Five questions the Bears will begin to answer this week at the NFL Combine

Five questions the Bears will begin to answer this week at the NFL Combine

Ryan Pace, Matt Nagy and the Bears’ coaching staff have had about a month and a half to evaluate their team, and will head to Indianapolis for the NFL Scouting Combine knowing the strengths and weaknesses of a group that went 5-11 in 2017. 

While the Combine doesn’t bump up to the beginning of free agency, as it did a year ago, the free agent landscape will begin to take shape this week, as will the draft plans of the Bears and the seven teams picking ahead of them in April. So with that in mind, here are five scenarios to watch develop as the Bears begin efforts to shape their 2018 roster:

1. How many quarterbacks go in the top seven?

The Bears drafted their franchise quarterback a year ago, but a deep 2018 class of signal-callers presents some interesting options for Pace with the eighth overall pick. As things stand heading to Indianapolis, four of the six teams picking ahead of the Bears have a “need” at quarterback: The Cleveland Browns (picks Nos. 1 and 4), the New York Giants (No. 2), the Denver Broncos (No. 5) and the New York Jets (No. 6). 

Conveniently, there are four quarterbacks who head to the Combine with legitimate shots of being top-10 picks: USC’s Sam Darnold, UCLA’s Josh Rosen, Wyoming’s Josh Allen and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield. Perhaps Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph or Louisville’s Lamar Jackson interview, test and throw their way into the top 10 as well. The point: This could be an ideal situation for the Bears to be sitting at No. 8. 

Pace likes to talk about draft “clouds,” as in groups of five or six players that realistically could be available when his team picks. As the Bears begin looking to create that cloud, could they realistically put someone like N.C. State defensive end Bradley Chubb or Alabama defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick in it?

The short answer: Probably not. The first decider of how many teams draft a quarterback before the Bears will be where Kirk Cousins signs; i.e., if he goes to the Broncos or the Jets, that takes them out of the quarterback market in April. And not all four teams are guaranteed to take a quarterback, even if Cousins signs elsewhere — maybe Denver tries to address its offensive line, or the Jets are able to start rebuilding their offense with Penn State running back Saquon Barkley. 

But the Bears are going to Indianapolis not only to begin building their cloud at No. 8, but clouds in case they trade down. The Arizona Cardinals (No. 15), Los Angeles Chargers (No. 17) and Buffalo Bills (Nos. 21 and 22) all could be in the market to draft a quarterback, or maybe the New Orleans Saints (No. 27) see the successor to Drew Brees in this class and want to make a move to get him. 

The overarching point here is the Bears will have options to trade down or grab a top-five player at No. 8 come April if there are three or four quarterbacks who teams deem worthy of being “franchise” guys, as the Bears did with Trubisky a year ago. 

2. What happens at cornerback?

The Bears could try to re-sign Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara and tender restricted free agent Bryce Callahan and keep the status quo at the top end of that position. Or they could re-sign Fuller and Amukamara and still draft a cornerback at No. 8. Or they could decide to blow the whole thing up and sign two veteran cornerbacks from a deep free agent class. Or they could re-sign Fuller and pair him with a free agent, even a high-priced one like Trumaine Johnson given their healthy cap situation and a lack of top-end free agents at wide receiver and edge rusher. Or they could be blown away by Ohio State’s Denzel Ward, Iowa’s Josh Jackson or another corner in Indianapolis and draft one of them to pair with a free agent. Or they could do something completely different.

There are plenty of options for Pace to sift through in the next few weeks, but the endgame for all of them is to find the best pairing of cornerbacks for a defense that showed signs of progress last season. The worst-case scenario for Pace isn’t all that bad: If he misses out on all of his top targets — let’s say he doesn’t re-sign Fuller, and Johnson/Malcolm Butler/E.J. Gains/Brashaud Breeland all spurn the Bears to sign somewhere else — he could probably get by on a mid-level cornerback signing and then drafting someone in the first two rounds in April. 

