Inside the Bears’ Covert Op to Draft Mitchell Trubisky
Chicago relied on stealth to get its quarterback of the future. Even Trubisky had no idea until the pick was announced
Steve Palazzolo and Mike Renner of Pro Football Focus look at whether this year's crop of quarterback prospects is worse than last year's.
On a cool night in mid-March, Mitchell Trubisky parked his beige 1997 Toyota Camry in the lot of Bin 54, Chapel Hill’s swankiest steakhouse. In a private dining room, he met the Bears’ decision-makers in this year’s draft: general manager Ryan Pace, coach John Fox, offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains, QB coach Dave Ragone and director of player personnel Josh Lucas. Underneath dimmed lights, the coaches scanned the 200-bottle wine list, Trubisky ordered a steak, and the conversation flowed all night. The Chicago contingent learned that Trubisky, Mr. Ohio in high school, had always dreamed of attending Ohio State; that he loves playing Pictionary with his family; and that he vowed to stick it out at UNC rather than transfer after he wasn’t named the starting quarterback during his first three seasons.
Afterward, Pace walked Trubisky to his car, a hand-me-down from grandma. They joked about the 170,000 miles on the odometer.
Trubisky says he had 10 of these dinners with NFL teams, but this one was different. “This felt like my favorite group of coaches that I met with,” he says. “I felt like I was really connecting with them. Like I went on the best first date . . . and then they never called. I didn’t hear from them at all. And it’s like, OK, I guess they weren’t feeling it.”
The Bears felt the same spark, but their ghosting was strategic.
A half hour before the draft began last Thursday night in Philadelphia, Pace finalized a dramatic trade with the 49ers, moving from No. 3 to No. 2 to get the Bears’ quarterback of the future. The move cost Chicago a third- and fourth-round pick in this year’s draft, plus a third-rounder next year; it also set into a motion a run on quarterbacks in the first round (Patrick Mahomes to Kansas City at No. 10, Deshaun Watson to Houston at No. 12) and set the tone for a wild night.
Pace himself wasn’t done surprising.
Chicago used three of its next four picks on players from below the FBS level: tight end Adam Shaheen of Division II Ashland, running back Tarik Cohen of FCS North Carolina A&T and offensive lineman Jordan Morgan of Division II Kutztown. The “outlier” was Alabama safety Eddie Jackson, the only player who fits one of Chicago’s biggest areas of need (the secondary). The twist here: Jackson is coming off a season in which he missed the final seven games with a broken left leg.
Says a high-ranking personnel man from an AFC team: “What the Bears did in this draft is unexpected to say the least. I assumed it would be a pretty standard draft for them. Ryan Pace has a reputation as a respected evaluator. He went against the grain, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I’m not sure I really know what’s going on in Chicago.”
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At 12:05 p.m. last Friday, a motorcade of four black SUVs rolled through the security gates at Halas Hall, the Bears’ training facility in the secluded suburbs an hour north of Chicago. Trubisky, wearing black sweats and Bears baseball hat, stepped out from the second car. A few steps into his walk, he shouted back to his mother, Jeanne. “Do you have my suitcase?” he asked. Once assured, the 22-year-old surveyed his new surroundings: the serene pond across the parking lot, the manicured lawns, and a statue of George Halas.
“Wow,” he said. “So this is it.”
Like Trubisky, Bears fans were also processing what was unfolding before them.
At the Bulls-Celtics playoff game later that night, Trubisky’s photo was shown on the Jumbotron. “A smattering of cheers, but the booing was audible,” says ABC7 reporter Dionne Miller, who covered the game. When the image switched to a live shot of Trubisky, the crowd realized their new quarterback was in the building. More cheers emerged, but with questionable sincerity. Talk radio was similarly abuzz with confusion. Lamented one caller to WGN Radio on Saturday: “So they sign another quarterback, I can't even remember his name…”
That would be Mike Glennon. On the first day of free agency, Pace offered the former Buccaneers backup a three-year, $45 million deal. Sources say Pace had honed in on Glennon months before free agency began, and though nobody expressed qualms with Chicago moving on from Jay Cutler, many around the league thought Pace likely bid against himself: He offered Glennon an average of $15 million per year when others might not have gone above $10 million per season.
Might Pace have bid against himself to land Trubisky as well? Asked about the ante Chicago gave up to get their QB, Jaguars EVP Tom Coughlin told beat reporters in Jacksonville, “Oh my gosh. Nothing like that has ever come my way.”
Pace isn’t worried about the perception. League sources say the Browns and Chiefs also coveted Trubisky and could have been a threat to up to No. 2. Of course, Trubisky still might have been available at No. 3, but Chicago’s GM didn’t want to resort to his backup plan. “You always feel like there’s competition,” he says. “So when you have conviction on something—you never know half the time. It’s like in free agency, when the agent tells you he’s got three other teams he’s working with. You never really know. You’ve just got to trust your conviction on it, and if you want a player you aggressively go get him.”
