Draft could close gap between Bears, Packers

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Draft could close gap between Bears, Packers

Monday, April 25, 2011
Posted: 8:56 a.m.

By John Mullin
CSNChicago.com

The gap between the Bears and the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers can be reduced to seven points, basically the winning margin of the NFC Championshp game. But if the Bears are going to close the gap or even keep pace with the Packers, it will begin next Thursday night.

Or else.

The reason the Packers were (and are) better than the Bears right now boils down to the simple fact that Green Bays performance in the draft has been substantially better than the Bears.

Consider:

Of the Bears starting offenses and defenses in the NFC Championship game, barely half (12 of 22) were their draft choices. That doesnt include safety Chris Harris, who was their draft choice (2005) but they had to trade with Carolina to get him this time. It does include, however, Tommie Harris in his final game of a declining Chicago career.

On the other side, 14 of the Packers 22 starters were draft picks.

That wouldnt be terribly impressive except for the fact that Green Bay had nine draft choices on injured reserve, including starters like linebacker Nick Barnett, safety Morgan Burnett and tight end Jermichael Finley. No Bears draft choices were on the final IR list.

The bigger point

Bad as too many recent Bears drafts have been, the Bears have not embarrassed themselves in drafts this decade the way they too often did in the 1990s with a Stan Thomas, Marcus Spears, John Thierry, Pat Riley, John Allred and Cade McNown.

At this point at least their top picks in four of the last five drafts are still on the roster, and later-round picks like JMarcus Webb, Kellen Davis, Zackary Bowman, D.J. Moore, Henry Melton and Johnny Knox have at the very least held onto roster spots.

But the point is hardly the number of drafted players are still on anyones roster. That becomes a case of figures dont lie but liars figure.

The real point is blue players, the elite-level players, players you win because of, not just with. These are the players relied upon to lift your team in situations like playoffs, not the bottom third of the roster. Of that bottom third, nearly half of those will be inactive on game days anyway.

In the past five Super Bowls every team had blue players already in place. More important perhaps, they landed at least a Pro Bowl player in the drafts of at least one of the previous three years:

2006 Colts (Bob Sanders, Dallas Clark)

Bears (Tommie Harris, Nathan Vasher, Lance Briggs)

2007 Giants (Eli Manning)

Patriots (Logan Mankins, Wil Wilfork, Brandon Meriweather)

2008 Steelers (Heath Miller)

Cardinals (Antrel Rolle, Dominique Rogers-Cromartie)

2009 Saints (Jahri Evans, Roman Harper)

Colts (Antoine Bethea)

2010 Packers (Clay Matthews, B.J. Raji)

Steelers (Maurkice Pouncey)

Higher expectations

Contrary to some scenarios, the Bears need very much to score big with their first pick of the draft. Arguably, the strategy needs to be staying put for the best available player regardless of position.

It may be natural to assume that a pick in the mid- to late-20s cannot be expected to alter franchise history. But the Packers hit on Aaron Rodgers (25th, 2005) and Clay Matthews (26th, 2009). And they landed a starting offensive tackle as a rookie, an NFL hit by any measure, in Bryan Bulaga at No. 23 in the 2010 draft.

Trading down may be the convenient, even easier, approach. Adding picks is never a bad thing.

But that has produced next to nothing seriously noteworthy in the top rounds of any recent Bears draft. If little of franchise-turning impact is expected at No. 29, then what is anyone expecting out of picks even lower than that?

The Bears arguably have not found a franchise-mover in the first round since Tommie Harris at 14th in the 2004 and his stay at the elite level was over after 2007. Matt Forte (2008) is on the edge of stardom and Devin Hester (2006) is already there, but both were second-rounders and Hester achieved Pro Bowl status as a returner, not a position player.

Green Bay set itself at quarterback with a No. 1 pick (Rodgers). The Bears needed roughly twice that cost to settle that position (trade for Jay Cutler) after neither Rex Grossman nor Kyle Orton solved it.

The Packers secured more Pro Bowlers (Matthews, 2010 alternate B.J. Raji) in the 2009 draft than the Bears have in their combined first-round picks since Brian Urlacher in 2000.

John "Moon" Mullin is CSNChicago.com's Bears Insider, and appears regularly on Bears Postgame Live and Chicago Tribune Live. Follow Moon on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bears information.

View from the Moon: Bears make statement in taking tight end while passing on defensive backs

View from the Moon: Bears make statement in taking tight end while passing on defensive backs

With their second pick in the 2017 draft, the Bears addressed offense and did it in a way that, when coupled with one of their main offseason moves, makes for some very interesting what-ifs for the upcoming season.

The choice at No. 45 was tight end Adam Shaheen, who at 6-foot-6 and 278 pounds becomes the second significant addition at the position following the signing of Dion Sims (6-foot-4, 270 pounds) to a three-year deal. In a sometimes over-specialized NFL, the Bears have brought in not one but two every-down tight ends.

“Yeah, that’s accurate,” general manager Ryan Pace said. “So it opens up a lot of possibilities for our offense.”

The acquisitions of Shaheen and Sims hold some intrigue, if only because of sheer bulk, because the inescapable conclusion with the commitments to big tight ends is that the Bears might be serious about running the football. They ran 28.4 percent of their 2016 plays in personnel packages of two or three tight ends or with a tight end and fullback.

