Bears

Three 'LB or OL?' decision points for Bears' pick at No. 8 overall

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AP

Three 'LB or OL?' decision points for Bears' pick at No. 8 overall

Much more is going on this week at Halas Hall besides just the introductory minicamp under coach Matt Nagy, where evaluations are obviously part of the days’ (and after-hours’) activities. But those evaluations are preliminary. The ones going on upstairs in the offices of GM Ryan Pace’s draft staffers are far from preliminary at this point of eight days before the draft.

What makes the two evaluation processes kind of interesting is that, while they will be noting weaknesses where they exist, Nagy and his coaching staff are working to find what particular players do well. But the draft staffers are doing something in the other difference, that of looking for negatives, for reasons why NOT to draft someone high, or at all, for that matter.

This is the final-approach period of the draft in which the shortcomings are highlighted, whether a character question, a red flag in the medicals, a doubt about matchup potential at the NFL, anything that’s “wrong” with a prospect that drops him on the draft board. The board has been set for some time but it is nothing if not fluid. It’s why a player like UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen is reportedly sliding on draft boards even without throwing a workout pass or answering an interview question. Teams start looking back at his two concussions last season and a shoulder injury the year before, and suddenly...

But it’s not simply a matter of now the prospect with the fewest negatives sees his draft stock rise. More than specific negatives or positives factor into the Bears’ fourth top-10 pick in as many years.

For illustration purposes, “View from the Moon” will superimpose on three elite prospects – Virginia Tech linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson, Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith – the three big-picture drivers behind a pick at the Bears’ level (No. 8), with both players widely regarded as top-10 talents:

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Grade

In a universe where “best player available” is an annual mantra, the player with the higher grade has his name written on the card taken up to the Commissioner next Thursday evening. Teams do draft boards for a reason and the smart ones stay with the ratings they’ve taken months to arrive at, and which have survived this week’s pick-pick-pick-pick at prospects’ possible flaws.

Using NFL.com’s ratings as an apples-to-apples standard:

Nelson — 7.34 (No. 2 overall behind RB Saquon Barkley)

Edmunds — 7.17 (No. 4, after Barkley, Nelson, DE Bradley Chubb)

Smith — 6.74 (No. 6; QB Sam Darnold slips in ahead of him).

Smith loses points because of size (6-1, 236 pounds), not production (20 QB hurries, 6.5 sacks in ’17). But his grade equates to “Chance to become a Pro Bowl-caliber player,” vs. “Pro Bowl-caliber player” (no “chance to”) for Edmunds, at 6-5, 253. The 40-times are nearly identical, but while Edmunds did not have Smith’s production, he also plays at 4 inches and nearly 20 pounds bigger.

Nelson carries the “Pro Bowl caliber” player evaluation and is the consensus No. 1 or No. 2 player in the entire draft.

Advantage (slight): Nelson

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Need

When grades are close, the tiebreaker is typically the positional need. All things being close to equal, which player fills an immediate and significant need?

The Bears committed this offseason to building around quarterback Mitch Trubisky. They got him new coaching, new receivers and are even rebuilding portions of Halas Hall (not for just him, of course). They also signed guard Earl Watford into an interior mix that also includes Eric Kush and Kyle Long, together with Cody Whitehair, whose center-or-guard assignment has become a rite of spring and summer.

But Kush is coming off a hamstring injury that ended his 2017 season in training camp. Long is still coming back from ankle, neck and shoulder surgeries over the past couple years, and a one-time Pro Bowl automatic is now setting goals of just being healthy first.

So the need at guard is high, based on the pall of injury uncertainty that has settled over the group. And there is always a “need” for the kind of elite talent Nelson is projected to be, particularly in front of a franchise quarterback-in-progress.

The Bears have had nearly as bad luck at linebacker, the defining position group in a 3-4 scheme like Vic Fangio’s. Danny Trevathan has missed more than one-third (11) of the games since the Bears signed him. Nick Kwiatkoski has missed seven games since the Bears drafted him in 2016. And Pernell McPhee and Willie Young were let go because of recurring injury issues.

McPhee and Young, along with the presumed not re-signing of Lamarr Houston, took the bulk of the Bears’ pass rush with them. Aaron Lynch was signed as a reclamation project from Fangio’s time in San Francisco and realistically is found-money if he returns to top form.

