Last week, I finished doing all the work for the 2019 Pro Football Weekly Draft Guide, and as I was finishing, the thought that came to my mid was: How are the Bears going to approach this draft?
We all know that the Khalil Mack trade and the move up to the second round last year to select Anthony Miller cost their picks in the first two rounds, so does that mean the Bears will go emptyhanded this year? Hardly. This year's might not be as strong as some in the opening round, but like all drafts, there is depth.
In the last few years, GM Ryan Pace has done a terrific job drafting in the middle and late rounds, where most clubs are looking for guys who can contribute and become eventual winning starters.
Pace has done better than that.
Two years ago, he selected All Pros in Eddie Jackson and Tarik Cohen in Round 4. Last year it was fifth-round defensive tackle Bilal Nichols from Delaware who became a strong starter by the end of the season. How does Pace do this?
What Pace and the Bears' scouting department are doing is identifying traits. The combination of traits and the circumstances that allowed these players to be available in the middle rounds have helped the Bears.
In the case of Jackson, he was injured early in the 2016 season at Alabama and couldn’t finish the year. He still wasn’t 100 percent healthy at the combine and the Alabama pro day, so teams were unsure about his physical capabilities. The tape showed a very solid player with great instincts. When the medical staff assured Pace that Jackson would be 100 percent for training camp, the Bears pulled the trigger. They essentially added a second-round player in the fourth round because of circumstances.
In the case of Cohen, he played at a lower level of competition and was 5-foot-6. How many players coming out of college at that height make an impact in the NFL? Throw in the fact that he played at the FCS level, and the chances were even smaller he would become what he is. Pace didn’t look at the height; he looked at speed, quickness and the ability to make big plays. His thinking was, if Cohen was used in the correct way, he could make an impact.
At Delaware in the 2017 season, Nichols was a 2-gap nose tackle playing in a scheme that negated his excellent physical traits. When scouts made a school call, they saw a strong player at the point of attack, but also someone who was not that productive (through no fault of his own). At the East-West Shrine game and then again at the Senior Bowl the following week, Nichols showed what he could do when let loose in a different scheme. Sure, he was raw. But the physical traits were there, just needing development.
In this year's draft, even without a first- and second-round pick, the Bears can find similar players. Which ones might they be looking at? Because it's only Feb. 11, t’s still too early to say. The draft process is just beginning. We have the combine in three more weeks, then Pro Days and, of course, veteran free agency. When the Bears complete that process, they will devise a plan for the draft.
Free agency is always a factor in developing that plan. The two major areas of player acquisition have to work hand in hand. The hope is that the strengths of free agency will complement the strengths of the draft. With the Bears not picking until the third round, that complicates matters a bit, as no one will have a strong idea of who is available at the end of the third round.
The big questions for the Bears: Who will they keep and lose in free agency? One question was already answered when they completed new contract with RT Bobby Massie. That takes away the immediate need on the offensive line.
Between now and the beginning of free agency in five weeks,we'll see whether they can also re-sign slot CB Bryce Callahan and/or SS Adrian Amos. We currently have no idea what Callahan and Amos are looking for contract-wise.
In the case of Amos, it will be relatively easy to find out what the market is for a fourth-year strong safety around the league. From there it's a matter of whether the Bears want to pay that sum, or if they let Amos hit the open market, where they'd compete with other teams for his services.
It could be that the price gets too high for the Bears' liking. If that is the case, I doubt the Bears would try and sign another free agent, as that cost be similiar. That brings in the draft, which doesn't include a deep safety class. The Bears could certainly get a quality safety in the third round, and probably the fourth, but after that, they would have to get lucky.
Determining the market for a slot corner is more difficult. Clubs can’t treat them like regular corners because they aren’t full-time players. Depending on the club, teams can be in their sub packages anywhere between 60-85 percent of the time. In 2018, the Bears were in sub roughly 80 better of the time. It basically became their base defense. With a new defensive coordinator in Chuck Pagano, it remains to be seen if he will play sub as much as Vic Fangio did.
Regardless, how much do the Bears offer Callahan? He can’t get Kyle Fuller or even Price Amukamara money, as they are full-time players. It has to be something less.
One thing the Bears have working in their favor is Callahan's size. There are a number of NFL teams that refuse to draft or sign a corner that is shorter than 5-10. Callahan is only a hair over 5-9, making him almost a full inch shorter than many teams' minimum standard for the position. That will automatically take some teams out of the equation. Still, there will be some interested if he reaches free agency, which makes the next five weeks interesting to watch.
If the Bears lose Callahan, can they find a suitable replacement in the draft? The answer is yes, but like with the safety position, they can’t wait much longer than the fourth round. In most drafts, 12-15 corners get drafted in the first three rounds, which means after the fourth round they will be looking at a corner who is probably the 16th best corner on their board at best. That means they have to get lucky with a pick.
The Bears could have a possible replacement on the roster right now. Last year, following the draft, the Bears signed Dubuque’s Michael Joseph as an undrafted free agent. Joseph played at the D-III level and while very talented, he was also very raw. He was good enough to get invited to the Senior Bowl but making the jump from D-III to the NFL is tough. He needed the year on the practice squad. Now, after a year of development, he could be ready to perform.
Between now and late-April, I will be taking a hard look at what happens with the Bears as far as signings, free agency and the draft. After the combine, we will have a better feel on where certain players could be drafted. Then, I'll discuss prospects I feel could help the Bears and how Chicago might acquire them.