The majority of the decisions made by Ryan Pace since New Year’s Day have been centered around Mitch Trubisky.
He hired a young, offensive-minded, quarterback-driven coach in Matt Nagy — who hired Mark Helfrich and retained Dave Ragone — to pair with Trubisky. He guaranteed $66.2 million to Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Trey Burton in March to dramatically improve the weapons at his young quarterback’s disposal. He guaranteed $5 million to Chase Daniel, who’s only thrown three regular season passes since the end of the 2014 season, to give Trubisky a backup who knows the nuances and language of Nagy’s offense.
So why would the Bears deviate from that approach in the NFL Draft, specifically with their first-round pick?
That’s why the Bears should draft Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson with the eighth overall pick on Thursday night.
Nelson is regarded as one of the best offensive line prospects in recent memory, and those who were around him at Notre Dame see him as a Pro Bowler from Day 1. He’s an aggressive mauler in the run game who doesn’t play out of control, and has a highlight reel of pummeling opposing defenders to prove it. He’ll immediately help the Bears effectively run the ball, especially on the inside zone plays that are a staple of Nagy’s offense. He’s a sturdy, consistent pass blocker who will keep opposing defenders out of Trubisky’s face, allowing him to step up in the pocket and connect with all those shiny targets added by Pace in March.
The “problem” with Nelson is that he’s a guard, a position traditionally not valued as worth such a high draft pick. But the league is changing: Three of the 15 contracts with the most guaranteed money handed out in free agency this year went to interior offensive linemen (Andrew Norwell, Weston Richburg and Ryan Jensen). Yes, left tackle Nate Solder got more than those guys, but the point here is that quality offensive line play is not easy to find.
Plus, as Nelson eloquently argued at the NFL Combine, having strong interior line play is more important in today’s defensive landscape than ever before.
“You have guys that are dominating the NFL right now in Aaron Donald, Geno Atkins and Fletcher Cox that have just been working on interior guys and you need guys to stop them, and I think I’m one of those guys,” Nelson said. “You talk to quarterbacks, and they say if a D-end gets on the edge, that’s fine, they can step up in the pocket and they can throw, a lot of quarterbacks if given the opportunity can do that.
“That’s what I give is a pocket to step up in, and I think I also help the offense establish the run through my nastiness and establishing the run also opens up the
passing game, so I think it’s a good choice.”
And we haven’t even got to the Bears hiring Nelson’s college position coach, Harry Hiestand, to coach their offensive line. Hiestand recruited Nelson to Notre Dame and developed him into an elite player over their four years together in South Bend. If there’s anyone that can make Nelson an even better player in four years than he is today, it’s Hiestand.
“He’s known me since I was an immature freshman that wasn’t good at football, until now being a lot more mature and responsible and doing the right thing and a good football player,” Nelson said at Notre Dame’s Pro Day last month. “He knows everything about me. … He’s always pushed me to be the best at everything I’ve done and I couldn’t be any more thankful and grateful for him.”
Do the Bears need to address their red-line need for a pass rusher? Of course. Does Vic Fangio’s defense need more playmakers? Absolutely. Those needs will have to be a focus of this week’s draft. Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds or Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick or Georgia’s Roquan Smith would all be fine picks.
But if Pace is sticking to his strategy of building around Trubisky and drafting the best player available, there’s only one player that makes sense. And that’s the bruising, powerful guard who played his college ball two hours away in South Bend.
“As a blocker my mindset is being dominant,” Nelson said. “I want to dominate all my opponents and take their will away to play the game by each play and finishing them past the whistle.”
John "Moon" Mullin's counterpoint: Why the Bears should draft Virginia Tech linebacker Tremaine Edmunds