NFL Draft

Bears enjoying consistency on defense, but reinforcements are coming via NFL Draft

1-18vicfangio.jpg
AP

Bears enjoying consistency on defense, but reinforcements are coming via NFL Draft

The Bears’ defense not only retained its entire coaching staff from 2017, but it also has, for now, only one new player in a significant role (outside linebacker Aaron Lynch). And there’s a benefit to that, as Akiem Hicks explained on Tuesday. 

“I like to see the same faces and have that camaraderie already built up with the guys and you just have to bring that together and do it even better,” Hicks said. “But it’s inevitable, there’s going to be change. Guys are going to come in and they have to assimilate and make our defense better.”

The “inevitable” thing Hicks referred to is the Bears adding players to Vic Fangio’s defense through the draft. The Bears invested in their defense this offseason, but mostly in keeping together their cornerback tandem of Kyle Fuller (four years, $56 million) and Prince Amukamara (three years, $27 million). And while this defense can claim itself as a “top 10” group last year, that’s by two measures: scoring defense (20 points/game, ninth) and total defense (319 yards/game, 10th). More advanced metrics, like Football Outsiders’ DVOA, ranked the Bears somewhere in the middle of the NFL defensively. 

Whatever defensive metric is used to evaluate the 2017 Bears, though, this point still stands: If the Bears had a truly great defense, they would’ve won more than five games. This group needs to unearth more playmakers — Hicks tabbed Leonard Floyd as someone ready to break out — and the best chance of finding one at this stage is through the draft. 

That doesn’t necessarily mean the Bears will use the No. 8 pick on a defensive player — if Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson is still on the board, he could be the guy — but it does mean Ryan Pace will have to target defensive players with plenty of his selections next week. Adding at least one more edge rusher looks like a red-line need, while the Bears could view someone like Georgia’s Roquan Smith or Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds as an upgrade at inside linebacker (Edmunds, too, could be flipped to play outside linebacker). Or maybe versatile Alabama defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick is the guy with at No. 8. 

Someone like LSU edge rusher Arden Key could perhaps be a Day 2 guy; the Bears found their current starting safety pairing with picks in the fourth (Eddie Jackson) and fifth (Adrian Amos) rounds. Nick Kwiatkoski, who's in line to start next to Danny Trevathan at inside linebacker provided the Bears don't draft his replacement, was a fourth-round pick in 2016. 

But the way Hicks sees it, the real improvement in the Bears’ defense is going to have to come from the players who are already in the building. 

“Just us being more tailored to the personnel that we have, I think that's going to be a huge benefit,” Hicks said. “Guys like myself going into our third year in the defense, me, Danny, other guys on the defense, Floyd, just guys that you've seen it once, you saw it again and now I think we're going to be just a little bit better.”

Still, combining those improvements with a couple of contributors found through the draft would appear to be the most likely way for the Bears’ defense to go from solid to good, or good to great — depending on how you evaluate what they did in 2017. 

“I think our defense has a good foundation and just keep building on that and getting better,” Hicks said. “Top 10 last year, looking for top five.” 

Five wide receivers the Bears could draft to replace Cameron Meredith

Five wide receivers the Bears could draft to replace Cameron Meredith

We’ll get a chance to hear Ryan Pace’s explanation as to why he didn’t match the New Orleans Saints’ offers sheet for Cameron Meredith later this month, a few days before the NFL Draft begins. Whatever the reasoning — medicals, scheme fit, money, etc. — the Bears now have a need for a receiver that, previously, wasn’t as pressing. 

The Bears are still fourth in the NFL in wide receiver spending and shelled out eight-figure contracts to Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel. Those two players should be viewed as the team’s top receivers, with whoever else is brought in (via the draft or free agency) as the team’s No. 3 receiver, at best. 

What the Bears want out of that guy receiver depends on a few things. Should he be a bigger, stronger outside-only guy? Should he be a diminutive, shifty slot-only receiver? Or should he be able to play both inside and outside? 

Meredith has the ability to play both inside and outside, though if the Bears really were concerned enough with his medicals to let him go for less guaranteed money than they paid Markus Wheaton, that decision doesn’t offer much in the way of a clue as to scheme fit. 