The need for pass rush, particularly from the edges, is dire, arguably more than the need for help in the interior offensive line. Edmunds had 10 sacks over his last two Va Tech seasons; Smith, nearly identical in size to Trevathan, had 6.5 last season, plus 20 QB hurries and 20.5 tackles for loss.

“The question is, do you help your quarterback,” ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper said via conference call on Wednesday, “or do you go a defensive centerpiece for the next 10 years?”

Advantage: Edmunds/Smith

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Position value

This one is something of a tipping point, at least in a case of choosing between an impact player on defense and a foundation player for offense.

Some context: Last year, Jamal Adams was the No. 2 or 3 player in the pre-draft rankings, depending on the source. Yet he fell to No. 6. Mitch Trubisky was ranked well below Adams, yet went No. 2. Solomon Thomas was ranked below Adams; Thomas went No. 3.

The reason, perhaps oversimplifying for illustrative purposes, was position. Adams is a safety; Trubisky is a quarterback and Thomas is an edge rusher, two of the positions in football that command a premium; safety is not one of those.

Fast-forwarding to 2018: Neither is guard.

A pass-rushing linebacker will command a premium on draft boards. And at pay windows: Using Sportrac numbers for comparisons, 12 outside linebackers and 10 defensive ends command salaries of $10 million or higher. Seven guards are in that rarified contract air. (Now, if Nelson wants to move out to tackle, 13 of those are in the 10-Mill Club).

Point being: An impact linebacker gets the tiebreaker over a guard, all things being close to equal.

Advantage: Edmunds/Smith

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Edmunds/Smith tiebreaker

Two out of three drivers shade the Bears toward someone who can harass quarterbacks and run down backs over someone who protects them. But the Bears aren’t going to draft both Edmunds and Smith. The one-spot mock draft here has the Bears selecting:

Roquan Smith, linebacker, University of Georgia

The reason is production, and adaptability to pair with either Kwiatkoski or Trevathan in the Bears’ 3-4 and working either in the middle or on the weak side when the defense goes 4-3 for nickel, which it does as much as half of the time. Smith calls to mind Lance Briggs.

“If you protect him and give him room, I think he has exceptional range,” said ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay. “In today’s NFL, he’s a perfect fit – speed, an outstanding tackler, and he can operate in coverage.

“He’s not going to last long on draft night.”

The guess here is that he won’t last past No. 8.

Welcome home: Devin Hester, Matt Forte will retire as Bears

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AP

Welcome home: Devin Hester, Matt Forte will retire as Bears

There’s no place like home. 

On Wednesday, the Bears announced that former players Devin Hester and Matt Forte will sign one-day contracts with the team on April 23 to retire as members of the Bears organization. 

Both Hester and Forte spent their first eight seasons playing football for Chicago, and their legacy will now be retired in orange and navy.

Hester, a Bear from 2006-13, starting setting records his rookie season by recording five touchdown returns and earning Pro Bowl honors while helping the Bears reach Super Bowl XLI, all in his first year.

In one of his most memorable plays as a Bear, Hester ran back a 92-yard kick return touchdown to start Super Bowl XLI not even 20 seconds into the matchup vs. the Indianapolis Colts.

One more time for old time’s sake:

In his overall career with the Bears, Hester set franchise records for punt returns (264), punt return touchdowns (13), punt return touchdowns in a season (4), kickoff returns (222), kickoff return yards (5,504) and kickoff return touchdowns in a single game (2). Over his 11-year career, he’s totaled 20 return touchdowns total — the most in NFL history.
 
Forte, known as one of the best dual-threat backs in Bears history, also had a breakout rookie season to kickoff his time with the Bears. He recorded 63 receptions, 1,238 total rushing yards and 8 rushing touchdowns.

The two-time Pro Bowler also set a single-season record by notching 102 receptions in 2014. This allowed him to be only one of three running backs in NFL history to record 100+ receptions in a single season. 

Collectively with the Bears, Forte ran for 8,602 yards and 45 touchdowns while also adding racking up 4,116 receiving yards and receiving 19 touchdowns. 

His 2,035 rushing attempts and 8,602 rushing yards each rank second all-time by running back in Bears history and 11th overall in the NFL. 

