Drew Brees

Game prediction: Can the Bears' defense slow the different, yet effective, Saints offense?

Game prediction: Can the Bears' defense slow the different, yet effective, Saints offense?

From 2014-2016, about 63 percent of the plays ran by the New Orleans Saints were passes. Through six games in 2017, the Saints have passed 57 percent of the time, underscoring an evolution of Sean Payton’s offense in the twilight of Drew Brees’ career. 

These aren’t the throw-it-all-over-the-place Saints of years past, with the 38-year-old Brees operating a more balanced offense with running backs Mark Ingram (89 carries, 389 yards) and Alvin Kamara (34 carries, 215 yards). Brees is averaging 275 yards per game so far, the first time that rate has been under 300 yards since 2010. 

And that’s been an effective approach: New Orleans is averaging 28 1/2 points per game, has won four in a row and looks to have the inside track on winning the NFC South. The Bears’ defense, for as good as they’ve been as a collective group over the last few weeks, will probably allow some points in the Superdome. The trick is to keep things as close as possible for this group, which they’ve shown they can do so long as catastrophic mistakes are avoided on offense and special teams. 

An X-Factor here for the Bears, though: Not only is defensive end Akiem Hicks playing the best football of his career (six sacks and outstanding run support in seven games), but he didn't leave the Saints on good terms in 2015 when he was dealt to the New England Patriots for blocking tight end Michael Hoomanawanui. The last thing the Saints' offense line -- which will be missing starting right guard Larry Warford -- needs is extra motivation from a guy in Hicks who's playing at an All-Pro level this year. 

New Orleans’ run defense is vulnerable (4.9 yards/carry, tied for second-worst in the NFL), but this group has been good against the pass, which may not be conducive to a breakout game from Mitchell Trubisky. The best thing the Bears could do would be run the ball successfully and control the clock, but that may be difficult if New Orleans sells out to stop the run with eight or more men in the box on a consistent basis. 

While the Bears have shown some good things (specifically on defense) in wins over the Baltimore Ravens and Carolina Panthers, this trip to New Orleans looks difficult, and leaving Louisiana with a win will be a tall task.

Prediction: Saints 26, Bears 16

Ryan Pace focusing on 'best player available,' at No. 3: Could that be Deshaun Watson?

Ryan Pace focusing on 'best player available,' at No. 3: Could that be Deshaun Watson?

Last month, Ryan Pace described his day-before-the-draft press conference as being one of the “hardest” he does all year.

With only a little over 24 hours until the Bears go on the clock with the third overall pick in the NFL Draft, the third-year Bears general manager wasn’t tipping his hand while answering the media’s questions on Wednesday.

One of Pace’s overarching points, though, was that the Bears have to focus on taking the best player available at No. 3 Thursday night. Pace said the Bears have three players targeted for that spot, and what the Cleveland Browns or San Francisco 49ers do ahead of them won’t impact their decision.

What also won’t impact the Bears’ decision is the need to draft a quarterback.

“I think you get yourself into trouble if you’re not sticking with our philosophy of best player available,” Pace said. “When you start trying to manufacture things or create things, that’s when teams get into dangerous water. I think if we just stay with guys we have a consensus on and best player available we’ll be in good shape.”

Plenty of draft observers — ESPN’s Mel Kiper, Rotoworld’s Josh Norris, NFL Network’s Mike Manock, CBS Sports’ Rob Rang — don’t have a quarterback in the top three of their respective “big boards,” which are headlined by the likes of Texas A&M edge rusher Myles Garrett, LSU safety Jamal Adams, Stanford defensive end Solomon Thomas and/or Alabama’s Jonathan Allen, among a few others.

But what if the Bears’ consensus is that a quarterback is a top-three player?

Over the last few months, Pace has consistently touted intangibles as being of prominent importance when evaluating a quarterback. At the combine in Indianapolis, he pointed to Drew Brees taking Purdue — a perennial Big Ten bottom-feeder — to a Rose Bowl. Pace, of course, knows Brees’ NFL success well having watched him in New Orleans before becoming the Bears’ general manager. 

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There’s one quarterback in this year’s draft class that could have those intangibles to be considered at No. 3: Clemson’s Deshaun Watson. 

Before Watson took over as a full-time starter in 2015, Clemson established itself as a perennial Orange Bowl contender that’d win 10 or 11 games a year. But Watson took Clemson to a different level, going 28-2 and reaching the College Football Playoff title game in 2015 (a loss to Alabama) and 2016 (a win over Alabama). 

“It's big with every position, the intangibles,” Pace said. ‘That's what I continue to stress to our guys right now, because you can get enamored with these physical qualities or these traits. There's enough good players where we don't need to change our standards.

“I really like our locker room right now. I really like the vibe right now in that locker room with the guys that we have here, it feels good, and I want to continue to add to that vibe and add to that excitement. It's up to me to impress that to our scouts and to our coaches that, hey, we've got to make sure we're adding the right kinds of guys, the right kinds of intangibles to our room.”

