Bears

Cam Meredith exit the latest in continuing WR woes, mysteries for Bears

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USA TODAY

Cam Meredith exit the latest in continuing WR woes, mysteries for Bears

Forgive Ryan Pace if he suspects that someone somewhere is sticking pins in a Bears GM doll, probably in the hands or knees, since that’s where decisions on wide receivers play out. And Pace has had more difficulty getting wideout positions taken care of than perhaps any other position group.

Pace had to deal with undoing the Brandon Marshall knot not long after arriving. The blow from trading away a 100-catch wideout might have been softened had the Alshon Jeffery situation worked out, but that ultimately unraveled, too. Pace was entitled to believe that he was creating a quality hedge against losing Jeffery when he went all-in on his inaugural draft selection of Kevin White.

If White didn’t have bad luck, he’d have no luck at all, and Pace has gone through the hope-disappointment cycle with White for each of the past three years. On a parallel track, Pace landed Eddie Royal in 2015, a veteran slot receiver who’d played no fewer than 14 games in any of his previous seven NFL seasons but was available for just nine in each of his two Bears seasons.

Pace certainly didn’t ignore wide receiver last offseason but too many of his tries to upgrade the position were his own whiffs rather than bad injury luck. Markus Wheaton was guaranteed $6 million, while Victor Cruz, Dontrelle Inman, Tre McBride, Ruben Randle and Deonte Thompson, among others, came and went.

Meanwhile, Jeffery was easing his way out of town after a brief stop for a franchise tag, with the Bears getting not even a compensatory pick for losing a Pro Bowl wide receiver, while Jeffery was getting a Super Bowl ring.

Pace at least got back in the Marshall trade a fifth-round draft pick that turned into safety Adrian Amos. Jeffery’s exit was not as productive.

Meredith mystery

And neither was Wednesday’s farewell to Cameron Meredith, the former Illinois State quarterback discovered by Pace and converted to a very productive wide receiver who led the Bears in catches and yards in 2016. Meredith tore an ACL and MCL last preseason, a devastating blow to a young wideout, of whom the Bears thought enough to already have broached the prospect of a contract extension before the knee injury.

This offseason, however, because of concerns over the knee condition, Pace and the Bears were willing to go only as far as a $1.9-million prove-it tender offer for one season. It was an amount that gave the Bears the right to match any offer sheet but not to receive any draft compensation if the Bears opted not to match and Meredith walked.

Pace ostensibly felt that Meredith’s prospects for a comeback weren’t worth an extra $1 million, to the level of $2.9 million, which would have cost the second-round draft choice from any team signing Meredith away. The New Orleans Saints evidently had a different takeaway from their medical exam of Meredith and last week signed him to an offer sheet calling for $9.6 million over two years, this after the Baltimore Ravens also were formulating an offer based on a more encouraged medical evaluation of Meredith’s knee than Pace and the Bears apparently had.

The whole thing leaves some curious questions.

Was Meredith’s knee worth nearly a $2-million guaranteed ante-up, but not $3 million? If it was bad enough to discourage the second-round tender, then why was it worth the not-insignificant sum of $2 million at all?

Allen Robinson’s torn ACL was worth a guarantee of $25 million in the former Jacksonville Jaguar’s multi-year package? But Meredith’s wasn’t worth about one-tenth of that for one prove-it year?

Risk vs. reward?

Pace effectively backed himself into a corner with the low tender. When other teams came calling with offers, had Pace matched an offer that was substantially higher than what he was willing to offer, he would then have been in the position of initially saying that Meredith wasn’t worth risking $2.9 million on, then reversing, contradicting himself and saying Meredith was worth almost double that in the form of the $5.4 million New Orleans guaranteed in its offer sheet. The Bears are not in cap jeopardy, meaning that even after the Robinson, Trey Burton and Taylor Gabriel signings for the passing game, Pace and the Bears could’ve afforded $1 million. Unless they didn’t think the knee risk was worth it, but then it goes back to why was the knee worth nearly $2 million guaranteed anyway.

Best guess is that Pace adds a wide receiver in the draft. That was going to happen anyway, subject to best-available’s remaining on draft weekend. It doesn’t really affect Kevin White, who’s unfortunately found-money if he turns into anything at this point of his sad career. The Bears didn’t let Meredith go because they knew they could count on White.

But what exactly Pace CAN count on at a position that has confounded him in his tenure is a mystery, as it has been year after year after year. Last year Pace was willing to invest $2 million on backup quarterback Mark Sanchez as a support player for Mitch Trubisky, but also on Sanchez as a chance to hit on depth for a position that always needs it. Pace was willing to guarantee $18.5 million for a chance at Mike Glennon’s perceived upside.

But not $1 million additional for Meredith, a player who’d actually had a quality year within recent memory?

Stankevitz: Why the Bears should draft Quenton Nelson with the 8th overall pick

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USA Today Sports Images

Stankevitz: Why the Bears should draft Quenton Nelson with the 8th overall pick

The majority of the decisions made by Ryan Pace since New Year’s Day have been centered around Mitch Trubisky. 

He hired a young, offensive-minded, quarterback-driven coach in Matt Nagy — who hired Mark Helfrich and retained Dave Ragone — to pair with Trubisky. He guaranteed $66.2 million to Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Trey Burton in March to dramatically improve the weapons at his young quarterback’s disposal. He guaranteed $5 million to Chase Daniel, who’s only thrown three regular season passes since the end of the 2014 season, to give Trubisky a backup who knows the nuances and language of Nagy’s offense.

So why would the Bears deviate from that approach in the NFL Draft, specifically with their first-round pick?

That’s why the Bears should draft Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson with the eighth overall pick on Thursday night. 

