Bears NFL Draft preview: Linebacker core set, but edge rushers always in demand

Bears NFL Draft preview: Linebacker core set, but edge rushers always in demand

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 and after could have in store. Second in a series.

Bears pre-draft situation

From his arrival in Chicago, general manager Ryan Pace has placed a premium on staffing the 3-4 defensive scheme of coach John Fox and coordinator Vic Fangio with impact linebackers. It began with the signing of rush linebacker Pernell McPhee and carried through the 2016 offseason with the signings of inside linebackers Jerrell Freeman and Danny Trevathan, then augmented by a trade up in the 2016 draft for edge rusher Leonard Floyd and the fourth-round pick of Nick Kwiatkoski.

The result has been a steadily upgrading defensive core. But none of the Bears' top five true linebackers (Willie Young's request to be dubbed a defensive end is here honored) was on the field for 16 games last season. McPhee started and finished the season sidelined with injuries (knee, then labrum), Trevathan was lost to knee surgery, Freeman was suspended four games, Floyd lost time to a calf injury and to concussions, and Kwiatkoski missed the preseason and the first two regular-season games with a hamstring pull early in training camp.

Trevathan tore his right patellar tendon against Tennessee on Nov. 27, and his recovery in time for training camp is problematic. Kwiatkoski, who performed well in place of both Freeman and Trevathan, figures prominently in the overall.

A core ostensibly is in place, though the stated operating premise is that pass rushers always will be added if possible. And the organization is expecting a next-level move by Floyd after seven sacks as a rookie.

"Obviously he's naturally going to continue to get stronger, and more durability I think will come with added strength," Pace said of Floryd. "I think he's going to continue to refine his pass-rush technique. Right now that first year is just kinda raw speed and raw talent. I think as he gets better with his pass-rush moves, using his hands and developing counters, I think the sky's the limit, because he's got everything you need physically and he's got the work ethic to learn all that. So I think dialing in some of his pass-rush traits are going to help a lot."

Rush linebacker Lamarr Houston is under contract and was the Bears' sack leader with eight in 2015. But he spent the 2014 and 2016 seasons on injured reserve with knee injuries, has a starting base-plus-workout price of $6 million for 2017 and turns 30 in June, making him a longshot to be on the roster come opening day.

Projected pre-draft starters

OLB: Pernell McPhee
OLB: Leonard Floyd
ILB: Jerrell Freeman
ILB: Danny Trevathan/Nick Kwiatkoski

Reserves: Sam Acho, Lamarr Houston, Christian Jones, Willie Young

Bears draft priority: Low/moderate

The Bears will always look to grab a pass-rush threat, and various scenarios could somehow conspire to leave Texas A&M's Myles Garrett, until now the consensus No. 1-overall pick, on the board at No. 3. The Bears have arranged a private get-together with Garrett, cast either as a 4-3 defensive end or a 3-4 linebacker, and also had a private meeting with Alabama inside linebacker Reuben Foster. Trevathan's injury history — including during his time in Denver — has to be a concern, and Freeman turns 31 on May 1, making a selection of an elite inside linebacker a distinct possibility if the draft unfolds to leave one on the board for them, though not until Days 2 or 3.

Because of teams scheming to keep the Bears in nickel more than half the time, a hybrid edge rusher in the Floyd/McPhee mold will always be a priority.

Keep an eye on ...

Dylan Donahue, OLB/DE, West Georgia. At 6-foot-3, 248 pounds, he's an impact mid-round prospect with special-teams potential. He got a post-combine invitation to meet with Fox: "At the formal meetings they don't really tell you a lot because they want you to feel awkward and uncomfortable," Donahue told the Billings (MT) Gazette. "The meeting with the Bears was really cool."

Reuben Foster, ILB, Alabama. He was sent home from the Combine after a spat with staff but was Butkus Award winner in 2016. He had rotator cuff surgery that has dropped him on some boards, as have some character concerns.

Myles Garrett, DE/OLB, Texas A&M. With 31 sacks over three college seasons, Garrett is a 3-4 outside fit who would factor into rush packages immediately. The Bears would need the Browns and the 49ers to think quarterback at Nos. 1 and 2. Fox grabbed Von Miller at No. 2 in his first draft as the Broncos' head coach in 2011, so he knows what A&M rushers can do. "(Miller) probably has a little bit more skill than me," Garrett said during the Combine. "He's been doing it for a little bit longer. But I feel like I'm a little bit bigger, little bit stronger, and I'll catch up in that regard to skill."

James Onwualu, OLB, Notre Dame. He's a later-round prospect with special-teams capabilities. He had an excellent bench press (24) and vertical (38) at Notre Dame's pro day, but he's not an every-down candidate at 230 pounds.

