NFL Combine

Bears will have plenty of mid-round running back options to evaluate at NFL Combine

Bears will have plenty of mid-round running back options to evaluate at NFL Combine

The Bears will head to Indianapolis next week for the NFL Scouting Combine with a number of goals, chief among them to determine if there’s a running back in this year’s draft pool who could be part of the fix to the team’s inconsistent ground game. 

The good news, to a point, is that running back generally is a good “need” to have going into a draft. As ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. pointed out on a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, running backs aren’t usually in demand in a given draft, which often pushes players lower than the grade they’re assigned. For instance: A player with a second-round grade could fall to the third round, a third-round player could fall to the fourth, etc. 

So that means the Bears will be able to cast a fairly wide net in seeking out a running back who not only would fit Matt Nagy’s offense, but would carry the “best player available” designation that’s guided Ryan Pace’s drafts over the last four years. 

That last bit is important — even though the Bears seemed to have a clear and glaring need at outside linebacker last April, Pace only drafted one edge rusher: Kylie Fitts, with the team’s sixth-round selection. This was long before Khalil Mack was a remotely realistic trade possibility. The Bears stuck to their board and didn’t reach to take a player based on need. 

So with that backdrop, Kiper offered a few suggestions for running backs that could interest the Bears in the coming weeks and months. The first name the longtime draft guru floated: Penn State’s Miles Sanders. 

“I was really impressed with the way he played in some games, in other games he didn’t get a lot of help from the line and that was a factor for him,” Kiper said. “But to me, he’s a talented football player. He came in highly regarded, he’s got an ability to make people miss in the hole, he runs with good body lean.”

Sanders was Saquon Barkley’s backup his first two years at Penn State, but exploded for 1,274 yards on 220 carries (5.8 yards/rush) with nine touchdowns as a junior in 2018. He doesn’t have the pass-catching profile, though, the Bears may want — he only had 24 receptions for 139 yards last year. 

Two other names mentioned by Kiper as potential mid-round options: Kentucky’s Benny Snell and Stanford’s Bryce Love. Snell is a powerful, bruising back who rushed for over 1,000 yards in each of his three years in Lexington, while Love is a former Heisman Trophy contender who tore his ACL in December and could miss his rookie season. Neither have much pass-catching experience in college. 

Still, just because a player didn’t do something in college doesn’t mean he can’t do it in the pros. Different offenses ask different things of running backs, and in-person interviews and raw testing data can reveal someone with the potential to do more than they put on tape in college. 

Trying to project who the Bears may be interested in with picks in the third through seventh rounds may feel like blindly throwing darts at a board right now. The picture may become clearer after the combine and then into various schools’ pro days in March. The good news is the Bears will have options — they’ll just have to work hard to identify the right one.

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Post-NFL Combine mock draft: Will Quenton Nelson be available at No. 8, or does that even matter?

Post-NFL Combine mock draft: Will Quenton Nelson be available at No. 8, or does that even matter?

NFL coaching staffs and front offices spent the last week in a whirlwind of interviews, test scores and medicals, and began building out their draft boards in earnest in Indianapolis. So with that in mind, here's our latest mock draft, with another one coming after free agency dies down -- and, most importantly, we know where Kirk Cousins winds up. 

1. Cleveland Browns

JJ: Sam Darnold, QB, USC

Josh Allen left the NFL Combine with plenty of buzz (and not just because of, but Darnold still seems like the top quarterback in this class for now. 

Moon: Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State

The far-and-away top rusher in this draft lit up the Scouting Combine, and the cluster of QB prospects, none as high-rated as Barkley, still give the Browns options at No. 4.

2. New York Giants

JJ:  Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State

Even with Eli Manning in the twilight of his career, and with a number of highly regarded quarterbacks on the board, the Giants go with a guy who looks like the best player in this draft. Is a running back at No. 2 too high? This is how general manager Dave Gettleman responded to that question last week: “The bottom line is, is the guy a football player? This whole myth of devaluing running backs, I find it kind of comical. At the end of the day, if he’s a great player, he’s a great player.”

Moon: Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA

Drills and interviews will strike teams differently but with Barkley gone and Eli’s time running out, Rosen rates as best of this year’s QB clump. Sam Darnold has been prominent but USC QB’s have a very suspect history (for every Carson Palmer, there are Matt Barkley, Matt Leinart, Mark Sanchez and even Todd Marinovich). Rosen could be the last ‘SC guy to plummet on draft day. Of course, UCLA did produce Cade McNown, but Troy Aikman was also a Bruin.

