Why the Bears finally feel like they're in striking distance of a winning team

Why the Bears finally feel like they're in striking distance of a winning team

PHOENIX – Where the relationship between Bears GM Ryan Pace and coach John Fox goes beyond 2017 remains to play out with their third season together. At this point, however, despite a combined total of nine wins over their first two, the critical bond between coach and general manager appears both clear and solid.
 
Which is no small state of affairs with the growing pressure on both and the organization, pressure that will only intensify if the on-field fortunes of their team does not begin to dramatically reverse. And both know it. Losing doesn't build character, it reveals it, and the same applies to a relationship; if there are cracks, adversity of the kind the Bears have endured the past 32 games will widen and expose them.
 
That relationship has been the subject of speculation virtually since its inception, when Pace hired Fox following the end of his tenure with the Denver Broncos. Much of it centered around who was in fact making the final decisions on personnel and who was the advisor, with some positing that Fox was in fact the final authority if only because age, seniority and experience. The primacy of Pace, however, has become clearer with each decision and traces or shadings of any fractiousness are conspicuously absent.
 
"His people skills are tremendous," Fox said Tuesday during the NFL owners meetings. "His evaluation skills are very good. I think humility is always a great quality in this business. And I've seen that. He's the same guy. He hasn't changed. Sometimes people get [elevated] positions, whatever position that may be and they change. It's just how some people react. And I haven't seen that."
 
Pace, who recently turned 40, is by his own description wanting buy-in on decisions. In the cases of free agency, which have involved the high-dollar commitments designed to have immediate payoff, he has identified pro targets and involved Fox in the decisions.
 
Looking for an immediate hit at linebacker to upgrade the entire defense about this time last year, Pace targeted Denver leading-tackler Danny Trevathan. Fox was his first consult.
 
"Just having drafted [Trevathan] and seeing him develop and get better and his work ethic and his preparation and study habits and how he is as a teammate in the locker room," Pace said of what insight Fox provided. "Those were all things that were taken into consideration."
 
This year, with the max need of improvement, the franchise-grade decision was to make a change at quarterback. Jay Cutler effectively made the decision on himself and he was out. Whether Mike Glennon is or is not an upgrade will play out this year, but Fox was involved in and endorsed the decision to go in a decidedly less-experienced direction.

[RELATED - No signs Bears are locked into drafting a QB in 2017]
 
Pace had attempted in the past to trade for Glennon, which Fox agreed with. Fox had familiarity with Glennon from his time coaching in Carolina.
 
"I was in North Carolina when [Glennon] was playing [at N.C. State], actually," Fox recalled. "I was exposed to two guys there. A good friend of mine was the head coach at NC State. Both Russell Wilson and Mike Glennon were coming through at that period in time, so I got exposed to them, watching games and kinda following them.
 
"And obviously evaluating both of them coming out, they were in different schools then. So I had a high opinion of them then. And then really [Glennon] was talked about a little bit before this year as a potential guy to get, and then this year, being free and without any kind of compensation, we dove in pretty good and feel good about it."
 
Most expectations are that the Bears will not repeat a three-win season, and that an improvement from the first two years keeps both Pace and Fox in their jobs. Key players (Trevathan, Eddie Goldman, Kyle Long, Kevin White) returning from injuries, free-agency upgrades on both sides of the ball and a draft class currently with two picks in the first 36 point to perhaps the kind of turnaround Fox has produced (in years two) at Carolina and Denver.
 
Fox did not dwell on what the roster was or wasn't when he arrived, or on how much of an overhaul Pace needed to do when he took over from Phil Emery and brought in Fox to replace Marc Trestman. But the reality was there.
 
"Going back to a lot of the changes, we've had a lot of change," Fox said. "I think we're better for it. Unfortunately, you can't walk around with your chest out about that because of our record the last two years. But I have total confidence and [Pace] has done an outstanding job and will continue to.
 
"I understand you have to win. And I finally feel like we're in striking distance." 

View from the Moon: Should Bears draft offense or defense at No. 3?

View from the Moon: Should Bears draft offense or defense at No. 3?

GM Ryan Pace put forth a number of operating principles on Wednesday, one day before he and the Bears presumably decide on a player to become an integral part of the franchise for the years well beyond the 2017 draft. Some of those principles were clear – “you get yourself into trouble if you’re not sticking with our philosophy of best player available” – and some were less so, such as exactly how much weight is assigned to the intangibles of quarterback prospects.

