Hoge: Bears’ Most Significant Improvement Must Come From Within

Bears general manager Ryan Pace speaks with reporters the 2019 NFL Combine in Indianapolis. (Adam Hoge/WGN Radio)

INDIANAPOLIS — Last Thursday afternoon I ran into Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Pace in the hotel lobby and asked him a simple question:

Are you tired of answering questions about kickers yet?

Pace laughed, but I reminded him that the endless kicker questions are a good thing. It was just a couple of years ago that reporters like myself arrived in Indianapolis with a long list of questions about almost every position on the roster — most notably quarterback. 

Yes, the NFL Combine had a much different feel for the Bears this year. No longer rebuilding, Pace is now dealing with better — although still significant — obstacles, like limited cap space and not holding a draft pick until the 87th slot in the third round.

But this is what it looks like when you are no longer at the bottom of your division. These are big boy problems.

So as the Chicago storylines developed in Indianapolis — is Redford Jones really your kicker? Who is going to be your third running back? Which late-round/undrafted member of your 2015 rookie class (Adrian Amos or Bryce Callahan) are you going to be able to keep? — I kept coming back to the biggest key to the upcoming 2019 season:

Improving from within.

While it may not have seemed like it at the time, Pace went all-in in 2018. It was methodical, but it all added up. Allen Robinson, Trey Burton and Taylor Gabriel in free agency. Using a 2019 second-round pick to grab Anthony Miller in the draft. And, of course, pushing all the chips in the middle for Khalil Mack. But these moves weren’t really made to win a Super Bowl in 2018. They were made to give the Bears a chance to win multiple Super Bowls in the future. 

But to do that, the development can’t stop. Especially from within the roster — and especially when entering a two-year period without a first round draft pick. 

“We’re a young team, and we’re a young team with a lot of guys under contract. That’s exciting,” Pace said. “It’s exciting to be going into Year 2 of this offense and having (defensive coordinator Chuck) Pagano come in and add his flavor. There’s going to be natural growth and progression. We’ve got to make sure that happens.”

Pace knew he could take the Khalil Mack risk because of the age of his roster. From a sheer addition/subtraction standpoint, Mack can be counted as the Bears’ 2019 first round pick (not bad for what became the 24th overall pick) and Miller as the Bears’ 2019 second round pick. When trading significant future draft capital, this is how GMs think. Take a look at the math in the Miller trade with the Patriots:

105th pick in 2018 + 56th pick in 2019 = Anthony Miller with 51st pick in 2018.

Essentially, Pace got a year’s advance on his 2019 second round pick and improved its value by five slots at the cost of the 105th pick. Of course, he didn’t know for sure that the Bears would be drafting in the mid-20s of each round in 2019, but he was operating with the knowledge that his team would be much improved — knowledge that the Raiders and Patriots didn’t have. It’s safe to say that both Jon Gruden and Bill Belichick thought the value of the 2019 picks they were receiving from the Bears would be higher. 

This all looks impressive for Pace, but it only pays off if the players work out. That means Mack, now 28 years old, needs to continue play like a defensive player of the year candidate. And Miller, coming off shoulder surgery, needs to develop into a consistent borderline No. 1 wide receiver for Mitchell Trubisky this season. If both of these things happen, the long term blow of not having a first or second round pick in 2019 will be mitigated. 

The good news for the Bears is that the realistic options for significant internal roster improvement hardly stop there. It took 650 words before I typed “Mitchell Trubisky” but this is a pivotal year for the young quarterback and the No. 2 overall pick in 2017 remains Pace’s biggest gamble. But the list goes on: Roquan Smith, Eddie Jackson, Allen Robinson, Tarik Cohen, James Daniels, Cody Whitehair, Eddie Goldman, Bilal Nichols, Roy Robertson-Harris, Leonard Floyd, and yes, even Adam Shaheen and Javon Wims are all 26 years old or younger — and under contract — with room to improve in 2019.

“You’re always talking about drafting and developing and the best form of free agency is re-signing those players to contracts,” Pace said. “We are forecasting ahead with some of these guys coming down the pipeline that we’re going to need to extend at some point. That’s a good feeling because that means that we’ve drafted well, and I’ve said this before, it’s refreshing to look at the depth chart and not be overwhelmed by all the needs everywhere. Now we can pinpoint and tweak and fine-tune and that’s exciting to do that with Matt (Nagy).”

That’s important to remember in a March that promises to be slower than usual. The Bears are “fine-tuning” an already young roster with upside. There likely won’t be any major “splash” moves.

No, to win the Super Bowl, it’s much more important that the current players continue to get better.

(And yes, that Pace fixes that kicker problem.)

Other notes/thoughts from the 2019 NFL Combine

— Perhaps the greatest indication that the Bears are looking for an upgrade at running back is that all five starters on the offensive line are poised to return. A couple of months ago, it wasn’t inconceivable for the Bears to look to replace right tackle Bobby Massie and right guard Kyle Long. Instead, Pace extended Massie, 29, and restructured Long’s contract to keep the 30-year-old in the fold for at least 2019. This is a strong indication that Nagy doesn’t think the offensive line is to blame for some of the inconsistencies in the running game last season.

“Our offensive line right now, just the way they grew fundamentally—and a lot of that credit goes to (offensive line coach) Harry Hiestand for being such a great coach fundamentally with those guys—they believe in what he teaches them,” Nagy said. “He’s hard on them, but yet he loves them. They understand watching film how can they get better. You see that with every one of our guys right now.”

