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Revisiting Trubisky trade, it’s clear the Bears did better than many thought at the time

December 18, 2018

The move the Chicago Bears made up in the 2017 NFL draft was the smallest possible — one slot — but the effects of that Draft Day deal with the San Francisco 49ers have been far-reaching and quite fascinating.

When Bears GM Ryan Pace slid from No. 3 overall to No. 2 to select North Carolina QB Mitch Trubisky, Pace was forced to pay what was considered a king’s ransom: two third-round picks (one each in 2017 and 2018) and a fourth-rounder in 2017 for the rights to draft the Bears’ presumptive franchise quarterback.

Most pundits panned the trade at the time, saying that the Bears paid through the nose for a quarterback who had a mere 13 college starts and perhaps even wasn’t the best of the available lot that year. Certainly, the emergence of Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson as perhaps rare talents has complicated Trubisky’s path to this point and how we view him.

But there’s a reminder in here that should serve as the bottom line: If a QB draft pick eventually hits, there’s almost no price that’s too high in retrospect.

And even if Trubisky never becomes the best QB individually of the 2017 class, it doesn’t mean that the Bears made the wrong choice. Ask the New York Giants if they missed on picking Eli Manning No. 1 over Philip Rivers or Ben Roethlisberger; they might simply answer by pointing to the two Super Bowl rings Manning helped the team win. It might be fair to say that it’s about picking the right quarterback, even if he’s not the most talented one.

We’ll engage in Trubisky/Mahomes/Watson debates for years, just as we’ve had the Manning/Rivers/Roethlisberger ones since 2004. If the Bears can win a Super Bowl with Trubisky at quarterback, those debates certainly will change dramatically in tone.

But there are more layers to the 49ers-Bears trade now, and it’s a good time to revisit it with the teams meeting in Week 16 on Sunday.

Clearly, the 49ers’ season has not gone the way that franchise had hoped, what with a bevy of young draft picks on the roster, a few key free-agent additions on offense and the assumed theft of QB Jimmy Garoppolo from the New England Patriots in another shocking trade that went down a little more than a year ago. The 49ers are 4-10 entering the Bears game, and yet they’ve shown some real spunk in beating the playoff-contending Broncos and Seahawks in back-to-back weeks. The Bears will be their third straight home opponent to come to their stadium.

Can we say, though, that the 49ers might not have pulled off quite the heist on the Trubisky trade that many felt at the time it was made? It certainly looks that way. On the surface, the picks the 49ers pulled from the deal have turned into some quality NFL contributors early in their careers. The problem for the 49ers? A couple of them are doing it for other teams now.

With the third pick, they selected Stanford DL Solomon Thomas. So far, the results of that selection are inconclusive. Thomas, who was born in Chicago, has started 24 of the 28 games in which he’s played in two seasons and has totaled four sacks, 13 tackles for loss, 17 QB hits and one fumble recovery. This season he’s played 56.9 percent of the team’s snaps, which is the second-most on the 49ers, but has done less with them than he did as a rookie when he was on the field slightly more (62.2 percent over 14 games).

Thomas turns 23 this week and cannot be written off. The 49ers had been shifting him between defensive end (on running downs) and tackle (in passing situations), and that seems to have curbed his production and growth a bit. Head coach Kyle Shanahan suggested a few weeks ago that Thomas might be better off working more inside.

“Going forward, I’d like to see him more just at one spot, which can be tougher for him because he’s going to be in some situations that aren’t really ideal for him,” Shanahan said on Dec. 3. “But I want to see him fight through it and see if he gets better or worse at it and just see where he’s at. I think as the rest of this year goes, I think you’ll see more of that.”

Trubisky surely has made a bigger impact so far on the Bears, starting 24 games at quarterback and leading the team to an NFC North crown this year, than Thomas has for the 49ers, even if comparing the two is apples to kumquats. (Interestingly, the player Pace reportedly wanted if the Trubisky trade fell through was LSU S Jamal Adams, who has become a standout and leader on a bad Jets team. It would be fun to imagine an Adams-Eddie Jackson pairing in the Bears’ secondary, even though the Bears clearly would have had to fill the QB slot elsewhere in that scenario.)

And the trade involved a lot more parts, of course.

The third-rounder the Bears sent to San Francisco actually resulted in a Pro Bowl running back as a rookie: Alvin Kamara, who actually has improved his per-game production in Year 2. Of course, he’s doing it for the New Orleans Saints. The 49ers had turned around and flipped the Bears’ third-round pick along with a seventh-rounder that year to the Saints for a 2018 second-rounder.

The 49ers weren’t done moving this chain of picks, complicating the actual Trubisky trade haul further. They sent that second-rounder this year to Washington, which moved back for LSU RB Derrius Guice. The 49ers appeared to do well for themselves there in landing Washington WR Dante Pettis, who really has emerged of late with 17 catches for 338 yards (19.9 average) and four TDs over his past four games and figures to be one of Shanahan’s main targets going forward.

They also landed D.J. Reed via that trade. He’s had an up-and-down rookie season as a safety and returner, but the 49ers still appear pleased with his progress.

The other two original picks from the Trubisky deal were 2017 fourth-round pick, S Tedric Thompson, and 2018 third-round pick, LB Fred Warner. The 49ers used the Thompson pick in part to trade up into the back end of Round 1 that year to select LB Reuben Foster, which led to the chatter that 49ers GM John Lynch had gotten the best of Pace on the deal.

Well, Foster now has been released following multiple incidents involving domestic violence, weapons charges and a drug possession misdemeanor. That part of the deal means that the 49ers clearly didn’t maximize their value. Thompson also has helped the rival Seahawks replace Earl Thomas on what looks to be a playoff team this season.

For what it’s worth, Warner has been a very good contributor as a rookie and, like Pettis, should be a building block for the future. Ironically, Warner has helped soften the blow a bit from having to cut ties with Foster, and that certainly gives the 49ers a bit of an uptick when we reevaluate the deal on the large scale.

But we also have to look at the Garoppolo factor here, too. Yes, the 49ers lucked into landing him, but it came with a cost. In what was a truly unique situation, the team had to pay the free-agent QB handsomely this past offseason. The five-year deal the team gave the 27-year-old Garoppolo made him the NFL’s highest-paid player at the time at $27.5 million per season and included a $35 million signing bonus and $74.1 million in total guarantees.

Meanwhile, the Bears are paying Trubisky far less. He hit their salary cap at $6.6 million this season, followed by marks of $7.9 million and $9.2 million in 2019 and 2020, respectively, before the price tag likely goes up significantly. Even still, the Bears control his rights through the 2021 season at the very least, and they could feasibly apply the franchise tag in 2022, pending the makeup of the new collective bargaining agreement, which we don’t yet know.

Either way, Trubisky’s cap value is significantly better than that of Garoppolo, even if you argue the latter could be the better quarterback in time. We don’t yet know that answer because Garoppolo only has started 10 NFL games, having suffered a torn ACL back in Week 3 that ended his season.

As it stands, the Bears have done just fine for themselves in this deal, it turns out, even if all the dust hasn’t settled. But if Trubisky can lead this team to the Super Bowl, it’s fair to say that it worked out quite well for Pace and the Bears. As for the 49ers? They have more questions to answer on whether they maximized their value on it.

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