But given the Bears’ aforementioned cap situation and the lack of big-money receivers and edge rushers expected to hit free agency, 2018 could be an ideal year for Pace to splurge at cornerback. He tried to last year, but was turned down by Stephone Gilmore and A.J. Bouye. If the Bears are a more desirable destination in 2018 than they were in 2017 — with a new head coach, a promising young quarterback and a stable defensive coaching staff — maybe they can finally land that big-ticket cornerback.

3. Is No. 8 too high to draft an interior offensive lineman?

On the surface, the stars look aligned for the Bears to draft Notre Dame’s Quenton Nelson with the eighth overall pick: They recently released 31-year-old Josh Sitton to get younger and cheaper at guard, Nelson is a good bet to be the most consistent offensive player in 2018’s draft class, and one of Matt Nagy’s first hires was Harry Hiestand, Nelson’s college offensive line coach. 

But while teams frequently use top-10 picks on offensive linemen, rarely do they use them on guards. In recent memory, Jonathan Cooper (No. 7 to the Arizona Cardinals in 2013) and Chance Warmack (No. 10 to the Tennessee Titans in 2013) never played the way you’d expect a “can’t-miss” guard to play. 

Releasing Sitton is a clue in and of itself. Would the Bears be happy to play a left tackle who’s productive but also on the wrong side of 30 $8 million? It seems more likely than paying that money to a guard, for the simple reason that it’s a lot easier to find consistent interior offensive line play than it is to find a good tackle. The Bears can probably accomplish getting younger and cheaper at guard via free agency. 

And consider this, too: The Carolina Panthers, reportedly (link), aren’t looking to place the franchise tag on 26-year-old All-Pro guard Andrew Norwell, because it’d carry a salary with it usually reserved for a tackle. Or to put it another way: The Panthers may be reluctant to pay a guard tackle money. Could the Bears be reluctant to draft a guard in a spot usually reserved for a tackle?

If that’s the Bears initial mindset heading into Indianapolis, Nelson, though, is certainly a guy who could change it. 

"He's great in the run game, he's very good in the pass game," NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. "He was coached by Harry Hiestand, who I think is one of the best offensive line coaches I've ever been around, who is now with the Chicago Bears. So he's got talent, he's got coaching, and at the end of the day, he loves football. I know this kid. He's got a passion for the game. He's got a passion to be the best he can be. So when you add all those things up, unless he's injured, unless he gets a bad injury, I love the fact that I think he can come in day one and be a high-level NFL player."

One final note here: A former Notre Dame player joked that Nelson and tackle Mike McGlinchey — who’s projected as a later first-round pick — are fighting to see who can get drafted by the Bears so they can be coached by Hiestand again. 

4. Who’s the second-best edge rusher in this draft class?

The guess here is Chubb — who racked up 20 sacks his final two years at N.C. State — won’t be on the board when the Bears pick at No. 8. But with edge rusher a need for a Bears team that released Pernell McPhee this week and still has to figure out where it is with Willie Young (contract) and Leonard Floyd (injury), expect one of Pace’s focuses in Indianapolis to be on finding out which edge guys could fit into his cloud at No. 8 or later in the draft. 

We’ll throw these two guys out there to start: UT-San Antonio’s Marcus Davenport and Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds. They’re two different players with different skillsets, but both could wind up in play for the Bears at No. 8. 

Davenport flashed talent and potential at the Senior Bowl last month, and if he tests well in Indianapolis could start being a top-10 mainstay in mock drafts. He could fit the raw, athletic mold of Pace’s previous first-round picks. We’ll have a better idea if he does in a week. 

Edmunds might be the best linebacker in this class, but he’s not necessarily a true edge rusher. He totaled 10 sacks in his final two years at Virginia Tech, but wasn’t necessarily asked to rush the quarterback as much. He’s an elite run stuffer (32 1/2 TFLs in 2016-2017) and could be a better fit as an inside linebacker. But the thought around draft circles is Edmunds is a talented enough player to make an impact no matter if he’s an inside or outside linebacker. He’s someone the Bears could very well have in their No. 8 cloud in April. 