Nelson is regarded as one of the best offensive line prospects in recent memory, and those who were around him at Notre Dame see him as a Pro Bowler from Day 1. He’s an aggressive mauler in the run game who doesn’t play out of control, and has a highlight reel of pummeling opposing defenders to prove it. He’ll immediately help the Bears effectively run the ball, especially on the inside zone plays that are a staple of Nagy’s offense. He’s a sturdy, consistent pass blocker who will keep opposing defenders out of Trubisky’s face, allowing him to step up in the pocket and connect with all those shiny targets added by Pace in March. 

The “problem” with Nelson is that he’s a guard, a position traditionally not valued as worth such a high draft pick. But the league is changing: Three of the 15 contracts with the most guaranteed money handed out in free agency this year went to interior offensive linemen (Andrew Norwell, Weston Richburg and Ryan Jensen). Yes, left tackle Nate Solder got more than those guys, but the point here is that quality offensive line play is not easy to find. 

Plus, as Nelson eloquently argued at the NFL Combine, having strong interior line play is more important in today’s defensive landscape than ever before. 

“You have guys that are dominating the NFL right now in Aaron Donald, Geno Atkins and Fletcher Cox that have just been working on interior guys and you need guys to stop them, and I think I’m one of those guys,” Nelson said. “You talk to quarterbacks, and they say if a D-end gets on the edge, that’s fine, they can step up in the pocket and they can throw, a lot of quarterbacks if given the opportunity can do that. 

“That’s what I give is a pocket to step up in, and I think I also help the offense establish the run through my nastiness and establishing the run also opens up the
passing game, so I think it’s a good choice.”

And we haven’t even got to the Bears hiring Nelson’s college position coach, Harry Hiestand, to coach their offensive line. Hiestand recruited Nelson to Notre Dame and developed him into an elite player over their four years together in South Bend. If there’s anyone that can make Nelson an even better player in four years than he is today, it’s Hiestand. 

“He’s known me since I was an immature freshman that wasn’t good at football, until now being a lot more mature and responsible and doing the right thing and a good football player,” Nelson said at Notre Dame’s Pro Day last month. “He knows everything about me. … He’s always pushed me to be the best at everything I’ve done and I couldn’t be any more thankful and grateful for him.”

Do the Bears need to address their red-line need for a pass rusher? Of course. Does Vic Fangio’s defense need more playmakers? Absolutely. Those needs will have to be a focus of this week’s draft. Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds or Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick or Georgia’s Roquan Smith would all be fine picks. 

But if Pace is sticking to his strategy of building around Trubisky and drafting the best player available, there’s only one player that makes sense. And that’s the bruising, powerful guard who played his college ball two hours away in South Bend. 

“As a blocker my mindset is being dominant,” Nelson said. “I want to dominate all my opponents and take their will away to play the game by each play and finishing them past the whistle.”

John "Moon" Mullin's counterpoint: Why the Bears should draft Virginia Tech linebacker Tremaine Edmunds

  
 

Moon: Why the Bears should draft Tremaine Edmunds with the 8th overall pick

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USA Today Sports Images

Moon: Why the Bears should draft Tremaine Edmunds with the 8th overall pick

The late and legendary New York Giants GM George Young once described the first 15 picks of the NFL draft as the “dance of the elephants,” a reference to the premium the game placed on size, particularly when all other factors were somewhere close to equal.
 
For that reason, given the choice between linebackers Tremaine Edmunds from Virginia Tech and Georgia’s Roquan Smith, the Bears will hand in the name of Edmunds (6-5, 253 pounds) rather than that of Smith (6-1, 238).
 
It is far from the only reason and not the biggest (pun intended).
 
For purposes of perspective, the Bears are more than capable of selecting neither Edmunds nor Smith. GM Ryan Pace said that the Bears had identified eight players for their “cloud” of candidates worthy of the No. 8-overall pick in the 2018 draft. None of those eight are quarterbacks, Pace said.
 
Not that Pace would lay down smoke or engage in misinformation or misdirection, of course; but one interpretation of that “eight” declaration would be that Pace is advertising that he has operators standing by to take trade calls from teams below the Bears who were just told that the Bears have enough attractive options that they would be happy to trade down, secure in the knowledge that one or more of their eight will be there as late as No. 12 or even further.
 
Edmunds and Smith are among the top eight non-quarterbacks in a wide sampling of rankings by draft experts. Best guess here is that both linebackers are in Pace’s cloud.
 
Grades/rankings are the primary component of “best player available” evaluations. If Pace was being straight about having eight for No. 8, then rankings and grades are within an acceptable range.
 
What tips the decision toward Edmunds and Smith over the others in the eight is need.
 
The Bears need to protect Mitch Trubisky (Quenton Nelson). They need more takeaways (DB’s Minkah Fitzpatrick, Denzel Ward). But the dire need, after exits of Lamarr Houston, Pernell McPhee and Willie Young and even after signing ex-49er Aaron Lynch, is for pass rushers and those are too rare to pass on when the chance is there.
 
North Carolina State’s Bradley Chubb isn’t expected to last until No. 8, so View from the Moon has moved to the others in Pace’s eight with that skill set. Edmunds has length and size for 3-4 OLB or possible ILB when Bears go nickel. The decision between Edmunds, with length and size and 10 sacks over last two years, and Smith, with better ’17 production (6.5 sacks, 14 TFL), is difficult because both could develop into elite players.
 
But Edmunds “might have the highest ceiling of any defender in this draft,” according to USA Today draft analyst Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz. Smith is more polished than Edmunds, but Pace is about upside, and for that final reason, “With the eighth pick of the 2018 NFL draft, the Chicago Bears select…
 
"Tremaine Edmunds, linebacker, Virginia Tech.”

JJ Stankevitz's counterpoint: Why the Bears should draft Notre Dame offensive lineman Quenton Nelson