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.

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

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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.”

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.