Bears NFL Draft Preview: WR low priority barring surprises

Bears NFL Draft Preview: WR low priority barring surprises Bears Insider John "Moon" Mullin will be going position by position as the Bears approach the 2016 NFL Draft, taking a look at what the Bears have, what they might need and what draft days and after could have in store.

Bears pre-draft situation

The stress fracture sustained by Kevin White last offseason cost the Bears any contribution from what was to be a linchpin of their offense. White went on the PUP list and eventually had surgery in August after the conservative approach of healing through time and rest didn’t work.

The Bears gave strong thought to elevating him to the 53-man roster when his PUP eligibility was done but were 5-8 at that point and White, while wowing coaches and teammates in closed practices, was shelved for the remainder of the season, giving the Bears de facto two No. 1’s coming into the 2016 season.

Alshon Jeffery and the Bears were in talks for a multi-year contract through the start of free agency in early March, at which point the Bears bought some time in the form of the franchise tag. A long-term deal remains the preferred solution for both sides, but in the meantime, Jeffery has gone all-in with rigorous offseason training intended to help fortify against the kind of hugely annoying injuries (calf in preseason, then hamstring, groin, shoulder and hamstring) that limited him to nine total games — and not any of those at full strength.

Jeffery still finished with a team-high 54 catches and a solid 14.9 yards per catch with 100-plus receiving yards in four of his eight starts. His combined production of averaging nearly five catches (4.94) per game over four seasons — albeit with 12 games missed in that time — has him in the “consistency” discussion with A.J. Green (5.46), Demaryius Thomas (5.36) and Dez Bryant (4.90), if a little short of Julio Jones (6.37) — all first-round draft picks.

The Bears got less than expected from Eddie Royal, primarily because Royal, because of injuries, was thrust into starting nine games, none as the slot receiver he was signed to be. Eventually he broke down, going inactive three different times with different health issues.

Marquess Wilson remains a roster option but has yet to establish himself as a starting NFL wideout and finished last season on IR with a foot injury and has never played more than 11 games in any of three Bears seasons.

Marc Mariani was re-signed and is a comfortable target for Jay Cutler, with catches in nine of his last 10 games after working into the receiver rotation mid-season amid injuries elsewhere. Mariani started five games in addition to punt-return duties. Josh Bellamy was one of the Bears’ best special-teamers and earned a one-year tender offer for his efforts, which included 19 pass receptions and three starts.

Bears draft priority: Low

The Bears have met with multiple wideouts throughout this offseason, though investing anything before the fourth round would likely only happen if a premier talent surprisingly slipped down draft boards.

The franchise tag on Jeffery and debut of White give the Bears a young, talented tandem at the edges. Add in a better situation for Royal (turning 30 in May) as a No. 3 rather than a starter, and it gives the Bears the top three they envisioned after the draft last year.

But the Bears were done in on offense in no small measure because of the drumbeat of injuries to Jeffery and Royal, which gave opportunities to Wilson but also revealed his limitations and those of Bellamy and Mariani as impact receivers. The Bears used the No. 7 pick last draft on White, whom they had very highly graded, and need his presence to stretch the field for an offense that will throw but wants to tilt even more toward John Fox’s template of a run-based approach.

Barring an unexpected fall by a top talent this year, few expect the Bears to look at wide receiver early, given the focus on defense and offensive line. But at some point the organization will shore up the receiver depth chart from its too-thin state.

Keep an eye on ...

gems surprisingly falling out of the first round and early draft rounds entirely.

Chris Brown, Notre Dame: Attractive size (6-foot-2) and showed steady improvement over four seasons but needs to add 20 pounds.

Michael Thomas, Ohio State: Led the Buckeyes the last two years with 110 total receptions and 18 touchdowns. Good physical receiver at 6-foot-3, 210 pounds. Redshirt junior with upside.

Laquon Treadwell, Mississippi: Would have to go into freefall to reach second round. Consistent, huge production (202 receptions) despite severe leg/ankle injuries in 2014.

For Bears drafting at No. 8, the 'problem' with Notre Dame G Quenton Nelson is...


For Bears drafting at No. 8, the 'problem' with Notre Dame G Quenton Nelson is...

In the aptly-named mock drafts to this point, this reporter has posited the Bears selecting Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson. That’s not the complete story, however. There’s a “problem.”

The landscape: The Bears currently sit at No. 8 overall; Nelson is rated among the best prospects, regardless of position, in the 2018; Nelson is the consensus top offensive lineman in this draft; the Bears have an immediate need on the interior of their offensive line (at guard or center, depending upon where where the new coaching staff slots Cody Whitehair); and among the prime directives for GM Ryan Pace is the protection of franchise quarterback Mitch Trubisky.

And full disclosure: This reporter does see Nelson to the Bears, just not at No. 8, and presumably if the Bears do not address the post-Josh Sitton situation in free agency.

But there’s a problem. A couple, actually, and having nothing to do specifically with Nelson.

The “problem” centers (no pun intended) around his position: Guard.

Guards do not typically come off the board within the first 10 picks of drafts. Worse for guards, when they do, they don’t work out well. In the last five drafts, only two guards were selected within the first 10 picks, both in the 2013 draft, both (Jonathan Cooper, No. 7; Chance Warmack, No. 10) already undistinguished and both already on their second teams.

