Bears

Is the ‘not a winner’ label fair to DeShone Kizer?

Is the ‘not a winner’ label fair to DeShone Kizer?

DeShone Kizer has plenty of the traits desired by NFL scouts, like a strong arm and a 6-foot-4, 230 pound frame. What he doesn't have, though, is the label of being a "winner." It's the opposite for Kizer, who quarterbacked Notre Dame to a 4-8 record in 2016, the program's worst since that embarrassing 3-9 year under Charlie Weis a decade ago. 

Both Bears general manager Ryan Pace and coach John Fox have touted a quarterback's ability to elevate everyone around him, with Pace at the Combine specifically pointing to Drew Brees' success at Purdue. Kizer, then, doesn't check off that box.

But it's worth noting Kizer was a "winner" two years ago, when he was thrown into action seven quarters into the 2015 season and led Notre Dame within six points of a berth in the College Football Playoff. Kizer threw a last-second game-winning touchdown to Will Fuller at Virginia, led a furious comeback (that fell short on a failed two-point conversion) on the road in a rainstorm against national runner-up Clemson and scored what should've been a game-winning touchdown late against Stanford (only to have Brian VanGorder's defense blow it with under 40 seconds left). 

So how did Kizer go from being a "winner" one year to losing that label the next?

A point to note here is that 2015 Irish team had a bunch of players drafted in the first two days of the 2016 NFL Draft: Fuller and left tackle Ronnie Stanley were first-round picks, while center Nick Martin was a second-rounder and running back C.J. Prosise went in the third round. Kizer not only had less talent surrounding him in 2016, but most of those players he had to rely on were now inexperienced underclassmen. 

Notre Dame's offensive line and running game both regressed without the likes of Stanley, Martin and Prosise. That put more offensive responsibility on the passing game and Kizer, who was without six of his top seven targets from a year ago (the only returning one, Torii Hunter Jr., was sidelined for four games with various injuries). 

But Notre Dame's plummet wasn't just due to that talent drain on offense. Fired were VanGorder (four games into the season) and special teams coordinator Scott Booker (after the season) as both those units struggled do much of anything well. Two games in September were particularly egregious, with Kizer playing well in both but the Irish still conspiring to lose. 

In Week 1, Kizer threw for five touchdowns, ran for another and didn't turn the ball over in Notre Dame's 50-47 double-overtime loss at Texas. Kizer had a few chances to do more later in the game, but it's worth noting he was without Hunter, who left the game in the third quarter due to a concussion. Is it fair to assign "fault" to the guy who had to sub in and out with Malik Zaire in the first half and still had six total touchdowns and no turnovers? 

Twenty days later, Kizer threw for 381 yards with two touchdowns, one interception and one rushing score in Notre Dame's 38-35 home loss to Duke. After earning a quick 14-0 lead in the first quarter, Notre Dame allowed Duke's backup returner to run a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown. Duke ripped off touchdown plays of 25, 32 and 64 yards against a feeble Irish defense, with that 64-yarder coming less than a minute after Kizer pulled Notre Dame ahead midway through the fourth quarter. 

In those two games, though, had Notre Dame's defense and special teams merely been below average instead of a complete disaster, Kizer would've done more than enough to earn his team the two wins it needed to reach a bowl game. A 6-6 record hardly is good -- or acceptable in South Bend -- but it probably would've been more forgivable than the ugly stain of 4-8. 

Consider the records of the other four top quarterbacks' teams:

Clemson (DeShaun Watson): 13-1, national champs
North Carolina (Mitchell Trubisky): 8-5, lost Sun Bowl
Texas Tech (Patrick Mahomes): 5-7
Cal (Davis Webb): 5-7

The other side to this, though, is that Kizer and Notre Dame had a chance to win or tie late in the fourth quarter in seven games, with six losses (Texas, Michigan State, Duke, N.C. State, Stanford, Virginia Tech) and one win (Miami). No matter how little help Kizer had, he still had a chance to convert those opportunities and for the most part did not. 

