Ryan Pace this weekend will conduct his second draft as the Chicago Bears general manager. It's an important time for Pace, as his nine picks in this year's selection process will have a sizable impact on the success of this team, both in the short- and long-term.
But first, Pace addressed the current situation with Pro Bowl wide receiver Alshon Jeffery.
"He’s not here now," Pace said.
The Bears are in their second week of voluntary off-season workouts and Jeffery, who was hit with the franchise tag last month, has been the only no-show of significance.
"This is voluntary, as you guys know," said Pace. "He’s in Florida, training in Florida. We’ve been in communication with him. But he’s in Florida now, training down there."
While Jeffery has every right to workout on his own, Pace admitted it's not an ideal scenario.
"In a perfect world, would we like him to be here with his teammates and building those relationships? Sure, but I also understand it’s voluntary and that’s the action he’s chosen to take," Pace said. "He signed his franchise tender so we expect him to be here for the mandatory items. It’s kind of a day-to-day talk as we discuss things with him and his agent. Right now, it’s voluntary. It’s kind of his personal choice."
Jeffery is coming off a campaign in which he missed seven games due to multiple different injuries and finished the year on IR. The Bears, who will pay Jeffery $14.59 million if he plays under the tag, have been clear about their expectations in regard to his wellness and physical conditioning this season.
"We’re working kind of together on that," said Pace. "He’s communicating with a plan that he’s doing and it’s stressing how hard he’s working and some of the biomechanical things that he’s doing. Talking to him and his agents, I think they understand the importance - as we do - of him having a healthy season. I know that’s in the front of his mind."
Last season, Martellus Bennett sat out voluntary workouts due to a contract squabble, which resulted in him being shipped to the Patriots this off-season. Jeffery's vacancy isn't as contentious as Bennett's but it's clear Jeffery is executing an alternative approach to prepare for the 2016 season.
How that will effect the ongoing negotiations toward a long-term contract remain to be seen.
"We continue to talk with his agency and it’s still been cordial and it’s been productive, but not a lot of new information [on the negotiations]," Pace said. "I wish he was here, but it’s voluntary, so it is what it is."
With that out of the way, Pace addressed the 2016 NFL Draft, for which the Bears have the 11th overall selection.
"This is an exciting time of year to improve our roster. What gives me confidence and excitement right now is really the prep that’s gone into this. It’s been really a year-long process, and our coaches and scouts, I want to stress, the work that we’ve done together. Together is the word for the process through this whole time. Our directors, Josh Lucas, Joe Douglass, Champ Kelly, really this whole off-season have been outstanding in our preparation as we acquire more talent.”
Pace has continuously expressed his desire to draft the best player available, regardless of position, in the first round. He will again execute that strategy tomorrow.
“I just think if you have conviction on a player, and that’s how our grades come out, you take the best player available. I think you’ve got to have convictions on our grades and where we’ve come. I think you can overthink a little bit if you get too caught up in [how much depth is at each position]," he said. “We talked about it but I think if there’s a player that’s special enough even if it is a deep position, if he’s special enough and he’s an impact player, we’ll go ahead and pull the trigger on him even if it’s a deep position.”
Pace said the Bears are targeting more than 11 players in the first round, which could compel Pace to trade back in the first round if a few of those prospects fall out of the Top 10.
“If it falls out a certain way, we have enough names where we feel comfortable if we had to go back, we could still go back and get a good player," he said. “Leading into the draft, I’ll be the one talking to other teams about different scenarios. But once we’re in the draft we assign one scout for AFC teams, one scout NFC teams and one guy coordinating that, right behind Josh and me, voicing different scenarios.
“There’s something like four [draft] charts and you have this Excel spreadsheet in front of you. Joe has done a good job of simplifying it down and quickly look from the point perspective: is this good, bad, fair? And sometimes it depends on the position; it’s all market value, so sometimes the points don’t equal correctly, but if you really want a guy, or somebody wants to come up to your spot, you’ve got to look at it. But we have all those point charts in front of us.”
How far is he willing to trade back?
“I’ll tell you after the draft.”
With nine picks, Pace will be considering trade options throughout all seven rounds.
“It’s good this year. Having nine picks this year, you have more ammunition to move around and that’s good, if you feel good about a player you want to go get. But I also think we have a lot of needs. I have a lot of confidence in our scouts and having nine picks is attractive because it’s having more swings.”
The Bears have met with nine different quarterback prospects during the pre-draft process, so it's clear that quarterback is an area of interest for Pace in this year's draft.
“It really is a good class of quarterbacks, and they’re all unique and they’re all a little different," he said. "I think some guys are going to have different perspectives of different flavors, but it’s a good class. It breaks after a certain point and then there are some middle round guys that are intriguing for different reasons. It’s just up to us to analyze that and rank that correctly and I think we have.”
The consensus top running back is Ezekiel Elliott. The Ohio State product said this week the Bears are "in love" with him, which didn't much surprise Pace.
"It didn’t surprise me because of [running backs coach] Stan Drayton. Stan recruited him out of high school, so he’s known him for a long time, has a relationship with the family, and I know how those two feel about each other, so it didn’t really surprise me at all," Pace said. "I think if you’re taking a running back that high, he better have special traits. You better feel that he’s going to be a special player. And if he does, then it’s worth making that pick."
At the end of the day, Pace will rely on the work done by him and his scouting staff over the past year to create a war room running on all cylinders this weekend.
“[Trusting the scouting staff] is huge," said Pace. "Again, it just gives you confidence and it just makes you sleep a little bit better at night. I know not only their skill set, and it’s a talent, but the work they put into it. It’s a grind. Obviously I’ve just got to deal with their wives; they haven’t seen them. But it’s been good. I can’t thank them enough and the sacrifices that they’ve made in this preparation because it’s a grind. They understand the importance of it, though. This is the lifeblood of the organization and everyone understands what’s at stake and how important these drafts are.”