Great guards are indeed to be found in first rounds. But relevant NFL history says that they do not come early. Selectively, to wit:

Player Drafted Year
David DeCastro 24 2012
Alan Faneca* 26 1998
Steve Hutchinson* 17 2001
Kyle Long 20 2013
Zack Martin 16 2014

* 2017 Hall of Fame semifinalist

Meaning: Assuming the Bears do not spend starter money in free agency on the like of Andrew Norwell, Justin Pugh, Zach Fulton or (insert UFA name here). Parenthetically on the draft-value aspect of good guards, Norwell was undrafted, Pugh was the 2013 pick just ahead Long, as a tackle, and Fulton was a sixth-rounder.

Pace predilections: “stat” players

Pace is in desperate need of impact players in both the draft and free agency. A guard is simply not in the “impact” vein as Pace’s first three No. 1 draft picks, all top-10’ers and all with something in common that a guard does not bring: stats.

Stats themselves aren’t the point, and an elite offensive lineman contributes to the stats of everyone else on his unit. But 2015 No. 1 Kevin White is a wide receiver; they catch passes and score touchdowns. Pace’s 2016 No. 1 was a rush-linebacker who generates sacks; Leonard Floyd. And 2017 No. 1 was Mitch Trubisky. All players with the potential for producing major-impact, game-changing stat plays.

Conversely, Pace’s New Orleans touchstone was an offensive line that protected Drew Brees with mid-rounders Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks at guard, and no offensive lineman drafted higher than the second round (Jon Stinchcomb).

Best guess, too, is that new head coach Matt Nagy, who’ll obviously be an intimate part of the draft process, will not be pounding the table for a guard, or perhaps for any offensive lineman with that first first-round pick of his tenure. The Kansas City Chiefs got just a so-so starting tackle (Eric Fisher) with the No. 1-overall pick of the 2013 draft while Nagy was there. And the very good Philadelphia Eagles teams took exactly one offensive lineman higher than the fourth round during Nagy’s years there (2008-12) with Andy Reid – and that pick was a guard (Danny Watkins) picked at No. 23, and who was a bust.

Conclusion: If Nelson is far, far and away the highest-graded player on the Bears’ draft board, Pace will make that move – if, and only if, Pace cannot trade down and add the picks that every GM craves as part of franchise-building, which is where the Pace-Nagy administration stands.

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive backs

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive backs

2017 grade: B-

Level of need: High

Decisions to be made on: Kyle Fuller (free agent), Prince Amukamara (free agent), Marcus Cooper (contract), Sherrick McManis (free agent), Bryce Callahan (restricted free agent), Quintin Demps (contract)

Possible free agent targets: Trumaine Johnson, Malcolm Butler, Bashaud Breeland, E.J. Gaines, Rashaad Melvin, Robert McClain, Darrelle Revis

There’s a wide spectrum of scenarios for the Bears at cornerback, ranging from keeping the status quo to blowing the whole thing up, and everything in between. Safety is far more stable, with Adrian Amos and Eddie Jackson proving to be a reliable pairing, so that’s set for 2018.

Let’s start with one end of that cornerback spectrum: The Bears keep the top of this unit intact. That means, No. 1, retaining Kyle Fuller via the franchise tag and/or a long-term contract. No. 2, it means bringing back Prince Amukamara, who didn’t record an interception and committed a few too many penalties, but otherwise was a fine enough cover corner. No. 3, it means keeping restricted free agent Bryce Callahan as the team’s No. 1 slot corner.

On paper, this doesn’t seem like an altogether bad option. The Bears weren’t spectacular at cornerback in 2017, but the position was a little better than average, which isn’t the worst place to be for a single unit. Couple with solid play from the safeties and the Bears’ defensive backs were overall a decent enough group. Outside of Marcus Cooper -- who is a candidate to be cut for cap savings -- the Bears may not need to make wholesale changes to this group.

That, though, is a rosier look at this unit. The Bears can certainly improve the personnel in it with a healthy amount of cap space and a strong crop of free agent cornerbacks about to hit the market. Keeping Fuller and then signing a top-tier player like Trumaine Johnson or Malcolm Butler would upgrade this group, as would bringing back Fuller and Amukamara but then using a high draft pick on a player like Ohio State’s Denzel Ward.

Unless the Bears sign two big-time cornerbacks -- i.e. Fuller and Johnson, or even a guy like Brashaud Breeland or E.J. Gaines -- it would seem reasonable for them to use a first or second-round pick on a cornerback in an effort to find a longer-term solution at the position. That doesn’t mean the Bears would absolutely have to go that route, especially with other needs at wide receiver, guard and outside linebacker.

But here’s another thought: It’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Bears are able to sign a combination of two top cornerbacks in free agency. With plenty of cap space top-end free agents lacking at wide receiver and outside linebacker/edge rusher, could Pace allocate a good chunk of that money to, say, tagging Fuller and making runs at Johnson, Butler and/or Breeland? 2018 looks to be a good year to be aggressive in the free agent cornerback market, and that could play into the Bears’ strategy well.

Before we finish, we should carve out some space for Amos and Jackson. Pro Football Focus isn’t the only outlet that’s given Amos high marks -- Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 ranked him as the No. 1 free safety in the league, too. Jackson came in at No. 19 in B/R’s strong safety rankings, which is pretty solid for a fourth-round rookie.

But the larger point here isn’t exactly where Amos and Jackson are in outside evaluations -- it’s that, tangibly, the pair played well off each other on a consistent basis last year. Seeing as Amos didn’t enter the Bears’ starting lineup until Week 4 -- after Quintin Demps suffered a season-ending broken forearm against Pittsburgh -- how quickly and successfully he and Jackson meshed was one of the more impressive developments for the Bears’ 2017 defense. Amos needs to make more plays on the ball and Jackson has some things to clean up, but the Bears enter the 2018 league year not needing to address their safety position. That’s a good place to be for a team with other significant needs.