Kizer never wavered in accepting responsibility for those losses during the season, and that message didn't change at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis last month. And it's one that should play well in draft rooms as teams decide whether or not Kizer, after a 4-8 season, is worth the investment of a first-round pick. 

"I just didn't make enough plays," Kizer said. "The ball's in my hand every play. It's my job at Notre Dame to put us in position to win games, to trust in the guys around me and develop the guys around me to make those plays with me."

Bears draft begins Friday, but player targets may lie outside conventional wisdom and in GM Ryan Pace’s history

Bears draft begins Friday, but player targets may lie outside conventional wisdom and in GM Ryan Pace’s history

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. 

O-line’ing

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.

A Bears-centric draft guide to every running back in this year's NFL Draft

A Bears-centric draft guide to every running back in this year's NFL Draft

No position carries more interest and importance than running back as the Bears head into the 2019 NFL Draft, which begins Thursday in Nashville but won’t get underway at Halas Hall until Friday. While general manager Ryan Pace said the Bears don’t need to draft a running back, given all the scouting the Bears have done on players at that position, it feels like a foregone conclusion that they will take one sometime before the end of Saturday. 

So with all the focus on this one position, NBC Sports Chicago compiled the big boards of eight major draft gurus/websites to put a wisdom-of-the-crowd spin on a running back ranking system. Sources used for these rankings: Josh Norris’ top 200, Pro Football Focus’ top 250, Dane Brugler’s top 100, Daniel Jeremiah’s top 50, Gil Brandt’s top 150 and Danny Kelly’s top 100, as well as complete big boards by ESPN and CBS. 

The results divide this class of running backs into a number of tiers based on where the Bears pick, which right now is Nos. 87, 126, 162, 222 and 238. Here’s what we came up with:

Tier 1: No chance

Member: Josh Jacobs, Alabama (DRAFTED: No. 24 to the Oakland Raiders)

Average rank: 28.1
Highest: 8 (Daniel Jeremiah, NFL.com)
Lowest: 60 (Pro Football Focus)
Not ranked: 0

Tier 2: Dream scenarios with No. 87

Members: David Montgomery, Iowa State; Miles Sanders, Penn State

Montgomery average rank: 59.5
Highest: 43 (Daniel Jeremiah, NFL.com)
Lowest: 79 (Pro Football Focus)
Not ranked: 0

 

Sanders average rank: 64.0
Highest: 45 (Gil Brandt, NFL.com)
Lowest: 86 (CBS)
Not ranked: 0

 

The dream scenario for the Bears would be having one of these guys be available when they go on the clock with the 87th pick Friday night. These two guys are comfortably the second- and third-best running backs in this year’s class when compiling all these rankings, and there’s a good chance a few teams ahead of the Bears will want a running back before that 87th selection. 

Tier 3: Realistic at No. 87

Members: Damien Harris, Alabama; Darrell Henderson, Memphis; Devin Singletary, Florida Atlantic

Harris average rank: 86.0
Highest: 55 (Dane Brugler, The Athletic)
Lowest: 135 (Pro Football Focus)
Not ranked: 1 (Jeremiah)

Henderson average rank: 87.0
Highest: 69 (Danny Kelly, The Ringer)
Lowest: 119 (Pro Football Focus)
Not ranked: 1 (Jeremiah)

 

Singletary average rank: 91.7
Highest: 55 (Josh Norris, Rotoworld)
Lowest: 139 (ESPN)
Not ranked: 1 (Jeremiah)

 

We start to see some variance with these three running backs. Norris has Singletary (55) and Henderson (74) ranked ahead of Sanders (75), with Harris (103) lagging behind; Brandt has Harris (88) and Henderson (95) in his top 100, with Singletary (112) out of it. 

