Mitch Trubisky was the key to the Khalil Mack trade, and remains the key to the Bears' 2018 success


The Bears are expected to make Khalil Mack the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL when their reported blockbuster trade with the Oakland Raiders, and ensuing contract for the edge rusher, is announced. When it is, we'll be able to add that to the list of rich contracts given out by Ryan Pace since April of 2017 (all figures via Spotrac):

— Signed left tackle Charles Leno Jr. to a four-year, $37 million extension with $21.597 million guaranteed

— Signed defensive end Akiem Hicks to a four-year, $48 million extension with $30 million guaranteed

— Signed wide receiver Allen Robinson to a three-year, $42 million contract with $25.2 million guaranteed

— Signed wide receiver Taylor Gabriel to a four-year, $26 million contract with $14 million guaranteed

— Signed tight end Trey Burton to a four-year, $32 million contract with $22 million guaranteed

— Signed placekicker Cody Parkey to a four-year, $15 million contract with $9 million guaranteed

April 2017 is the operative month here, because that’s when Pace traded up one spot to draft Mitch Trubisky, giving the Bears their franchise quarterback on a rookie contract. The total value of Trubisky’s four-year, $29,032,424 million contract is worth less than the average annual value of Aaron Rodgers’ new deal ($33.5 million), and is only a couple million more than the average annual value paid out to Kirk Cousins ($28 million) and Matthew Stafford ($27 million). 

The Bears, as a result, rank 24th in quarterback spending in the NFL. Combined with Pace’s shrewd salary cap management — remember, he was able to get out from all those “bad” contracts he signed, like Mike Glennon’s — and the Bears have been able to be extremely aggressive in bringing in talent since drafting Trubisky. 

“We’re in an advantageous position right now with that,” Pace said back in March at the league meetings in Orlando. “I think you’re seeing us add weapons around him right now, and that will continue as you go into the draft and even into the preseason. But it starts with (Trubisky), and we’re in a fortunate situation right now.”

What Pace has done with Trubisky on his rookie deal is part of a larger trend in the NFL of teams being aggressive while their quarterbacks are cheap. The Los Angeles Rams were able to make Aaron Donald the highest-paid defensive player in the league (a distinction he won’t hold for long) thanks to Jared Goff being in his rookie deal, for instance. And the six-year, $135 million deal Donald signed this week is what spurred the Raiders to start legitimately fielding calls for Mack. 

The window to win in the NFL no longer opens once a team has an established quarterback. For any team with a promising quarterback on a rookie contract, the window is open as soon as that guy merely becomes a starter. 

But while Trubisky has allowed the Bears to make this flurry of major moves, retaining Leno and Hicks and acquiring Robinson, Gabriel, Burton and Mack won’t make the Bears a playoff contender. After all, the Raiders had Mack in 2017 and finished 6-10; the Jaguars had Robinson in 2016 and went 3-13. 

What will make the Bears a legitimate playoff contender, now, is Trubisky being a better quarterback. That fact remains unchanged even with Mack on board. 

Yes, Trubisky is the cheapest quarterback in the NFC North by a wide margin, but until further notice, he’s also the worst quarterback in the division. But that may be an unfair categorization — of course he’s not as good as three of the established best passers in the game. What Trubisky needs to do in 2018 is close the gulf between him and Stafford/Cousins/Rodgers to where the Bears can be competitive with all those pieces around him. 

That’s not how Trubisky is viewing things, of course. 

“Nothing is ever good enough,” Trubisky said. “And in my eyes, it could always be better. So I think just having that mentality every day, coming to work and trying to make it as perfect as possible but knowing it never will be. And I think that just allows me to get better every single day and continue to grow and develop.”

The Bears should be better because of all the players they’ve added around Trubisky in the last 19 months. But how much better they’ll be will be dependent on Trubisky. We’ll start to know the answer to that question in eight days. 

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