Good or better? Why offseason moves are making 2017 Bears better

Good or better? Why offseason moves are making 2017 Bears better

Improvement typically comes in incremental steps, not leaps. And the Bears of 2017, based on what they have done at a handful of positions, the latest being Thursday’s signing of wide receiver Victor Cruz, fit that template.

The clear organizational commitment is to build through the draft, even if injuries have undermined some otherwise apparent upgrades to starting lineups on both sides of the football. But if there is a “theme” to what GM Ryan Pace is doing to muscle up a sluggish roster, it is that the Bears are willing to take flyers on veteran players – with additions like four veteran wide receivers with injury and issue histories – that arguably point to a win-now mindset while draft picks develop and contribute.

Jaye Howard and John Jenkins. Make the defensive line “better?” Than Jonathan Bullard and Will Sutton, probably. But “good?” Mmmmm…..

The game-one tight ends last year were Zach Miller-Logan Paulsen-Gregg Scruggs. Now they’re Miller-Dion Sims-Adam Shaheen (based on a second-round draft choice). “Good?” Maybe, maybe not. “Better?” Obviously, based on Sims alone.

Mike Glennon-Mark Sanchez-Mitch Trubisky. Bears “better” at quarterback? Than Jay Cutler-Brian Hoyer-Matt Barkley, probably. “Good?” Mmmmmm…..

The decisions to sign Glennon and Sanchez to the quarterback depth chart have sparked their shares of understandable cynical skepticism. But Kirk Cousins and Jimmy Garoppolo were not available in trade, so the Pace decision was to gamble on upside with Glennon over the known quantity of Brian Hoyer (the preference of some coaches) and certainly Jay Cutler, for whom “potential” and “upside” no longer applied.

Add in the aggressive draft of Trubisky and the result was three possibilities of hits on a quarterback (Sanchez and Connor Shaw being combined here as a pair entry in the hit-possibility scenarios). All three were deemed an improvement over Cutler and/or Barkley.

The results may not vault the Bears all the way up to “good” at the pivotal position for any franchise. But “better” is sometimes all you can realistically manage.

Taking a wider-screen look at wide receiver in this context… .

Coach John Fox has cited the need for the Bears to establish the ability to get yardage in bigger chunks. Accordingly, all four of the veteran wideout signings this offseason – Cruz, Rueben Randle, Markus Wheaton, Kendall Wright –  have posted yards-per-catch seasons of 14 or longer.

All four won’t be on the opening-day roster, but all four offer the promise of major impact. Cruz, Randle and Wright have had seasons of 70 or more receptions, and Wheaton topped out at 53 in 2015 with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Randy Moss, Terrell Owens and Jerry Rice weren’t available, so “good” was hard to achieve in an offseason in which Alshon Jeffery and Eddie Royal were expected departures long before their exits. But are Cruz, Randle, Wheaton and Wright, with Kevin White and Cameron Meredith, a “better” starting point than Jeffery, Royal, White, Bellamy, etc. of a year ago?

Obviously. But players with even moderately established NFL “names” (like Cruz, Randle, etal.) are typically available for a reason; teams do not routinely give up on talent. And none of the four come without significant shadows on their NFL resumes, whether for injury or other questions.

Cruz missed most of 2014 and all of the 2015 season, and hasn’t played a full season since his Pro Bowl year of 2012.

Randle was described as a head case by scouts and was so bad that he was let go in the Eagles’ cutdown to 75 last year, followed by disparaging comments from those in and around the organization.

Wheaton flashed promise in his 2014-15 opportunities as a part-time starter but played just three games before a shoulder injury landed him on IR last season.

The Tennessee Titans thought enough of Wright, their 2012 first-round draft choice, to pick up his fifth-year option going into las season. But by week 14 he was benched for tardiness and was a healthy DNP in game 16, announcing after the game that he already knew he was not in the Titans’ plans for 2017.

The prospect of the Bears going from 3-13 to “good” borders on fantasy. But if being among the NFL’s busiest this offseason hasn’t propelled the Bears to that level, the results point to “better.” At this point, that’s something,.

How big of an impact will Victor Cruz have on the Bears?

How big of an impact will Victor Cruz have on the Bears?

The Bears inked Victor Cruz to a one-year deal on Thursday, adding another receiver to an already crowded corps.

But it never hurts to add a veteran one to a young group, especially with a new starting quarterback.

Cruz is 30 years old and isn't the same Pro Bowl-caliber player he was before missing the entire 2015 season with a calf injury, but he surely has a lot left in the tank and can serve as a great mentor for the Bears receivers.

Just how big of an impact will he have on his new team? See what the SportsTalk Live panel had to say in the video above.