Quality more important than quantity for Bears in 2017 NFL Draft

Quality more important than quantity for Bears in 2017 NFL Draft

NFL teams typically wants as many draft picks as possible. The theory: The needier the team, the more picks required for those needs.

Not sure that this is the true situation confronting the Bears in 2017, however. In fact, something nearly the opposite, a variation on a less-is-more theme, is truer.

For the Bears approaching the 2017 NFL Draft, quality is more important than quantity. “Best available” player is fine, but for a team in major need of true impact difference-makers, a “best-possible” player is paramount. How GM Ryan Pace and his personnel posse accomplish that will be one of the most closely watched and far-reaching dramas of this draft. Because it may require some creativity on the clock, with a dizzying array of scenarios popping up in front of them by virtue of possible picks by the Cleveland Browns at 1 and San Francisco 49ers at 2.

Pace already has been about the business of giving himself the option of going after best-possible rather than simply waiting, staying with the draft board and selecting best-available.

The Bears were among the NFL’s most active teams in free agency. That has taken care of some “quantity” issues (cornerback, wide receiver, tight end), with an eye toward freeing the draft for the pursuit of true excellence, something too few Bears drafts have managed to secure (which is how teams miss playoffs nine times in 10 years and find themselves on third different GMs and coaches in the span of six years).

As he has always had within the context of the overall direction of the football franchise, Pace has a draft plan. More specifically, he also has a structure within which to execute that plan.

Draft “bands”

Besides an overall top-to-bottom ranking of players, the Bears establish various “bands” of players they identify as being worth a pick at a certain spot. Not all players in the band are graded equally, and the Bears may move to trade up if a significantly higher-graded players in the band is within reach, or if they fear other teams leap-frogging them to grab a targeted player.

But the bands allow the Bears to weigh trading back and still being able to select one of the talents in that band. With the Bears sitting at No. 3 this year, the first band in this draft will be a small one.

“We’ll have an elite group of names that we’re confident will be there [at No. 3],” Pace said at the recent owners meetings. “Three names, yeah. But beyond that, [we say,] ‘OK, there’s some pretty good depth in this draft, too, so are there scenarios’ — and it’s easier said than done — ‘where we can trade back.’ Those things’ll be discussed.”

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They’re being discussed right now. The phone in Pace’s Halas Hall office has been increasingly active the past couple weeks — calls ingoing and outgoing — and will become more so this week as the Bears and most of the NFL take the temperatures of trade ideas going into the start of the draft Thursday night. It happens every year about this time: general managers looking to satisfy sometimes-conflicting objectives, one of adding draft picks via trades down where possible, and the other of adding best-possible players, sometimes necessitating trades of picks or players to move up.

For the Bears, this year is a bit out of the ordinary, if only because they hold the No. 3-overall pick in a draft considered extremely talent-rich at certain positions and extremely less so at others. Loosely put, a position such as cornerback is rated deep enough that quality starters can be had even down into the fourth round, so teams likely need not trade up to land a blue-chipper. Conversely, the quarterback position, the one most often targeted for round-one trades up, is short of consensus elites, so again, teams are less likely to trade up to secure one.

The Bears are in position to select a franchise quarterback but opinions vary widely on whether there are clear ones to be had as high as where the Bears draft, as the order now stands. Pace, who established last year his willingness to trade up for what he considers “elite,” is like any other personnel executive in wanting more selections.

The Bears do not want to slip out of a band entirely. When they sat with No. 7 in the 2015 draft, the Bears identified a quiver of eight players deemed worth the seventh-overall pick. Those ranged from quarterback Marcus Mariota to wide receiver Amari Cooper to defensive lineman Leonard Williams, and included Kevin White, one of two from the eight not already selected by that point.

Because the goal was a player judged to be elite, trading down was not a realistic option because of the risk of getting none of their targets and instead settling for the next, lower tier of prospects.

Dealing with market forces

But what will the market allow this time? 

“Yeah, and based on the talent of the guys in those bands, what it would require for us to go back?” Pace said. “Those things are all being talked about and studied now, and we’ll keep on fine-tuning it.

“But you’ve got to have a partner willing to do that, too.”

Pace has been a willing partner for trades either up or down, sometimes in the same draft.

Last year, holding the 11th pick, the decision was made to trade up to No. 9 because of their grade on Georgia edge rusher Leonard Floyd, and the concern that either the New York Giants would take Floyd at No. 10 or another team would leap-frog the Bears and grab him. The Bears wanted a pass rusher and the falloff from Floyd was viewed as significant. Clemson’s Shaq Lawson was the next edge rusher taken (No. 19), he was less the speed player that Floyd was, and concerns about Lawson’s shoulder issues proved valid, requiring offseason surgery that cost him most of his rookie season.
 
On day two, Pace traded down twice with an eye toward landing one of his top second-round-band talents: Kansas State offensive lineman Cody Whitehair. 

Bears NFL Draft Preview: OL core in place but looking for edge upgrades

Bears NFL Draft Preview: OL core in place but looking for edge upgrades

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. Fifth in a series.

Bears pre-draft situation
 
Neither Bobby Massie nor Charles Leno Jr. established themselves as close to dominant edge blockers through the 2016 season. Massie struggled early before settling in over the last half-season; Leno was expected to take a definitive next step but did not. As a result, tackle was an offseason priority, and the Bears made a play for ex-Baltimore Raven Ricky Wagner before he was lured to the Detroit Lions on a five-year deal that set a new standard for right tackles. The Bears then targeted Tom Compton, primarily a backup over five NFL seasons and ostensibly in competition for the role of swing tackle.
 
