. Whether his streak of hits in the NFL draft won’t be enough to avoid a pink slip at season’s end, especially if the Bears fail to make the playoffs. There’s no doubt Pace has the trust and confidence of ownership and that they genuinely like him as a person. Maybe that’ll be enough to give him another swing at a coach if Nagy is dismissed and another lap to build a roster around his first-round quarterback.
The ‘not for long’ nature of the NFL suggests the last few grains of sand in Pace’s hourglass are falling, but don’t be so quick to dismiss his recent successes. He’s been very good at what he’s been able to control since hiring Nagy and it may be just enough to keep him around a little longer than Bears fans think.