LAKE FOREST – Ryan Pace appeared almost buoyant addressing the media Thursday just ahead of the introductions of the first five members of his Bears free agent class of 2018.
Why wouldn’t he be? Analysts have been near unanimous in their praise of the job he’s done addressing his club’s greatest need – pass-catching playmakers for his prized possession, second-year quarterback Mitch Trubisky.
But it wasn’t long before the question everyone in the room knew was coming was broached.
It was exactly one year ago that we met the first five free agents of 2017 – Mike Glennon, Quintin Demps, Markus Wheaton, Dion Sims and Marcus Cooper – and as we visited Thursday, only Sims still was a Bear.
Asked about Sims’ future, Pace replied, “We like Dion Sims, a well-rounded tight end. We’re excited we got him.”
We all like him, but was that a yes, he’ll be back?
The question, of course, was why will this year’s group be better than last year’s?
“There’s risk with free agency,” Pace said. “You’re not gonna hit home runs all the time. Unfortunately, some of those didn’t work out.
“But I can talk about the excitement of this class and how we feel about these guys, and the vision that we have for these guys. And we’re excited about that.”
Any general manager who doesn’t like his own player acquisitions is in the wrong business, but last year’s Bears group and this one really are night and day.
All but Wheaton and Sims in last year’s class were hopeful reaches at best – and everybody knew it.
The five players we met Thursday – Allen Robinson, Trey Burton, Taylor Gabriel, Cody Parkey and Chase Daniel – all are – with the exception of Daniel – extremely young veterans who’ve already displayed significant production, real promise and high to very high ceilings, and were strategically added to fit a clear and exciting plan on offense.
Daniel is different because that’s not what you want in a backup quarterback to an emerging young star. He’s a savvy vet comfortable at No. 2.
The ’17 Bears really didn’t have a plan on offense and possessed almost no talent to build around.
The addition of head coach Matt Nagy and assistants Brad Childress and Mark Helfrich has dramatically addressed the first half of that problem.
At the moment, Pace’s batting average in the draft is looking very solid at the least, and perhaps even better than that.
After more losses than wins on the open market, the success of this free-agent group could very well determine Pace’s place in the GM universe.
Asked whether he sensed a different vibe in the marketplace among highly valued players who may have shunned the Bears in recent years, Pace said, “Yeah, I think you know it’s a good feeling when you know players want to be here.”
Asked where he thinks that’s coming from, Pace gave at least partial credit to his quarterback.
“Let’s be honest: players pay attention to who the quarterback is and who they’re gonna potentially pair with. There’s a lot of excitement around the quarterback, and that definitely helps.”
So here is where Pace stands entering his fourth season as the Bears’ general manager, one in which some see them as the potential heirs to the quantum leaps of the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles and Los Angeles Rams.
He has placed a ton of his own credibility on what may be an inflated opinion of Trubisky – not what the quarterback can be, but what he’s done so far to earn it.
If Trubisky takes the next step, these free agents are as good as he hopes – and just so I’m not accused of sitting on the fence, let me say they do look pretty impressive to me – and if he has another draft as good as last year’s appears at the moment, Pace could very well find himself buried in clover.
But if these kids give him what last year’s free-agent group did, by January he could be fighting for his job.
At least Thursday it felt like the former.
• Hub Arkush is executive editor of Pro Football Weekly. Write to him at email@example.com, and follow him on Twitter @Hub_Arkush.