Courtland Sutton

Five questions the Bears will begin to answer this week at the NFL Combine

Five questions the Bears will begin to answer this week at the NFL Combine

Ryan Pace, Matt Nagy and the Bears’ coaching staff have had about a month and a half to evaluate their team, and will head to Indianapolis for the NFL Scouting Combine knowing the strengths and weaknesses of a group that went 5-11 in 2017. 

While the Combine doesn’t bump up to the beginning of free agency, as it did a year ago, the free agent landscape will begin to take shape this week, as will the draft plans of the Bears and the seven teams picking ahead of them in April. So with that in mind, here are five scenarios to watch develop as the Bears begin efforts to shape their 2018 roster:

1. How many quarterbacks go in the top seven?

The Bears drafted their franchise quarterback a year ago, but a deep 2018 class of signal-callers presents some interesting options for Pace with the eighth overall pick. As things stand heading to Indianapolis, four of the six teams picking ahead of the Bears have a “need” at quarterback: The Cleveland Browns (picks Nos. 1 and 4), the New York Giants (No. 2), the Denver Broncos (No. 5) and the New York Jets (No. 6). 

Conveniently, there are four quarterbacks who head to the Combine with legitimate shots of being top-10 picks: USC’s Sam Darnold, UCLA’s Josh Rosen, Wyoming’s Josh Allen and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield. Perhaps Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph or Louisville’s Lamar Jackson interview, test and throw their way into the top 10 as well. The point: This could be an ideal situation for the Bears to be sitting at No. 8. 

Pace likes to talk about draft “clouds,” as in groups of five or six players that realistically could be available when his team picks. As the Bears begin looking to create that cloud, could they realistically put someone like N.C. State defensive end Bradley Chubb or Alabama defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick in it?

The short answer: Probably not. The first decider of how many teams draft a quarterback before the Bears will be where Kirk Cousins signs; i.e., if he goes to the Broncos or the Jets, that takes them out of the quarterback market in April. And not all four teams are guaranteed to take a quarterback, even if Cousins signs elsewhere — maybe Denver tries to address its offensive line, or the Jets are able to start rebuilding their offense with Penn State running back Saquon Barkley. 

But the Bears are going to Indianapolis not only to begin building their cloud at No. 8, but clouds in case they trade down. The Arizona Cardinals (No. 15), Los Angeles Chargers (No. 17) and Buffalo Bills (Nos. 21 and 22) all could be in the market to draft a quarterback, or maybe the New Orleans Saints (No. 27) see the successor to Drew Brees in this class and want to make a move to get him. 

The overarching point here is the Bears will have options to trade down or grab a top-five player at No. 8 come April if there are three or four quarterbacks who teams deem worthy of being “franchise” guys, as the Bears did with Trubisky a year ago. 

2. What happens at cornerback?

The Bears could try to re-sign Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara and tender restricted free agent Bryce Callahan and keep the status quo at the top end of that position. Or they could re-sign Fuller and Amukamara and still draft a cornerback at No. 8. Or they could decide to blow the whole thing up and sign two veteran cornerbacks from a deep free agent class. Or they could re-sign Fuller and pair him with a free agent, even a high-priced one like Trumaine Johnson given their healthy cap situation and a lack of top-end free agents at wide receiver and edge rusher. Or they could be blown away by Ohio State’s Denzel Ward, Iowa’s Josh Jackson or another corner in Indianapolis and draft one of them to pair with a free agent. Or they could do something completely different.

There are plenty of options for Pace to sift through in the next few weeks, but the endgame for all of them is to find the best pairing of cornerbacks for a defense that showed signs of progress last season. The worst-case scenario for Pace isn’t all that bad: If he misses out on all of his top targets — let’s say he doesn’t re-sign Fuller, and Johnson/Malcolm Butler/E.J. Gains/Brashaud Breeland all spurn the Bears to sign somewhere else — he could probably get by on a mid-level cornerback signing and then drafting someone in the first two rounds in April. 

