Bears

2015 NFL Mock Draft: Bears Insider John 'Moon' Mullin makes his picks

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2015 NFL Mock Draft: Bears Insider John 'Moon' Mullin makes his picks

Having second-guessed and changed virtually every pick in the Top 10 over the past 48 hours, the final thought here for the Bears at No. 7 is the best available pass rusher: Clemson linebacker Vic Beasley.

They will be able to get a desired quality wide receiver with their pick at No. 7 in the second round, possibly as the Philadelphia Eagles did last year with Jordan Matthews (42nd overall, 67 catches, eight touchdowns).

This is a switch from the conclusion going into the weekend that the Bears will happily grab Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper. And they well could.

But shift away from wideout is based on several specifics:

A comment by GM Ryan Pace that the 2015 draft class is deep at wide receiver. The implication, and Pace is not alone in this thinking, is that there will be quality options when the Bears’ turn comes at No. 7 of the second round.

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The history of Pace’s time with the New Orleans Saints, whose selection of Brandin Cooks last year at No. 1 was the first offensive player taken after six straight drafts going defense with their first pick, sometimes their first two or three. Those are past drafts but they represent Pace’s experience with how a winning team is built.

Similarly, the Denver Broncos used their first draft picks on defensive players in all four of John Fox’s years with them, beginning with Von Miller in 2011. (Beasley is a Miller clone.)

And in other draft “news"

The Moon initial mock draft posited Jameis Winston going to Tampa Bay No. 1 overall. But apart from character questions, which obviously can’t be ignored, Marcus Mariota is more accurate and finished his three Oregon seasons with an interception percentage of 1.8 – roughly one-third the rate that Winston throws picks (5.0)

The Jacksonville Jaguars are a major unknown. They desperately need defensive help but their passing yards per game ranked 31st, making Cooper an even more desperate need. And after the impact of rookie wideouts last year, Jacksonville taking Cooper would drop one of the quarterbacks or top pass rushers unexpectedly.

Weekend wild cards

Every draft has its surprises, whether a player who falls inexplicably (Aaron Rodgers in 2005), a team that grabs a stunner early (Blake Bortles No. 3 last year) or a player whose persona overhangs the whole process (Johnny Manziel). This year the wild cards are everywhere, starting with Mariota, who could go No. 1 to Tampa Bay, No. 2 to a team like Philadelphia dealing up for him, or Mariota falling even to the point of being on the board when the Bears go on the clock at No. 7.

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The Bears in fact represent their own individual wild card. Both Pace and Fox are from traditions of defense-building and edge pass rushers. This draft has a cluster of them, just as the 2012 draft did when the Bears opted for Shea McClellin amid a stretch that included Quinton Coples, Melvin Ingram, Chandler Jones, Bruce Irvin, Whitney Mercilus and Courtney Upshaw.

The 2015 draft is deep at wide receiver and rush linebacker – the two top targets for the Bears. What makes the Bears especially worth watching is their pick at No. 7 in the second round, which could turn into a first-rounder with a trade up late in Thursday’s opening round.

For now and barring trade predictions:

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Marcus Mariota (QB), Oregon

Lovie Smith has said all the right things about Jameis Winston and that well could be the call. But offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has a connection to Ducks head coach Mark Helfrich and Mariota’s accuracy is a tipping point over Winston.

2. Tennessee Titans: Leonard Williams (DE), USC

Mariota to someone in this slot is possible but Williams is an elite talent.

3. Jacksonville Jaguars: Amari Cooper (WR), Alabama

Cooper would instantly upgrade Bortles’ wideout options.

4. Oakland Raiders: Dante Fowler Jr. (OLB), Florida

The Al Davis Raiduhs would’ve taken a speed receiver to help the No. 32 ranked offense, and if Cooper slips this far, he is a solid call. But Jack Del Rio is a defense-based coach and Oakland was No. 30 in sack percentage.

5. Washington Redskins: Shane Ray (DE), Missouri

Lots of needs but grabbing immediate-impact pass rusher, even with injury question is a must.

6. New York Jets: Jameis Winston (QB), Florida St.

Winston’s slide finally stops. Geno Smith isn’t the answer and new head coach Todd Bowles knows it.