As with anyone in the draft, it only takes one team to like you, and while it’d be a shock if any of these three players jumped Jacobs, one could be drafted ahead of Montgomery or Sanders on Friday night (there’s been some buzz about Henderson climbing up draft boards lately, for what it’s worth). Still, if the Bears are targeting a running back with their third-round pick, some or all of these guys could very well be in Pace’s cloud. 

Tier 4: Options at No. 126 or No. 162

Members: Trayveon Williams, Texas A&M; Justice Hill, Oklahoma State; Bryce Love, Stanford; Rodney Anderson, Oklahoma; Tony Pollard, Memphis; Elijah Holyfield, Georgia; Dexter Williams, Notre Dame; Karan Higdon, Michigan; Ryquell Armstead, Temple; Devine Ozigbo, Nebraska

T. Williams average rank: 110.5
Highest: 76 (ESPN)
Lowest: 238 (Pro Football Focus)
Not ranked: 3 (Brugler, Jeremiah, Kelly)

 

Hill average rank: 120.0
Highest: 72 (ESPN)
Lowest: 190 (Pro Football Focus)
Not ranked: 2 (Jeremiah, Kelly)

Love average rank: 120.4
Highest: 113 (Pro Football Focus)
Lowest: 140 (CBS)
Not ranked: 4 (Brugler, Jeremiah, Brandt, Kelly)

Anderson average rank: 125.3
Highest: 112 (CBS)
Lowest: 138 (Pro Football Focus)
Not ranked: 5 (Norris, Brugler, Jeremiah, Brandt, Kelly)

 

Holyfield average rank: 130.7
Highest: 99 (CBS)
Lowest: 157 (Norris)
Not ranked: 5 (Pro Football Focus, Brugler, Jeremiah, Brandt, Kelly)

Pollard average rank: 140.3
Highest: 132 (Brandt)
Lowest: 244 (Pro Football Focus)
Not ranked: 4 (Norris, Brugler, Jeremiah, Kelly)

D. Williams average rank: 148.0
Highest: 116 (Brandt)
Lowest: 177 (Pro Football Focus)
Not ranked: 4 (Norris, Brugler, Jeremiah, Kelly)

Higdon average rank: 160.3
Highest: 149 (Pro Football Focus)
Lowest: 182 (ESPN)
Not ranked: 5 (Norris, Brugler, Jeremiah, Brandt, Kelly)

Armstead average rank: 166.5
Highest: 147 (Brandt)
Lowest: 181 (CBS)
Not ranked: 3 (Brugler, Jeremiah, Kelly)

 

Ozigbo average rank: 169.5
Highest: 73 (Norris)
Lowest: 305 (ESPN)
Not ranked: 4 (Brugler, Jeremiah, Brandt, Kelly)

Now we’re really all over the board, which is how a glance at eight NFL draft boards would look like. Some may not include Ozigbo — who wasn’t invited to the Combine — while another team could have a third-round grade on him. Trayveon Williams could be a third-rounder on one team’s board and a seventh-rounder on another’s. With all these guys, it depends on how they’d fit what Pace and Matt Nagy believe would fit the Bears best. 

A few quick thought here: Love seems unlikely given his medical re-check revealed some lingering concerns about his surgically-repaired knee. The previously-injured running back the Bears would seem more likely to take out of this group would be Anderson. 

Tier 5: Seventh-round fliers

Members: Benny Snell Jr., Kentucky; Mike Weber, Ohio State; Miles Gaskin, Washington; Jalin Moore, Appalachian State; Jordan Scarlett, Florida; Travis Homer, Miami (Fla.); Alexander Mattison, Boise State; James Williams, Washington State; Darwin Thompson, Utah State; Alex Barnes, Kansas State

Snell Jr. average rank: 164.0
Highest: 116 (CBS)
Lowest: 212 (ESPN)
Not ranked: 6 (Norris, Pro Football Focus, Brugler, Jeremiah, Brandt, Kelly)