Entering an offseason with limited resources, I like the approach to lock up the offensive line. Massie might not be an All-Pro, but he has started 46 of 49 games since signing with the Bears three years ago. And Long enters his first offseason since 2016 in which he does not need surgery. There was no reason to create more holes when both players wanted to be back. 

— Pace confidently set the tone for 2019 when he was asked if he feels less pressure after a 12-4 season:

“Honestly, I feel more, you know what I mean? I feel like, hey, we put ourselves in the position and you’re never staying the same. You’re either getting better or you’re getting worse. We want to make sure we are getting better.”

— It was interesting to see former Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio walking around Indianapolis as a head coach. Having certainly paid his dues to finally get a head job at 60 years old, he’s someone you want to see succeed. But I’ll admit, I’m skeptical. And it’s less about him and more about the situation. Much like draft prospects, fit matters a lot. Defensively — with Bradley Chubb and Von Miller — Denver was a great spot for Fangio to continue his wizardry. But he wasn’t hired to be the defensive coordinator. He was hired to be the head coach and he’ll ultimately be judged by wins and losses. 

In that regard, the Broncos job wasn’t a great one. Denver’s ownership situation is messy and general manager John Elway is on the hot seat after continuing to make puzzling decisions at the quarterback position. Joe Flacco? At 34, is he any better than Case Keenum? If Elway doesn’t survive, then the clock will start ticking on Fangio. That’s just how it works in the NFL. For both Elway’s and Fangio’s sake, I would draft a quarterback at No. 10 — especially if Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins is still available. Drafting a quarterback buys time because the organization has to wait to see if the franchise’s most important player pans out. 

Hey, maybe Fangio arrived in Denver and convinced Elway to borrow from Pace’s playbook — make everyone think your quarterback is in place before turning around and drafting one. For Flacco, that might be even more ruthless than having Mike Glennon at your team’s official draft party as his replacement is drafted. For Fangio, it’s not a bad move.

— Speaking of quarterbacks in awkward situations, come on down, Josh Rosen! 

“Is Josh Rosen our quarterback? Yeah. He is right now, for sure,” Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said in Indianapolis.

And that’s how you pour gasoline on speculation that the Cardinals will use the No. 1 overall pick on Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray. 

The fanning of the flames almost seems too obvious. Maybe Keim is just trying to increase the trade value of that No. 1 pick, but if he is, I hope he was transparent with Rosen before making a comment like that. 

On the other hand, you don’t make a bold hire like Kliff Kingsbury without assuring him that he’ll be able to work with the quarterback he wants. Having the No. 1 pick left every option on the table when Kingsbury considered the job. Personally, I don’t think Rosen is the answer for the Cardinals. He was my fifth ranked quarterback last year (with a second round grade) and I didn’t see anything in 2018 to change my mind. This will continue to be one of the biggest stories in the NFL until the Cardinals make a commitment. That might not come until draft night. 

— Pace indicated that the Bears would like to have their bye week after the London game against the Raiders. The NFL typically gives teams that option after going to London. What remains to be seen is when the game will be played and how long the Bears will stay in London. It’s possible the team will opt to go later in the week (perhaps Thursday or Friday) instead of practicing in London all week. Stay tuned.

— I’m not going to be pretend to be a kicking expert over the next couple of months, but I did get to see both a former Lou Groza Award winner and Ray Guy Award winner on the same team in December. Utah kicker Matt Gay won the Lou Groza in 2017 and Utah punter Matt Wishnowsky won the Ray Guy in 2016. Both played against Northwestern in the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 31 and both could be intriguing options for the Bears (depending on if they bring punter Pat O’Donnell back). While Gay and Wishnowsky kicked at altitude in Utah, they also dealt with harsher conditions late in the season. Gay has a strong leg and I witnessed Wishnowsky boom a 63-yarder against the Wildcats (his longest is 68). Just two names to keep in mind.

— Finally, a few notes on some Northwestern prospects after the NFL Combine:

Quarterback Clayton Thorson had a nice showing in throwing drills. Coming off a high ankle sprain in the Holiday Bowl, he was just recently cleared to run at 100 percent, so he didn’t participate in timing. I continue to hear that Thorson won’t escape the third round.

Cornerback Montre Hartage was trying to get under 4.5 in the 40-yard-dash so his official 4.68 wasn’t ideal. It’s a speed-timed position so he still projects as a late round pick, although whoever grabs him will be getting a consistent corner with good length and technique. After missing the Holiday Bowl, Hartage was in tremendous shape when I saw him training a couple weeks ago. He should stick on a roster.

Linebacker Nate Hall was at the Combine participating in interviews and physicals, but will wait to workout at Northwestern’s Pro Day. Coming off shoulder surgery, his training was delayed.

Someone who is carrying some buzz despite not getting an invite to Indianapolis is Northwestern defensive tackle Jordan Thompson. He needed knee surgery this offseason, but has quickness and a great motor on the interior of the line. Northwestern has sent two starting caliber defensive linemen to the NFL in recent years (Dean Lowry and Tyler Lancaster are both in Green Bay) and scouts are intrigued by Thompson.

— Earlier I referenced a number of Bears players who are still 26 or under, so this feels like a significant note to close on:

Adam Hoge covers the Chicago Bears for WGN Radio and WGNRadio.com. He also hosts “The Hoge & Jahns Podcast.” Follow him on Twitter at @AdamHoge.

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