People rag on Ryan Pace for missing on Mitchell Trubisky with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2017 draft, and deservedly so. But he’s also made several excellent choices that have become cornerstones not only for the Bears, but across the NFL.
The 2020 draft was stacked with top-tier wide receiver talent, with six going in the first round (the most since 2015) and seven more selected in the second round. But Pace filled other needs with his earlier picks and found a gem in Mooney in the fifth round. It didn’t take long for Mooney to replace Anthony Miller as the true No. 2 receiving option on the team. He finished his rookie campaign with 61 catches for 631 yards and four touchdowns.
For all the talk that the Bears have one of the weakest rushing games in the NFL, Montgomery tied for the fifth-most rushing yards in the league in 2020 in just his second season. He also showed improvement in the passing game, jumping from 25 receptions and 185 yards on a 71.4% catch rate in 2019 to 54 receptions and 438 yards on a 79.4% catch rate last season. If Matt Nagy decides to focus on the run game, Montgomery has all the makings of a bell cow back.
In Johnson, Pace found a Week 1 starter at a premium position in the back half of the second round. That’s easier said than done. Johnson missed the last three games of the regular season, plus the Wild Card loss, with a shoulder injury, but his future still looks bright as a young defensive back. Johnson edges out Montgomery simply since cornerback is more of a coveted position in the draft than running back.
Pace is known for finding gems in the middle rounds of drafts, and Amos was his first. To date, Amos has been the best strong safety to play beside Eddie Jackson, in the sense that with Amos by his side, Jackson was free to roam and make explosive plays. Amos also only missed eight starts over his four years for the Bears, pretty good for a fifth-round pick. The reason he’s a little lower on this list is, well, because he plays for the Packers now.
Daniels was a bit inconsistent to start his career as he bounced from left guard to center and back again. But in 2020, Daniels looked like the best offensive lineman on the team through five games before tearing a pectoral muscle. If he can stay healthy and pick up where he left off last season, Daniels could end up as a cornerstone offensive lineman.
After 2018, it looked like Cohen could end up being Pace’s all-time greatest draft steal. He was named a first-team All-Pro special teams player as a returner, plus he gained 1,169 yards from scrimmage and scored eight touchdowns while splitting the backfield with Jordan Howard. But Cohen took a step back in 2019 and then missed 13 games with a torn ACL in 2020. He’ll need to bounce back to climb this list.
In his first two seasons, Nichols was a reliable rotational defensive lineman and gave the Bears great value as a fifth-round pick. But last season, Nichols was invaluable for the team, filling in at nose tackle for Eddie Goldman, who opted out of the season due to COVID-19 concerns. Not only did he produce five sacks from the middle of the line, he also batted down two balls and intercepted another.
When you draft an offensive lineman as highly as the Bears drafted Whitehair, you expect them to be reliable and to perform at a high-level week in and week out. That’s exactly what Whitehair has provided for the Bears. In five seasons he’s only missed two starts, and he’s always played well, despite changing positions almost constantly.
Goldman’s numbers don’t pop off the stat sheet, but his impact on the Bears’ defense can’t be understated. By taking on major double teams, Goldman opens up his teammates to make the flashy plays. While casual fans may not notice it, the Bears certainly do. When Ryan Pace announced a four-year extension for Goldman in 2018, Pace called him an “anchor” for the Bears’ defense. Some of the Bears’ troubles defending the run last season can be explained by his absence, as he opted out due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Smith was seen as a “safe” pick at No. 8 overall in 2018, but he’s been everything a team could want out of a top-10 pick. He burst onto the scene with a sack on his first career snap. Despite a bumpy 2019 — Smith missed one game due to personal reasons and then missed the final three games due to torn pectoral muscle — he has finished every season with 100+ tackles. Things really came together in 2020 when he played at an All-Pro level. If Smith builds upon his excellent 2020 season, he could be the next elite Bears linebacker in a long line of elite linebackers.
A spotty injury history in college, including a torn ACL and a broken leg, may have scared NFL GMs away from selecting Eddie Jackson in 2017. But Ryan Pace obviously thought the risk was worth the potential reward when he traded up five spots in the fourth round to select the ball-hawking safety. And, wow, was Pace rewarded. A one-man wrecking crew, Jackson had his fingerprints all over the Bears’ defensive dominance in 2018. While the record books say he didn’t have any interceptions or touchdowns last season, he did have two pick-sixes negated by questionable penalties. Beyond that, Jackson still experienced a bit of a down-year in 2020, especially by his standards. The Bears hope that by elevating safeties coach Sean Desai to defensive coordinator they can get Jackson back on track as a game-changer this season.