Pace did elaborate on the structured approach to the Bears’ draft board – one that has identified three elite players with the prospect of the Bears remaining at No. 3 in the first round; a second “cloud” of players that would allow a drop down into the middle of the first round; and a third “cloud” of target players in the event that Bears trade up or down into a position just before the close of round one Thursday night.

Pace’s demeanor, notably upbeat and at times borderline jovial, spoke of having reached a critical meeting of minds. “By the time we get to this point, there's a handful of guys that we have a consensus on throughout our building,” Pace said, “and when I feel that backing from not just our coaches but from everybody, it makes those decisions easier when we're all on the same page.”

But Pace didn’t divulge which of the elite top three are offensive players or defensive players. Because a case can be made for targeting a talent on either side of the football, as long as he is best-available/best-possible:

The case for offense

The best: Pat Mahomes, Mitchell Trubisky, Deshaun Watson

The Bears have done exhaustive study of the quarterback position, the spot with the greatest ripple effect on not only on an offense, but on an offense. Whether one or more of Mahomes, Trubisky or Watson are in the elite-three, mid-round cloud, or late-round cloud remains closeted on the draft board upstairs at Halas Hall.

Pace has ID’d the need for a quarterback to bring a charge to the organization, something absent during the time of Jay Cutler, who checked all the “traits” boxes coming out of Vanderbilt, even for ball-security (1.9 percent INT percentage his final two seasons), but was a suspect leader. But Pace did not detail the Bears’ grading methodology, particularly whether intangibles top the list or are considerations only once all the requisite measurable are satisfied.

“With a quarterback, yeah, there's core beliefs that I have that have been probably put in me from Day 1 as a scout and what I believe a quarterback needs to have to be successful,” said Pace, whose template for a franchise quarterback begins with Drew Brees, who lasted into the 2001 second round in part because he was undersized at 6 feet. “Maybe guys that I've been around. Those are all traits that I look for.”

The Bears have had the most extensive in-person contact with Mahomes and Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer, the least with Watson; Trubisky has given two different accounts of interactions with the Bears, so the truth lies with the Bears and him. They sent the biggest staff contingents to Pro Days of Mahomes and Watson. A surprise will be if neither Mahomes nor Watson is not a Bear come sundown Thursday but Pace remains steadfast in not looking outside the known information about even a quarterback with character.

“When you start trying to manufacture things or create things, that’s when teams get into dangerous water,” Pace said. “I think if we just stay with guys we have a consensus on and best player available we’ll be in good shape.”

Do they have a “consensus” on a quarterback?

The case for defense

Most likely: DE Myles Garrett, DE/LB Solomon Thomas, S Jamal Adams

Considerably more NFL opinion is that the Bears will look for a franchise-grade pass rusher (or defensive back) with their first-round pick. Pace has been consistently reserved in offering overall assessments of drafts, which perhaps makes this year’s simply because Pace doesn’t do this sort of praising normally: “It would be accurate to say that this is a strong defensive draft this year,” he said. “That would be true.”

Selecting an elite defensive linchpin comes with arguably less risk than a quarterback. And the effects of a defensive hit can be franchise-altering: The Bears reached the playoffs four times, including the Super Bowl once, in the 2000-10 years of the Brian Urlacher tenure, with four different quarterbacks, not one of which was voted to a Pro Bowl as a Bear.

On the other hand: The Houston Texans have been to the postseason three times in the six years since drafting three-time NFL defensive player of the year J.J. Watt. Yet in spite of myriad additional defensive stars, including Jadeveon Clowney, they have never advanced beyond the divisional round in large part because of quarterback failures.

The Bears used the No. 9 pick of the 2000 draft on Urlacher (and No. 9 on Leonard Floyd last draft), plus 14th-overalls on Tommie Harris, Michael Haynes and Kyle Fuller (meaning: the hit-rate in picks in the upper half of the first round isn’t exactly a guarantee).

But an elite defense can endure, and produce long-term and repeated success. And makes another defensive centerpiece to pair with Floyd a franchise-grade pick.

NFL Draft turns players' dreams into clear financial realities

NFL Draft turns players' dreams into clear financial realities

For virtually every player not named Myles Garrett, tomorrow's NFL Draft will be filled with uncertainty.  It is not clear what number draft pick he will be or which team will select him.  There is one thing, however, that these future NFL players do have virtual certainty about – they will know exactly how much they will be getting paid once they are drafted.

