Bears NFL Draft Preview: 2016 draft rich in DL talent but what are Bears looking for?

Bears NFL Draft Preview: 2016 draft rich in DL talent but what are Bears looking for? Bears Insider John "Moon" Mullin goes position-by-position as the Bears approach the 2016 Draft, taking a look at what the Bears have, what they might need and what draft day could have in store.

Bears pre-draft situation

One reality with the Bears’ 3-4 scheme is that the line between defensive ends and linebackers gets a little blurry; maybe not in “I’m an end, not a linebacker” mind of Willie Young, but for the rest of us.

That’s actually part of the idea, however, behind why a career 4-3 coach like John Fox tilted toward the different scheme. Offenses are tasked with some sorting out who’s rushing, who’s dropping and who’s just kinda hangin’ out, lurking. Fox likes offenses guessing.

The problem for the 2015 Bears is that they were doing too much of the guessing, playing Game 16 with just one defensive lineman (Will Sutton) active who had been with the team in training camp, and just Sutton and Mitch Unrein starting as linemen (plus Young and his identity crisis).

Ray McDonald didn’t work out; neither did Jeremiah Ratliff. Ego Ferguson was a 16-game rotation player as a 2014 rookie but played just four games last year before going on IR with knee surgery. Jarvis Jenkins started the first 15 games at defensive end, then was inactive for Detroit with an ankle injury.

The play of Eddie Goldman at nose tackle was a franchise-grade positive, a second-round pick who finished fourth among rookies with 4.5 sacks and establishing himself as the anchor of the defensive front.

Personnel then went after and landed massive (325 pounds) defensive end Akiem Hicks, drafted by New Orleans while Ryan Pace was Saints pro scouting director. Unrein re-signed with the Bears and Ferguson was on a rehab pace that impressed his bosses.

“This guy’s been rehabbing, working every single day, might be the most consistent performer since the season ended,” Fox said. “We’ll see. I don’t know what that means, I just know that’s a good thing.”

Sutton went from an undersized tackle on a roster bubble going into training camp to a spot starter at both end and nose tackle, and one of the keys in D-line coach Jay Rodgers’ rotation and finishing second in tackles to Goldman among defensive linemen.

Bears draft priority: High

Fox has been adamant about the need for more pass rushing, and he watched his former Denver Broncos team knock around the Carolina Panthers with pass rush — edge and interior — for a Super Bowl win. The Bears passed on costly line signings like Malik Jackson and Olivier Vernon and targeted Hicks.

But the other starting defensive end is unsettled, given the status of Ferguson in particular. Sutton and Unrein are solid but not viewed as top front-line impact forces.

The 2016 draft class has been cast as one of the best and deepest groups ever for defensive linemen. One will clearly be available at No. 11 in the first round, probably more than one.

But which one? And are the Bears looking for an end/5-techique in the Hicks (325) mold or someone akin to a Justin Smith (285) that achieved All-Pro for Vic Fangio in San Francisco? A true tackle like Alabama’s A’Shawn Robinson (315) who can work all three line spots, or a hybrid like Clemson’s Shaq Lawson (280)?

The Bears under Pace have been committed to best player available. Based on who lasts beyond the Top 10, that decision may be made partially for them.

Keep an eye on ...

Shaq Lawson, Clemson: ‘Tweener at 275 pounds who had 12.5 sacks and 25.5 TFL’s in ’15. Would need to add bulk to play 5-technique, which doesn’t always translate well. Out of the Pernell McPhee mold.

Emmanuel Ogbah, Oklahoma State: Elite-level pass rusher with 24 sacks, 34 TFL’s, PD’s over past 2 years, has size and speed to play DE or OLB.

Jarran Reed, Alabama: Shorter (6-3) than ideal but an aggressive down-lineman capable of playing multiple spots with some pocket-push.

Roy Robertson-Harris, Texas-El Paso: Willie Young-type tall (6-7, 255) pass rusher without huge numbers but possible steal in mid rounds.

A’Shawn Robinson, Alabama: Young (21) power player similar to Goldman (5.5 sacks in ’13, 3.5 in ’15) with huge upside who will only get better with NFL conditioning.

Why coming to the Bears was the right opportunity for Harry Hiestand to leave Notre Dame


Why coming to the Bears was the right opportunity for Harry Hiestand to leave Notre Dame

There wasn’t a single game Harry Hiestand coached while at Notre Dame — 77 in total — in which he didn’t have a future top-20 pick starting at left tackle. 

