Since the firing of former GM Jerry Angelo and head coach Lovie Smith, the Chicago Bears have been stuck in a vicious cycle of false hope and franchise lows.
Year three was the end of the line for Angelo’s replacement, Phil Emery. Now Ryan Pace will look to make his third year a turning point for a struggling franchise.
Unlike the MLB or NBA, the NFL is much more of a win-now league, which has led to increasingly smaller windows for general managers and coaching staffs alike.
Pace took a full-blown rebuild head on but it’s still somewhat troubling to still see multiple holes on a roster that has failed to meet expectations.
To get a better idea of where Pace stands, let's examine his first two years of work, as well as what the 2017 off-season will mean for his future.
After an extremely disappointing 5-11 season in 2014, the hammer came down on both Emery and Marc Trestman, leading to yet another general manager and head coach search. Enter Pace and John Fox, who both set out from the start to change the culture of the roster and, most importantly, add young talent.
The purge began with big names such as Charles Tillman, Brandon Marshall, Roberto Garza and Chris Conte.
In their first year, the goal was more to gut the roster than actually compete. Even so, Fox's unit still finished a game better (6-10) than it did the previous season under Trestman (5-11).
During Pace’s first year, he brought in building blocks such as Pernell McPhee and Tracy Porter through free agency, while also adding two PFWA All-Rookies in Eddie Goldman and Adrian Amos.
The season was labeled an overall success by most and lead to loftier expectations the following year.
Optimism was in the air moving into the 2016 off-season. The team took a step forward the previous year, Pace had a Top-11 draft pick and enough cap space to make a sizable impact. Then players began to fall, with an NFL-high 19 Bears eventually landing on IR, which took the season's legs out at the knees.
The cleansing of the roster was pretty well complete after the trade of Martellus Bennett, the release of Jermon Bushrod, and the expiring contracts of Matt Forte and Shea McClellin.
Even with nine draft picks, Pace was very active in free agency. Danny Trevathan, Jerrell Freeman, Bobby Massie, Akiem Hicks and Josh Sitton all came on multi-year deals and played big roles during the season.
Pace executed three trades during the draft, which included moving up from 11th to 9th overall to select Leonard Floyd. He then traded back twice in the second round to recoup two fourth-round picks in 2016, and one in 2017. Overall the draft class was a sizable success, even with multiple injuries. The Bears ended up with three PFWA All-Rookies, including Floyd, second-round lineman Cody Whitehair and fifth-round RB Jordan Howard, who was also named to the Pro Bowl.
Undisciplined play and an inability to finish games, in addition to the copious injuries, led to a 3-13 campaign, which sets the table for a critical off-season.
The Importance of 2017
The impact of the upcoming off-season for Pace, Fox and the entire franchise cannot be overstated.
Injuries have played a big part in the nine total wins the past two seasons but make no mistake, Fox and his coaching staff are firmly planted on the hot seat.
They say it takes three years to fully evaluate a draft class but it’s not hard to see the quality of Pace’s drafts so far. There have been five picks named to the All-Rookie team, while a number of other draftees and UDFAs have played valuable roles through this regime’s first two years.
The problem for the Bears: Quarterback.
Pace has been looking for an upgrade from Jay Cutler since arriving in Chicago. His pursuit of Marcus Mariota at the start of the 2015 NFL Draft was confirmation of his desire to upgrade the most important position in football.
The NFL is a quarterback-starved league, which puts premium value on the position.
Many of the team’s weak spots can be filled through free agency and the draft due to the volume of talent available at each position. Upgrading quarterback will take maximum precision and Pace won’t have many options to get this one right.
Quality quarterbacks in their prime almost never hit the NFL open market and this year is no different.
Kirk Cousins looks like a top option on paper but the likelihood of him actually hitting the open market without at least a non-exclusive tag from the Redskins is slim-to-none. If he does indeed hit the market, expect many teams to pursue him aggressively, which will likely include his former OC Kyle Shanahan, who will have a lot of pull and plenty of cap space if he takes the head job with the 49ers.
Other options include Mike Glennon and Mark Sanchez, but there are no proven starters outside of Cousins.
Cuts always add to the free agent market and could provide a few interesting starting-quality options.
Tyrod Taylor, Nick Foles and Colin Kaepernick are all cut options and all three have multiple years of starting experience.
If the Dallas Cowboys can’t find a trade partner, Tony Romo could be available. While Romo could be viewed as an upgrade over Cutler, his availability and age are huge turnoffs for a club looking for a long-term option.
The trade options will be scarce and not without serious risk. Patriots QB Jimmy Garoppolo has been the subject of trade rumors the majority of the season and presents the “safest" trade route.
That said, Garoppolo has two NFL starts under his belt and while he looked great in both, he plays in a system known to make players look better than they actually are. On top of that, the rumored asking price is expected to be a first- and fourth-round pick, which is a steep price for someone who carries almost as much risk as a top draft pick.
Many believe the 2017 draft class is very weak at quarterback. While I firmly disagree, it’s worth noting that it’s still very early in the process.
Deshone Kizer, Mitch Trubisky, Deshaun Watson, Patrick Mahomes and Brad Kaaya all appear to have starting upside but as we’ve seen in countless past drafts, nothing is a sure thing.
Late-round options include Davis Webb, Nate Peterman and Joshua Dobbs but on the surface, there doesn’t appear to be that Dak Prescott-type player in this class.
Chicago's roster has been improved over the past two years with Pace at the helm but as witnessed this year, and many times in prior years, the ticket to consistent playoff appearances starts with a top quarterback.
The Bears are likely to have $75 million or more in cap space, which will help them fill multiple holes but unless Cousins hits the market, no amount of cap space will be able to buy the Bears a top-end quarterback.
The biggest challenges this off-season won't come from buy-able positions in the secondary, offensive line or wide receiver. Instead, the crux of this off-season, and potentially Pace's time in Chicago, will be solving his quarterback dilemma.