The whirlwind offseason for the Chicago Bears and General Manager, Ryan Pace has ended with a climatic ending. Pace started the offseason with a bang, securing a top offensive mind as his head coach, Matt Nagy. At the start of the free agency period, Pace addressed the team’s biggest need in signing free agent wide receiver, Allen Robinson. The total transformation of the Bears’ roster continued with piles of money being thrown at various free agents, such as Taylor Gabriel and Trey Burton, while also bringing back defensive stars, Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara. After a big splash in free agency, Pace showed he was not finished upgrading this team. He followed up with, by most accounts, a very productive draft. Pace potentially added three starters in linebacker Roquan Smith, offensive lineman James Daniels, and traded a future second round pick for stud receiver, Anthony Miller.
But Pace and the Bears were saving the best for last. On September 1, 2018, the Chicago Bears traded with the Oakland Raiders for outside linebacker, Khalil Mack! Mack was the fifth overall draft pick in 2014 by the Raiders. He has since lived up to every bit of that billing as a three-time Pro Bowl player, two-time first team All-Pro, and winning the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2016. Mack has never missed a game in his four-year career, finishing with double digit sacks in each of his last three seasons, with a career high of 15 in 2015. In 2017, Pro Football Focus credited Mack with 74 quarterback pressures. The entire Bears team had 100 last year.
Since Mack is arguably one of the top three defensive players in the league, the trade compensation is going to be substantial. Early reports are a pair of first round picks going from Chicago to Oakland, along with potentially more picks or players being exchanged. However for the Bears, this trade at this time makes a ton of sense. Despite the excellent offseason, Pace was not able to upgrade the edge pass rush due to a weak draft at the position, and an even weaker free agent class. The Bears lost oft-injured and aging veterans, Willie Young, Pernell McPhee, and Lamarr Houston to free agency or cuts. While those veterans did combine for 10 of the team’s 42 sacks last year, none were viable solutions to 2019’s potential pass rushing problems. Instead, the Bears went out and signed Aaron Lynch, a reclamation project from Vic Fangio’s days in San Francisco who has dealt with injuries and a lack of production without his former defensive coordinator. Pace used a sixth round draft pick on Kylie Fitts, who had trouble staying healthy in college. And the rest of the depth chart behind Leonard Floyd and Sam Acho consisted of young players trying to fight for a role in the edge rush rotation. Clearly, outside linebacker continued to be a huge need as Lynch has missed most of camp with a hamstring injury and all the young players have predictably suffered from inconsistency.
The obvious incentive for a Mack trade is to fill the team’s biggest need. While the Bears were able to overhaul the receiver and tight end position, while bringing back all the top defensive talent, Pace was never able to solidify the outside linebacker position due to a lack of supply to fit the league-wide demand for pass rushers. When a player at a team’s biggest position of need becomes available, it’s imperative to explore all options. If the Bears were unable to come out with Mack, Pace would have been scouring this afternoon’s cut list for players to help the team’s pass rush.
The Bears were in as good a position as any team in the league to trade for Mack. The positive in winning just 14 games over the last three seasons is that the Bears went into the 2018 offseason without a single player with a cap hit over 10 million dollars. Therefore, they were able to give out over 100 million in new contract guarantees, with more than double that in total contract value, while still maintaining nearly 25 million in cap space for 2018. The Mack trade will come with a long-term contract extension, but the Bears are well equipped to handle the $14Million due to the former Raider this year. Meeting Mack’s contract demands (rumored to be around 20 million per season) should also be feasible with over 36 million in cap room in 2019, which does not include any rollover from the current season’s unused cap.
In a salary cap sport, any time a new contract is signed the team has to be prepared for the future and any potential spending that will be necessary to maintain the team’s top talent, should they require contract extensions or re-signings. The Bears again are in a good position as they have very few core players that are due big pay raises in the near future.