7. Chicago Bears: Vic Beasley (OLB), Clemson

Pace and Fox love pass rushers and are on record that you can never have too many. Beasley, with a school-record 33 sacks, an NFL Combine showing of 4.53 speed and benching 225 pounds 35 times, is a speed-strength comp to Von Miller (Fox’s first pick at Denver in 2011).

8. Atlanta Falcons: Alvin Dupree (OLB), Kentucky

Dupree could be a Week 1 starter for one of the only 2014 defenses worse than the Bears.

9. New York Giants: Ereck Flowers (OT), Miami

Former GM George Young called Top 15 picks “Dance of the Elephants” and Giants need help protecting Eli Manning.

10. St. Louis Rams: Brandon Scherff (OT), Iowa

Rams addressed defensive line in offseason, need a fixture to anchor blindside protection for whoever their QB ends up being.

11. Minnesota Vikings: La’el Collins (OT), LSU

Vikings want OL upgrade, run on tackles makes for a squeeze. Andrus Peat more polished and Rick Spielman likes Pac-12 talent.

12. Cleveland Browns: Danny Shelton (DT), Washington

Parker would fill a big hole, but NFL’s worst run defense needs a quick fix and Shelton is in the Vince Wilfork mold.

13. New Orleans Saints: Kevin White (WR), West Virginia

Saints went wide receiver with their first round pick last year in Brandin Cooks but White is too good to pass on with Marques Colston turning 32 in June and Jimmy Graham traded.

14. Miami Dolphins: DeVante Parker (WR), Louisville

If Parker goes earlier, look for pick of Breshad Perriman to help pedestrian Dolphins pass game.

15. San Francisco 49ers: Trae Waynes (CB), Michigan State

Unusual for the top corner to last this long and Waynes may be much value to pass on higher up.

16. Houston Texans: Kevin Johnson (CB), Wake Forest

Texans have built pass rush and need secondary help to take advantage of Jadeveon Clowney and J.J. Watt up front.

17. San Diego Chargers: Randy Gregory (OLB), Nebraska

Lack of sack threats has to be addressed for Chargers to stay on Denver’s heels.

18. Kansas City Chiefs: Arik Armstead (DT), Oregon

Chiefs would have grabbed a corner but have to settle with upgrading a soft run defense.

19. Cleveland Browns: Malcom Brown (DT), Texas        

NFL’s No. 32 run defense needs muscle up front and some have Brown as elite potential.

20. Philadelphia Eagles: Phillip Dorsett (WR), Miami

Chip Kelly may have given up this pick in an earlier deal to land Marcus Mariota. But Eagles have gone either O-line or D-line with last five No. 1’s and need outside speed.

21. Cincinnati Bengals: Andrus Peat (OT), Stanford 

Bengals want to fortify DL but Peat projects as Week 1 starter at RT and eventual fill for Andrew Whitworth at LT.

22. Pittsburgh Steelers: Landon Collins (S), Alabama

Great value at this slot and Steelers want an heir-immediate for retired Troy Polamalu.

23. Detroit Lions: Eddie Goldman (DT), Florida State

Losing Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley leaves gaps even with Haloti Ngata coming over from Baltimore. Better values here at OT but need trumps pure value and Goldman is first-round talent.

24. Arizona Cardinals: Melvin Gordon (RB), Wisconsin

Cardinals among NFL’s worst run offenses and need to match power of Seattle and NFC West with more than aging Carson Palmer passing.

25. Carolina Panthers: D.J. Humphries (OT), Florida

Ron Rivera wants someone other than Cam Newton running and needs muscle to protect up front.

26. Baltimore Ravens: Todd Gurley (RB), Georgia

A better pure runner than Gordon but knee questions drop Gurley to either Ravens or Cowboys, or out of the first round. Zero backs taken in last two first rounds and only two in last 96 combined first rounds.

27. Dallas Cowboys: Jalen Collins (CB), LSU

Safer character pick than Marcus Peters for a need back-end position in Rod Marinelli’s system.

28. Denver Broncos: T.J. Clemmings (OT), Pittsburgh

Broncos lost RT Orlando Franklin to San Diego and new coach Gary Kubiak is an ex-QB who knows import of edge protectors.