If Watson isn’t among the team’s consensus top three, he could fit into one of the “clouds” Pace talked about if the Bears trade down into the middle or later part of the first round. But trading down (or back into the first round) carries risk if the Bears believe Watson could be a franchise-changing quarterback. The No. 3 pick is the highest the Bears have had since the early 1970s, and it’s a position the team hardly wants to be in again.

Pace, of course, wasn’t going to reveal much the day before he and the Bears make a critically-important selection. The Bears know who they want, and Thursday night, so will everyone else.

“There’s been so much that’s come into this since August, so you’ve just trust what your eyes see and don’t over-think it,” Pace said. “Trust your conviction and trust your instincts and trust your gut.

“You can get into trouble right now if you’re up there watching additional tape and doing all that; I think you can over-scout players. By now we’ve got enough opinions. We’ve met with enough players. We’ve been through the Combine and been through the Pro Days and seen players play live. At this point we feel good. I don’t think we’re in a situation where we’re overthinking anything.”

Bears NFL Draft Preview: Franchise-QB search expected to continue sooner rather than later

Bears NFL Draft Preview: Franchise-QB search expected to continue sooner rather than later

CSNChicago.com Bears Insider John "Moon" Mullin goes position-by-position as the Bears approach the 2017 Draft, taking a look at what the Bears have, what they might need and what draft day could have in store. Sixth in a series.

Bears pre-draft situation

Jay Cutler lasted through two years under the John Fox coaching staff while his 2014 contract still contained some guaranteed money. The new regime under GM Ryan Pace was given the option by Chairman George McCaskey of cutting ties earlier regardless of financial commitment but Adam Gase and Dowell Loggains as coordinators made a go of it before Cutler's injuries (shoulder and thumb last season) and mediocre play regardless of supporting cast made the organization's decision for it.

Resolving a now-decades-old problem position has been goal No. 1 of Pace, with all indications that the process will be ongoing, vs. the Cutler's-fine approach of the past eight years. Step one was signing Tampa Bay Buccaneers backup Mike Glennon to a three-year deal but with $16 million of the $18.5 million guaranteed coming in 2017. The situation establishes Glennon as the starter, with a chance to put a hold on the job beyond this season with a breakout year.

"It's a leap of faith to some degree," Fox acknowledged during the NFL owners meetings. "But I think you do that in a lot of different positions and evaluations of personnel and people. The big thing with him is that he has been in NFL football games. He has been in a lot of systems and around different players and personalities and, I think, handled it well."

The decision was made to move on from Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley as backups, signing Mark Sanchez, 30, to a one-year pact worth $1 million guaranteed plus a per-game bonus that allows the deal to top out at $2 million. Connor Shaw showed promise before going down for the year with a broken leg suffered in preseason.

Pre-draft depth chart
 
Starter: Mike Glennon
Reserves: Mark Sanchez, Connor Shaw

Bears draft priority: High

The Glennon and Sanchez signings were modest financial and time commitments by NFL standards. Their depth chart has no "elite" in place and does not need another mid-range quarterback; they had that for eight years in Cutler and know what limitations a limited quarterback brings to a franchise.

Using Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints experience as the template, Pace has been clear that he is seeking a quarterback with the intangibles to do more than post statistics, going further to lift the collective team mojo, something too often painfully lacking during the Cutler tenure.

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All of which makes the quarterback draft options a level more interesting than the basic talent/traits assessments and evaluations that have circulated. The Bears have done extensive research on the quarterback prospects, and few envision scenarios where the Bears do not strike for one within the first several rounds.

The overarching No. 1 question: Will the Bears disregard draft slot (No. 3) and land a quarterback perhaps not graded that highly but with the intangibles the organization craves?

Question No. 2: Could quarterbacks go a surprising 1-2 with the Cleveland Browns tapping Mitchell Trubisky and San Francisco 49ers snatching Deshaun Watson?

As far as this year's class, "I'm not banging the table for any of them," said NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock, who tapped Clemson's Deshaun Watson as the No. 1 prospect in the 2017 draft class.

Keep an eye on:

DeShone Kizer, Notre Dame — The Bears sent a task force to South Bend for Kizer's Pro Day, in addition to a Combine interview and private meeting. Athletic but INT rate (2.7 percent), accuracy (60.7 completion percentage) and W-L record (14-11) nothing special.
 
Patrick Mahomes, Texas Tech — Has been likened to both Cutler and Brett Favre for big-play predispositions, mobility and arm abilities. May have widest hit-miss potential, with major upside but also weaknesses in decision-making that concern some. "I just think his fundamentals break down too many times," Mayock said.
 
Nathan Peterman, Pittsburgh — Bears coaches worked with him at Senior Bowl. Not as highly touted as others in the class but among most pro-ready and rates as possible nugget in mid-rounds — if left on the board that long.
 
Mitchell Trubisky, North Carolina — Bears were scouting him intently early last college season and invested a Combine interview and private workout in additional time with what some rate as the best-available at his position in a class short on "elite" talents. But opinions vary widely, with Trubisky being mentioned for Cleveland at No. 1 or for No. 12, for example.
 
Deshaun Watson, Clemson — Unquestioned intangibles leader with curious "negatives:" accuracy (67.4 career completion percentage) and turnovers (2.7 INT percentage). Two full years as starter, two appearances in national championship game.