Weber average rank: 185.0
Highest: 139 (CBS)
Lowest: 219 (Pro Football Focus)
Not ranked: 5 (Norris, Brugler, Jeremiah, Brandt, Kelly)

 

Gaskin average rank: 198.3
Highest: 147 (CBS)
Lowest: 243 (Pro Football Focus)
Not ranked: 5 (Norris, Brugler, Jeremiah, Brandt, Kelly)

Moore average rank: 200
Highest: 191 (ESPN)
Lowest: 209 (CBS)
Not ranked: 6 (Norris, Pro Football Focus) Brugler, Jeremiah, Brandt, Kelly)

Scarlett average rank: 204.0
Highest: 148 (Pro Football Focus)
Lowest: 266 (ESPN)
Not ranked: 5 (Norris, Brugler, Jeremiah, Brandt, Kelly)

Homer average rank: 208.8
Highest: 185 (Pro Football Focus)
Lowest: 240 (ESPN)
Not ranked: 5 (Norris, Brugler, Jeremiah, Brandt, Kelly)

Mattison average rank: 209.6
Highest: 150 (Norris)
Lowest: 295 (CBS)
Not ranked: 4 (Brugler, Jeremiah, Brandt, Kelly)

 

Williams average rank: 222.8
Highest: 127 (Norris)
Lowest: 281 (ESPN)
Not ranked: 4 (Brugler, Jeremiah, Brandt, Kelly)

Thompson average rank: 247.0
Highest: 170 (Pro Football Focus)
Lowest: 294 (ESPN)
Not ranked: 5 (Norris, Brugler, Jeremiah, Brandt, Kelly)

Barnes average rank: 264.3
Highest: 191 (Pro Football Focus)
Lowest: 327 (CBS)
Not ranked: 5 (Norris, Brugler, Jeremiah, Brandt, Kelly)

It’s hardly unprecedented for a running back drafted in the sixth or seventh round to make an impact — Chris Carson did for the Seattle Seahawks last year, for instance — but if the Bears draft one of these guys, expectations should be set accordingly. As in: It’d be a sign the Bears believe Mike Davis can take on a larger load, and that this player they drafted can fill a smaller role than, say, a running back drafted in the third round. 

Of note here: There rest of the players listed in Tier 6 are all ranked by only two services (ESPN and CBS). Exceptions were made here for Moore and Snell given their high rankings, and that Brugler has a fourth-round grade on Moore and a fifth/sixth-round grade on Snell, though neither were in his top 100. 

Tier 6: Priority free agents

Members: Qadree Ollison, Pittsburgh; LJ Scott, Michigan State; Kerrith Whyte Jr., Florida Atlantic; Ty Johnson, Maryland; Wes Hills, Slippery Rock; Bruce Anderson, North Dakota State; Darrin Hall, Pittsburgh; Matt Colburn II, Wake Forest; Taiwan Deal, Wisconsin; Marquis Young, Massachusetts; Jaques Patrick, Florida State; Nick Brossette, LSU; Damarea Crockett, Missouri; Xavier Turner, Tarleton State; Joe Connor, Concordia (Mich.); Aeris Williams, Mississippi State; Khari Blasingame, Vanderbilt; Lexington Thomas, UNLV; Alec Ingold, Wisconsin; Craig Reynolds, Kutztown; Dominick Bragalone, Lehigh; A.J. Oullette, Ohio; Cullen Gillaspia, Texas A&M; Jordan Ellis, Virginia

 

That’s a lot of names! Perhaps the Bears could unearth a Phillip Lindsay-level undrafted free agent out of this group (want a name? Bruce Anderson). More likely, they won’t. But expect the Bears to sign at least one of the names from this group, or if someone from Tier 5 isn’t drafted (which is likely), as a free agent in the feeding frenzy that happens after Mr. Irrelevant is selected on Saturday.