This offseason Chicago added more free agents (12) than any other team. Though most are middle-class signings (for example, Prince Amukamara, Marcus Cooper and Quintin Demps to patch the secondary; Markus Wheaton and Kendall Wright as No. 2 wideouts) Pace’s strategy was to throw as many darts as possible to see what sticks. With the third pick, the Bears could have selected a sure thing . . . one of the top safeties (Jamal Adams, Malik Hooker), corners (Marshon Lattimore, Tre’Davious White) or pass-rushers (Jonathan Allen, Solomon Thomas). Such a move would have made their already formidable defense even better in 2017, but the team still would have been a step behind its NFC North rivals. So Pace gambled on a quarterback who started only 13 games in college, a player who was a complete unknown at this time last year.
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The day after Trubisky’s dinner with the Bears in March, the coaches conducted a workout. Trubisky’s college center, Lucas Crowley, snapped balls, and Trubisky did three-, five- and seven-step dropbacks. Former UNC wideouts Ryan Switzer (a fourth-round pick of the Cowboys) and Bug Howard (an undrafted free agent who signed with the Colts), plus tight end Jack Tabb (a 2015 UNC grad), ran routes. The session, which lasted about 90 minutes, went according to the Bears’ detailed script. Trubisky says he threw just about every throw on the route tree in their system.
“They were coaching me as if I was already on the team,” Trubisky says. “I think they wanted to see how I respond to coaching, how I adjust on the fly. I always tried my best when a team came to visit, but this was one of my better workouts.”
Before leaving, Pace asked Trubisky for a favor: Keep the workout under wraps. Trubisky obeyed. When other teams asked, he didn’t tell them Chicago had come to visit. The Bears were just as coy. They sent only director of college scouting Mark Sadowski, national scout Ryan Kessenich and area scout Chris Prescott to Trubisky’s actual pro day. (By contrast, not only did Fox, Loggains, Lucas, Pace and Ragone attend Deshaun Watson’s pro day at Clemson, but Fox spent nearly the entire session talking to Tigers coach Dabo Swinney).
Pace says he watched every snap Trubisky took in college, including the 2014 and 2015 seasons, when he sometimes relieved starter Marquise Williams. “Every time he got in the game,” Pace says, “something happened in a positive way.” Pace also says he saw Trubisky “play live multiple times,” though sources say the GM may have only attended the Sun Bowl and one other UNC game last season. To this, Pace joked that maybe he took in some games from the stands in disguise. The ultimate takeaway: The Bears did their due-diligence without sending up flares. Says UNC quarterbacks coach Keith Heckendorf, “I talked to so many different people throughout the process. I know early on the Bears had an interest, but I can’t say they did anything extraordinary.” Says Blake Anderson, who recruited Trubisky to Chapel Hill and was the Tar Heels’ offensive coordinator for one year before taking the head-coaching job at Arkansas State, “Sometimes when scouts came in to look at our players, they’d ask some questions about Mitch at the end. I don't think the Bears were one of those teams though.”
The Bears, like other NFL teams, learned that while UNC’s offense appears to be a basic college spread, Trubisky was tasked with full-field reads and more pro-style concepts than most realized. Heckendorf vouched for Trubisky as a student—and teacher—of the game. Last spring there were eight or nine practices Heckendorf missed while on the road recruiting. On those days, Trubisky ran the QB meetings.
Sources say the Bears preferred Trubisky over Watson or Texas Tech’s Pat Mahomes because they felt his skill set best fits Loggain’s offense—and because he is poised to get on the field sooner. But that comes with a caveat: Ideally, Trubisky won’t take a regular-season snap in 2017—even as pressure mounts in Chicago to win.
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The Bears have missed the playoffs six years running, and over the past two seasons together Pace and Fox are 9-23 in Chicago. But the quarterback of the future will sit behind Mike Glennon, whom Pace has publicly called the starter while Trubisky is groomed for the job down the road. Glennon’s contract is front-loaded, meaning the Bears can cut him after this season and pay only $18.5 million.
When asked what quarterback situation in the league he might be emulating, Pace cited a division rival. “I know a lot of people will talk about Green Bay when [Brett] Favre was there and Aaron Rodgers came in, and there was another veteran quarterback on the roster as well,” Pace said. “And the importance of Rodgers’ development while that was going on.” The Bears also have Mark Sanchez, a veteran under whom Trubisky can also learn.
On the day of the draft, Trubisky heard rumblings from his agent that the Bears might be making a move to get him. But Chicago never called to let him know. Nothing crystallized until Roger Goodell announced Trubisky’s name at No. 2. Then, just before 7:30 CT, Pace finally called to congratulate his new quarterback. It was the first time they had talked since having dinner in Chapel Hill.
“I knew this was going to happen—you just needed to hang in there,” Pace said. “Hey, you gotta promise me one thing, you gotta promise me one thing, OK? You’re going to drive your beat-up car here. Don’t change a thing with it.”
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