The Bears last year traded away their first- and second-round picks for Khalil Mack and Anthony Miller, respectively. One effect of Pace’s dealing is a ratcheting down of at least the public buzz around their ’19 draft after four straight years of picks in the top nine of the first round.
Because the harsh lessons of an analogous situation exactly 10 years ago should serve as a stern warning that this starting-with-round-3 draft for the pick-lite Bears carries with it a tipping point for a team now, as it did back in 2009, that wants to think itself on the brink of being a real part of annual discussion of potential Super Bowl threats.
Some assumptions and a conclusion
First, several core assumptions, pointing to a critical conclusion regarding the Bears’ future and their abbreviated draft coming up in three weeks:
One, the Bears are not good enough for a seat at the Super Bowl table. Twelve wins in 2018 represent the second-biggest jump in victories from one season to the following one in franchise history. But they lost two of their three games against playoff teams (New England L; Rams W; Philadelphia L). They are what their record says they were/are.
Two, free agency to date has improved the Bears in some places (safety), left them about the same in others (slot corner), not as good elsewhere (running back). Net: not conclusively closer to elite.
Three, “You’re either getting worse or you’re getting better.” That’s from Matt Nagy and Ryan Pace.
Four, the Bears have reached their present upwardly mobile condition largely through draft hits. Last season’s veteran acquisitions notwithstanding, their core – Tarik Cohen, James Daniels, Leonard Floyd, Kyle Fuller, Eddie Jackson, Charles Leno, Kyle Long, Anthony Miller, Roquan Smith, Mitchell Trubisky, Cody Whitehair – was built through the draft.
The conclusion: The Bears need to be materially better to take a smaller-than-last-year but more difficult step up. Some will come through the offense being in a second Nagy year, some through player improvement.
And some of that “better” needs to come from the limited draft picks the Bears hold this draft. Right now.
Because exactly a decade ago, the Bears found themselves in a similar situation, failed miserably in a succession of drafts beginning with the one exactly 10 years ago, and slid backwards into NFL irrelevance.
As truncated as the Bears’ draft weekend stands to be – no picks until the third round, No. 84 overall – it is nothing short of critical in an offseason where the Bears were restrained in free agency.
The Bears would reach a conference championship game in 2010 with the boost from a huge acquisition in that year’s free agency, but no higher, and not even that high in the decade following the 2009 draft.
A decade ago the Bears were approaching a similar situation: coming off a winning season (9-7), had acquired what they believed to be a franchise quarterback (Jay Cutler), and had a defense sprinkled with elites (Lance Briggs, Mike Brown, Charles Tillman, Brian Urlacher).
That team, which also had no picks in rounds 1-2 because of a trade (Cutler), added its Khalil Mack/Hall of Fame edge rusher in 2010 when it made the offseason’s biggest strike in landing Julius Peppers. That, not the Cutler trade, put the Bears within sight of the top.
But it was the misses that began with the draft picks that they did have – including two in the ’09 third round – that were the story of that draft and, ultimately, for the next couple of seasons.
The 2009 draft netted the Bears virtually nothing on which to improve from the 9-7 of 2008. The fourth round produced Henry Melton, who developed into a one-year Pro Bowl defensive tackle but that wasn’t until three years later, and he didn’t start a game until 2011; and D.J. Moore, an adequate slot corner not re-signed at the end of his rookie deal. Fifth-round’er Johnny Knox was named as a Pro Bowl replacement for kickoff returner Percy Harvin. Safety Al Afalava was taken in the sixth round, started one season, then was cut the next. Seventh-round’er Lance Louis became a serviceable offensive lineman.
But the third-round picks were wasted on defensive lineman Jarron Gilbert and wide receiver Juaquin Iglesias. Those started a run of pedestrian or worse draft picks – safeties Chris Conte and Major Wright, tackle Gabe Carimi, linebacker Shea McClellin – over the four years from ’09-’12, with only wide receiver Alshon Jeffery (’12) qualifying as an impact player, and him too late to head off the coming decline.
Put bluntly, while their talent base allowed them to soft-pedal free agency this offseason, the Bears need true hits somewhere from among their picks in rounds 3-4-5-7-7 if they want to continue building on an upward trajectory.
The underlying positive is that Pace and his staff have scored franchise-grade, immediate-impact hits in those rounds: Cohen (4), Jackson (4), Adrian Amos (5), Jordan Howard (5), Bilal Nichols (5).
The point going into the draft is not the priority of any particular need, whether running back, wide receiver, edge rusher, whatever. The point is hitting on the picks, regardless of position.
The Green Bay Packers of Brett Favre went to Super Bowl level with the development of running back Dorsey Levens (5th, 1994). John Elway finally won Super Bowls when Terrell Davis (6th, 1995) joined him in the backfield. The New York Giants won their Eli Manning Super Bowls finding leader rushers Brandon Jacobs in the 2005 seventh round and Ahmad Bradshaw in the 2007 seventh round.Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Bears.