Bears NFL Draft Preview: 2016 draft rich in DL talent but what are Bears looking for?

Bears NFL Draft Preview: 2016 draft rich in DL talent but what are Bears looking for? Bears Insider John "Moon" Mullin goes position-by-position as the Bears approach the 2016 Draft, taking a look at what the Bears have, what they might need and what draft day could have in store.

Bears pre-draft situation

One reality with the Bears’ 3-4 scheme is that the line between defensive ends and linebackers gets a little blurry; maybe not in “I’m an end, not a linebacker” mind of Willie Young, but for the rest of us.

That’s actually part of the idea, however, behind why a career 4-3 coach like John Fox tilted toward the different scheme. Offenses are tasked with some sorting out who’s rushing, who’s dropping and who’s just kinda hangin’ out, lurking. Fox likes offenses guessing.

The problem for the 2015 Bears is that they were doing too much of the guessing, playing Game 16 with just one defensive lineman (Will Sutton) active who had been with the team in training camp, and just Sutton and Mitch Unrein starting as linemen (plus Young and his identity crisis).

Ray McDonald didn’t work out; neither did Jeremiah Ratliff. Ego Ferguson was a 16-game rotation player as a 2014 rookie but played just four games last year before going on IR with knee surgery. Jarvis Jenkins started the first 15 games at defensive end, then was inactive for Detroit with an ankle injury.

The play of Eddie Goldman at nose tackle was a franchise-grade positive, a second-round pick who finished fourth among rookies with 4.5 sacks and establishing himself as the anchor of the defensive front.

Personnel then went after and landed massive (325 pounds) defensive end Akiem Hicks, drafted by New Orleans while Ryan Pace was Saints pro scouting director. Unrein re-signed with the Bears and Ferguson was on a rehab pace that impressed his bosses.

“This guy’s been rehabbing, working every single day, might be the most consistent performer since the season ended,” Fox said. “We’ll see. I don’t know what that means, I just know that’s a good thing.”

Sutton went from an undersized tackle on a roster bubble going into training camp to a spot starter at both end and nose tackle, and one of the keys in D-line coach Jay Rodgers’ rotation and finishing second in tackles to Goldman among defensive linemen.

Bears draft priority: High

Fox has been adamant about the need for more pass rushing, and he watched his former Denver Broncos team knock around the Carolina Panthers with pass rush — edge and interior — for a Super Bowl win. The Bears passed on costly line signings like Malik Jackson and Olivier Vernon and targeted Hicks.

But the other starting defensive end is unsettled, given the status of Ferguson in particular. Sutton and Unrein are solid but not viewed as top front-line impact forces.

The 2016 draft class has been cast as one of the best and deepest groups ever for defensive linemen. One will clearly be available at No. 11 in the first round, probably more than one.

But which one? And are the Bears looking for an end/5-techique in the Hicks (325) mold or someone akin to a Justin Smith (285) that achieved All-Pro for Vic Fangio in San Francisco? A true tackle like Alabama’s A’Shawn Robinson (315) who can work all three line spots, or a hybrid like Clemson’s Shaq Lawson (280)?

The Bears under Pace have been committed to best player available. Based on who lasts beyond the Top 10, that decision may be made partially for them.

Keep an eye on ...

Shaq Lawson, Clemson: ‘Tweener at 275 pounds who had 12.5 sacks and 25.5 TFL’s in ’15. Would need to add bulk to play 5-technique, which doesn’t always translate well. Out of the Pernell McPhee mold.

Emmanuel Ogbah, Oklahoma State: Elite-level pass rusher with 24 sacks, 34 TFL’s, PD’s over past 2 years, has size and speed to play DE or OLB.

Jarran Reed, Alabama: Shorter (6-3) than ideal but an aggressive down-lineman capable of playing multiple spots with some pocket-push.

Roy Robertson-Harris, Texas-El Paso: Willie Young-type tall (6-7, 255) pass rusher without huge numbers but possible steal in mid rounds.

A’Shawn Robinson, Alabama: Young (21) power player similar to Goldman (5.5 sacks in ’13, 3.5 in ’15) with huge upside who will only get better with NFL conditioning.

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Low

Decisions to be made on: Christian Jones (free agent), John Timu (free agent), Jonathan Anderson (free agent); Jerrell Freeman has reportedly been cut

Possible free agent targets: Demario Davis, Preston Brown, Anthony Hitchens, Avery Williamson, Navorro Bowman, Derrick Johnson

How the Bears rate Nick Kwiatkoski will be the key to figuring out what this unit will look like in 2018. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio thought Kwiatkoski finished last season strong, but strong enough to rely on him in 2018 as the starter next to Danny Trevathan?

