NFL Draft

Bears Combine takeaways offer glimpses of a promising future at OL, CB, LB and more

Bears Combine takeaways offer glimpses of a promising future at OL, CB, LB and more

The NFL Scouting Combine ain’t what it used to be, which consisted of no real structure for media logistics and placement, meaning that the few days in Indy were rife with opportunities for casual interactions with coaches, scouts, agents and just about anybody – which is where the really good information lies.

Still, when Bears GM Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy go public, it’s generally news, even if it’s not NEWS. So some takeaways from their comments on Wednesday are possible, even if the comments were pretty much the same as the ones in their postseason press availability:

O-lining

Kyle Long renegotiating his contract with three years remaining creates some interesting, mostly good, situations for the Bears.

The Bears did have an out after three years, which did give them a bit of leverage at a time when Long’s recent health issues wouldn’t have put him in a strong position as a free agent.  But the Bears and Long elected to make the situation work, which projects as a major positive for an offense still in a semi-molten state.

It also cements in place, along with a top-shelf line coach, four-fifths of that line (Long, tackles Charles Leno and Bobby Massie, guard James Daniels) for what ideally will be at least three more years, something beyond rare in the fluid NFL. The final piece – center Cody Whitehair – is a priority for the front office as Whitehair enters the final year of his 2016 rookie deal coming off a Pro Bowl-alternate year.

This is of course a very big deal since these are the hands and feet entrusted with the well-being of one Mitchell Trubisky.

“Our offensive line right now,” Nagy said, “just the way they grew fundamentally—and a lot of that credit goes to [coach] Harry Hiestand for being such a great coach fundamentally with those guys—they believe in what he teaches them. He’s hard on them, but yet he loves them. They understand watching film how can they get better. You see that with every one of our guys right now.”

Having potentially four offensive linemen all in at least their second contracts typically would be cost-intensive, even with Daniels, Leno, Long and Daniels all clear draft and re-sign-your-own hits. And Trubisky’s looming mega-deal certainly figured into the math of the O-line and other contracts.

But the fact that the Bears got the Leno, Long and Massie deals done without needing to bid for them in free agency (a’la Kyle Fuller) says that they are in line with a planned structure that contemplates where the salary cap will be in the years those four will be together based on current contracts. And center is the most “affordable” O-line position after right tackle, so look for the Bears to get Whitehair done, as they have done with Leno and Eddie Goldman, at the outset of the season

Corner’ing the market

The No. 1 offseason need for the Bears remains the obvious situation at nickel-corner, with Bryce Callahan slated to hit a market that values cornerbacks in general roughly on par with pass rushers and behind only quarterbacks (using franchise-tag amounts as one measure).

What that market is will be extremely noteworthy.

And so is the fact that the Bears didn’t put, say, a transition tag on Callahan, a high-profile member of an elite defense. The Bears did that with Kyle Fuller and ended up needing to match an offer sheet tendered by the Green Bay Packers. So why not with Callahan?

The simple thought is that they’ve determined that the open market for Callahan won’t hit the heights that it did for Fuller, which it won’t be, obviously. And the transition tag puts a one-year bill of around $13 million for corners, which neither the Bears nor anyone else is likely to think a No. 3 corner is worth, particularly after paying Fuller and Prince Amukamara handsomely last offseason.

What the Bears likely have calculated as well is that they will have options if Callahan gets an offer that includes a legitimate shot at being a starter, which isn’t happening in Chicago.

Health-wise, one year later

One of the chief values for teams at the Combine is the chance to do fairly in-depth medical evaluations. Not that the information gained is conclusive; No. 1’s Kevin White (2015) and Leonard Floyd (2016), and No. 2 Adam Shaheen (2017) spent too much of their first two seasons hurt, albeit with injuries no Combine medical workups could’ve foretold.

