Bears

First-year evaluations of Bears ’16 draft class bode well for future

First-year evaluations of Bears ’16 draft class bode well for future

One standard NFL bromide is that it takes 2-3 years to fully evaluate a draft.

“Fully,” yes. “Critically,” no.

It did not take 2-3 years to determine that Shea McClellin or Kyle Fuller couldn’t play like No. 1 picks, or 2-3 to see that Jordan Howard or Kyle Long could. General managers and coaches can be and have been gone before that time frame has played out on a year’s draft picks.

The Bears’ 2016 draft class is still in its formative stages. But six of the top seven picks started at least one game, albeit some because of injuries. GM Ryan Pace’s first class (2015) saw picks 2-5 start games, with No. 1 pick Kevin White out for the year with a stress fracture.

By comparison, only three of the top six picks in 2014 (Fuller, Will Sutton, Brock Vereen) made starts as rookies. Only Alshon Jeffery and Evan Rodriguez from the six-member 2012 draft class started any games their first year.

Obviously players are not fully developed in a season. But they typically have shown enough in a year for the team to know whether they need to re-draft the position or can focus elsewhere.

For example, safety Adrian Amos was something of a nugget found in the fifth round of the 2015 draft. But the Ryan Pace staff appeared very much to know what they had – and didn’t have – in a safety who started every game, intercepting zero passes and breaking up just 4 in his first year. So they drafted two safeties in the 2016 draft, including in the fourth round Deon Bush, who is now starting.

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With that in mind, it is in fact not too soon to form analyses of the 2016 Bears draft, which becomes increasingly relevant given the now-tenuous situation facing the John Fox coaching regime after two dismal seasons irrespective of reasons.

Put another way, do the Bears really know what they got in this year’s draft? Or if they got anything at all?

For the most part, yes.

Looking just at the core of the class, cases in point:

No. 1: Leonard Floyd, LB

The outside linebacker was drafted to be a pass rusher. He has produced 7 sacks, one short of Brian Urlacher for third on the franchise’s rookie-record list, in playing time truncated at 12 games by injuries. Floyd’s health and durability may be discussion points, particularly with two late-season concussions and being inactive at Minnesota. But this is a defensive fixture who missed all of one game in three seasons against SEC competition.

“I believe I could’ve done more,” Floyd said. “I definitely believe I could’ve got more sacks or whatever. Just got to work hard this offseason so I can get more.”

No defense can have too many pass rushers but a pass-rushing outside linebacker is down the “needs” list because of Floyd.

“You'd prefer guys to be in there every game,” Fox said, “but I've seen enough of him to know he's got a bright, bright future.”

No. 2: Cody Whitehair, OL

As he did with Floyd, although in the other direction, Pace traded down (twice) in the second round with Whitehair as the target. What they got was perhaps their most consistent lineman of ’16 and a starter at either guard or center for years well beyond this one.

“Cody Whitehair's done a really good job stepping up and becoming a leader and playing really well at a high level,” said offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains. “And he's going to get better and better and he's going to be a good player for the Bears for a long time.”

No. 3: Jonathan Bullard, DE

A disappointment if only because third-round picks are expected to contribute sooner rather than later. Also, defensive linemen can reveal earlier than many other position players whether they have the right stuff, and Bullard has been inactive for one game and a healthy scratch for another this year. Playing 273 snaps this year, Bullard has just 3 tackles for loss, 2 quarterback pressures and 1 sack.

“I think Jon's got a lot of room to grow, and I think he can do it,” said defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. “It's not just you're hoping; he's got to get stronger, he's got to learn to play in the NFL trenches a little bit more and better. I think his future can still be bright, but his offseason is going to be critical for him.”

No. 4a: Nick Kwiatkoski, LB

Missing virtually all of training camp and preseason set Kwiatkoski significantly behind on the defensive learning curve. The suspension of Jerrell Freeman and season-ending injury to Danny Trevathan forced him into the starting lineup and he has led the Bears in tackles over the past five games (all starts).

“I feel like I just improved so much from the beginning of the season, from being hurt in camp until now,” Kwiatkoski said. “I feel like I made huge strides and learned a lot.”

Kwiatkoski finished eighth in tackles with 42 despite being inactive with a lingering hamstring injury the first two weeks and starting seven games.

“I think he’s coming into his own,” Fangio said, “and I hope to see marked improvement a little bit each and every game moving forward.”

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No. 4b: Deon Bush, S

Performance shortcomings within the position group led to Bush being inserted into the starting lineup. He held that spot for six games, missing Minnesota with an injury, while Amos and Harold Jones-Quartey replaced each other at the other safety position. Bush has not made enough impact plays (1 pass breakup, zero INT’s).

But “I thought he was solid in his play and was where he was supposed to be all the time and did well,” Fangio assessed earlier. “He’s such a young guy… . He’s got a lot to improve on. He’s doing a good job in that process.”

No. 5: Jordan Howard, RB

No elaboration necessary. One of the best young running backs in the NFL. And coaches did not see that at first impressions.

“I’m going to be real honest when I say this: I didn’t the greatness in Jordan in OTAs and training camp,” Loggains said. “Part of it was because he was hurt. Part of it is because he’s a much better player when the shoulder pads are on and it’s live. Because he’s a big back. He’s hard to tackle. You’ve got to give a lot of credit to our evaluation process, to the guys upstairs — Ryan and Josh Lucas and those guys — because they found a guy in the fifth round that’s a really good football player.”

Deiondre’ Hall (4c), DeAndre Houston-Carson (6), Daniel Braverman (7) – to be determined.