3. Indianapolis Colts

JJ: Bradley Chubb, DE, N.C. State

The Colts’ woeful pass rush generated only 25 sacks last year, and Chubb is the best defensive player in this class and the only clear-cut elite pass rusher available. With Barkley off the board at No. 2, this is a layup for Chris Ballard. 

Moon: Bradley Chubb, DE, N.C. State

Defense is such a priority for the Colts and its new coaching staff. Frank Reich likely can work Andrew Luck into something and a franchise pass rusher raises everything on that side of the football.

4. Cleveland Browns (from Houston)

JJ: Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, Alabama

With Allen, Rosen and Baker Mayfield still on my board here, and Barkley off it, the Browns very well could trade down here. But in the event they don’t, Fitzpatrick would be a strong pick with the ability to play either safety or cornerback at an elite level. 

Moon: Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma

Measurables may not be ideal (6-foot-1) but they weren’t for Russell Wilson either. Mayfield made all the throws and has the benefit of coming from a big-time program.

5. Denver Broncos

JJ: Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming

The Broncos wouldn’t necessarily have to play Allen right away, which seems like a good situation for a guy with off-the-charts talent but some accuracy issues at Wyoming. Don't be surprised if Denver goes quarterback if there's a healthy debate between Allen and Mayfield, given the Broncos' coaching staff had the benefit of coaching both during the Senior Bowl. 

Moon: Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming

Denver needs a QB hit and evaluations will determine which one. If the Broncos land Kirk Cousins, they’ll try to trade out of here but John Elway needs to hit on a QB somewhere.

6. New York Jets

JJ: Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma

With some feelings around Indianapolis last week that Kirk Cousins could sign with the Minnesota Vikings, even if it means taking less money than the Jets could offer him, New York goes with a quarterback here. Quite a few teams came away impressed with Mayfield at the Combine, as was the case at the Senior Bowl. He could be a media star in New York if he were to lead the Jets to be competitive in the AFC East. 

Moon: Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, Alabama

QB a more pressing need but this is the top DB in the draft. Jets have been in the Kirk Cousins Derby, too, which could ultimately scramble the top 10 by the time teams are on the clock.

7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

JJ: Quenton Nelson, OG, Notre Dame

Tampa Bay’s rushing attack was brutal last year, averaging a paltry 3.7 yards per carry (27th in the NFL). Nelson is an absolute mauler, and is one of the best offensive line prospects to come out of college in recent memory. That he’s a guard shouldn’t matter much here. 

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 five years and want to remain elite up front but Ward projects as day-one starter.

8. Chicago Bears

JJ: Tremaine Edmunds, LB, Virginia Tech

Edmunds is a freak athlete who only turns 20 a few days after the NFL Draft. While he only had 5 1/2 sacks last year with Virginia Tech, he said last week he’s confident he could succeed at outside linebacker, which would certainly help fill a glaring need for a Bears team that needs at least one more reliable edge rusher. “I don't limit myself so I can perfect my craft at whatever position it is,” Edmunds said. “Whatever position they ask me to play, I'll be fine."

Moon: Tremaine Edmunds, LB, Virginia Tech

If there’s a trade-down scenario for Nelson, Bears would seriously consider. But the need after releasing Pernell McPhee is for rush-LB and those are too rare and too expensive in free agency. Edmunds has length for 3-4 OLB or possible ILB when Bears go nickel. Decision will be between Edmunds, with length, and Roquan Smith, with better production (6.5 sacks, 14 TFL in ’17).

9. San Francisco 49ers

JJ: Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama

Ridley is the most polished route-runner in this draft class and would be a good fit for Jimmy Garoppolo and that hype-fueled 49ers offense. He’s probably not worth the No. 8 pick for the Bears, unless they whiff on all their top receiver targets, but if they were to trade down and he was available at, say, No. 11, that may make more sense. 

Moon: Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia

Assuming Bears don’t grab Smith, he is a hedge against Ruben Foster injury and deepening character issues. Calvin Ridley may be too good to pass up as complement to QB Jimmy Garoppolo.