The thing with the Bears’ inside linebackers, though: Trevathan makes whoever is playing next to him better. The problem is Trevathan hasn’t been able to stay on the field — he missed time in 2017 with a calf injury and a one-game suspension, and missed half of 2016 after rupturing his Achilles’. Trevathan hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2013, so durability is an issue for the soon-to-be 28-year-old.

So that leads to this question: Do the Bears need to find someone in free agency, regardless of how they value Kwiatkoski, who’s also missed time due to injuries in his first two years in the league?

Free agency could provide a few options. Demario Davis had a career high 97 tackles for the New York Jets last year and has never missed a game as a pro. Preston Brown had some decent production in Buffalo and also hasn’t missed a game since being drafted in 2014. Avery Williamson may not be a world-beater but has only missed one game in his four years in the NFL.

The Bears could also opt for someone who fits more of a rotational mold, like Dallas’ Anthony Hitchens, or try to lure a veteran linebacker like Navorro Bowman (who played for Vic Fangio in San Francisco) or Derrick Johnson (who Matt Nagy knows from his Kansas City days) to play next to Trevathan and/or Kwiatkoski.

The Bears could opt to keep the status quo and re-sign Christian Jones and John Timu for depth, and enter 2018 with Kwiatkoski and Trevathan as the team’s starters (Jerrell Freeman, who suffered a season-ending injury and then was hit with his second PED suspension in as many years, was cut on Tuesday). Signing a starting-caliber free agent isn’t out of the question, either, but there is a third option for the Bears if they appear to stand pat in free agency: Draft an inside linebacker in April. If that’s the route they go, Georgia’s Roquan Smith could be the guy. But again, those more pressing needs at other positions could mean the Bears don’t burn a first-round pick on an inside linebacker.

With Josh Sitton on his way out, what’s next for the Bears’ offensive line?

With Josh Sitton on his way out, what’s next for the Bears’ offensive line?

The first major move of Ryan Pace’s 2018 offseason hit on Tuesday, as NFL Network reported the Bears will not exercise Josh Sitton’s $8 million option for 2018. 

The move accomplishes two things for the Bears: 1) It frees up about $8 million in cap space and 2) Removes a veteran from the offensive line and creates a hole to fill, presumably by a younger free agent or draft pick. 

The 31-year-old Sitton signed a three-year deal with the Bears after Green Bay cut him just before the 2016 season, and was a Pro Bowler his first year in Chicago. Sitton played 26 of 32 games in two years with the Bears, but him being on the wrong side of 30 was likely the biggest factor here. If the Bears saw his skills eroding, releasing him now and netting the cap savings while going younger at the position does make sense. 

“Going younger” doesn’t guarantee the Bears will draft Notre Dame brawler Quenton Nelson, though that did become a greater possibility with Tuesday’s move. Nelson might be one of the two or three best offensive players in this year’s draft, and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand knows him well from the four years they spent together at Notre Dame. 

There’s a natural fit there, of course, but a few reasons to slow the Nelson-to-Chicago hype train: Would he even make it to No. 8? Or if he’s there, is taking a guard that high worth it when the Bears have needs at wide receiver, outside linebacker and cornerback? Still, the thought of Nelson — who absolutely dominated at Notre Dame — pairing with Hiestand again is tantalizing, and Nelson very well could step into any team’s starting lineup and be an immediate Pro Bowler as a rookie. 

If the Bears go younger in free agency, Matt Nagy knows 26-year-old guard Zach Fulton (No. 25 in Bleacher Report’s guard rankings) well from their time in Kansas City. Fulton — a Homewood-Flossmoor alum — has the flexibility to play both guard positions and center, which could open the door for Cody Whitehair to be moved to left guard, the position he was initially drafted to play (though the Bears do value him highly as a center, and keeping him at one position would benefit him as opposed to moving him around the line again). There are some other guys out there — like Tennessee’s Josh Kline or New York’s Justin Pugh — that could wind up costing more than Fulton in free agency. 

Or the Bears could look draft an offensive lineman after the first round, perhaps like Ohio State’s Billy Price, Georgia’s Isaiah Wynn or UTEP’s Will Hernandez. How the Bears evaluate guards at the NFL Combine next week will play an important role in how they go about replacing Sitton. 

The trickle-down effect of releasing Sitton will impact more than the offensive line, too. Freeing up his $8 million in cap space -- which wasn't a guarantee, unlike cutting Jerrell Freeman and, at some point, Mike Glennon -- could go toward paying Kyle Fuller, or another top cornerback, or a top wide receiver, or some combination of players at those positions (as well as outside linebacker). The Bears were already in a healthy place cap-wise; that just got healthier on Tuesday.