5 free agents who fit with Bears, from Devonta Freeman to Damon Harrison

5 free agents who fit with Bears, from Devonta Freeman to Damon Harrison

The conventional wisdom with the Bears is Ryan Pace needs to improve depth at running back and defensive tackle ahead of training camp practices starting – finally – next week.

But reality played out a little different this week. The Bears reportedly signed defensive back Marqui Christian Tuesday, adding depth at safety and on special teams. He, essentially, replaces Jordan Lucas – who opted out of the 2020 season – on the Bears’ roster, even though kicker Ramiz Ahmed was cut to make room for him.

It makes sense. The Bears are tantalizingly close to actually seeing their 80-man roster in action, and displacing someone with a big-ish-name free agent might run counter to their plans. Once the Bears can get a look at some of those guys on their roster – like running back Artavis Pierce and defensive tackle John Jenkins – maybe they’ll look to make a move.

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Also: The Bears have about $17 million in cap space right now that can roll over to 2021, which would help offset what could be a $23 million drop in next year’s cap. It might not be a bad idea to save money now and avoid difficult cost-saving cuts later.

But if the Bears do try to pick off some of the more recognizable names available in free agency, these five players could make sense:

DT Damon “Snacks” Harrison

Eddie Goldman’s decision to opt out immediately led a lot of folks (myself included) to Google “Snacks Harrison free agency” to make sure he was still available. The good news: He is! The bad news: He’s reportedly contemplated retirement in the past, and the 32-year-old is thinking about getting into the podcast game…

… which is something someone might do when they’re expecting to have a lot of time on their hands, right?

Harrison had a down 2019 with the Detroit Lions and may not even want to get back into football amid the COVID-19 pandemic. If he does, though, the Bears should certainly consider signing him as a rotational veteran to help soften the blow of Goldman’s opt out.

DT Marcell Dareus

The 30-year-old Dareus only played in six games last year before a core injury ended his season. Listed at 6-foot-3, 331 pounds, Dareus might be the best fit to replace Goldman as an anchor of the Bears’ defensive line – so long as he’s healthy.

Dareus – the third player selected in 2011’s draft – did see his play drop off a bit in 2019 before his injury. Still, he’s an experienced and adept run-stuffer, the kind of guy who could help the Bears’ defense in base and sub packages next to Akiem Hicks.

RB Devonta Freeman

It feels weird that Freeman is still available in mid-August, but he’s an unfortunately perfect example of the short shelf life of running backs. He was a Pro Bowler in 2015 and 2016, ripping off consecutive 1,000-yard rushing years while amassing over 1,000 receiving yards and 27 total touchdowns.

His play tailed off in 2017, then was hit by injuries in 2018 and averaged just 3.6 yards per carry in 14 games last year. Freeman fired his agent this offseason and signed with Drew Rosenhaus, who said in July he was hoping to get him signed by the end of the month (https://twitter.com/AdamSchefter/status/1285726771816673287). You have to wonder if Freeman is asking for more money than teams would be willing to give him. Or, a possibility that would be smarter: Maybe he’s waiting to see if a team needs a No. 1 running back due to a training camp injury or positive COVID-19 test.

Either way, Freeman makes sense for the Bears in that he’d provide a veteran backup to David Montgomery. But do the Bears make sense to Freeman if he’s squarely behind Montgomery on the depth chart? Maybe not.

RB Spencer Ware

A more realistic option at running back, if the Bears want to add to that room, would be a guy in Ware with ties to Matt Nagy. The former Kansas City Chiefs running back had 921 rushing yards and 447 receiving yards in 2016, the first year Nagy was Andy Reid’s offensive coordinator.

MORE: Five things we've learned about Bears' rookies 

A brutal knee injury suffered in 2017’s preseason derailed Ware’s career, and he only played in three games last year after the Chiefs brought him back off the free agent scrap heap. The 28-year-old, though, has familiarity with Nagy’s scheme and could at least provide some much-needed veteran competition for Pierce and former undrafted free agent Ryan Nall.

PK Graham Gano

The Bears dumped Ahmed to make room for Christian, leaving Eddy Pineiro as the only kicker on the roster. Pace’s preference is to find a kicker for cheap after the Cody Parkey disaster, hence last year’s competition and a long leash with Pineiro.

But if Pineiro falters at all during camp, the Bears should probably find room on their 80-man roster for a kicker to compete with him. Gano might cost a little more, and the 33-year-old missed all of 2019 with an injury, but his strong leg and decade of experience would certainly push Pineiro – if not replace him.

 

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Bears waive kicker Ramiz Ahmed, ending kicker battle before it began

Bears waive kicker Ramiz Ahmed, ending kicker battle before it began

For now, Eddy Piñeiro can breath easy: 

You'll remember, the Bears brought Ahmed into the building back in mid-April. The kicker, who played his college ball at Nevada, went 15/20 on field goal attempts in his 2018 senior season. Ryan Pace and co. signed him to push Piñeiro, who had an up-and-down first season in Chicago. As JJ Stankevitz points out, the move likely has to do with the team's reported signing of a defensive back on Tuesday: 

As it stands now, Piñeiro's job is once again safe. For whatever it's worth, it sounds like Piñeiro, who struggled with distance last year, has put on some muscle this offseason. In a recent interview with media, Bears' special team's coordinator Chris Tabor had this to say: 

"I'm going to be honest with you, first day we went out and kicked -- and I hadn't seen him kick since the Minnesota game -- you're looking at a bigger, stronger Eddy Pineiro," he said. "I was very impressed. You could tell that he matured, he's really more comfortable." 

So good news, Bears fans: there will be no summer kicking battle this year. You can put the aspirin away.