Offensively, Mitch Trubisky is under contract through the 2020 season which does not include his fifth year option. While he does carry over 22 million remaining in guarantees, Trubisky is a bargain compared to the typical franchise quarterback who takes up upwards of 25 million toward a team’s salary cap. The only offensive starters or key contributors who are not under contract for at least the next three seasons are Bobby Massie, Eric Kush, Kevin White, Cody Whitehair and Jordan Howard. The first three are free agents after 2018, but all are replacement level players at best. Whitehair and Howard are on rookie deals that end after the 2019 season. While both are key players for the Bears, Whitehair shouldn’t require a huge commitment on a potential long-term deal. Unfortunately for Howard, he plays a position that is very replaceable and would likely be a player the Bears let walk when his contract is up instead of signing him to a long-term deal. Kush and White already have replacements on the roster in Daniels and Miller. Massie and Howard were both mid-round draft picks which could be replaced using similar draft picks, with hopefully little drop off.
On defense with Mack, the Bears now have nine starters who are under contract for at least the next two seasons. Eddie Goldman, Adrian Amos, and nickelback Bryce Callahan are the only players who the Bears stand to lose after this season. Goldman and Amos have been in talks for long-term deals, both of which should be affordable as neither will get paid near the elite levels of players at their positions. The only other defensive contributors not under contract for at least three more seasons are Danny Trevathan, Nick Kwiatkoski, and Jonathan Bullard/Roy Robertson-Harris, who are all free agents after 2019. It just so happens, the Bears drafted a pair of inside linebackers and a promising defensive lineman to potentially have their replacements already in-house. So with the Mack signing, the Bears will have very few glaring holes they need to address if all the recent signings and draft picks pan out.
As for the draft pick compensation, again the Bears have very needs going forward. Mack fills the most obvious need, and any other needs that arise will be due to injury or failure to live up to expectations. Looking at the pre-Mack roster, the Bears were likely looking at using their first round draft pick on an edge rusher. On paper, the Bears were likely to have enough talent to not pick inside the top ten for the fourth year in a row in 2019. Odds that the Bears find a player outside the top ten that is nearly as good as Mack has been are extremely low. With Mack in the fold, the 2019 first round pick likely is in the late teens (or dare I say it) the 20s with the other playoff teams. The aforementioned Bears’ 2019 second round pick was traded to the Patriots in exchange for the chance to draft Anthony Miller. So, this trade does come with the risk of the Bears not having a draft pick in the top 80 next year. However, due to the big splashes in free agency, recent history of strong drafting, and excess of cap space; the Bears on the surface don’t have many positions that need to be addressed with elite draft talent the way they had when drafting Mitch Trubisky, Roquan Smith or even Kevin White.
The last time the Bears made this type of splash trade, it was 2009 and the player was Jay Cutler. While Cutler was a year younger then than Mack is now, he was also much less proven as a player. The 2009 Bears traded a pair of first round picks for a player coming off of a pro-bowl year in his second full season, but they were still gambling on him projecting to be a franchise quarterback. With Mack, the Bears are trading a pair of firsts for an already established franchise cornerstone, who is a top player in the league already in his prime. But just as the 2009 Bears felt they were a quarterback away from competing, the 2018 Bears think they are a pass rusher away from competing.
The projected Bears roster now features a talented group of receivers, a potential franchise quarterback with a full season under his belt, and now a top 10 defense adds one of the top defenders in the league. With one move, the Bears have gone from fourth lowest Super Bowl Vegas odds, to a legitimate contender in a loaded NFC conference. Not only that, but the loads of money and draft picks spent to build a contender doesn’t appear to be a short-sighted move. Fourty players on the projected 53-man roster are going to be 27 years old or younger. Of those 40 players, at least half are going to be Bears for at least the next 3 seasons. Ryan Pace has not only built an immediate NFC contender from a team that just finished 5-11, but a squad that could potentially bring the Lombardi trophy back to Halas Hall by the end of the decade.