Haugh: Ryan Pace changes perception — and reality — of Bears with this NFL Draft

In drafting quarterback Justin Fields, Pace has a chance to redefine his legacy.
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(670 The Score) A consensus requires a majority opinion, an unnecessary goal for the strongest of NFL general managers making franchise-altering decisions. They ascend to those big jobs, and keep them, largely based on the power of their convictions and prescience of their projections.

Yet there was Ryan Pace nearly a week ago, before presiding over his seventh draft for the Bears, publicly pining for a consensus inside Halas Hall before arriving at what to do in the first round this year. The revelation struck some as honest and others as weak, an admission that only stoked Chicago’s skepticism over Pace’s worthiness to dig the Bears out of the rut that he had dug for the franchise. Our football city’s local agenda called for the Bears to draft 20th overall and Pace to disappoint, yet again.

A funny thing happened to Pace on his way to seeking approval. He got his consensus, inadvertent or intentional, with the surprising bonus of the people outside the draft room agreeing as enthusiastically as everyone inside it. That’s not exactly what Pace meant or sought but is possibly an even bigger development.

Analysts showed respect for Pace’s work by overwhelmingly praising the Bears' draft class as one of the NFL’s best. Fans went from dreading next season to anxiously anticipating the first OTA. Hope returned after a long absence from 1920 Football Drive, reverberating from Lake Forest to LaGrange. On a scale of 1 to 10, this Bears draft will go down as an 11.

By trading up to select Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields with the 11th overall pick, Pace revived a fan base and gave himself a chance to redefine his legacy. Such an immediate metamorphosis in morale typically accompanies a regime change, except nobody got fired. Fields arrives more proven than Mitchell Trubisky did in 2017, the last time Pace followed his aggressive instincts and fixated on a quarterback he had to have in the first round. If Fields succeeds the way so many predict, the high price Pace paid to move up nine spots will seem like a pittance.

Every aspect of the Bears organization changed once Pace seized the opportunity the circumstances of the draft presented him -- once the 49ers drafted quarterback Trey Lance at No. 3, once the Panthers and Broncos took cornerbacks back-to-back at Nos. 8 and 9, once the Eagles targeted Heisman Trophy-winning wide receiver DeVonta Smith at No. 10. Everything that happened in the following six rounds after Pace’s huge swing at No. 11 reflected a general manager thinking about devising a long-term plan around Fields and not one worrying about a win-or-else mandate in 2021.

Take the second-round pick, for example. Pace traded up 13 spots to select 6-foot-6-inch, 317-pound Teven Jenkins of Oklahoma State because many teams like the Bears gave Jenkins a first-round grade and he possesses the versatility to become a fixture at left tackle, if necessary. Quarterback and left tackle represent the two hardest positions to fill in an NFL offense, and suddenly the Bears have more faith than doubt at both core spots. Fields and Jenkins were choices with the next six to eight years in mind more than the next six to eight months.

Fifth-round offensive tackle Larry Borom of Missouri provides depth at a position Pace too often neglected in his first six drafts. Sixth-round offensive weapons Khalil Herbert, a running back from Virginia Tech, and Dazz Newsome, a wide receiver from North Carolina with the best name in the draft, give coach Matt Nagy toys for his game plans and the Bears new options in the return game. Sixth-round cornerback Thomas Graham of Oregon, who opted out of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, produced at a high level in three seasons as a starter in the pass-happy Pac-12. Seventh-round defensive tackle Khyiris Tonga of Brigham Young reminded everyone that NFL rosters never can have enough run-cloggers.

But everything about the 2021 draft for the Bears always will be viewed through the prism of Fields, because everything now revolves around the quarterback whose jersey No. 1 is also where he ranks on the organization’s list of priorities.

Fair or unfair, comparisons between Fields and Trubisky seem inevitable because the contrasts are so stark. Trubisky endeared himself to Pace and Bears fans initially because he came across as highly relatable and the quarterback next door, a long lost Grabowski who was one of the guys. Fields, while known as a terrific teammate and leader in the locker room, carries himself more confidently like The Man, a mature guy used to having every eyeball on him since an early age and comfortable operating in a highly pressurized environment. From his spiffy suit to his professional answers Friday during his introductory Zoom conference, Fields displayed polish that suggested he can handle Chicago’s spotlight as deftly as he did Ohio State’s glare. This is how star quarterbacks act.

This is the player many believe Pace missed on drafting four years ago, a modern-day Donovan McNabb with the contemporary football traits of Deshaun Watson, the Fields of dreams for generations of Bears followers, a quarterback who finally could make their reality tolerable again on autumn Sundays. This is now on Nagy to do what the Bears failed to do with Trubisky, to help a high first-round talent reach his potential by tailoring game plans around his skill set instead of the other way around and maximizing Fields’ immense athleticism.

In that way, drafting Fields – who a source said Nagy had ranked second behind Trevor Lawrence among first-round quarterbacks – suggested a subtle yet significant power shift in the organization. As much as Pace deserves credit for successfully maneuvering a way to strike a deal with the Giants, Nagy comes out of this recognized as the decision-maker who drove the Bears to take Fields. Nagy’s future seems more closely aligned with Fields’ performance than Pace’s.

Pace still has work to do post-draft. He must create more than the $400,000 sliver of space the Bears have under the salary cap, according to overthecap.com. He must decide whether left tackle Charles Leno Jr. is worth keeping or cutting to save $6.2 million against the cap. He must address remaining roster holes. Most importantly, he can make top receiver Allen Robinson a competitive new offer now that he has a quarterback whom Robinson might deem worth sticking around to help flourish. But the biggest offseason onus falls on Nagy, whose plan to develop Fields sounds like it will be rooted in patience. Long may it last.

It helps the Nagy was the Chiefs' offensive coordinator in 2017 when then-rookie quarterback Patrick Mahomes started one game and threw 35 passes. In Nagy’s perfect world, Bears quarterback Andy Dalton will be to Fields what Alex Smith was to Mahomes in 2017, a veteran capable of leading his team through a 10-win season while providing a solid example for a rookie quarterback. But in Chicago, city of bum shoulders when it comes to NFL passers, a quarterback’s world is seldom perfect.

“When the time is right, I promise you every single person will know, including Justin, when it’s the right time, and that’s naturally how it happens,’’ Nagy said.

Fans and media figure to be clamoring for Fields shortly after Dalton’s first interception or three-and-out, if not sooner. History says even the best plans can go awry, so the only thing anybody should guarantee about the Bears' quarterback situation next season is keeping an open mind. Maybe Dalton plays like the quarterback he was early in his Bengals career to stave off criticism, maybe he doesn’t. Maybe Fields adapts quickly enough to start some games in 2021, maybe not. Whatever happens, the quarterback position finally gives the Bears a legitimate reason to sell positivity again.

On that, there's a consensus.

David Haugh is the co-host of the Mully & Haugh Show from 5-9 a.m. weekdays on 670 The Score. Click here to listen. Follow him on Twitter @DavidHaugh.