Bears

How much better did the Bears' NFC North opponents get in the first round of the NFL Draft?

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USA Today

How much better did the Bears' NFC North opponents get in the first round of the NFL Draft?

The Bears collectively kicked their feet up Thursday night, watching the NFL Draft unfold with a few Khalil Mack highlight clips thrown in there to remind them why they didn’t have anything to do. 

The Bears’ competition in the NFC North, though, made four picks Thursday night, infusing significant talent into the division. A look at who Bears players on offense and defense will have to deal with twice a year starting in 2019:

Detroit Lions: TE T.J. Hockenson, Iowa (No. 8 overall pick)

Where he’s ranked: 6th (Dane Brugler/The Athletic), 12th (Danny Kelly/The Ringer), 13th (Josh Norris/Rotoworld), 21st (Pro Football Focus)

Why it makes sense: Hockenson is one of the best tight end prospects to be drafted in recent history. He’s a true combo in-line tight end, someone who can create mismatches against any defense with his ability to both block and catch. He’s regarded as a high-character player, too, someone who the Lions may believe can help change a deteriorating culture inside their locker room

Why it doesn’t: Hockenson is only the third tight end in the last 20 years to be dated with a top-10 pick, and the last one was…Eric Ebron, who flopped with the Lions after being the 10th overall pick in 2014. The big question for how this pick is viewed may not be how good Hockenson is, but how the guy drafted one pick after him — defensive tackle Ed Oliver — winds up being. 

Green Bay Packers: EDGE Rashan Gary, Michigan (No. 12), S Darnell Savage, Maryland (No. 21)

Where Gary ranks: No. 13 (Brugler), No. 13 (Kelly), No. 15 (Norris), No. 48 (PFF)

Where Savage ranks: No. 28 (PFF), No. 33 (Norris), No. 39 (Kelly), No. 58 (Brugler)

Why it makes sense: Gary and Savage inject loads of talent into a Green Bay defense that underwent a massive overhaul during free agency. Gary will join a pass rush featuring Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, Kenny Clark, Mike Daniels and Kyler Fackrell, giving defensive coordinator Mike Pettine excellent depth to pressure opposing quarterbacks. The super-athletic Gary has tremendous upside, even if his college production never matched former ranking as the nation’s No. 1 recruit. If the Packers can harness that raw talent, he could be a menace in the division for years to come. 

Savage, meanwhile, looks like a solid partner to pair with Adrian Amos in the back end of the Packers’ defense. He picked off four passes in 2018 and possesses the kind of traits — physicality, speed, ball skills — that teams desire in safeties. Perhaps the Packers see him as a version of Eddie Jackson, who paired well with Amos in 2017 and 2018 with the Bears. 

Why it doesn’t: A couple of instant reactions to the Gary pick didn’t paint it in a positive light:

Gary finished his three-year college career with only 9 1/2 sacks, two fewer than Bears 2018 sixth-round pick Kylie Fitts had in his three years at Utah. He also had a labrum injury pop up that could be of some concern. Further back: Gary, perhaps, could remind you of Alonzo Spellman — the Bears’ 22nd overall pick in 1992 who had nine sacks in three years at Ohio State and took a few years to get off the ground in Chicago (he had 32 sacks in six seasons with the Bears). 

There’s less to not like with Savage — he was a late riser and is a little undersized, but pairing him with Amos seems to make all the sense in the world on paper. 

Minnesota Vikings: C Garrett Bradbury, N.C. State (No. 18)

Where he ranks: No. 17 (Brugler), No. 18 (Norris), No. 23 (Kelly), No. 41 (PFF)

Why it makes sense: The Vikings desperately need offensive line help, and likely felt fortunate that there wasn’t a run on offensive linemen prior to their pick. Bradbury can immediately step in and improve the interior of Minnesota’s offensive line, keeping pressure out of Kirk Cousins’ face and opening holes for Dalvin Cook. His bi-annual battles against Eddie Goldman should be fun to watch. 

Why it doesn’t: A few analysts noted Bradbury being undersized and not having ideal length, though his athleticism and technique should overcome whatever those deficiencies may be. This feels like a smart pick by the Vikings. 

Briefly

— The Oakland Raiders were the only team to pick a running back in the first round, and used the pick the Bears sent them — No. 24 overall — to grab Alabama’s Josh Jacobs. 

— If you’re looking for a position that could see some talented players fall to the Bears’ No. 87 pick: Wide receiver and cornerback. Only Hollywood Brown (No. 23, Baltimore Ravens) and N'Keal Harry (No. 32, New England Patriots) went among receivers; the first cornerback didn't go off the board until the New York Giants traded back into the first round and picked Georgia's Deandre Baker 30th overall. If the Bears have a few players with high grades at either of those positions, there's a chance of those guys slipping deep into the third round and giving Ryan Pace an opportunity to take a clear-cut best player available.

