INDIANAPOLIS – While the official opening of the new league year for the NFL is still about two weeks off, the 2018 season kicks off in earnest Wednesday at the NFL Scouting Combine.
The Chicago Bears’ delegation at the Combine will be led by the two faces of the franchise, new head coach Matt Nagy and fourth-year general manager Ryan Pace.
For Nagy the honeymoon has just begun.
Enjoy it Matt, the honeymoon will be over before you know it. Just ask your new boss.
Any perception that with the firing of John Fox and hiring of Nagy, Pace has bought himself a fresh start is badly misplaced.
The Combine begins the fourth full year of Pace’s rebuilding program. If the pressure isn’t on, it certainly should be, and fans will make sure it is if Pace and company fail to field a competitive team this year with anything less than .500 deemed unacceptable – even that may not be enough to keep the wolves from their Twitter accounts.
So far Pace appears to be pushing the right buttons with the releases of Pernell McPhee and Quintin Demps making perfect sense, but the release of Josh Sitton could easily send the wrong signals for the uninitiated.
If Pace is to have a successful 2018, certain areas of the team need to be viewed as strengths allowing him to focus in free agency and the NFL Draft on clear weaknesses.
At the end of 2017, quarterback, running back, the interior of the offensive line, the defensive front, inside linebacker and cornerback – should the club re-sign Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara – appeared to be potential strengths.
But wide receiver, left tackle, pass rushers and safety along with a lack of depth at tight end were still definite weaknesses. And with so many to address, why would Pace release Sitton and turn a strength into a weakness?
If Kyle Long can’t get healthy and Cody Whitehair doesn’t return to his rookie form, with no starter at the other guard...
Does Pace believe he is awash in time and buoyed by Nagy’s honeymoon?
Was the release of Sitton a sign the Bears felt he was overrated? Were there attitude issues that offset the value of his play? Or none of the above?
According to my sources, the move was strategic. An acknowledgement that while Sitton is still a very good football player, he is a brawler meant to play in small areas and not a good fit for the more athletic blockers demanded by Nagy’s run-pass option scheme.
It may – and I emphasize may – prove to be the reason why Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson isn’t now the sure fit with the Bears many think he is either.
Regardless, it has now lengthened Pace's shopping list that he is running out of time to fill.
I continue to be a Pace fan. His drafting looks promising when viewed as a whole and not focused on Kevin White’s injuries.
His free agency moves haven’t been as strong with Pace looking for fastballs and having his knees buckled while whiffing on Ray McDonald, Antrel Rolle, Eddie Royal, Jerrell Freeman, Mike Glennon, Demps and, to date, Markus Wheaton.
But the free agent police aren’t giving Pace a fair shake ignoring Sam Acho, Mitch Unrein, Akiem Hicks, Danny Trevathan, Sitton, Bobby Massie, Ted Larsen, Amukamara, Benny Cunningham and Tom Compton.
Should Pace’s batting average be higher in free agency than the draft? Yes. And should the misses not be as predictable and ugly? Yes.
But at the end of the day he hasn’t been as far off in free agency as he is often painted.
Here’s what we know for sure: the next three months will almost certainly be the turning point for Pace. Not only does he need to find gold in this year’s draft, he cannot afford many more of the blunders he had in his 2015 and 2017 free agent hauls.