Zack Martin (16th overall, 2014) was followed by Ronnie Stanley (6th overall, 2016), who gave way to Mike McGlinchey (9th overall, 2018). Hiestand also developed Quenton Nelson, who went on to be the highest interior offensive lineman drafted (6th overall, 2018) since 1986. Nelson and McGlinchey became the first pair of college offensive line teammates to be drafted in the first 10 picks since 1991, when Tennessee had tackles Charles McRae and Antone Davis go seventh and eighth. 

“It wasn’t surprising because the kind of guys they are, they absolutely did everything the right way, the way they took care of themselves, the way they trained, the teammates that they are and were,” Hiestand said. “They just did it all the way you wanted them to do it. So it was. It was a good moment.”

Hiestand said he had a sense of pride after seeing his two former players be drafted so high, even if he wasn't able to re-unite with either of them. The Bears, of course, didn’t have a chance to draft Nelson, and had conviction on using the eighth overall pick on linebacker Roquan Smith (as well as having tackles Charles Leno and Bobby Massie in place for the 2018 season). 

Anecdotally, one former Notre Dame player said (maybe half-jokingly) that Nelson and McGlinchey were fighting each other to see who could get drafted by the Bears to play with Hiestand again.

“There’s nobody that I’ve been around in this game that’s more passionate about what he does,” McGlinchey, now with the San Francisco 49ers, said of Hiestand at Notre Dame’s pro day in March. “There’s really only two things that are important to him, and that’s his family and then his offensive linemen. There’s a lot to be said for that. 

“In this game, everybody’s always trying to work an angle to up their own career — he doesn’t want to do anything but coach O-line, and that’s what really sticks out to us as players. He cares for us like we’re his own. Obviously he coaches extremely hard and is very demanding of his players, which I loved — he pushed me to be the player that I am.

“I’m standing in front of all you guys because of Harry Hiestand. But the amount of passion and care that he has not only for his job but his teaching abilities and his players is what sets him apart.”

Hiestand could’ve stayed as long as he wanted at Notre Dame, presumably, given how much success he had recruiting and developing players there. But six years at one spot is a long time for a position coach, especially at the college level, where the grind of recruiting is so vital to the success of a program. It’s also not like every one of the blue-chip prospects Hiestand recruited to South Bend panned out, either. 

So Hiestand knew he wanted to get back to the NFL after coaching with the Bears under Lovie Smith from 2005-2009. It’s a new challenge for him now, not only to develop second-round pick James Daniels but to continue the growth of Cody Whitehair and Leno while getting the most out of Kyle Long, Massie and the rest of the group (back during his first stint with the Bears, Hiestand had the luxury of coaching experienced, more ready-made offensive lines). 

As one of the more highly-regarded offensive line coaches in the country, though, Hiestand could’ve jumped back into the NFL whenever, and nearly wherever, he wanted. And for him, coming back to the Bears was the perfect fit. 

“That’s an awesome, awesome place, a great franchise,” Hiestand said. “It was something, I always wanted to go back, I didn’t know where I would get the opportunity. So I’m just very fortunate it just happened to be back at the same place that I was before. There are a lot of things that are different but there’s also a lot that’s the same. 

“But it’s one of the — it is the greatest organization. Historically, this is where it all began, and being part of it — and the other thing, and I told those guys when I got here, when we get it done here, you guys are going to see this city like you’ve never seen it. And I remember that. That’s what we’re after.” 

On a scale of 1-10, Tarik Cohen says his dangerous level is 12

On a scale of 1-10, Tarik Cohen says his dangerous level is 12

Don't be fooled by Tarik Cohen's height. He has towering confidence and he's setting up to have a big role in coach Matt Nagy's offense in 2018.

“On a scale of 1-10, the dangerous level is probably 12,” Cohen said Wednesday at Halas Hall about the impact he can have in the Bears' new system. “Because in backyard football, it’s really anything goes, and it’s really whoever gets tired first, that’s who’s going to lose. I’m running around pretty good out here, so I feel like I’m doing a good job.”

Cohen proved last season he can thrive in space. He made an impact as a runner, receiver and return man and will have a chance at an even bigger workload this fall, assuming he can handle it.

With Jordan Howard established as the starting running back, Cohen knows his touches will come in a variety of ways.

“It might not necessarily be rushes,” he said. “But it’s going to be all over the field, and that’s what I like to do. Any way I can get the ball or make a play for my team, that’s what I’m looking forward to doing.”

Cohen averaged 4.3 yards-per-carry as a rookie and led all NFL running backs in the percentage of carries that went for at least 15 yards. He's a big play waiting to happen.