Bears roster lacks veteran cut candidate

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USA Today

Bears roster lacks veteran cut candidate

The Bears battle for the 53-man roster doesn’t have many contentious positions entering training camp.

Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy brought back largely the same roster from their breakout 2018 season, finding replacements for the few players gone in free agency.

Outside of kicker, the entire starting lineup is pretty much set for Week 1, and the main competitions to stick with the team are at the bottom of the depth chart.

It leaves the roster with no notable veterans that stand out as candidates to be cut. ESPN’s Jeff Dickerson was asked to name one for an article, and he couldn’t come up with any.

He mentioned Taquan Mizzell, who made the move from running back to wide receiver this offseason, but as Dickerson pointed out “Mizzell is hardly a well-known commodity around the league.”

Former third-round pick Jonathan Bullard hasn’t lived up to his draft status, but the Bears have seemed comfortable keeping him around in a backup role.

The Bears roster has very little fat to trim. The only other player who could potentially qualify is cornerback Sherrick McManis, since the team has so many young players at his position, but he’s been working at safety to increase his value, and he’s one of the team’s best special teams contributors.

The trim down from the 90-man roster shouldn’t have too many significant surprises, which is why so much of the attention this offseason continues to go to the kicker position.

Alex Bars is ready to take his shot with Harry Hiestand and the Bears

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USA Today

Alex Bars is ready to take his shot with Harry Hiestand and the Bears

Alex Bars was cleared to practice last week, allowing him his first chance to put on a helmet since tearing his ACL and MCL Sept. 29 while playing for Notre Dame. The undrafted guard was able to participate in veteran minicamp, allowing him to shake off some rust before his real push for a roster spot begins in training camp next month. 

Many speculated Bars would’ve been as high as a mid-round draft pick if not for that devastating knee injury. It didn’t take the 6-foot-6, 312 pound Bars long, though, to decide where he wanted to go after not being picked in April’s draft. Call it the Harry Hiestand effect. 

Bars played under Hiestand’s tutelage at Notre Dame from 2014-2017, and said he always wanted to wind up with the Bears to work with his former coach — just as 2018 top-10 picks Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey hoped to as well. 

“I remember talking about that, because they both wanted to play for him,” Bars said. “They understand where he can take you and how phenomenal a coach he is, so they both wanted that. And I’m just the same way.”

While Nelson transformed the Indianapolis Colts’ playoff-bound offensive line and McGlinchey showed plenty of promise with the San Francisco 49ers, the reunion of Bars and Hiestand carries some intriguing possibilities for the Bears. Bars has always had upside — he was a four-star recruit out of Nashville in 2014 — and getting to work with Hiestand may be the best way to tap into that potential. 

“He knows me very well, I understand his technique very well,” Bars said. “So having that connection, that player-coach connection all four years through college is huge.”

Hiestand called Bars after his injury last fall and offered some words of encouragement, which only furthered Bars' wish to play for his former college coach in the NFL. 

"That meant everything," Bars said. "He cares so much off the field as well as on the field. That’s who he is."  

Bars wasn’t able to participate in OTAs or rookie minicamp, but Hiestand doesn’t see that as putting him in a tough spot to make the Bears' 53-man roster. And there will very much be an opportunity for Bars to make a push during training camp, given 10-year veteran Ted Larsen only has $90,000 in guaranteed money on his one-year contract. 

It may not be the more eye-catching roster battle during training camp, but the Bears hope they can find interior offensive line depth through competition in Bourbonnais. And Bars, now cleared to practice, will get his shot. 

“He’ll have the chance because he’s smart, he understands the technique, he knows what to do,” Hiestand said during OTAs, when Bars hadn’t practiced yet. “He’s learning the offense even though he’s not doing it. But when we put the pads on that’s when you make or don’t make the team.” 

It’s often unfair — yet far too easy — to place high expectations on undrafted free agents. For every Cameron Meredith or Bryce Callahan who gets unearthed, there are dozens of anonymous players who struggle to stick on an NFL practice squad. 

But Bars is among the more important undrafted free agents on the Bears given his connection with Hiestand and the position he plays. While Kyle Long is healthy, he hasn’t played a full season since 2015, underscoring the Bears’ need for depth on the interior of their offensive line in the immediate future. 

And the Bears would save a little over $8 million against their 2020 cap if they were to make the difficult decision to cut Long in a year. If Bars develops into the kind of player plenty in the NFL thought he could be before his knee injury, that would make releasing Long a little easier to swallow at Halas Hall. 

For now, though, Bars is just hoping to make the Bears. Anything else is a long ways away.

“I’m excited to be here, thrilled for this opportunity and it’s all about productivity,” Bars said. “Just need to be productive and prove you belong on this team.”

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