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Bears Draft ’19 takeaways: Redefining 'best available' and 'mortgaging the future'

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USA TODAY

Bears Draft ’19 takeaways: Redefining 'best available' and 'mortgaging the future'

The only meaningful takeaways from the 2019 draft weekend don’t even really start for at least another four months, when the regular season begins. Some believe that grading or evaluating a draft can take fully three years, others (this writer included) think it’s evident a whole lot sooner whether a, say Shea McClellin or Eddie Goldman, can or can’t play.

In any case, takeaways of other kinds are eminently possible, certainly for the Bears in just the third draft (2000, 2005) in franchise history in which they selected zero linemen, offensive or defensive. Which of course means next to nothing: In 2000 they landed Brian Urlacher and Mike Brown, and in 2005 they reached the playoffs by increasing their win total from five to 11.

But the 2019 NFL Draft has its own takeaways.

“Best available?” Not exactly

The Bears adhered to the philosophy of selecting the best player available regardless of position.

But it’s not that simple. “Best available” should in fact be defined as “best guy we can get” or “best within reasonable reach for a reasonable price.”

“Best available” has been loosely presumed to mean the best talent when the team’s draft turn comes. But the Bears have traded up for their first selection in three of the last four drafts, and in each case, not at all coincidentally, the targeted player fit a priority positional need.

In 2016 it was edge rusher Leonard Floyd. In 2017, quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. This time it was Iowa State running back David Montgomery, a move up that vaulted 14 spots (vs. up two for Floyd, up one for Trubisky).

General manager Ryan Pace said going into the draft that he liked the state of the running-back collection after the trade-away of Jordan Howard and signing of free agent Mike Davis. Maybe the “liked” reference was for the benefit of Davis, who chose Chicago in free agency.

The reality is that the Bears could’ve held still at their initial No. 87 and taken best-available at that point. But Pace and coach Matt Nagy clearly viewed running back to be much more of a need area than any pre-draft indication, which is of course the normal subterfuge/misdirection/misinformation that has become de rigueur for most teams’ pre-draft utterances, certainly for the Bears. That they traded sharply up to No. 73 for Montgomery suggested not exactly desperation but clearly that the Halas Hall draft room had a generous helping of concern that Montgomery would not still be there for them at No. 87.

Notably perhaps, the Eagles traded for Howard, then went running back in the second round with Miles Sanders. Howard is in a contract year; good luck with that.

Mortgaging the future vs. picking up the pace

The willingness of Ryan Pace to trade away draft capital has had a study in franchise management. Draft picks are the true future of football operations, and Pace has been willing to deal away two No. 1’s last September, a No. 2 last draft and two No. 3’s the draft before that. David Montgomery was the first third-round pick Pace has actually used since 2016, and he gave away a fourth-round pick (2020) to get that.

But far from giving away keys to the Bears’ future, dealing away multiple high picks for Khalil Mack, Trubisky and Anthony Miller in fact accelerated the pace getting to that future, with talents calculated to make the future the present – which effectively began happening last season. Montgomery in particular was a pick to make a 12-4 team better, not rebuild one.

Expecting immediate RB impact

Not to put any added pressure or expectations on David Montgomery, but every time in the last 20 years when the Bears invested a third or higher-round pick in a presumed No. 1 running back, their win total spiked up, often dramatically. 

Draft RB Win increase
2001 Anthony Thomas 5 in 2000, 13 in 2001
2005 Cedric Benson 5 in 2004, 11 in 2005
2008 Matt Forte   7 in 2007, 9 in 2008

(The exception was 2007 when Garrett Wolfe was selected in the third round. But Wolfe was to be a change-of-pace back from Benson, not the starter.)

Giants general manager Dave Gettleman, meet Ryan Pace…

Beyond the obvious ones in Detroit, Green Bay and Minnesota, a number of draft scenarios will have trickle-down effects on the Bears because of the schedule.

Recalling the firestorm around Ryan Pace two drafts ago when he traded up from No. 3 to No. 2 with the intention of making absolutely certain that the Bears were getting quarterback Mitchell Trubisky… .

The spirited disagreement between ESPN draft linchpins Mel Kiper and Todd McShay regarding the selection of Duke quarterback Daniel Jones by the New York Giants with the No. 6-overall pick of the first round carried some the emotions and arguing points that the Trubisky move and selection caused.

One of the debate points with Jones, as with Trubisky, was whether he in fact was worth a supremely high No. 1 pick. Trubisky had 13 starts and was clearly Pace’s target all along. Jones, like Trubisky, came from the sometimes football-suspect ACC but was clearly the target of Giants general manager Dave Gettleman.

Pace chose Trubisky ahead of highly-regardeds Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. Gettleman snapped up Jones instead of Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins, who ended up going 15th to Washington, meaning that Gettleman and the NFC East will presumably get to evaluate the Jones-vs.-Haskins call twice a year. Mahomes and Watson also went to teams (Kansas City, Houston) that traded up for them.

So one overarching Jones question is the same one Pace faced and faces with Trubisky: Did their teams get the right one?