Maybe a better starting point is looking at what the Bears already have at receiver. Robinson and Kevin White are mostly outside receivers: A little under 20 percent of Robinson’s career routes have been from the slot; for White, he’s run a little over 20 percent of his routes from the slot, according to Pro Football Focus. Josh Bellamy is right around the same percentage, too. 

And here’s where it’s worth noting the “Zebra” receiver position, where Gabriel will play, isn’t exclusively a slot position. Far from it: Only 36 percent of Tyreek Hill’s routes were from the slot in Nagy’s Kansas City Chiefs offense last year, while Gabriel actually ran a lower percentage of routes from the slot with the Atlanta Falcons than Robinson, White and Bellamy (he was at 15 percent in 2017). It’s a flexible position designed to create mismatches all over the field, even with a 5-foot-8 guy like Gabriel. 

The point being: The Bears probably need more of an Albert Wilson-type player than they do a bigger go-up-and-get-it guy, since they already have him in Robinson and, if healthy, White. But Wilson hardly was “only” a slot guy for the Chiefs last year, too —  58 percent of his routes came from the slot, per Pro Football Focus. 

This is a longer way of saying the Bears need someone who can be flexible to play outside and in the slot. More than likely, the Bears primary “slot” guy will be tight end Trey Burton, with Gabriel and Tarik Cohen pitching in there. 

So where does this leave the Bears if they indeed wind up drafting a receiver? They have a few options:

Anthony Miller, Memphis

Miller was hugely productive as a senior for the Tigers last year, catching 96 passes for 1,462 yards with 18 touchdowns while splitting time between the slot and outside. Those weren’t one-year wonder numbers, either: As a junior, Miller had 95 catches for 1,434 yards with 14 touchdowns. 

NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein projects the 5-foot-11, 190 pound Miller as a second or third round prospect, and crucially, the report on him is that he’s already a solid route runner. The biggest knock on his game is a few too many dropped passes, which shouldn’t be overlooked, and he may not carry with him a second-round grade. With the Bears not having a third-round pick, though, they may wind up over-drafting him or hoping he’s still on the board in the fourth round. 

James Washington, Oklahoma State

Like Miller, Washington is another hugely productive collegiate receiver with the ability to play both the slot and outside. At 6-foot, 205 pounds, he’s an explosive threat with big-play ability, but perhaps isn’t as good a route runner as Miller or some of the other prospects in this class (which could be the product of him playing in the defense-barren Big 12 for a high-octane spread offense at Oklahoma State). 

Washington, though, stood out at the Senior Bowl back in January. If he’s available when the Bears’ second-round pick comes around — which may not be the case — he’d seemingly be a good fit for what Nagy and Pace are looking for. 

D.J. Moore, Maryland

At 6-foot, 210 pounds, Moore fits the profile of an inside/outside guy and is viewed as a potential Day 1 prospect. That may make him too rich for the Bears’ liking — especially if they stay at No. 8 — but could make him an option in a trade-down or Day 2 scenario. 

Like Washington, he has some route-running questions, but his speed, quickness and athleticism make him an intriguing player if the Bears want to go with a receiver with one of their first two picks. 

Cedrick Wilson, Boise State

The 6-foot-3, 188 pounder is built more like Meredith, but if the Bears want to address that position through a mid-round pick, they could do worse than Wilson. He may not have the physical and athletic profile of Day 1 and 2 guys, but NFL.com describes him as a “nuanced route runner,” which should help his adjustment to the league. For what it’s worth, Pro Football Focus ranks him as the sixth-best receiver in this draft class, ahead of bigger names like Equanimeous St. Brown and Christian Kirk. 

Christian Kirk, Texas A&M

While Pro Football Focus indeed ranks Kirk only 10th among draft-eligible receivers, he’s the guy who could most fit the profile or being a better Albert Wilson. To wit: Wilson is 5-foot-9, 200 pounds; Kirk is 5-foot-10, 200 pounds. Wilson is regarded as a savvy route-runner who knows how to get open; Kirk flashed the traits in college to be the same at the NFL level. 

The issue with Kirk is that he’s more of a projection as an outside guy, having almost exclusively played out of the slot at Texas A&M. He’s another Day 1 trade-down possibility, or someone the Bears could grab on Day 2 if he’s still on the board. 

