By Dan Durkin—
(CBS) When Ryan Pace was hired as general manger nearly three months ago, Bears' brass highlighted the qualities that made him stand out from the rest -- his intellect, analytical abilities, his vision for the team and his assessment of the roster, one that Pace did advanced scouting on three times since 2011, all for games in which the Saints beat the Bears in Chicago.
Despite calling the shots for just a short period of time, Pace has put his fingerprints on the roster and provided a prism into his mindset. The 16 signings (10 in free agency) and one trade illustrate pragmatism and an understanding that while free agency is a necessary tool, it can't become a dependency.
The previous two Bears regimes set traps for themselves and tried to pay their way out of years of fruitless drafts by overspending in free agency. The byproducts were top-heavy, overpriced and aging rosters with little to no young talent in the pipeline to plug in when a player's useful life had expired.
Flush with cash heading into free agency to address a talent-poor roster, Pace resisted a frivolous spending spree. He opted instead to address the team's top three needs early on: a 3-4 edge rusher (Pernell McPhee), safety (Antrel Rolle) and wide receiver (Eddie Royal). He then patiently waited for the market to come to him.
At this point in free agency, it's a buyer's market. Each of the last seven contracts Pace has signed has been a one-year deal. The last four have been defensive players, three of whom may end up as starters – inside linebacker Mason Foster and defensive ends Ray McDonald and Jarvis Jenkins.
Bringing in players on "prove-it" deals benefits the Bears. Pace has essentially rented the services of younger players who are now incentivized to perform and earn longer-term security in a mercenary league. Motivated players can benefit both sides of the football operation.
It's worth noting that three of the players the Bears have brought in are members of the 2011 draft class – McPhee, Foster and Jenkins. That was the first class impacted by the collective bargaining agreement's rookie wage scale and four-year contract limits (note: teams can exercise a fifth-year option on first-round selections). Thus, for players drafted between 2011 and 2020 (the length of the current agreement), their second contract may be their only opportunity to cash in during their NFL career.
Of the three, only McPhee – who was, interestingly enough, the lowest-selected in the draft – signed an above-market, multi-year deal. However, given the way it was structured, even McPhee's deal could essentially become a one-year, $8.675-million proposition.
Since his arrival in Chicago, Pace has been emphatic that in order for the Bears to sustain success, they must build through the draft and utilize free agency to free up the opportunity to draft the best player available. This is an echoed sentiment among all general managers – including the previous two who held Pace's post – but only a few have actualized it.
Signing McPhee, Rolle and Royal afford Pace latitude in the draft. However, McPhee and Royal's presence shouldn't prevent the Bears from taking a talented edge rusher or game-changing wide receiver early in the draft. They can now let the board come to them and not be blinded by need.
Without question, how Pace drafts will be his ultimate doing or undoing, but the measured patience of his plan thus far is noteworthy. It's going to take the Bears more than one offseason to narrow the gap that exists between them and their division counterparts, and it's evident the new regime realizes that.
Undoubtedly, the NFL is a win-now league. Unlike other major sports leagues, there's no willful tanking. The Bears employed a new group of win-now coaches, but the on-field talent -- particularly on the defensive side of the ball -- isn't of the same caliber yet. But Pace has made sensible acquisitions that will provide coaches with better raw material to work with in the short term while he makes longer-term personnel evaluations.
As is the challenge for all general managers, they must strike a balance between putting together a competitive product for the current season while simultaneously building for the future.
Pace may be the league's youngest general manager, but judging by some of his initial decisions, he's showing wisdom beyond his years.
Dan Durkin covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @djdurkin.
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