By Chris Emma–
LAKE FOREST, Ill. (CBS) — Eternally confident, Bears general manager Ryan Pace knows well this is his most important draft only because it’s just the next one.
The proud Bears organization — 9-23 in its last two seasons, fresh off its third consecutive last-place season and sixth without a playoff berth — won’t return to prominence just because of the one player taken third overall. One Jamal Adams or Deshaun Watson or that late-round steal that has the war room jumping isn’t enough to create a contender.
Building a winner takes diligence in drafting.
“The blueprint of building this team is through the draft,” Pace said Wednesday at Halas Hall. “Every single one of these drafts is critical. I don’t feel any more pressure on this draft than I did the previous two. They’re all critical, and if we string a bunch of really good drafts together, we’ll be in good shape.”
Pace became the youngest general manager in football back in January 2015 because of his predecessors’ ability to string together good drafts. The Bears ultimately bottomed out. Jerry Angelo missed on too many picks, and Phil Emery tried to patchwork his depth chart with veteran free agents. In the meantime, he, too, whiffed on draft picks.
The Bears have zero players remaining on their roster from the 2012 draft and prior. Only guard Kyle Long remains from the 2013 draft. Far too many of these players aren’t even in the NFL anymore. That says plenty about the talent level Chicago has seen take its field.
The Patriots, football’s gold standard, have an organization loaded with homegrown talent. Chandler Jones was taken two picks after Emery selected Shea McClellin in 2012. He has 47 sacks in 71 games.
Jimmy Garoppolo was selected 11 picks after the Bears chose Ego Ferguson in 2014. Now, Bill Belichick wants a king’s ransom for Garoppolo. The quarterback-needy Bears just released Ferguson, who played in just four games since 2014.
In 2013, the Bears traded two third-round picks to the Dolphins for Brandon Marshall, whose locker room troubles were well-documented. One of those picks was 82nd overall. The Patriots chose cornerback Logan Ryan with the 83rd pick. He would spurn the Bears in free agency this past March. Chicago has been seeking a top cornerback since Charles Tillman.
For all their stars, the Patriots have been a contender each season since Tom Brady was drafted in 2000 because of the ability to foster roster depth. They’ve had many late-round picks contribute to Super Bowl titles. In recent years, the Bears have operated with a revolving door of roster fodder.
Comparing the Bears to the Patriots is like comparing a Bugatti to a single-car crash. They’re organizations in entirely different places. Belichick has masterfully built his roster for more than a decade of success, continuing to replenish around future Hall of Famer Brady.
The Bears have been starved for success. Chairman George McCaskey, the leader of his family’s football franchise, will be watching down the hall as his trusted brass files its decision with the No. 3 overall pick in the first round Thursday.
Who will it be for the Bears?
“I know this sounds generic when I say this, but I think you get yourself into trouble if you’re not sticking with our philosophy of best player available,” Pace said. “When you start trying to manufacture things or create things, that’s when teams get into dangerous water. I think if we just stay with guys we have a consensus on and best player available we’ll be in good shape.”
Read between the lines and it seems Pace is suggesting not to expect a quarterback with the third pick — not unless his regime truly believes Watson, Mitchell Trubisky, DeShone Kizer or Patrick Mahomes would be better than Jamal Adams, Malik Hooker, Marshon Lattimore, Solomon Thomas or Jonathan Allen.
There are three names on the board as the Bears prepare for the third pick, Pace said. That list expands well beyond, allowing the possibility for a trade down and preparing for the second-round slot at No. 36 overall and beyond.
But Pace knows one pick won’t change the franchise Thursday night. Ultimately, improvement will come when the roster finally has quality all the way down to the 53rd man.
Early returns suggest Pace’s first draft in 2015 was disappointing. First-round pick Kevin White has played just four games, and second-rounder Eddie Goldman has consistently battled injuries. Players taken in the next three rounds — Hroniss Grasu, Jeremy Langford and Adrian Amos — have been replaced by others. Sixth-rounder Tayo Fabuluje isn’t on an NFL roster.
Perhaps the 2016 draft could be the first to start that string of strong drafts. Leonard Floyd had seven sacks while developing as a rookie, and Cody Whitehair looks to be the Bears’ center for a long time. Fifth-round steal Jordan Howard broke the franchise’s rookie rushing record in just 13 starts. Others from the nine-man class are developing into roles.
Starting Thursday night, the Bears are hoping to find premier talents, but quality roster depth is still urgently needed across the depth chart. Pace and his brass understand that stringing quality drafts together is the path to fixing that.
Without it, 9-23 and last place happens.