The expectation at the outset of the 2015 offseason that new Bears general manager Ryan Pace and coach John Fox would eventually target one of a strong class of edge pass rushers early in this year’s draft, presumably with the No. 7 pick of the first round.
And the 2015 draft’s first round that will play out this Thursday is rated as “strong” in this particular position group.
With the work already done in free agency to stock the linebacker spot in the planned-on 3-4 scheme — adding Pernell McPhee, Mason Foster and Sam Acho — the urgency is dialed back, if only slightly. The growing expectation is that the Bears will grab one of the top wide receivers if the chance presents itself.
“We’re going to target anybody that makes us better in the draft,” Fox said. “I think Ryan has the approach, which I am on board with, which is taking the best available player.”
If that player is judged to be one of the edge rushers, it will be a target with some considerable risk.
Someone, or two, from among Vic Beasley, Alvin Dupree, Dante Fowler, Eric Kendricks, Randy Gregory, Shane Ray and a couple others can be expected to emerge as an impact NFL player.
But not every team is convinced.
“It's interesting, because I've had a bunch of teams asking me about what I call the ‘edge’ class,” NFL draft analyst Mike Mayock said in a recent conference call. “I think a month ago our perception was that there were going to be at least four guys going in the first eight picks. And now the perception is couple of those guys are probably sliding down a little bit.”
Indeed, while pass-rushing linebackers may appear less risky than quarterbacks, for instance, first-round picks in general have a roughly 50-percent success rate. Indeed, part of the Bears’ defensive difficulties of the past couple years trace in a small measure to one of those misses.
Examples: 2011 vs. 2012
The 2011 draft proved rich in the kind of rush-linebacker/end that the Bears and other 3-4 teams covet: Von Miller (to Fox and the Denver Broncos), Aldon Smith (to Vic Fangio and the San Francisco 49ers), J.J. Watt, Ryan Kerrigan, Adrian Clayborn, Cameron Jordan (to Pace and the New Orleans Saints).
All went within the first 24 picks of the draft and all but Clayborn already have been selected for at least one Pro Bowl.
But in 2012, another year with a supposed cluster of elite edge rushers, the results were distinctly less glittering. The run on them started at No. 15 with the Seattle Seahawks:
Bruce Irvin. Quinton Coples. Melvin Ingram. Shea McClellin. Chandler Jones. Whitney Mercilus. Dont’a Hightower. Nick Perry. All in the first round. Within the first six picks of the second round: Courtney Upshaw. Andre Branch.
Not one has been to a Pro Bowl.
Jones has been the class of the class, with seasons of 6-11.5-6 sacks. Irvin and Coples each has 16.5 sacks over their three seasons. Irvin and Jones have Super Bowl rings.
But McClellin, Perry, Branch and Upshaw have been major disappointments for teams that made them priority picks expressly to upgrade pass rushes. The Bears are not expected to pick up the fifth-year option on McClellin’s rookie contract, nor are the Packers with Perry’s.
Make no mistake…
The best linebackers in the 2012 draft class were inside linebackers: Luke Kuechly to Carolina, Bobby Wagner to Seattle, both Pro Bowl honorees.
But most edge linebackers chosen with No. 1 picks have a hierarchy of skill sets, and the 2015 group will be measured by it as well:
“Pass rush is the first thing that comes to mind,” Pace said. “Edge speed. The ability to hit the quarterback. And then also the ability to set the edge and get off a block. But pass rush is the number one priority.”
[NBC SHOP: Gear up for the draft, Bears fans!]
The Denver Broncos chose a front-seven defensive player in with their first pick in the first three drafts while Fox was their head coach and a cornerback last year. As to whether he sees that pattern continuing in Chicago, Fox deadpanned at last month’s NFL owner’s meetings:
“I think we’ll let you know in late April.”