Bears NFL Draft preview: Signing Dion Sims upgrades tight end but draft has quality options

Bears NFL Draft preview: Signing Dion Sims upgrades tight end but draft has quality options

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. Fourth in a series.

Bears pre-draft situation

The tight end position underwent major upheaval early last offseason with the trade of Martellus Bennett to the New England Patriots. The Bears still had Zach Miller in place as the starter, for 10 games, before Miller went on IR with a broken foot. The Bears made an unsuccessful play for Josh Hill from New Orleans but the Saints matched the Bears' offer sheet. The position ultimately was fortified with Logan Paulsen signed away from Washington, Daniel Brown picked up after his release by Baltimore, and Ben Braunecker arriving as an undrafted free agent.

Brown was a solid addition, with 16 catches over the final six games; he was re-signed early last month. Braunecker contributing on special teams. Paulsen contributed more penalties (6) than receptions (3) and more yards lost to flags (50) than gained on his catches (15). Paulsen now plays with Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley for the San Francisco 49ers.

The biggest step at the position this offseason came in the form of signing former Miami Dolphins tight end Dion Sims to a three-year contract. Sims adds a physical presence (6-5, 262 pounds) to the position but also caught 26 passes, four for TD’s, and started 22 games over his four Miami tenure. "A guy who can block, a guy who has good-enough hands to be a threat in the passing game," said coach John Fox. 

Projected pre-draft starters

TE: Zach Miller

TE: Dion Sims

Reserves: Ben Braunecker, Daniel Brown, Zach Miller, Dion Sims, Daniel Brown, MyCole Pruitt, Justin Perillo
 
Bears draft priority: Moderate

The Bears had designs on Arkansas tight end Hunter Henry early in the 2016 second round but saw the San Diego Chargers snap him up four picks into Day 2 as the Bears waited eight picks later in the round. The Bears then traded down twice and came away with offensive lineman Cody Whitehair, another of their prime targets.

The position has some strength with the triumvirate of Brown, Miller and Sims in particular. The draft class has quality, and the Bears set up private meetings with Evan Engram from Mississippi and Alabama’s O.J. Howard.

But with other needs rated above tight end, and the position already having been addressed via free agency, a move before late on Day 2 (Round 4) would be a mild surprise.

Keep an eye on ...

Jake Butt, Michigan: Consistent, four-year contributor who tore ACL in Orange Bowl and needed surgery Jan. 10. May be worth a late-round flyer.

Evan Engram, Mississippi: Undersized for an in-line blocker (235 pounds) but held in high enough regard to be brought in for a Halas Hall visit. With Brown and Miller, Bears have pass catchers but Engram was first team All-SEC, ahead of Howard.

O.J. Howard, Alabama: The marquee name at the position in this draft, and with a distinct chance to be the first tight end taken in Round 1 since Eric Ebron by Detroit at No. 10 in 2014. "[Howard’s] got it all," said ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. via conference call. "He’s a matchup nightmare. He’s certainly one of the top five, six, seven players in this draft." 

David Njoku, Miami: 'Canes have history of turning out etop-shelf TE’s — Bubba Franks, Jimmy Graham, Greg Olsen, Jeremy Shockey, Kellen Winslow II. Njoku is a speed TE, who can be a matchup problem in right offense.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: What will the Bears do in the NFL Draft?

usatsi_9272909.jpg
USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: What will the Bears do in the NFL Draft?

Adam Hoge (WGN Radio), Danny Parkins (670 The Score) and Dan Durkin (The Athletic) join Kap on the panel.  The NFL Draft is tomorrow.  What will the Bears do with the 3rd pick?  Our guys discuss plus Will Perdue drops by to preview the pivotal Game 5 between the Bulls and Celtics.

View from the Moon: Should Bears draft offense or defense at No. 3?

View from the Moon: Should Bears draft offense or defense at No. 3?

GM Ryan Pace put forth a number of operating principles on Wednesday, one day before he and the Bears presumably decide on a player to become an integral part of the franchise for the years well beyond the 2017 draft. Some of those principles were clear – “you get yourself into trouble if you’re not sticking with our philosophy of best player available” – and some were less so, such as exactly how much weight is assigned to the intangibles of quarterback prospects.