The second question wasn’t really one, as far as Kiper was concerned, and as far as multiple NFL luminaries were concerned about Pace-Trubisky. Kiper was adamant that Gettleman was convinced that Jones was the franchise heir to Eli Manning, the Giants should absolutely not have waited until their second No. 1 at No. 17. Citing the thinking of then-Philadelphia coach Andy Reid back in 1999, when at No. 2 overall he sent Eagles fans rushing for pitchforks and torches for the choice of Donovan McNabb instead of presumed auto-pick Ricky Williams, Kiper said simply that if it’s your guy, you go get him. Period. End of story.

McShay disagreed, although it felt that he was speaking from the standpoint of Jones just not being worth that high a pick.

Pace received personal attaboys from Jon Gruden, Bill Polian, Ron Wolf, among others, for doing exactly what Reid and Kiper felt you did: Don’t risk losing the guy if you have concluded that he is THE guy. Pace wasn’t willing to risk, and did what he had to do to guarantee the Trubisky pick. Critics said that he was bidding against himself in giving so much draft capital to move up one slot, but legendary scrivener Peter King reported in his tremendous “Inside the 49ers draft room” piece for Sports Illustrated that San Francisco did indeed have another team interested in that No. 2 pick.

Pace has since been largely vindicated by both Trubisky’s emergence and by his evident draft acumen reflected by subsequent picks: Tarik Cohen, James Daniels, Eddie Jackson, Anthony Miller, Roquan Smith and others.

Gettleman GM’ed the Carolina Panthers to a Super Bowl (loss) and a 40-23-1 record and did draft running back Saquon Barkley among four rookie starters in 2018. But the Giants went 5-11 last year, the Manning situation has deteriorated and Gettleman needs Jones to be a draft hit, presumably sooner than the three years he said might be Jones’ gestation period.

Feeling old

Nice to see Mississippi wide receiver D.K. Metcalf drafted in the second round by Seattle. Metcalf is the son of former Bears guard Terrence Metcalf, selected in the third round of the 2002 draft. Yes, you feel old when the sons of players you covered when they were drafted, are drafted.

Denver hires Vic Fangio as head coach, then drafts heavy ‘O’

You could wonder if new Denver Broncos head coach Vic Fangio is looking over at football chief John Elway in the Broncos draft room and thinking, “Boss, none of this came out in the interview.”

Elway, whose Broncos host the Bears in game two, gave defense-based John Fox Hall of Fame-bound edge rusher Von Miller with the first pick of the Fox era in Denver. But perhaps because the Broncos’ offense was a lowly 24th in scoring and yardage last season, Elway went all-in for offense with three picks in the first 42, the last of those coming via trade-up to select Missouri quarterback Drew Lock.

Whether or not Elway knows what he’s doing with personnel has been open to some question, specifically regarding quarterback selections. Lock is the sixth quarterback drafted by Elway since 2011. None of Elway’s other five is still on the roster.

Since getting whatever Peyton Manning had left and reaching one Super Bowl (loss) with John Fox in 2013 and a second (win) with Gary Kubiak in 2015, Manning has saddled the franchise with a succession of quarterback failures, most recently veteran Case Keenum for 2018. This on top of five failed quarterback draft picks, all contributing mightily to a 20-28 record over the three seasons since that Super Bowl victory over Ron Rivera and the Carolina Panthers.

Elway fired Vance Joseph after last season and made former Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio the Broncos’ third head coach in four years. Apparently going either straight best-available or with confidence in Fangio’s defense, Elway went all-in for offense: Iowa tight end Noah Tant in the first round, then Kansas State tackle Dalton Risner and quarterback Drew Lock from Missouri in the second, the latter via a trade-up.

Elway may not be doing Fangio any favors. Lock represents a potential alternative to paying Joe Flacco in the $20 million’s next year. But recent high-pick/undrafted free agent Missouri quarterbacks (Blaine Gabbert, Chase Daniel) haven’t been alternatives to much of anything. 

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Another day, another reason why Bears won the Khalil Mack trade

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USA TODAY

Another day, another reason why Bears won the Khalil Mack trade

Oh, now this is a doozy.

As if it wasn't obvious enough already, the Bears absolutely won the Khalil Mack trade over the Raiders. Not only did they acquire the 2016 Defensive Player of the Year, but they did so when the rival Green Bay Packers were also interested. Based on a recent revelation from Packers president Mark Murphy, the extent to which the Bears won the trade is greater than we may have realized. 

In an interview with 105.7 The FAN, Murphy revealed a unique reason as to why the Raiders chose the Bears over the Packers.

"Well the whole Khalil Mack thing. It's not that we didn't try," Murphy said on Thursday. "We were aggressive. We wanted to sign him. I think, ironically, the Raiders took the Bears offer because they thought they would be a better draft pick."

As it turned out, the Packers had a higher first-round pick (No. 12 overall) than the Bears (No. 24) in 2019. This very well could change in 2020, but for the time being, let's get this straight.

