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Ryan Pace Takes a Page Out of Bill Belichick's Book by Signing Former First-Rounders

Signing former first-round players to minimal contracts is a low-risk, high reward strategy.
Photo: Al Bello/Getty Images

Photo: Al Bello/Getty Images

NFL free agency is well underway. Teams have been signing free agents for over a week now, and the Chicago Bears have been active. They have already traded for a quarterback, Nick Foles, and replaced Leonard Floyd with Robert Quinn. The Bears also addressed their tight end room with multiple players, with Jimmy Graham being the headliner. They have also signed lower-tier players such as former Kansas City safety Jordan Lucas and former CFL star cornerback Tre Roberson to compete for open starting roles on defense. Not every signing can be a superstar, but Ryan Pace has an interesting strategy for some of his depth signings this offseason.

Pace has signed three former first-round picks that can be considered, for a lack of a better term, busts. Germain Ifedi (OL), Barkevious Mingo (OLB), and Artie Burns (CB) are all former first-round picks. Germain Ifedi and Artie Burns were the 31st and 25th, respectively, overall picks in the 2016 NFL draft. They are both coming off their rookie contracts, and both received similar grief from their previous fanbases as Leonard Floyd, the ninth overall pick in the 2016 draft, experienced in Chicago. Many fans like to criticize Pace's first-round draft selections, and Floyd is viewed in a negative light. While Floyd didn't become the game-changer fans wanted him to be, he also wasn't a liability. Floyd even earned himself a one-year deal worth up to $13 million ($10 million guaranteed), whereas Burns and Ifedi are being signed to minimal deals. Pittsburgh drafted Burns, and Seattle drafted Ifedi. Both Pittsburgh and Seattle have two of the most respected front offices in the NFL and are usually playoff contenders. Moral of the story: good organizations draft players that don't meet expectations in the first round, and I don't think the Leonard Floyd pick was as bad as it could have been. Look at some of the players drafted after Leonard Floyd in the 2016 draft -- there were a lot more misses than hits. 2016 was a weak class in general.

Ifedi and Burns are coming off their rookie contracts, and Chicago will be Barkevious Mingo's fifth stop on his NFL journey. Mingo was the sixth overall pick in the 2013 draft by the Cleveland Browns. After three disappointing seasons, the Browns traded Mingo to the Patriots for a fifth-round pick. The Patriots are infamous for trading for or signing first-round 'busts' for little capital and maximizing their potential. We've most recently seen this with Danny Shelton. Every year, Belichick interviews a top prospect knowing there is no chance they will fall to him. If you don't remember the famous Bradley Chubb clip, I'll include it to refresh your memory.

As Bradley Chubb expresses his gratitude to Belichick, he cuts him off by saying "we're picking 31st, no chance we see you." The reason I bring this up is because veteran GM's have a Rolodex of player interviews and grades from every draft class. Sometimes freak athletes or one-year wonders find themselves being drafted in the first round, but a majority of the top prospects were beasts in college. Some players considered 'busts' are actually just system-dependent and playing out of position. While Bill Belichick has successfully revamped a few first-rounders' careers, he was unable to do so with Barkevious Mingo. Mingo didn't see much of the field with the Browns or Patriots, but in 2018 he did have a fair season with the Seattle Seahawks. The Bears know what they are getting with Mingo. He is a depth piece with some starting experience in case one of the outside linebackers goes down, but there can be more upside to players like Germaine Ifedi and Artie Burns.

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Both Ifedi and Burns were brought in as depth players, but they are also competing for a spot. The Bears don't have clear-cut starters at right guard or at the second corner spot, and it doesn't look like they have the cap space to make another big-ticket free-agent signing. Ideally, the Bears fill two of their three starting roles with their second-round picks, but that remains to be seen. Pace preaches the philosophy -- fill roster holes in free agency, and draft the best player available. The optimistic side of me says the Bears are able to do that.