The interior has been cited as a strength with the axis of Kyle Long and Josh Sitton flanking Cody Whitehair. Long is coming off serious shoulder and ankle injuries, elected not to have shoulder surgery, but is expected back in full to open the season. Sitton earned Pro Bowl alternate status. Whitehair stepped in when Hroniss Grasu tore an ACL in an August practice and missed just two snaps all season.

Projected pre-draft starters
 
LT    Charles Leno
LG    Josh Sitton
C      Cody Whitehair
RG   Kyle Long
RT    Bobby Massie

Reserves

Tom Compton, Cornelius Edison, Hroniss Grasu, Eric Kush, William Poehls, Cyril Richardson.

Bears draft priority: Low
 
The "low" priority for the position stands in relation to need levels at other positions; the Bears need upgrades on the offensive line, most notably at tackle, and GM Ryan Pace has drafted an offensive lineman within the first three rounds in each of his two Bears drafts (Grasu 2015 third round, Whitehair 2016 second round).

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The problem this draft is that it is considered one of the poorest for offensive linemen. Loose evaluations suggest that the draft could go 15 picks or more in the first round before a tackle is selected. Compare that with: Four tackles went in the first 16 picks of the '16 draft. Three went top-13 in 2015, six in the top 24.  The 2014 draft saw four tackles picked in the first 16. Four tackles and two guards were picked among the first 11 of 2013.
 
This year, just finding a little quality depth will be an accomplishment.

Keep an eye on:
 
Forrest Lamp, G/T, Western Kentucky — One of several "top" prospects who may fall out of the first round. Lamp lacks some of the physical traits preferred in tackles but is willing to relocate. "I like to watch Ali Marpet, Cody Whitehair, Zack Martin," Lamp said during the Scouting Combine. "Those guys were all left tackles in school who got bumped inside. Similar to what I've been hearing [for myself], so I watched them all last year."
 
Cameron Lee, G/T, Illinois State — Bears arranged a private session with Lee, who started at both guard and tackle for ISU. The versatility is critical and attractive to teams looking to fill "swing" role inside or outside. Small-school prospect could drop into Bears' range on Day 3.

For 2017 Bears, more at stake than just win total

For 2017 Bears, more at stake than just win total

The release of the Bears’ schedule is something of secondary news, since the opponents for every team are set no later than the final game of the final Sunday. For that matter, 14 of every team’s 16 games are known years in advance simply because of the divisional rotation the NFL uses.

No, the overarching question for the Bears after their 6-10 and 3-13 seasons under John Fox is what kind of results from that schedule are needed for Fox to see year four as a head coach in Chicago. The schedule coming out didn’t really change that situation; the Bears were always going to play Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Green Bay sometime.

The same macro-question might be said of GM Ryan Pace’s fate. But nothing has indicated that Pace is standing at the brink of the abyss; the organization believes Pace has drafted well, in addition to making a real effort at trying to make a go of it with Jay Cutler as quarterback while there were millions in guaranteed money.

For that matter, so have Fox and his staff, who inherited Cutler and a talent cupboard with some very empty shelves.

But none of this is really about Cutler, who got his expected release earlier this offseason. It’s about whether senior team management likes what it is seeing, and while the records have been disasters, positives were seen “because we’re developing our own guys and rewarding our own guys,” Chairman George McCaskey said during the recent owners meetings. And frankly, isn’t that what most of BearNation wants, too?

So as far as McCaskey is concerned – and he specifically referred to the rookie impacts of Leonard Floyd, Cody Whitehair and Jordan Howard – Fox and his staff are getting Pace’s draft picks up and running, or at least the healthy ones.

If the Bears win seven or eight games this season, the win total by itself will represent some sort of progress over seasons of six and three wins. And folding the schedule into this: The early season with its Atlanta-Tampa Bay-Pittsburgh-Green Bay start is a crucible. But of the Bears’ final six opponents, only one (Detroit 9-7) had a winning record in 2016.

Meaning: Even with an anticipated rough start, with a still-jelling roster against some of the NFL’s best, the Bears could propel Fox into a clear year four with a finishing kick.

The reality is that no one really has a fix on what the mindset of McCaskey (and the Board) will be as the season plays out. Recent history has defined chaos and impulsiveness at more than one level.

The Bears opened 7-3 in 2011, Jay Cutler broke his thumb and the season unraveled behind Caleb Hanie. The result was McCaskey firing GM Jerry Angelo for an 8-8 season that came the year after falling a touchdown short of an NFC championship and trip to a Super Bowl.

Lovie Smith started 7-1 the year after the Angelo firing, limped to a 10-6 playoff miss and was fired by then-GM Phil Emery, who brought in Marc Trestman. Trestman started his second season 2-1 on the strength of two road wins, only to see the season and the entire football operation blow apart in a year many predicted would see a Bears next-step after Trestman’s 8-8 first season.

But McCaskey and the organization want their coach and GM to succeed, and obviously want an end to the kind of turnover that both results from and perpetuates failure. The Bears' First Family does worry about fan apathy and anger, but senior management also knows that fan loyalty reignites quickly; rebounds from abysmal times under Dave Wannstedt and Dick Jauron didn’t take long, just some wins, baby.

Anyone who’s observed the Bears for any length of time knows that a modest recovery in ’17 would do it. If the Bears win, say, seven games, one or two of those would likely have been “good” wins. It does happen; one of the Bears’ three ’16 wins was over playoff-bound Detroit; in ’15 they beat Kansas City and Green Bay, both playoff teams. What if the ’17 Bears stumble in at 6-10 but beat the Packers in Green Bay, the Lions in Soldier Field and one of the first three opponents on the schedule?

All of which is hypothetical/speculative/theoretical/all of the above. But the ’17 season will contain its own internal intrigue, beyond the schedule.