Not only did the Bears acquire one of the best (if not the best) defensive players in football, but:

-Their trade package was highlighted by what should be two late first round picks (assuming the Bears remain a playoff team in 2019), and
-Acquiring Mack kept him out of Green Bay.

Talk about absolutely winning a deal. In the end, the Bears have a three-time All-Pro (2015-16, 2018) pash rusher entering his age 28 season. The Raiders and Packers surely cannot say the same thing.

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Why what 'Run DMC' does catching passes in training camp will be a big clue for how good the Bears' offense will be

Why what 'Run DMC' does catching passes in training camp will be a big clue for how good the Bears' offense will be


How much better Mitch Trubisky will be is the defining question for the 2019 Bears. But we won’t begin to know the answer to that question until September — it’s not something that’ll be easily discernible during training camp practices in Bourbonnais or a handful of snaps in preseason games. Those can sometimes produce false positives and false negatives.

The Bears believe in Trubiskiy, of course, and you’ll likely hear Matt Nagy and players laud their quarterback’s growth over the coming weeks. But belief is one thing; tangible production is another. And we won’t truly get to see that growth until the night of Sept. 5 at Soldier Field. 

But there are a few things to look for in Bourbonnais that could clue us in that a big-time leap is coming for No. 10. We’ll begin this mini-series leading up to the start of training camp next week with this: Better success from running backs catching passes on first down. 

It’s a narrowly specific angle, but one that carries plenty of weight. Consider this excerpt from Warren Sharp’s 2019 Football Preview:

“First down has long been perceived as a running down. In 2017, the league-wide average run-pass split on first down was 47-53. It was 50-50 last season, but that was still well below the 59-41 league-wide split on all downs. Yet passing to running backs on first down is significantly more effective.

“In 2018, there were 6,248 running back rushing attempts on first down. They averaged 4.5 yards per carry, minus-0.01 Expected Points Added per attempt, and a positive play rate of 41.3%. When teams threw to running backs on first down, they averaged 6.02 yards per target, 7.8 yards per receptions. 0.08 EPA per attempt — slightly more efficient than the average of all passes regardless of down at 0.05 EPA — and a positive play rate of 52.3%.”

The larger point here (especially if your eyes glazed over some of those numbers — which, we promise, make sense) is this: Scheming more throws to running backs on first down is an area in which almost every team in the NFL can improve. It's worth noting the Kansas City Chiefs' most effective play on first-and-long in 2018, per Sharp, was a pass to Kareem Hunt. 

And the good news is the Bears re-worked their running back room in a way that could optimize their success throwing the ball to David Montgomery, Mike Davis and Tarik Cohen on first down. 

The 2018 Bears simply didn’t have the personnel to do that regularly or successfully.

Jordan Howard was only targeted nine times on first-and-10, catching five passes for 42 yards. All nine of those targets were short throws, either to the left (two), middle (one) or right (six), and Trubisky had a passer rating of 83 on those attempts. Meanwhile, Howard carried the ball 128 times on first-and-10, averaging 3.7 yards per carry and only generating nine first downs (the NFL average for rushing attempts on first-and-10 in 2018 was 4.7 yards per carry). 

Cohen was, roughly, the inverse of Howard’s numbers: He caught 30 of 37 targets for 241 yards (6.5 yards per target) and generated seven first downs through the air, but averaged just 3.2 yards on his 46 rushing attempts with four first downs. Neither player was particularly balanced in these scenarios: Howard was mildly ineffective running the ball and not a threat catching it; Cohen was largely ineffective running the ball but was a threat catching it. 

And for the crowd who still believes Nagy wasn’t willing to establish the run: The combined rushing attempts on first-and-10 of Howard, Cohen, Benny Cunningham and Taquan Mizzell totaled 182; the combined pass attempts by Trubisky and Chase Daniel in that down-and-distance was 176, per Pro Football Reference’s play index. 

The Bears, in 2018, averaged 5.5 yards per play on first-and-10, tied for 24th in the NFL. Yet only three teams — the New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts — averaged fewer yards-to-go on third down than the Bears’ mark of 6.9. That’s a sign of Nagy’s playcalling prowess and the talent on this offense, and it’s not a stretch to argue an improvement of first-and-10 success will have a significant impact on the overall success of the Bears’ offense. 

So back to the initial point about passes to running backs in these situations: The Bears believe both Montgomery and Davis have some untapped potential as pass-catching running backs. Montgomery caught 71 passes in college at Iowa State, while Davis was targeted the most by the Seattle Seahawks in 2018 on first down (17 of 42 targets). Cohen, of course, is already an accomplished pass-catcher. 

The “Run DMC” backfield needs to have more success carrying the ball on first-and-10 than last year’s group did, of course. But if you’re in Bourbonnais or watching a preseason game, keep an eye out for how effective the Bears are at passing to their running backs — especially if those passes travel beyond the line of scrimmage (another inefficiency noted by Warren Sharp's 2019 Football Preview). 

If you start seeing Montgomery making defenders miss after catching a pass, or Davis looking fluid with the ball in his hands, or Cohen breaking off some explosive gains — those will be significant reasons to believe in Trubisky and the Bears' offense in 2019. 

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