The document that governs relations between the NFL, teams, and players, as well as sets the basic ground rules for NFL business and conduct, the NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). The 2011 CBA radically altered the way rookie contracts are both structured and negotiated.  The new rookie salary cap effectively created a set wage structure for all rookies entering the league, each draft position with a specific slotted salary based on a league-wide rookie compensation pool that is largely non-negotiable. Another significant change was rookie contract length, which with the institution of the 2011 CBA was capped at four years, with a fifth-year team option for first round picks, versus contacts that could span as long as six seasons under previous iterations of the CBA.

Since each draft position has a predetermined salary value, salary cap considerations in draft trades are diminished since there is no risk of inflated and unreasonable contract demands from top picks.  With fewer monetary limitations, teams are able to more freely move around within the draft order to position themselves to be able to select the player they want without fear that they will be taking on a likely high salary or using significant cap space with a player who has yet to play a single down at the NFL-level.

A prime example of the impact of the rookie salary cap on rookie compensation can be observed by comparing two contracts: Sam Bradford's 2010 contract and Cam Newton's 2011 contract.  Drafted just one year apart, Bradford and Newton were both number one overall picks, however both their first-year and overall compensation differed greatly.  According to Jason Fitzgerald and Vijay Natarajan, authors of Crunching the Numbers: An Inside Look At The Salary Cap And Negotiating Player Contracts, Sam Bradford originally signed a 6-year, $78 million contract, with $51 million in guarantees and the potential for the deal to escalate to $86 million with the inclusion of Likely to Be Earned Incentives (LTBE) in the deal, while just one year later Cam Newton signed a 4-year, $22,025,498 fully guaranteed deal (i.e. guaranteed for skill, injury, and cap), with the opportunity to earn a fifth-year team option with a salary substantially larger than in the first four seasons of the contract. The difference between the overall compensation and general contract structure between Bradford and Newton's deals clearly illustrates the change in rookie compensation that the 2011 CBA implemented.

Paying millions to first-year players meant that teams had to set aside huge amounts of salary cap space to accommodate these deals.  This effectively limited the amount of money and salary cap space available for teams to sign veteran free agents. Creating more predictability for teams of the salaries of their newly drafted players resulted in cap space became available for free agent veteran players.

With simplified rookie contract negotiations, teams are better able to avoid lengthy holdouts that stretch into the summer and possibly even training camp.  Rookies signing their deals soon after the draft means rookies arrive at team facilities earlier in the offseason, they can begin learning their teams' playbooks sooner. More offseason practice time for rookies is one major reason why more and more rookies are making immediate impacts for their new NFL franchises at a lower cost than before the new CBA was put into place.

These factors make early round picks have become an extremely valuable asset that are difficult to acquire. The more early picks a team has the more likely a team will be able to draft a young player that can have an immediate impact on its roster. Through a series of trades and personnel decisions over multiple seasons, the Cleveland Browns have assembled an additional pick in the second round in 2016, extra first and second round picks in 2017, and two additional second round picks in 2018.  That means for three-year period between 2016 and 2018 the Browns have amassed fifteen picks that come within the top 100 selections. This has positioned the Browns to maximize the team's probability of adding significant talent to its roster over the next few seasons.

The Chicago Bears have been and will continue to build through the draft as well. Young players such as Kyle Long, Leonard Floyd, and Jordan Howard have become important parts of the team's future plans for success. In addition, the injuries to 2015 first round pick Kevin White have been less detrimental to the team than in past years because of his relatively low salary cap number.

By no means is the current version of the NFL's CBA perfect.  For example, players may feel they are being undercompensated as compared to the previous CBA, in which teams still were required to make significant investments in players that had yet to play a snap of professional football. However, for the players drafted on Thursday and throughout the entire weekend, they will have little doubt about how much they can expect to be paid when their names are called to be drafted.

Adam Grossman is the CEO and Founder of the sports sponsorship technology and analytics firm Block Six Analytics (B6A). In addition, he is a lecturer for Northwestern University’s Masters of Sports Administration where he teaches classes focused on develop and communicate strategic insights through data. 

Ross Chumsky is a Senior Partnership Analyst at B6A.