Bears

Ryan Pace’s history could point Bears toward WR at No. 7

kevinwhitebearsinsider.png

Ryan Pace’s history could point Bears toward WR at No. 7

Bears general manager Ryan Pace was clear on one point of franchise philosophy:

“I don’t think you can have enough good pass rushers,” he said during the NFL owners meetings. “I think Seattle is an example of that. So if the right pass rusher is there in the first round, we’ll take that.”

What Pace, himself a former college defensive end, has done in his first pass through free agency as GM has been eminently consistent with his beliefs, particularly with a defense switching to a rush-focused 3-4 scheme.

But the growing question is whether or not there in fact is an “enough,” and whether Pace and coach John Fox are preparing to strike in a direction breaking from their respective experiences in New Orleans (Pace) and Denver/Carolina/New York Giants (Fox).

That looming other “direction” is wide receiver.

[MORE: Bears say goodbye to Charles Tillman as he reunites with Ron Rivera in Carolina]

It’s both a matter of what Pace has done — cut Brandon Marshall, sign multiple pass-rush options in free agency — and what he hasn’t done — pursue a top starter-grade wideout…yet.

And there are enough trace elements of elite-receiver targeting in Pace’s background to form more than idle musing that he would go there.

Securing

Both Pace and Fox come from organizations with draft traditions deeply rooted on defense. Fox was with the New York Giants when GM’s George Young and Ernie Accorsi also went for running backs high in drafts, which Fox continued when he went to Carolina.

But consider: Pace was hired in 2001 as a Saints assistant. New Orleans selected Donte’ Stallworth with the 13th pick of the 2002 draft, Devery Henderson in the 2004 second round, Robert Meacham 27th in 2007, and Brandon Cooks with the 20th in 2014.

All wide receivers.

The Denver Broncos chose defensive players with all four of their first picks in Fox’s tenure there. And Carolina’s drafts for Fox were defense-oriented at the top.

But the New York Giants used the No. 7 pick in 1997, Fox’s first year as Giants defensive coordinator, on Florida wideout Ike Hilliard. Last year, Fox’s last in Denver, the Broncos took wideout Cody Latimer in the second round.

Past choices in drafts don’t definitively show what GMs and coaches will do in the present or future. But the patterns that Fox and Pace witnessed and were part of represent some of their experiences on how successful franchises built themselves. All of which make the trails of breadcrumbs worth studying.

Looking for the 'enough'

Pace has been good to his and Fox’s words on pass rushers in free agency. Teams frequently address what they consider their primary needs in free agency, thus giving themselves options in the draft for best-available-athletes and/or a specific job (quarterback). Pace, Fox and the Bears went aggressively after rush-linebackers but notably did not address a gaping void at wide receiver created with the release of Marshall.

[SHOP: Get the latest Bears gear here]

That solution may lie in the draft, with the Bears among those hosting a visit by West Virginia wideout Kevin White earlier this month and expected to visit with Alabama’s Amari Cooper. Both are possessed of speed found nowhere on the Bears’ current wide receiver depth chart.

Already stocking pass rushers

Coincidentally, former GM Phil Emery’s signature signings in 2014 were defensive ends for a 4-3: Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston, Willie Young. Pace has waded into his own first free agency with signings targeting pass rushers, but for a 3-4.

Pace’s acquisitions project to six new starters on defense: two-thirds of the defensive line (Jarvis Jenkins, Ray McDonald), three-fourths of the linebackers (Sam Acho, Mason Foster, Pernell McPhee) and half of the safeties (Antrel Rolle).

The cluster of linebacker transactions, combined with the stated plan to move Lamarr Houston from end back to outside linebacker, spotlighted pass rushers: Acho, McPhee, plus Houston. Houston’s return from a torn ACL makes him less than a given. But the Bears also have Allen, David Bass and Young as competition for edge-rusher spots, in addition to Jonathan Bostic and Shea McClellin competing for roster spots on the inside.

Complicating the equation (and that is in fact one of ideas behind the switch to a 3-4: becoming complicated) is that both Acho and McPhee are mobile and have rushed from inside starting points.

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

quenton-nelson.jpg
USA TODAY

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.