Is the ‘not a winner’ label fair to DeShone Kizer?

Is the ‘not a winner’ label fair to DeShone Kizer?

DeShone Kizer has plenty of the traits desired by NFL scouts, like a strong arm and a 6-foot-4, 230 pound frame. What he doesn't have, though, is the label of being a "winner." It's the opposite for Kizer, who quarterbacked Notre Dame to a 4-8 record in 2016, the program's worst since that embarrassing 3-9 year under Charlie Weis a decade ago. 

Both Bears general manager Ryan Pace and coach John Fox have touted a quarterback's ability to elevate everyone around him, with Pace at the Combine specifically pointing to Drew Brees' success at Purdue. Kizer, then, doesn't check off that box.

But it's worth noting Kizer was a "winner" two years ago, when he was thrown into action seven quarters into the 2015 season and led Notre Dame within six points of a berth in the College Football Playoff. Kizer threw a last-second game-winning touchdown to Will Fuller at Virginia, led a furious comeback (that fell short on a failed two-point conversion) on the road in a rainstorm against national runner-up Clemson and scored what should've been a game-winning touchdown late against Stanford (only to have Brian VanGorder's defense blow it with under 40 seconds left). 

So how did Kizer go from being a "winner" one year to losing that label the next?

A point to note here is that 2015 Irish team had a bunch of players drafted in the first two days of the 2016 NFL Draft: Fuller and left tackle Ronnie Stanley were first-round picks, while center Nick Martin was a second-rounder and running back C.J. Prosise went in the third round. Kizer not only had less talent surrounding him in 2016, but most of those players he had to rely on were now inexperienced underclassmen. 

Notre Dame's offensive line and running game both regressed without the likes of Stanley, Martin and Prosise. That put more offensive responsibility on the passing game and Kizer, who was without six of his top seven targets from a year ago (the only returning one, Torii Hunter Jr., was sidelined for four games with various injuries). 

But Notre Dame's plummet wasn't just due to that talent drain on offense. Fired were VanGorder (four games into the season) and special teams coordinator Scott Booker (after the season) as both those units struggled do much of anything well. Two games in September were particularly egregious, with Kizer playing well in both but the Irish still conspiring to lose. 

In Week 1, Kizer threw for five touchdowns, ran for another and didn't turn the ball over in Notre Dame's 50-47 double-overtime loss at Texas. Kizer had a few chances to do more later in the game, but it's worth noting he was without Hunter, who left the game in the third quarter due to a concussion. Is it fair to assign "fault" to the guy who had to sub in and out with Malik Zaire in the first half and still had six total touchdowns and no turnovers? 

Twenty days later, Kizer threw for 381 yards with two touchdowns, one interception and one rushing score in Notre Dame's 38-35 home loss to Duke. After earning a quick 14-0 lead in the first quarter, Notre Dame allowed Duke's backup returner to run a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown. Duke ripped off touchdown plays of 25, 32 and 64 yards against a feeble Irish defense, with that 64-yarder coming less than a minute after Kizer pulled Notre Dame ahead midway through the fourth quarter. 

In those two games, though, had Notre Dame's defense and special teams merely been below average instead of a complete disaster, Kizer would've done more than enough to earn his team the two wins it needed to reach a bowl game. A 6-6 record hardly is good -- or acceptable in South Bend -- but it probably would've been more forgivable than the ugly stain of 4-8. 

Consider the records of the other four top quarterbacks' teams:

Clemson (DeShaun Watson): 13-1, national champs
North Carolina (Mitchell Trubisky): 8-5, lost Sun Bowl
Texas Tech (Patrick Mahomes): 5-7
Cal (Davis Webb): 5-7

The other side to this, though, is that Kizer and Notre Dame had a chance to win or tie late in the fourth quarter in seven games, with six losses (Texas, Michigan State, Duke, N.C. State, Stanford, Virginia Tech) and one win (Miami). No matter how little help Kizer had, he still had a chance to convert those opportunities and for the most part did not. 

Kizer never wavered in accepting responsibility for those losses during the season, and that message didn't change at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis last month. And it's one that should play well in draft rooms as teams decide whether or not Kizer, after a 4-8 season, is worth the investment of a first-round pick. 

"I just didn't make enough plays," Kizer said. "The ball's in my hand every play. It's my job at Notre Dame to put us in position to win games, to trust in the guys around me and develop the guys around me to make those plays with me."

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

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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.