If Bears fans were wondering if general manager Ryan Pace was serious about winning in 2018, they can wonder no more. The young executive may have defined his career after he worked out a blockbuster trade with the Oakland Raiders to bring three-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Khalil Mack to the Windy City. On top of that, Pace gave the 27-year-old pass-rush specialist a six-year contract extension worth $141 million which includes $90 million guaranteed and a $60 million signing bonus, making him the highest-paid defensive player ever. If you’re a believer of stars aligning, fate, or perhaps divine intervention, this story has all three.
Mack was unhappy with the Raiders. Despite being a leader of their defense, despite his production, and despite being a cornerstone of the franchise, Mack wanted a new contract. The team picked up the fifth-year option on his rookie deal (which he signed back in 2014), but he wanted an extension — a much deserved one based on his production — and staged a holdout in the hopes of getting one.
Unfortunately the Raiders didn’t budge and Mack missed both training camp and the preseason as a result. At the same time, there were concerns and questions about both the Bears' pass rush and their depth at outside linebacker. A combination of ineffectiveness during the preseason (6.5 sacks in five games), injuries and a perceived lack of star power served as catalysts for Pace to act. Especially when you consider that the NFC North is a quarterback-heavy division starting with the highest-paid ever in Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, to go along with $84 million man Kirk Cousins in Minnesota, and Detroit's Matthew Stafford.
So the Bears were willing to part with multiple future draft picks in order to bring Mack into the fold and place him in Vic Fangio’s defense, which finished in the top 10 in the NFL last year despite the team’s 5-11 record. The Raiders now can fully focus on Las Vegas. Not only is this the biggest move of Ryan Pace’s tenure, this is one of the biggest acquisitions in franchise history, and Mack also gets the richest contract in team history. Here are five ways that the Bears automatically improve with Mack on the roster.
1. Improved pass rush
Despite the difficult 5-11 season the Bears had under John Fox in 2017, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio lived up to his end of the bargain. Last year’s defense collected 42 sacks, and now you can add Khalil Mack’s 40.5 career sacks to the mix. Being able to get to the quarterback is why Mack was named to three straight Pro Bowls (2015-17), earned back-to-back All-Pro selections (2015, '16), was a Defensive Player of the Year (2016), after being the fifth overall pick of the 2014 NFL Draft coming out of the University of Buffalo. Beware Aaron Rodgers, Kirk Cousins and Matthew Stafford, Mack is now in the NFC North and he's coming for you.
2. Much needed depth
Fangio’s 3-4 defense requires an abundance of linebackers, with outside linebackers specifically being the main pass rushers who essentially act as defensive ends. Not only does Mack add depth to this crucial position, he also adds durability as he’s never missed a game in his previous four seasons (64 games total), and versatility as he was named All-Pro as a linebacker and defensive end in 2015. He’s made a living out of harassing quarterbacks, embarrassing offensive tackles and proving at times to be unblockable. Bears fans can’t wait to see him in the opener Sunday night against Green Bay.
3. Buys more time for others to get healthy
Injuries at outside linebacker have been an issue for the Bears this preseason. Leonard Floyd, the team's first-round draft pick in 2016, had dealt with several injuries in his brief career. Concussions and a neck injury ended his rookie campaign after 12 games, while a knee injury limited him to just 10 games last year. He has 11.5 sacks in two seasons and is dealing with a new issue as he broke his hand earlier in the preseason. Prior to acquiring Mack, there was some discussion about seeing if Floyd could play with a cast on his hand.
Aaron Lynch, who was signed to a one-year deal in March, suffered a hamstring injury during the first week of training camp and hasn't been able to take part in practice since. With Mack now in the fold, it's easier for the Bears to not rush either Floyd or Lynch back and allow them the proper time to heal and recover.
4. Star-power boost
Even if Floyd and Lynch were healthy, there were already concerns about the overall talent at outside linebacker for the Bears. Sam Acho is a respected veteran who’s helped this team through tough times, but he’s also only accounted for four sacks in three seasons in a Bears uniform and has mainly been a special teams player. Isaiah Irving is in his second season and is still learning the NFL game, and there also is rookie Kylie Fitts, who still needs time to grow and develop. The Bears traded for Mack and his 304 career tackles at the perfect time.
And there's the overall impact Mack has on the Bears defense, adding his star power and talent to a unit that performed well in 2017. At linebacker alone, Bears fans can look forward to Mack and first-round pick Roquan Smith teaming up to wreak havoc for years to come. Don't look now, but the Monsters of the Midway may be ready to make a triumphant return.
5. A new sense of energy
From the moment the Mack trade was announced there has been a buzz and an energy not seen with the Bears in quite some time. The fans are excited and can’t wait to see this team take the field, the media is eager to cover this team, and the team itself has a new sense of confidence heading into Sunday night’s opener with the archrival Green Bay Packers. What a difference one player can make.
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.
(Top photo courtesy of www.chicagobears.com)