Bears looking beyond rookies for defensive boost

Bears looking beyond rookies for defensive boost

With only one 2017 draft choice spent on defense, and that player — Alabama safety Eddie Jackson, fourth round — being held out as part of rehab from a broken leg suffered last October, the defensive report on this weekend’s rookie minicamp would be ... well ... maybe later.

More to the bigger Bears point than the influx of rookies is the virtual tsunami of veteran players that point to likely no fewer than six new starters from the lineup that finished the 2016 season.

The number might have been as high as seven but middle linebacker Danny Trevathan’s return from a ruptured patellar tendon, suffered in the Nov. 27 loss to the Tennessee Titans, is problematic at this point.

“I think that's in question whether he'll be ready [by training camp] at that point,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said.

But the defense, which stumbled badly when nose tackle Eddie Goldman was out with an ankle injury, has added two starting cornerbacks – Prince Amukamara and Marcus Cooper — plus a starting safety – Quintin Demps — and added mass on the defensive line with Jaye Howard and John Jenkins.

[BEARS TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

The key, however, projects to be Leonard Floyd, whose otherwise standout rookie season (7 sacks) was hampered by two concussions and a total of four missed games.

“He’s got a foundation of a year behind him, and he was only available about half the time last year,” Fangio said. “He had a bunch of those little injuries that interrupted his progress throughout the season. Hopefully with the year under his belt, getting in better shape, better condition, and take off. If he stays healthy, I feel good about him.

“He had a nice stretch there. I don’t remember the exact games, maybe it was like Game 9-12 where he was practicing and playing and you could see him coming. Then he got dinged twice in the last two games, or the last four games and it interrupted again.”

The Bears did not pick up the fifth-year option on cornerback Kyle Fuller, a distinct longshot after missing all of 2016 with a knee injury and clearly not a favorite of this coaching staff. But Fangio is declaring “competition,” which could give Fuller a shot at restarting a career that has faltered badly.

“Absolutely, I mean, it's wide open,” Fangio said. “I hope to see Kyle healthy and out there running around. Moving like he's 100 percent, and we'll go from there.”

Bears select Alabama safety Eddie Jackson in the fourth round

Bears select Alabama safety Eddie Jackson in the fourth round

After going with offense with their first two draft selections, the Bears addressed their defense on Saturday.

The Bears traded pick No. 117 and No. 197 to the Los Angeles Rams for No. 112 and used the selection to grab Alabama safety Eddie Jackson.

Jackson, an All-American in 2015, had 24 tackles and an interception before missing the remainder of his senior season after breaking his leg against Texas A&M in October.

Jackson finished his career at Alabama with nine interceptions.

Ryan Pace focusing on 'best player available,' at No. 3: Could that be Deshaun Watson?

Ryan Pace focusing on 'best player available,' at No. 3: Could that be Deshaun Watson?

Last month, Ryan Pace described his day-before-the-draft press conference as being one of the “hardest” he does all year.

With only a little over 24 hours until the Bears go on the clock with the third overall pick in the NFL Draft, the third-year Bears general manager wasn’t tipping his hand while answering the media’s questions on Wednesday.

One of Pace’s overarching points, though, was that the Bears have to focus on taking the best player available at No. 3 Thursday night. Pace said the Bears have three players targeted for that spot, and what the Cleveland Browns or San Francisco 49ers do ahead of them won’t impact their decision.

What also won’t impact the Bears’ decision is the need to draft a quarterback.

“I think you get yourself into trouble if you’re not sticking with our philosophy of best player available,” Pace said. “When you start trying to manufacture things or create things, that’s when teams get into dangerous water. I think if we just stay with guys we have a consensus on and best player available we’ll be in good shape.”

Plenty of draft observers — ESPN’s Mel Kiper, Rotoworld’s Josh Norris, NFL Network’s Mike Manock, CBS Sports’ Rob Rang — don’t have a quarterback in the top three of their respective “big boards,” which are headlined by the likes of Texas A&M edge rusher Myles Garrett, LSU safety Jamal Adams, Stanford defensive end Solomon Thomas and/or Alabama’s Jonathan Allen, among a few others.

But what if the Bears’ consensus is that a quarterback is a top-three player?

Over the last few months, Pace has consistently touted intangibles as being of prominent importance when evaluating a quarterback. At the combine in Indianapolis, he pointed to Drew Brees taking Purdue — a perennial Big Ten bottom-feeder — to a Rose Bowl. Pace, of course, knows Brees’ NFL success well having watched him in New Orleans before becoming the Bears’ general manager. 

[VIVID SEATS: Get your Bears tickets right here!]

There’s one quarterback in this year’s draft class that could have those intangibles to be considered at No. 3: Clemson’s Deshaun Watson. 

Before Watson took over as a full-time starter in 2015, Clemson established itself as a perennial Orange Bowl contender that’d win 10 or 11 games a year. But Watson took Clemson to a different level, going 28-2 and reaching the College Football Playoff title game in 2015 (a loss to Alabama) and 2016 (a win over Alabama). 

“It's big with every position, the intangibles,” Pace said. ‘That's what I continue to stress to our guys right now, because you can get enamored with these physical qualities or these traits. There's enough good players where we don't need to change our standards.

“I really like our locker room right now. I really like the vibe right now in that locker room with the guys that we have here, it feels good, and I want to continue to add to that vibe and add to that excitement. It's up to me to impress that to our scouts and to our coaches that, hey, we've got to make sure we're adding the right kinds of guys, the right kinds of intangibles to our room.”

If Watson isn’t among the team’s consensus top three, he could fit into one of the “clouds” Pace talked about if the Bears trade down into the middle or later part of the first round. But trading down (or back into the first round) carries risk if the Bears believe Watson could be a franchise-changing quarterback. The No. 3 pick is the highest the Bears have had since the early 1970s, and it’s a position the team hardly wants to be in again.

Pace, of course, wasn’t going to reveal much the day before he and the Bears make a critically-important selection. The Bears know who they want, and Thursday night, so will everyone else.

“There’s been so much that’s come into this since August, so you’ve just trust what your eyes see and don’t over-think it,” Pace said. “Trust your conviction and trust your instincts and trust your gut.

“You can get into trouble right now if you’re up there watching additional tape and doing all that; I think you can over-scout players. By now we’ve got enough opinions. We’ve met with enough players. We’ve been through the Combine and been through the Pro Days and seen players play live. At this point we feel good. I don’t think we’re in a situation where we’re overthinking anything.”