But given the Bears’ aforementioned cap situation and the lack of big-money receivers and edge rushers expected to hit free agency, 2018 could be an ideal year for Pace to splurge at cornerback. He tried to last year, but was turned down by Stephone Gilmore and A.J. Bouye. If the Bears are a more desirable destination in 2018 than they were in 2017 — with a new head coach, a promising young quarterback and a stable defensive coaching staff — maybe they can finally land that big-ticket cornerback.

3. Is No. 8 too high to draft an interior offensive lineman?

On the surface, the stars look aligned for the Bears to draft Notre Dame’s Quenton Nelson with the eighth overall pick: They recently released 31-year-old Josh Sitton to get younger and cheaper at guard, Nelson is a good bet to be the most consistent offensive player in 2018’s draft class, and one of Matt Nagy’s first hires was Harry Hiestand, Nelson’s college offensive line coach. 

But while teams frequently use top-10 picks on offensive linemen, rarely do they use them on guards. In recent memory, Jonathan Cooper (No. 7 to the Arizona Cardinals in 2013) and Chance Warmack (No. 10 to the Tennessee Titans in 2013) never played the way you’d expect a “can’t-miss” guard to play. 

Releasing Sitton is a clue in and of itself. Would the Bears be happy to play a left tackle who’s productive but also on the wrong side of 30 $8 million? It seems more likely than paying that money to a guard, for the simple reason that it’s a lot easier to find consistent interior offensive line play than it is to find a good tackle. The Bears can probably accomplish getting younger and cheaper at guard via free agency. 

And consider this, too: The Carolina Panthers, reportedly (link), aren’t looking to place the franchise tag on 26-year-old All-Pro guard Andrew Norwell, because it’d carry a salary with it usually reserved for a tackle. Or to put it another way: The Panthers may be reluctant to pay a guard tackle money. Could the Bears be reluctant to draft a guard in a spot usually reserved for a tackle?

If that’s the Bears initial mindset heading into Indianapolis, Nelson, though, is certainly a guy who could change it. 

"He's great in the run game, he's very good in the pass game," NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. "He was coached by Harry Hiestand, who I think is one of the best offensive line coaches I've ever been around, who is now with the Chicago Bears. So he's got talent, he's got coaching, and at the end of the day, he loves football. I know this kid. He's got a passion for the game. He's got a passion to be the best he can be. So when you add all those things up, unless he's injured, unless he gets a bad injury, I love the fact that I think he can come in day one and be a high-level NFL player."

One final note here: A former Notre Dame player joked that Nelson and tackle Mike McGlinchey — who’s projected as a later first-round pick — are fighting to see who can get drafted by the Bears so they can be coached by Hiestand again. 

4. Who’s the second-best edge rusher in this draft class?

The guess here is Chubb — who racked up 20 sacks his final two years at N.C. State — won’t be on the board when the Bears pick at No. 8. But with edge rusher a need for a Bears team that released Pernell McPhee this week and still has to figure out where it is with Willie Young (contract) and Leonard Floyd (injury), expect one of Pace’s focuses in Indianapolis to be on finding out which edge guys could fit into his cloud at No. 8 or later in the draft. 

We’ll throw these two guys out there to start: UT-San Antonio’s Marcus Davenport and Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds. They’re two different players with different skillsets, but both could wind up in play for the Bears at No. 8. 

Davenport flashed talent and potential at the Senior Bowl last month, and if he tests well in Indianapolis could start being a top-10 mainstay in mock drafts. He could fit the raw, athletic mold of Pace’s previous first-round picks. We’ll have a better idea if he does in a week. 

Edmunds might be the best linebacker in this class, but he’s not necessarily a true edge rusher. He totaled 10 sacks in his final two years at Virginia Tech, but wasn’t necessarily asked to rush the quarterback as much. He’s an elite run stuffer (32 1/2 TFLs in 2016-2017) and could be a better fit as an inside linebacker. But the thought around draft circles is Edmunds is a talented enough player to make an impact no matter if he’s an inside or outside linebacker. He’s someone the Bears could very well have in their No. 8 cloud in April. 