Pace did elaborate on the structured approach to the Bears’ draft board – one that has identified three elite players with the prospect of the Bears remaining at No. 3 in the first round; a second “cloud” of players that would allow a drop down into the middle of the first round; and a third “cloud” of target players in the event that Bears trade up or down into a position just before the close of round one Thursday night.

Pace’s demeanor, notably upbeat and at times borderline jovial, spoke of having reached a critical meeting of minds. “By the time we get to this point, there's a handful of guys that we have a consensus on throughout our building,” Pace said, “and when I feel that backing from not just our coaches but from everybody, it makes those decisions easier when we're all on the same page.”

But Pace didn’t divulge which of the elite top three are offensive players or defensive players. Because a case can be made for targeting a talent on either side of the football, as long as he is best-available/best-possible:

The case for offense

The best: Pat Mahomes, Mitchell Trubisky, Deshaun Watson

The Bears have done exhaustive study of the quarterback position, the spot with the greatest ripple effect on not only on an offense, but on an offense. Whether one or more of Mahomes, Trubisky or Watson are in the elite-three, mid-round cloud, or late-round cloud remains closeted on the draft board upstairs at Halas Hall.

Pace has ID’d the need for a quarterback to bring a charge to the organization, something absent during the time of Jay Cutler, who checked all the “traits” boxes coming out of Vanderbilt, even for ball-security (1.9 percent INT percentage his final two seasons), but was a suspect leader. But Pace did not detail the Bears’ grading methodology, particularly whether intangibles top the list or are considerations only once all the requisite measurable are satisfied.

“With a quarterback, yeah, there's core beliefs that I have that have been probably put in me from Day 1 as a scout and what I believe a quarterback needs to have to be successful,” said Pace, whose template for a franchise quarterback begins with Drew Brees, who lasted into the 2001 second round in part because he was undersized at 6 feet. “Maybe guys that I've been around. Those are all traits that I look for.”

The Bears have had the most extensive in-person contact with Mahomes and Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer, the least with Watson; Trubisky has given two different accounts of interactions with the Bears, so the truth lies with the Bears and him. They sent the biggest staff contingents to Pro Days of Mahomes and Watson. A surprise will be if neither Mahomes nor Watson is not a Bear come sundown Thursday but Pace remains steadfast in not looking outside the known information about even a quarterback with character.

“When you start trying to manufacture things or create things, that’s when teams get into dangerous water,” Pace said. “I think if we just stay with guys we have a consensus on and best player available we’ll be in good shape.”

Do they have a “consensus” on a quarterback?

The case for defense

Most likely: DE Myles Garrett, DE/LB Solomon Thomas, S Jamal Adams

Considerably more NFL opinion is that the Bears will look for a franchise-grade pass rusher (or defensive back) with their first-round pick. Pace has been consistently reserved in offering overall assessments of drafts, which perhaps makes this year’s simply because Pace doesn’t do this sort of praising normally: “It would be accurate to say that this is a strong defensive draft this year,” he said. “That would be true.”

Selecting an elite defensive linchpin comes with arguably less risk than a quarterback. And the effects of a defensive hit can be franchise-altering: The Bears reached the playoffs four times, including the Super Bowl once, in the 2000-10 years of the Brian Urlacher tenure, with four different quarterbacks, not one of which was voted to a Pro Bowl as a Bear.

On the other hand: The Houston Texans have been to the postseason three times in the six years since drafting three-time NFL defensive player of the year J.J. Watt. Yet in spite of myriad additional defensive stars, including Jadeveon Clowney, they have never advanced beyond the divisional round in large part because of quarterback failures.

The Bears used the No. 9 pick of the 2000 draft on Urlacher (and No. 9 on Leonard Floyd last draft), plus 14th-overalls on Tommie Harris, Michael Haynes and Kyle Fuller (meaning: the hit-rate in picks in the upper half of the first round isn’t exactly a guarantee).

But an elite defense can endure, and produce long-term and repeated success. And makes another defensive centerpiece to pair with Floyd a franchise-grade pick.