5. What about receiver?

Jarvis Landry could still be on the market after the Miami Dolphins placed the franchise tag on him, but would the Bears really want to give up a package of picks for a guy who averaged less than 10 yards a catch last year? The Jacksonville Jaguars seem likely to hang on to Allen Robinson, and while the Los Angeles Rams may let Sammy Watkins hit the open market, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he didn’t go anywhere. 

Without an elite wideout for Pace to try to lure to Chicago with a hefty contract and the promise of a young franchise quarterback, the Bears will need to find the right mix of receivers via free agency and the draft. Could that mean signing a few mid-level receivers and then drafting someone with the eighth overall pick? 

For the Bears, that question will begin to be answered this week. Maybe they come away from Indianapolis feeling like Alabama’s Calvin Ridley has what it takes to hold up in the NFL despite a small-ish 6-foot-1, 190 pound frame. Or maybe Coutland Sutton runs a better-than-expected 40-yard dash and is in play to be the first receiver off the board.

Ridley and Sutton are the two guys who’ve been thrown around in early mock drafts as potential top-10 picks, but there could always be someone who tests well in Indianapolis and gets his name into that conversation. But the Bears will also begin building their clouds of players for the second round and beyond, and how the second/third/fourth tier of receivers test/interview in Indianapolis will begin to bring those evaluations into focus, too. 

After releasing him, Bears reportedly bringing back Marcus Cooper


After releasing him, Bears reportedly bringing back Marcus Cooper

Marcus Cooper's offseason has resembled a will they, won't they relationship.

The corner back signed a three-year deal with the Bears last offseason, but struggled last year and was released by the Bears after one year of that deal. However, Adam Caplan is reporting that Cooper could be back in a Bears uniform this season.

Cooper was officially released by the Bears on March 14 and visited the Arizona Cardinals earlier on Friday. Cooper started for the Cardinals in 2016.

Cooper began the year as a starter for the Bears, but finished with just four starts. He finished 2017 with 18 tackles and three passes deflected in 15 games.

His play with the Bears didn't exactly make him Mr. Popular with fans, as can be observed by looking at the savage replies to Caplan's report.

Cooper's original contract for the Bears with valued at $16 million over three years so the reported $2.5 million number is a significant pay cut and could mean he is being brought back for depth as opposed to last year when he was expected to start.

Plenty of possibilities loom ahead of Bears' draft pick

Plenty of possibilities loom ahead of Bears' draft pick

As the Bears begin to fill out their draft board in earnest, they’ll do so by evaluating the players they like and the players they think will be available when they pick eighth in April. And what players check both those boxes and go into their draft “clouds,” as Ryan Pace calls them, will depend largely on how many quarterbacks are taken ahead of the Bears’ pick. 

With about a month until the draft, it seems clear two teams will take a quarterback with a top-seven pick: the Cleveland Browns and New York Jets. The Browns own the Nos. 1 and 4 picks; the Jets traded up from No. 6 to No. 3, and teams rarely invest that kind of draft capital to not draft a quarterback. 

That leaves a few hinge points in how many quarterbacks are picked by the time the Bears are on the clock:

New York Giants (No. 2 overall)

The Giants still have an aging Eli Manning but could move to use the second pick to draft his long-term replacement. Or, alternatively, they could use this deep class of top-end quarterbacks as an avenue to trade down, add some picks and build out a young core that way. Either of these scenarios would be good news for the Bears, as we’ve seen Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, N.C. State defensive end Bradley Chubb and Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson connected to the Giants at No. 2 as well, if they were to stay there. The Buffalo Bills could be motivated to trade up to No. 2 to make sure they get the guy they want with quarterbacks almost assuredly going off the board at Nos. 1 and 3. 