Under coordinator Dowell Loggains the Bears ran the football just 39.3 percent of the time in 2016. Head coach John Fox and Loggains cite the Bears’ frequent need to play catch-up as the reason why, though in 12 of the 16 games the Bears were tied, led or were within seven points at halftime. In fairness to Fox and Loggains, the Bears in fact arguably did not have the physical firepower at tight end to sustain a smash-mouth base of operations.

That said, both Shaheen and Sims also have a fully formed receiver side to their games, which is where the bigger-picture interest lies. Shaheen had 122 receptions over his last two seasons at Ashland. Sims caught 36, 25 and 35 passes in his final three years with the Miami Dolphins. Both Shaheen and Sims were high school basketball standouts; Shaheen played a year of basketball at the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown, while Sims was dual-recruited for football and basketball at Michigan State after finishing fourth in voting for Mr. Basketball in Michigan in 2009.

“I definitely think (the basketball stuff) helps,” Pace said. “Half the time, it’s like these tight ends are going up for a rebound and boxing out. And (Shaheen) definitely has it. When we talk about body control and catching radius, the ball is not always going to be on target. And Adam has the ability to do that. We confirmed that through the tape, and Frank (Smith, tight ends coach) was able to confirm it during the workout.”

Why not take a defensive back?

During the NFL owners meetings this spring, Pace said that the draft's depth of talented options was a factor in free-agency decisions as well as the draft. So his willingness to trade down in the second round of this draft was expected, given that it has been rated as one of the best-ever drafts for quality and depth at defensive back.

Of course, these were the same experts’ analyses that concluded that no quarterback would be drafted before the middle of the first round, when in reality three went in the first 12 picks after teams traded up, so ... oh, never mind.

The NFL collective seems to agree with the take on defensive backs: Of the 107 players selected through three completed rounds, 29 (27.1 percent) have been defensive backs (18 cornerbacks and 11 safeties). Meaning more than one-fourth of the 2017 draft picks have been defensive backs.

What wasn’t expected was Pace then making no move at either cornerback or safety even after the trade-down that recovered much of the draft capital expended to deal up to No. 2 for Mitch Trubisky. When the Bears’ pick at No. 45 came around, the Bears instead chose a smaller-college tight end.

First thoughts were that Pace agreed with thinking that said starter-grade corners in particular could be had as late as the fourth round — he reacquired a fourth-round pick in the trade with Arizona, giving him two (Nos. 117 and 119) — or that he had been outflanked by a sudden minor run on defensive backs. In the eight picks from No. 36 (the Bears’ original second-round slot) to No. 43, four defensive backs were snatched up, three of them safeties.

That clearly didn’t bother Pace, though the Bears ended Friday with a plan to take a revised look in the defensive back direction.

“Yeah, we’re going to have to kind of sort through it tonight and we’ll be here late tonight and early in the morning,” Pace said. “Kind of resetting our board and going through it again. We’re going to take best player available, and if it ends up being offensive players, that’s what it is.”

Adam Shaheen travels a different path to being the Bears’ second-round pick

Adam Shaheen travels a different path to being the Bears’ second-round pick

Adam Shaheen was a couple of things coming out of high school in Galena, Ohio: He was 6-foot-4 and weighed about 195 pounds, and was headed to Division II Pittsburgh-Johnstown to play basketball. 

Four years later, the Bears on Friday made the now 6-foot-6, 278 pound tight end their second-round draft pick. He was the fifth tight end selected, behind first-rounders O.J. Howard (Tampa Bay, No. 19), Evan Engram (New York Giants, No. 23), David Njoku (Cleveland, No. 29) and Gerald Everett (Los Angeles Rams, No. 44). 

Shaheen said he missed football after a year of playing basketball (he played football at Big Walnut High School in Ohio), with 2013’s memorable Ohio State-Wisconsin game giving him the itch to return to the sport. He wasn’t big enough to play football when he came out of high school, but coaches at D-II Ashland University saw something in him following his freshman hoops year and brought him into the program.

Then the weight gain began. Shaheen, initially weighing 225 pounds, was Ashland’s No. 3 tight end in 2014. And he continued to grow in his final two years there. 

Shaheen described how he bulked up last month at the scouting combine in Indianapolis:

“A lot of Chipotle burritos,” Shaheen said. “A lot of burritos. No, it all honestly it was a lot of burritos.” 

It wasn’t as easy a process as housing burritos would seem, though. 

“It was just a grind,” Shaheen said Friday. “You know, to put on that kind of weight and still maintain my athleticism, it was a good grind for two years.”

Shaheen went from catching two passes in nine games in 2014 to totaling 122 receptions for 1,670 yards and 26 touchdowns in his final two years at Ashland. Few players at the D-II level have the opportunity to pass up a final year of eligibility — Shaheen could’ve been a fifth-year senior in 2017 — to turn pro, but there wasn’t anything left for him to accomplish. 

“I did all I could really do to help my draft stock there,” Shaheen said. “Another year at that level — I didn’t think after discussing it with my family and friends and stuff it was really going to increase my draft stock if I did similar to what I did the previous two years.”