Welcome home, Devin and Matt. It's good to have you back. 

Bears' first impressions of head coach Matt Nagy: 'Detailed' and 'he's learning'

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USA TODAY

Bears' first impressions of head coach Matt Nagy: 'Detailed' and 'he's learning'

When Marc Trestman convened his very first meeting as Bears head coach in 2013, he proceeded to alienate critically important veterans with a number of rules and declarations that left Lance Briggs, Julius Peppers and others with what would be a lasting impression that this first-time NFL head coach was bordering on clueless. The perception became reality.

Matt Nagy brings his own set of rules, peccadillos, quirks, whatever you want to call them: tucking your shirt in, no footballs on the ground, no helmets laying on the ground, running from drill to drill, or a fast jog. Nagy has his talking points on 3x5 note cards, which John Fox likely didn’t need. But if there were eye-rolls by some seasoned vets (sartorial excellence being less important than whether you’re in the correct gap), knowing that Nagy comes from the highly successful Andy Reid coaching family likely gets rookie-coach Nagy some slack.

But an early takeaway is that he doesn’t need a lot.

Where the mood of veterans after the Trestman startup was clear from the damning-with-faint-praise reactions, that didn’t appear to be the case now. Akiem Hicks, now one of the senior leaders on a young team, was impressed. That matters. And it matters that Hicks has seen a trait in Nagy that every player learns and needs to be at the NFL level.

“’Detailed,’” Hicks said on Tuesday. “That was my first impression of Nagy. Just very obsessive about being detailed and having us be detailed. And watching his morning meetings, you always get a good feel for a coach with how he addresses the entire team, and he makes sure he hits all his points, he has his cue cards out and making sure that he gets everybody in line and knowing what we’ve got for the day and stuff like that. He’s very — I wouldn’t say OCD, yet, but he’s very detailed… . 

“I'm a people reader, so my first thing was seeing the cue cards, like seeing the cards is like, 'OK, I'm not going to miss anything in this meeting,' you know what I mean? I think that's the attentiveness it takes to make sure that you go over everything that we have for the rest of OTAs and the morning meeting, it's probably strenuous. I think that was the best example of him being detailed to me.”

Of course, what’s actually ON those cards is the more important point. But Nagy has the keys to the kingdom right now so if there’s any pushback (there was no mention of a Trestman-like directive that everyone should sit with someone different every day at lunch for a bit of kumbaya getting-to-know-you), it’ll be muted in a culture where you do things the head coach’s way or you’ll hit the highway. Most of those player types, though, were weeded out over the Fox and GM Ryan Pace years so far. Nagy is taking over a team that may not have won, but isn’t infected with true losers.

Change is inevitable, big and little, and all worth watching.

The changes to the offense likely will stand out if only because of virtually all new coaches, and ranging from schemes and personnel packages to defensive lineman Rashaad Coward moving to offense (somewhere Mark Bortz and Big Cat Williams are smiling).

The changes to the defense will be lesser if only because that was part of the whole point with retaining Vic Fangio as coordinator and his staff. Nagy knows what he’s got.

“Here’s a guy [Fangio]with a lot of experience where I’m able to say, ‘Hey, listen, take these guys, do your thing,’” Nagy said. “I’ll oversee. I’ll help where I can. But for this start right now, where we’re at as a team and for me in my role with this offense, trying to oversee everything, it’s invaluable to have Vic on that end.”

(Not sure that Mike Ditka said that about Buddy Ryan when Ditka took over, but hey…. Besides, George Halas mandated that Buddy stayed.)

It’s all easy now, lotta feel-good, fresh start, all that. But you can tell things by what’s said and what’s not said by players even at this point. The media love fest is underway just loving what’s right now the anti-Fox, but none of that matters even a little. What does matter is whether players take to him as someone and whose assistants are about making them better and winning.

“[Nagy] is going to have fun,” said running back Jordan Howard. “He’s going to joke around and stuff but at times he’s going to be serious and stuff. He’s always on offense. You asked Akiem, [Nagy] is always on offense but he has to go to the defense as well because that is new for him.

“But he’s learning.”

A rookie head coach who’s impressed his players that he’s learning, rather than knowing it all. That would be a good thing.