The Bears appear to have most of their starters in place, and even though there will be a quarterback competition, we know either Mitchell Trubisky or Nick Foles will be the starter in 2020. The three unknown starting positions are guard, corner, and safety. At safety, the Bears have re-signed Deon Bush, who we've seen more and more of each year. Before the Bears signed Ha Ha Clinton-Dix last offseason, people speculated Bush was ready for the starting role. He has played well when he is on the field for dime packages, he's a core special teamer, and he had an outstanding preseason in 2019. The Bears have also signed Jordan Lucas and brought back DeAndre Houston-Carson on a one year deal. Bush is probably the favorite of the bunch, but it's possible the Bears land a stud in the second or later rounds of the draft.

The right guard position seems to be completely open right now. A few days ago, I wrote an article echoing the fanbase's disarray regarding Ryan Pace not yet addressing the offensive line. Even though the Bears do have Alex Bars on the roster, they needed to sign someone else to compete for the job or at least be used as a depth piece. I identified Michael Person as the free-agent target, and while I didn't identify the correct player, the thinking aligned with what happened. The Bears salary cap is stretched, and I felt that Person was a good option because of his starting experience and the economic value of signing him. Germaine Ifedi's contract details haven't been revealed, but we know it's a one-year deal and shouldn't be a huge cap hit. Ifedi didn't live up to his draft hype, but he does have more upside than a player like Michael Person. Signing Ifedi also aligns with the Rolodex theory previously explored with Bill Belichick.

Ryan Pace's first draft was in 2015, and in 2016, he interviewed Ifedi. This doesn't mean Pace was deciding between Ifedi and Floyd in 2016, but it does mean he's done his homework. Pace was also scouting Mike Davis from the Seahawks last year, and since Ifedi was blocking for him, it's safe to assume he's also scouted Ifedi on the pro level too. Upon reviewing Ifedi's draft profile, something struck me. The first line under weaknesses reads "offensive scheme limited ability to fire out," which indicates Seattle drafted him as more of a projection than a product. Seattle wants to be a hard-nosed, run-first offense. They are going north and south with their attack, and Germaine Ifedi blocked for Kyler Murray in an air-raid offense at Texas A&M in 2015. The more I researched the signing, I learned that Ifedi has the possibility to revamp his career in Chicago. He was drafted as a tackle but played both guard and tackle for the Seahawks. He has started all 60 games he's been active for since 2016, and he has only missed four games over four seasons. It wouldn't be completely surprising if Ifedi earns the starting right guard spot in training camp, but his contract should also be fair for a depth piece. He's a young, durable lineman that may have some untapped upside.

Artie Burns is the last former first-round signing we'll explore. When the news of the Burns signing hit Twitter, Steelers' fans jumped all over it. They shared their disappointment with Burns's career thus far. I'm nowhere near as optimistic about Burns as I am about Ifedi. Unlike Ifedi, Burns hasn't been a four-year starter. Burns had three interceptions in nine starts for the Steelers in his rookie year, which earned him the starting role for the entirety of the 2017 season. It was clear that Steelers weren't pleased with his progress. In 2018, Burns only started six games, followed by just one in 2019. Burns' lack of success doesn't seem like a fit issue. Pittsburgh has a track record for maximizing a player's potential. Artie Burns had an outstanding 2015 season at Miami, recording six interceptions and five passes defended, but his ability to play the ball never showed up in the NFL. Burns will be utilized on special teams and have an opportunity to compete for a starting spot, but I wouldn't bet on him earning it. There should be a starting-caliber corner at pick 43 in the draft, but keep a lookout for under-the-radar signing Tre Roberson. Roberson's NFL journey is still unfolding. He may have had a pit stop in the CFL, but he was also a quarterback in college and didn't play defense until he was drafted. In my opinion, there is more upside with Roberson than there is with Burns.

Every free-agent signing can't be a high-profile player. I also cannot stress the importance of quality depth enough. If the Bears were able to seamlessly replace starters on offense as they do on defense, then maybe they wouldn't have gone 8-8 last year. Artie Burns, Germaine Ifedi, and Barkevious Mingo may not even see 20% of the snaps at their position. It's possible that 2020 is the last year for one or all of these players. We don't know how they'll pan out, but I do like the philosophy behind the signings. Signing former first-round players to minimal contracts is a low-risk, high reward strategy. If they don't pan out, they'll play on special teams and add depth to a roster. If they blossom, they can help lead to a playoff push and earn themselves a higher contract the following year, which may turn into a comp pick in the future.