5. What about receiver?

Jarvis Landry could still be on the market after the Miami Dolphins placed the franchise tag on him, but would the Bears really want to give up a package of picks for a guy who averaged less than 10 yards a catch last year? The Jacksonville Jaguars seem likely to hang on to Allen Robinson, and while the Los Angeles Rams may let Sammy Watkins hit the open market, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he didn’t go anywhere. 

Without an elite wideout for Pace to try to lure to Chicago with a hefty contract and the promise of a young franchise quarterback, the Bears will need to find the right mix of receivers via free agency and the draft. Could that mean signing a few mid-level receivers and then drafting someone with the eighth overall pick? 

For the Bears, that question will begin to be answered this week. Maybe they come away from Indianapolis feeling like Alabama’s Calvin Ridley has what it takes to hold up in the NFL despite a small-ish 6-foot-1, 190 pound frame. Or maybe Coutland Sutton runs a better-than-expected 40-yard dash and is in play to be the first receiver off the board.

Ridley and Sutton are the two guys who’ve been thrown around in early mock drafts as potential top-10 picks, but there could always be someone who tests well in Indianapolis and gets his name into that conversation. But the Bears will also begin building their clouds of players for the second round and beyond, and how the second/third/fourth tier of receivers test/interview in Indianapolis will begin to bring those evaluations into focus, too. 

Imperfect 10: First look at who might be available for Bears in NFL Draft

Imperfect 10: First look at who might be available for Bears in NFL Draft

With the NFL draft three months from this Friday, our Bears insiders JJ Stankevitz & Moon Mullin take their first look at the Top 10 picks and evaluate the Bears options with the 8th overall pick.

Quarterback picks could scramble the Top 10, which would work to the Bears' benefit by pushing talent at other positions down toward No. 8.

GM Ryan Pace has traded up to land each of his last two first-rounders (Leonard Floyd, Mitch Trubisky) and he will have options to move up or down and draft whatever he didn’t secure in free agency.

1. Cleveland Browns 

Moon: Sam Darnold, QB USC

Browns failed to restart their franchise with a QB in ’17. Darnold has flaws and has been a turnover risk, but Browns can’t be picky at 0-16.

JJ: Sam Darnold, QB, USC

Darnold seemed like a lock to be 2018’s No. 1 overall pick a year ago, but he went from a 31/9 TD/INT ratio in 2016 to a 26/13 TD/INT ratio in 2017. Still, the tools are there, and Cleveland could see in him the quarterback who finally leads them out of such a dark stretch of losing. 

2. New York Giants

Moon: Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA

Eli may want to follow Brady and Brees in the longevity dream but Giants need a pipeline’er like Garoppolo was for Brady, and Rosen will need development.

JJ: Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming

How Darnold, Allen and Josh Rosen shake out is going to be fascinating to watch from now until late April, with two of the three likely going in the first two picks. Allen’s stock is high as draft evaluations begin, though that could change between now, the Combine, pro days and then the draft. 

3. Indianapolis Colts

Moon: Bradley Chubb, DE, NC State

GM Chris Ballard will want to give his new coach a jump start and a pass rusher on the fast Lucas Oil turf is a must for NFL’s 31st sack ‘D’ corps. Too high to take a flyer on LSU’s Arden Key with his concerns.

JJ: Bradley Chubb, DE, NC State

Chubb is an absolute menace who instantly would give the Colts’ lackluster pass rush a disruptive jolt. With quarterbacks going off the board in the first two selections, Chris Ballard gets his pick of the best players available — and goes with the best one. 

4. Cleveland Browns (from Houston)

Moon: Minkah Fitzpatrick, CB, Alabama

Letting Joe Haden go hurt in more ways than one and Browns need a shutdown force in division with elite defenses, all except for the Browns’ (7 INT).