29. Indianapolis Colts: Breshad Perriman (WR), Central Florida

Graded higher but Colts won’t let this playmaker get away from Andrew Luck.

30. Green Bay Packers: Eric Kendricks (ILB), UCLA

Exits of A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones leave need areas in Dom Capers’ 3-4 scheme. Packers haven’t gotten enough front-7 impact from Datone Jones and Nick Perry and DE could demand help.

31. New Orleans Saints: Jaelen Strong (WR), Arizona State

Lost firepower from Graham trade has to be replaced while Drew Brees still has enough to use it deep.

32. New England Patriots: Jordan Phillips (DT), Oklahoma

Losing Wilfork (to Houston) needs to be addressed and Phillips at 329 pounds can fit multiple fronts.

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Medium

Decisions to be made on: Mitch Unrein (free agent), John Jenkins (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: Jared Crick, Frostee Rucker, Dominique Easley

This unit was consistently the Bears’ best in 2017, with Akiem Hicks playing at a Pro Bowl level (don’t let his exclusion from the game fool you on that) and Eddie Goldman putting together a rock-solid, healthy year. 

Hicks signed a four-year contract extension just before the season began and rewarded the Bears with a dominant year, racking up 8 ½ sacks and 15 tackles for a loss. Goldman played in and started 15 games and was a key reason why the Bears limited opposing rushers to four yards per carry, tied for the 10th-best average in the league. 

But while the Bears’ defensive line was certainly good, it wasn’t as good as it could’ve been. These words from Vic Fangio ring true for Hicks and Goldman:

“I think they all have a lot more to give to us than we’ve seen,” Fangio said. “And it’s our job to get them to improve and become even better players. That will be more important to us than anybody we can acquire between now and whenever our first game is. So, and I know it’s always sexy to talk between now and the first game, you know, who are you going to draft, who’s in free agency, etc., but we’ve got to get our so-called good players playing even better. And that will be critical.”

Hicks will enter Year 3 in Fangio’s scheme, while 2018 will be Goldman’s fourth. It’ll also be a critical year for Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris, who’ve flashed potential at times but haven’t been able to turn that into consistent success on the field. 

And that’s where we begin to look ahead to free agency and the draft. Is the Bears’ evaluation of Bullard -- their 2016 third-round pick -- positive enough to hand him a bigger role in 2018? That’s question No. 1 to answer, with No. 2 then being if the team should try to re-sign Mitch Unrein. 

It may be a bit risky to move forward with Bullard, given how popular Unrein was among the Bears’ defensive coaching staff. 

“He’s one of the glue guys on the defense and the team,” Fangio said last November. “Every team needs a few of those guys who are going to do everything right, full speed, hard and tough all the time, and that’s Mitch.”

Defensive line coach Jay Rodgers offered this up about Unrein back in October: “He allows those guys to play fast,” with “those guys” being Hicks and Goldman. 

Statistically, the 30-year-old Unrein doesn’t  jump off the page, but he did record a career high 2 ½ sacks in 2017. Perhaps there would be some benefits to continuity in the Bears’ base 3-4 defensive line.

Worth noting too is this position isn’t a huge need, given Unrein usually played between 40 and 55 percent of the Bears’ defensive snaps on a per-game basis last year. Keeping Unrein for a relatively low cap hit would make some sense, as opposed to testing free agency to replace him.

Jared Crick is coming off back surgery and an ineffective 2016; Dominique Easley is coming off his third torn ACL this decade; Frostee Rucker is in his mid-30’s. The Bears could look to pick a 3-4 defensive end in April, but that would be a pretty quick re-draft of the position and would be an indication they don’t think much of Bullard. This seems like a position where keeping the status quo is likely, save maybe for replacing John Jenkins with a different backup behind Goldman. 
 

2017 Bears position grades: Offensive Line

2017 Bears position grades: Offensive Line

2017 grade: C+

Level of need: Medium

Decisions to be made on: Josh Sitton (contract), Eric Kush (contract), Hroniss Grasu (contract), Bobby Massie (contract), Tom Compton (free agent), Bradley Sowell (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: Andrew Norwell, D.J. Fluker, Justin Pugh, Josh Kline, Jonathan Cooper

How the Bears’ offensive line will shape up in 2018 begins with a decision on which the Bears are already on the clock. The team has until March 9 to pick up Josh Sitton’s 2018 option -- or, to put it another way, they have until March 9 to determine if Sitton was/is/will be good enough to justify keeping him and not netting about $8 million in cap savings, per Spotrac. 

