Bears

Bears letting Cameron Meredith sign with New Orleans has big implications for draft, Kevin White

Bears letting Cameron Meredith sign with New Orleans has big implications for draft, Kevin White

The Bears on Wednesday declined to match the New Orleans Saints’ two-year, $9.6 million offer sheet to Cameron Meredith, a source confirmed, meaning the wide receiver will have Drew Brees throwing to him in 2018, not Mitch Trubisky.

The surface-level optics of this decision could look bad for Ryan Pace if Meredith bounces back from his serious knee injury with production that matches or exceeds his breakout 2016 (66 catches, 888 yards). Not only was Meredith a productive, versatile receiver two years ago (he almost equally split time between playing outside and in the slot), but he’s a Berwyn native and Illinois State product who was mined as an undrafted free agent in 2015. 

Feel-good stories don’t supersede football decisions, of course. Perhaps the Bears weren’t sold on Meredith’s medicals, or the prospect of having their two top receivers both coming off torn ACLs (with Allen Robinson the other). Meredith's injury, though, also included MCL damage. 

Or perhaps the 6-foot-3, 200 pound Meredith doesn’t fit what Matt Nagy and Mark Helfrich are looking for, in addition to the team's medical evaluation. That Pace and Nagy reportedly met with Meredith on Tuesday to inform him of the decision is a signal they're on the same page on this decision. 

But whatever the reason, the Bears now have a clear need for a wide receiver. And Ryan Pace has opened himself up for plenty of second-guessing after committing so many resources to building the best possible structure around Trubisky this offseason. The Bears could've ensured Meredith would be on the team in 2018 had they placed a second-round tender on him, which cost about $1 million more than the original round tender but would've cost whatever team signed him a second-round draft pick.

Meredith's deal with the Saints is reportedly for two years and $9.6 million, with $5.4 million guaranteed. Had the Bears matched the Saints' offer sheet, they would've moved up to third in the NFL in wide receiver spending. 

For the 2018 roster, Kevin White’s brutal injury history means counting on him as a starter — as was the case last year — is risky, even with better weapons at Trubisky’s disposal in Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Trey Burton. Those three players, along with Adam Shaheen, Tarik Cohen and to a lesser extent, Jordan Howard, give the Bears plenty of flexibility of how they can line up, and Gabriel’s ability to play both inside and outside would mitigate some of the risk with White. It’s worth noting only about one-third of the routes ran by Tyreek Hill — the “Zebra” receiver in Kansas City’s offense last year — were from the slot. 

Whatever receiver, or receivers, the Bears wind up drafting, he’ll have to be two things: First, able to play both outside and in the slot; and two, ready to compete with White during training camp for playing time. There’s probably not a receiver out there worth the No. 8 overall pick — that looks a little too rich for Alabama’s Calvin Ridley — but nabbing one with a second-round pick is in play with Meredith gone. 

The Bears still may have enough targets to make life easier for Trubisky this year, even without Meredith. But letting him walk and, presumably, looking to replace him through the draft does carry some risk — this is a decision that could backfire on Pace. 

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