For Bears, ‘best available’ vs. ‘need’ presents interesting questions in NFL Draft

For Bears, ‘best available’ vs. ‘need’ presents interesting questions in NFL Draft

ORLANDO — We’re one month and one day from the beginning of the 2018 NFL Draft, during which the Bears will have one final shot at filling out the remaining pressing needs on their roster. After Ryan Pace took care of the offensive side of the ball immediately upon the start of free agency, and spent tens of million dollars to keep Prince Amukamara and Kyle Fuller, there are two clear needs remaining for this team: A pass rusher and an interior offensive lineman. 

Take what Pace said after signing two wide receivers, a tight end and a backup quarterback earlier this month, when asked if it’s easier to target a “need” in free agency than in the draft:

“I think so,” Pace said. “You can fill some of that and it allows you to take the best player available in the draft.”

But there’s still an interesting thought as Pace and the Bears begin putting in long hours over the next month to build their draft board: Do the Bears draft their biggest “need” at No. 8, or do they take the best player available?

Ideally, those two categories would mesh together. That could happen if Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson falls to No. 8, and the Bears pull the trigger on someone who could be a perennial Pro Bowler for a decade. But if Nelson is off the board, or the Bears don’t want to take an interior lineman with a top-10 pick — which is historically a rarity — then that presents this question:

Draft a player at a position that isn’t necessarily a “need,” or draft an edge rusher who may not be worthy of a top-10 pick?

Alabama safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, if he were to fall to No. 8, would be the ultimate “best player available” kind of guy, even with the Bears having a solid back-end tandem of Eddie Jackson and Adrian Amos. Fitzpatrick is a natural playmaker who could immediately be an upgrade as a slot defender with the possibility he slides to safety in 2019, if the Bears were to move on from Amos, who’s in the final year of his rookie contract. But for a defense that has plenty of good, not great players, adding a potentially great player in Fitzpatrick would make sense. 

Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward could be seen as the best player available, but the Bears don’t have a natural “out” on Amukamara or Fuller until after the 2019 season, when Amukamara could be released with only $1 million in dead cap to his name, according to Spotrac. Cornerback could be a position where the lack of “need” supersedes the need for a “best player available,” in that regard. 

So that brings us to two inside linebackers: Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds and Georgia’s Roquan Smith. Both stand out on tape, with Edmunds the more raw talent while Smith looking like someone who could naturally step in as a solid Day 1 starter. The debate there is that Smith is probably “only” an inside linebacker, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing given the emphasis put on that position in Vic Fangio’s 3-4 defense. Pairing him with Danny Trevathan could be an enticing prospect, allowing Nick Kwiatkoski to remain as a solid reserve with the ability to step into the lineup — an important role given Trevathan hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2013. 

Edmunds, though, could have the ability to be an edge rushing outside linebacker, with the emphasis on “could.” He’ll turn 20 week after the draft, and has the athletic profile of one of those guys teams want to get in their building to develop. NFL.com’s comparison for him is Brian Urlacher, so it could be as if he didn’t work out as an edge rusher he may be a long, long, long-term solution at inside linebacker. Both John “Moon” Mullin and myself had the Bears taking him in our latest mock drafts, for what it’s worth

The Bears may have to reach if they want a pure edge rusher, like UTSA’s Marcus Davenport or Boston College’s Harold Landry. NFL.com’s trio of mock drafts have Davenport either as the 14th of 16th overall pick; Landry is mocked as an early 20’s pick. Either could be in play if the Bears trade down, but if they aren’t able to or don’t want to, it seems unlikely Pace will take a pure edge rusher at No. 8. Signing Aaron Lynch to a one-year prove-it deal prsents some upside, but the Bears will have to draft another edge rusher at some point. That could be better suited for the second/fourth/fifth rounds. 

Pace will trade Halas Hall for the warm, sunny weather in Orlando for this week’s annual league meetings, but make no mistake, building that draft board is his No. 1 priority. Perhaps the Bears ultimately settle on an evaluation of an edge rusher better than those outside the war room in Lake Forest. But if they don’t over these long hours of pouring over film, medicals and interviews, “best player available” may not equal “need” when the Bears are on the clock on April 26.