JJ: Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State

The thought of pairing Barkley with Darnold is awfully enticing for a Browns team that hasn’t ranked in the top half of the league in points scored since 2008. Barkley is as complete a running back as you’ll find in the draft, rushing for 1,271 yards but also catching 54 passes for 632 yards at Penn State last year. 

5. Denver Broncos 

Moon: Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming

Since Peyton Manning finished, Broncos have had woeful QB results, and bringing back Brock Osweiler was a low point among several (Paxton Lynch, Trevor Siemian), all playing in ’17.

JJ: Quenton Nelson, OL, Notre Dame

Nelson may be the best offensive player in this draft — and yes, that includes Barkley in this discussion — and has the physicality and athleticism to be a Pro Bowler from Year 1 to Year 10 in the league. Denver needs to address its quarterback situation, and they could opt for Rosen here, but Nelson seems too good to pass up in this spot. 

6. New York Jets 

Moon: Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State

RBs were devalued a few years ago. Not now, with 6 of top 8 rushers in playoffs, the need for a run game is back in vogue.

JJ: Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA

The Jets could be the landing spot for whatever quarterback is squeezed out of the top two, with 2016 second-round pick Christian Hackenberg looking like a bust at this point. The Jets need to do more to improve their offensive structure around the quarterback with a better offensive line and running game, and could look for Texas tackle Connor Williams here. But in a year that could be a bumper crop of quarterbacks, the Jets get theirs. 

7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 

Moon: Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State

Ward was a backfield mate of Marshon Lattimore and consistently solid. Bucs haven’t gone DL at No. 1 in 5 years and want to remain elite up front but Ward projects as day-one starter.

JJ: Minkah Fitzpatrick, CB, Alabama

Fitzpatrick looks like the second-best defensive player in the draft, and the Bucs might be jumping for joy if he falls to them at No. 7. Fitzpatrick could be either a corner or a safety, but no matter where he is, he seems like a good bet to be great. 

8. Chicago Bears

Moon: Quenton Nelson, OL, Notre Dame

Too high to take a WR. OL coach Harry Hiestand developed Nelson, and protecting Mitch Trubisky is a franchise-grade mandate. Texas OT Connor Williams is the other option, with more experience on the edge.

JJ: Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama

In going through the first seven picks here, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Bears traded out of this spot, since I agree with Moon that it’s probably too high to take a wide receiver. Perhaps Ryan Pace is able to trade up for the third consecutive year to snag Fitzpatrick or Nelson; or maybe he’ll look to trade down to add some more picks and still have a shot at landing Ridley, a corner (like Ohio State’s Denzel Ward), an outside linebacker (like Texas’ Malik Jefferson) or a tackle (like Notre Dame’s Mike McGlinchey, who played under OL coach Harry Hiestand in college) later in the first round. 

9. San Francisco 49ers

Moon: Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia

Pairing a force player with Reuben Foster immediately creates a defensive core, and Smith is a hedge against Foster injury issues. But Alabama WR Calvin Ridley may be too good to pass up as complement to QB Jimmy Garoppolo.

JJ: Courtland Sutton, WR, SMU

The lure of adding a go-to wide receiver to pair with Jimmy Garoppolo — who made a ragtag bunch of pass-catchers look pretty good after getting the 49ers’ starting nod in December — is too strong to pass up here. Sutton caught 62 passes for 1,085 yards with 12 touchdowns for SMU in 2017.

10. Oakland Raiders

Moon: Vita Vae, DT, Washington

Ridley would fit Raiders’ tradition for impact passing offense if he lasts this long, and Raiders very likely to go offense to muscle up for Jon Gruden’s program and support Derek Carr. But Gruden’s Oakland and Tampa Bay teams were stout on defense. 

JJ: Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia

In Smith, the Raiders could see the rock of their defense for years to come under Jon Gruden. This may be a little high for an inside linebacker, though, and Ward could be an option here as well.