For what it’s worth, Bleacher Report ranked Sitton as the league’s sixth-best guard in 2017. If the Bears’ grades of Sitton match those outside ones, then the team probably won’t cut him -- not destabilizing Mitchell Trubisky’s offensive line would be well worth the money in that case. While Sitton turns 32 in June, cutting him would put a lot of pressure on Kyle Long, who hasn’t been fully healthy since 2016. The Bears are hopeful that Long will be back to full strength after multiple offseason surgeries, but releasing Sitton and then signing/drafting his replacement would be a gamble on Long’s health. 

Sitton’s status is the first part of the Bears’ 2018 offensive line equation. There’s also a decision to be made on Bobby Massie, who Bleacher Report ranked as the NFL’s 14th-best right tackle last year but could be cut for about $5.5 million in cap savings, according to Spotrac. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Bears cut or kept both Sitton and Massie for now, then drafted an offensive lineman in the first round (like Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson or Texas tackle Connor Williams) and released one of them. Or they could keep both through the end of the 2018 season. All those options would make sense on some level.

What wouldn’t seem to make sense is the Bears cutting Sitton or Massie and replacing them with a free agent. This year’s offensive line free agent class, without adding any potential cap casualties to it, isn’t particularly strong. By Bleacher Report’s rankings, the best free agent right tackle is Houston’s Breno Giancomi, who’s 27th in that list -- 13 spots behind Massie. At left tackle, New England’s Nate Solder (No. 22) isn’t rated as highly as Charles Leno (No. 20), who we'll talk about in a bit here. 

The only potential upgrade available via free agency would be Carolina Panthers guard Andrew Norwell (No. 2 in B/R’s rankings), who’s 26 and is in line for a big payday this spring -- but that would seemingly be counter-intuitive to releasing Sitton and then potentially paying more money to a different guard, even if he’s younger and has more long-term upside. The Bears could opt for a cheaper guard in free agency who could have some potential working with respected O-line coach Harry Hiestand -- the Giants’ D.J. Fluker (57th in B/R’s rankings) or Justin Pugh (42nd) fit that mold, as would the Titans’ Josh Kline (37th) or Cowboys’ Jonathan Cooper (38th). Or the Bears could keep Sitton and still sign one of those guys as insurance in case Long and/or Eric Kush, who tore his ACL last training camp, isn’t ready to start the season. 

Tom Compton and Bradley Sowell proved to be serviceable backups last year and could be an option to return, even with a new coaching staff in place. The health of Kush, who was missed as a reliable backup in 2017, will be important in figuring out what the Bears' O-line depth looks like. Hroniss Grasu struggled when he was on the field and missed time due to a hand injury, and despite playing for offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich at Oregon could be on the chopping block before/during training camp. 

We’ll finish here with some thoughts on Leno and Cody Whitehair. Could the Bears upgrade at left tackle and displace Leno to the right side of the offensive line? Possibly, especially if Hiestand believes he can make that move work. But it’d be odd if the Bears shifted Leno off left tackle and then signed someone who’s older and, depending on the evaluator, not even as good as him. 

This is all probably a moot point, since the Bears’ internal evaluation of Leno is what matters here. Leno is 26 and the Bears believe he hasn’t reached his ceiling yet, so more than likely, he’s sticking where he is. At the very least, he’ll enter 2018 with a starting job on the Bears’ offensive line. 

One other offseason objective for Hiestand and the new coaching staff: Keeping Whitehair at the same position. Whitehair’s versatility felt like it worked against him at times last year, with the former regime opting to shift him between guard and center quite a bit from the start of training camp through the early part of the season. That instability seemed to affect Whitehair’s play, as he went through a bizarre patch of snapping issues after moving back to center and struggled to be as consistent as he was in 2016. But Whitehair finished 2017 strong, and keeping him at center for the entirety of 2018 could get him back on track to make his first Pro Bowl.