But overall, Bears med staffers have done remarkably well with their work on draft prospects. Adrian Amos, Eddie Goldman, Roquan Smith, Mitchell Trubisky, James Daniels, Eddie Jackson, Tarik Cohen, Cody Whitehair, Anthony Miller, Bilal Nichols, Jordan Howard – some missed time at times there, but the Bears are nowhere near 12-4 without not only talented players from their drafts, but also healthy ones.

If there was a single most-impactful positive in the 2018, it was the relatively light injury blows suffered during the season. Consider:

Exactly one year ago Ryan Pace was announcing that the Bears were terminating the contract of defensive end Willie (“Don’t call me a linebacker!”) Young, one of the most respected vets in a changing locker room but an aging vet slowing down because of injuries. The Bears had ended 2017 with three (Young, Leonard Floyd, Pernell McPhee) of their top four edge rushers on IR, and the fourth (Lamarr Houston) on and off the roster (ultimately “off”) due to injuries.

All of which made then-coordinator Vic Fangio’s cobbling together a top-10 yardage and scoring defense perhaps the signature accomplishment of his distinguished career.

To put the health factor in perspective: Floyd in 2017 missed three times as many games (six) as the four 2018 starting linebackers (Floyd, Khalil Mack, Roquan Smith, Danny Trevathan) missed combined in 2018.

Why the Bears aren’t guaranteed to draft a running back in April

Why the Bears aren’t guaranteed to draft a running back in April

INDIANAPOLIS — For the first time as the Bears’ general manager, Ryan Pace enters an offseason with his team coming off a winning record and division title. With those marks come fewer glaring needs to be filled — for the 2019 Bears, it’s kicker, running back and then potential replacements for Bryce Callahan and/or Adrian Amos. 
 
So it might seem like the Bears are in a position where they can target needs more than best player available in the 2019 NFL Draft, given there aren’t a ton of holes on the roster. On the surface, it sounds like it could make sense: Why bother drafting, say, a defensive lineman if the depth there is good and you need help at running back? 
 
But that strategy can quickly become counter-productive, Pace explained. 
 
“You have to be really careful with that because that's when you make mistakes,” Pace said. “We always say best player available, and every team says that. But best player available, and if it's really close, you can lean toward your need. But you better not manufacture it or push it up just for a need or you'll regret that.”
 
The point here being: Just because the Bears need a running back who fits their offense better than Jordan Howard doesn’t mean they’re going to take one in April’s draft. Say they get to their fourth-round pick, No. 126 overall, and have a fifth-round grade on the best running back available, but a fourth-round grade on a wide receiver. They’ll take the receiver, even if they already have three starters locked in at that position and don’t desperately “need” a player there. 
 
So with that backdrop, the Bears will look for some certain things in the running backs they scout this week in Indianapolis. 
 
“In this offense, you want to be able to have a guy that has really good vision that can make guys miss,” coach Matt Nagy said. “And at the same time, there's that balance of being a hybrid being able to make things happen in the pass game too, but yet to where you're not one-dimensional. That's not easy. 
 
“There are a lot of backs in this draft right now that are one-dimensional, there are some that are hybrids and there are some that are really just scat guys.”
 
That line about the one-dimensional backs is important. If the Bears only identify a handful of hybrid running backs who they like, those guys may not be available when they pick. And if they’re not available, the Bears aren’t going to pick a running back just because they need a running back. 
 
Consider: A year ago, the Bears got to the fifth round of the draft having not used any of their previous four picks on an edge rusher, despite a significant need for more depth in that unit (this, of course, was long before a Khalil Mack trade was even a possibility). The Bears chose defensive lineman Bilal Nichols despite having Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris already in place. Nichols turned out to be a good find, someone who made an impact on the league’s best defense in 2018 – and that’s why teams stick to taking the best player available. 
 
That philosophy, though, will make it challenging for the Bears to identify the right running back while also making sure he’s someone who will be available with one of their five picks.  
 
“To me, it's fun,” Nagy said. “I like watching the film to see where guys are at and that's for every position. It will be fun to just kind of critique all of these positions we have here offensively and defensively and make sure that with the few picks that we have, we make the most of it."

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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