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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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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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?”
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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.
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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.