The Bears expect and are expected to draft the best player available when their turn comes in the third round of this draft, No. 87 before any move up or down. But that is typically always the mindset in the NFL, so no news there.
What tips picks between closely graded players is position need, or position value, to put it a slightly different way. And that is where positing the Bears’ pick becomes intriguing.
To put this also in a slightly different way, what does GM Ryan Pace think about certain positions, both in their absolute values and in terms of his own roster needs? Those become the real questions, assuming a cloud of players carry close grades from the Bears personnel staff.
Spoiler alert: Mock draft’ing with a pick in the late third round is too much of a dart throw. Instead, the conclusion here is that while Pace and the Bears could well take a running back with that first-available pick, a calculated call here is that, if players at a spectrum of positions are closely graded, the Bears will opt for:
• Cornerback, or
• offensive line
ahead of running back.
Best player available? Look well beyond RB
The Bears had a clear need at running back. The word there is “had” for a reason, because signing Mike Davis away from Seattle at least put an alternative in place, albeit on essentially a one-year contract for $3 million.
The reason for “had” is because, unless Pace is absolutely lying through his earhole, he doesn’t share the sense that running back is the must-make pick in the third round.
“I know running back's been talked about a lot, but we feel good about that position,” Pace said recently. “We feel good about Tarik [Cohen], we feel really good about Mike Davis, we feel good about Ryan Nall and we feel good about Cordarrelle Patterson and the things he can do out of the backfield… .
“We feel good about where we're at and what we have going forward.”
“Feel good about” is generally a pretty solid positive comment. Not always, but this is a team that went 12-4 with Jordan Howard accounting for 58 percent of the offensive snaps and more rushing yards and touchdowns than the combined total of the rest of the offense not including Mitchell Trubisky. So Pace can be excused for not evincing even a hint of need for a running back. Plus, Pace has never picked a running back higher than the fourth round.
Cornering the market
The Bears had designs last draft on Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward this time last year but were thwarted when the Cleveland Browns snapped him up at No. 4 in the first round, sending the Bears onto Roquan Smith. Pace and his staff knew what they were looking at in Ward, who was voted to the Pro Bowl as a rookie after intercepting 3 passes to go with 53 tackles.
But one takeaway from that was that while Ryan Pace has used exactly one of his 27 Bears draft picks on a cornerback, and that not until the 2016 fourth round, and that on a DB (Deiondre’ Hall) who was shunted to safety, he places a premium on the position. The evidence: significant veteran signings and re-signings for very significant money – Prince Amukamara, Alan Ball, Marcus Cooper, Kyle Fuller, Tracy Porter, and unsuccessful runs at A.J. Bouye and Stephon Gilmore in free agency, on top of undrafted finds in Bryce Callahan and Cre’von LeBlanc.
Pace doesn’t draft corners but it’s not for a lack of interest. He wanted Ward last year, and in 2015, Kevin White was the seventh of his eight-player cloud when his turn came at No. 7. The final player in his No. 7-worthy group was Trae Waynes, cornerback, who went No. 11 to Minnesota. Waynes would’ve been a Bears but the need at wideout, with Brandon Marshall traded away and Eddie Royal an aging slot receiver, trumped corner, which still had Fuller and Porter in place, plus Ball and Callahan behind them.
The starting offensive line is largely set, with tackles Charles Leno and Bobby Massie signed to extensions, one of those expected for Cody Whitehair and James Daniels switching positions with Whitehair and in only the second year of his rookie contract.
But Kyle Long turns 31 in December and has started just 25 of the Bears’ last 48 games. He restructured his contract in February and is out of guaranteed money after 2019, with the Bears holding an option on $6 million of salary and $2 million of roster bonus.
The Bears under Pace have selected an offensive lineman by the fifth round in each of his four drafts. As to the premium Pace places on the position group, two of the picks were second round’ers (Daniels, Whitehair), one was a ‘3’ (Hroniss Grasu) and Jordan Morgan was the fifth-round’er.
Pace secured a squad of skill-position players (wide receivers Taylor Gabriel, Anthony Miller, Allen Robinson; tight end Trey Burton) for Trubisky and coach Matt Nagy last offseason and signed Davis for the backfield. Pace has demonstrated a commitment to protecting his quarterbacks and running backs. Best guess is that he leans toward O-line over running back, all things being equal.