Cleveland Browns (No. 4 overall)

If the Browns get their quarterback with the first pick — Sam Darnold? — they could be sitting in an ideal spot at No. 4. If the Giants draft a quarterback, Cleveland could play hardball and tell teams they’re fine keeping the fourth pick and drafting Barkley with it. That could create a bidding war between the Buffalo Bills (No. 12) and Denver Broncos (No. 5) to trade up and draft the last of the four clear-cut top quarterbacks in this class. In this scenario, Cleveland adds a bunch of picks to an already-sizable stash and accelerates their growth through the draft. 

If the Giants were to trade out of the No. 2 pick, let’s say to the Bills, it may lessen Cleveland’s desire to trade down from No. 4 unless a team in need of a quarterback like the Arizona Cardinals (No. 15) or Miami Dolphins (No. 11) starts lurking around. But as we saw last year with the Bears trading up one spot to draft Mitch Trubisky, teams don’t want to leave things to chance if they have conviction on the quarterback they want. So that brings us to the…

Denver Broncos (No. 5 overall)

The Broncos signed Case Keenum to a two-year deal and still have 2016 first-round pick Paxton Lynch on their roster, though he hasn’t shown much in only five games as a pro. Does Denver absolutely, positively have to draft a quarterback? No. They’re probably in the same boat as the Giants in that regard. But what if they really like Josh Allen and/or Baker Mayfield, both of whom their coaching staff worked with at the Senior Bowl, and one of them is still on the board when the Browns’ pick comes up at No. 4? Or what if Josh Rosen has been their guy all along? 

In that case, John Elway may make an aggressive move to guarantee he gets the quarterback he wants, and not risk losing that guy if a team were to cut the line by trading with the Browns. 

The other scenario is less positive for the Bears: Maybe the Broncos only have one or two quarterbacks out of this group they want, and they either can’t find a trade partner to move out of No. 5 or don’t want to. If three quarterbacks are drafted in the first seven picks, the Bears may not have the opportunity to draft one of Nelson, Chubb or Alabama defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds, for example, is a super-talented prospect — but we seem to be moving toward a consensus that Nelson, Fitzpatrick, Chubb and Barkley are the four best non-quarterback prospects in this draft. And in all likelihood, the Bears will only be able to draft one of them four quarterbacks are taken before they pick. 

The wild card here is Nelson, given his position (guard) is rarely seen as worthy of being a top-10 pick. But those who saw him up close in college believe he’s a future perennial Pro Bowler, possibly beginning as soon as his rookie year. The Bears’ fit is obvious, with Harry Hiestand coming to coach the offensive line from Notre Dame and the team — as of right now — still having a fairly clear need for another interior offensive lineman. Perhaps Nelson falls to the Bears even if there are only three quarterbacks off the board before they pick, but having four go off the board would make things a little less stressful at Halas Hall in late April. 

Indianapolis Colts (No. 6 overall) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (No. 7 overall)

The Colts already traded down once, and likely did so with the confidence that Chubb would still be on the board at No. 6 to help their limp pass rush. Fitzpatrick seems to be a good fit with Tampa Bay, though a player of his caliber would be a good fit anywhere. Either of these teams still could be persuaded to trade down, especially if the Giants and/or Broncos pass on a quarterback.

Chicago Bears (No. 8 overall)

If four quarterbacks are off the board by the time the Bears pick, that’s ideal for Pace. If three are, he still could get someone from his No. 8 pick “cloud” and be content staying there. If only two are — and this doesn’t appear to be a likely scenario — that means the Bills haven’t found a trade partner and may want to leapfrog the Dolphins at No. 11 to get their guy. More likely, if the Bears are able to trade down from No. 8, it would be because a team like Arizona wants to make sure the quarterback they want isn’t snagged by an opportunistic team ahead of them. 

But Pace's draft history has seen him trade up far more frequently than trade down. If someone who's in his draft cloud is available when the Bears go on the clock, chances are he'll pick that guy and not trade down. 

Plenty can and will change between now and when the draft begins on April 26. But for right now, the landscape ahead of the Bears suggests only positive things setting up for their first-round pick.