10. Oakland Raiders

JJ: Vita Vea, DT Washington

Vea did approximately 500 bench press reps and ran a ridiculous 40-yard dash for a man of his 347-pound size. He could be an interior force for years to come for whatever team drafts him. 

Moon: Vita Vea, 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's picks Nos. 11-32:

11. Miami Dolphins: Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State
12. Cincinnati Bengals: Connor Williams, OL, Texas
13. Washington Redskins: Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia
14. Green Bay Packers: Mike McGlinchey, OL, Notre Dame
15. Arizona Cardinals: Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA

16. Baltimore Ravens: Courtland Sutton, WR, SMU
17. Los Angeles Chargers: Derwin James, S, Florida State
18. Seattle Seahawks: Harold Landry, OLB, Boston College
19. Dallas Cowboys: Da’Ron Payne, DT, Alabama
20. Detroit Lions: Derrius Guice, RB, LSU

21. Buffalo Bills: Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville
22. Buffalo Bills: Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M
23. Los Angeles Rams: Marcus Davenport, DE, UTSA
24. Carolina Panthers: James Washington, WR, Oklahoma State
25. Tennessee Titans: Uchenna Nwosu, OLB, USC

26. Atlanta Falcons: Isaiah Wynn, OG, Georgia
27. New Orleans Saints: Hayden Hurst, TE, South Carolina
28. Pittsburgh Steelers: Rashaan Evans, LB, Alabama
29. Jacksonville Jaguars: Dallas Goedert, TE, South Dakota State
30. Minnesota Vikings: Mike Hughes, CB, UCF
31. New England Patriots: Kolton Miller, OL, UCLA
32. Philadelphia Eagles: Sony Michel, RB, Georgia

What makes Quenton Nelson great? The guys who faced him in college explain

USA Today

What makes Quenton Nelson great? The guys who faced him in college explain

INDIANAPOLIS — Quenton Nelson could break a common thought in NFL circles that guards aren’t worth high draft picks, given it’s generally easier to find a solid guard than it is a solid tackle. But the 6-foot-5, 329 pound bruiser isn’t just a solid player; he has all the makings of an elite player, the kind of guy who solidifies a position for a decade. 

Nelson offered a pretty good sales pitch for himself last week, pointing to the importance of interior linemen in a league in which guys like the Rams’ Aaron Donald and the Eagles’ Fletcher Cox are such disruptive forces. The Bears probably don’t need the pitch, given offensive line coach Harry Hiestand knows the ins and outs of Nelson’s game after coaching him at Notre Dame for the last four years. 

But if anyone needs any convincing on Nelson’s talent, take it from some of the guys who had to face him in college: He really is *that* good. 

Stanford defensive tackle Harrison Phillips said Nelson was the best player he faced in his college career. Phillips is training for the draft with Nelson in San Diego, and offered this analysis at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis on Saturday:

“He’s very sound with his technique,” Philips said. “He has great technique. And his passion for the game is a reason why he’s successful. It’s all those steps he takes.”

Georgia’s NFL-bound interior duo — Trenton Thompson and John Atkins — were similarly complimentary of Nelson, even though the Bulldogs largely were able to shut down Notre Dame’s offense when the two teams met last September. 

“He’s a great offensive lineman,” Thompson said. “He’s got good willpower.”

Atkins saw some clips of Nelson’s punishing blocks here and there — like him piledriving this LSU player into the turf — and was happy to say he didn’t wind up on Nelson’s highlight reel. 

“I saw a lot of it,” Atkins said. “I was like, man, he’s a really good player.”

N.C. State nose guard B.J. Hill faced Nelson twice in his college career — once in the soggy midst of Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and another in more favorable conditions in 2017 — and said matching up with a player of Nelson’s caliber helped build his own confidence as he takes the next step in his career.

“I can play with anybody, because he’s one of the best guards in the nation,” Hill said. “I feel like I can play with anybody if I can play with him.”

And Miami’s R.J. McIntosh, who got the best of Nelson a few times but also got driven into the turf during the Hurricanes’ win over the Irish in November, specifically pointed to Nelson’s strength as the toughest part of facing him. 

“He’s a great player,” McIntosh said. “He always tried — he was physical. He never let you just do anything to him. That kind of stood out to me from anybody else or any O-line. The whole O-line was good, but him as a player, he’s a great player.”