Every year I think I know where the Bears will go with their picks. And every year I’m proven wrong as they go in a direction I didn’t anticipate. Reading some of the reaction around the Internet, I get the feeling I’m not the only one. Hub Arkush at chicagofootball.com was typical.
“The problem I’m having with [general manager Ryan] Pace and the Bears at the moment is I’m really not sure what they’re trying to do.”
I get where Arkush is coming from. But as time and more draft picks go by, we get a better and better sense at least of what Pace is looking for in the draft, if not always how the pieces are going to fit together.
Here are my conclusions about what characteristics are generally important to the Bears based upon their selections on Days 1 and 2 of the draft:
1. The Bears are looking for versatility.
This played a big part in the selection of offensive guard Cody Whitehair. Whitehair played both tackle and guard at Kansas State. Though he projects as a guard in the NFL some scouts believe that he’d be a better center. That means Whitehair could potentially start at any of the five offensive line positions.
What that means is that the Bears are a lot more likely to be able to somehow get their best five offensive linemen on the field in some combination. Suggestions are already being made that guard Kyle Long could be in for a move back to tackle. “I wouldn’t rule anything out for Kyle,” Pace noted. “He can play anywhere.”
Also interesting is what this all means for offensive guard Matt Slauson. It’s been suggested in multiple places, including this space, that the Bears could trade Slauson in a league that promises to be still full of teams with a need for starter quality guards at the end of the draft. The Bears would undoubtedly love to flip Slauson for a draft pick.
It’s also worth remembering that Slauson has played very well at center in the past. Indeed, if it weren’t for his age (30) and the fact that Hroniss Grasu is a third round pick, there would be little doubt that Slauson would be the starter. By of the end of last season, he had shown himself to be decidedly better than Grasu. If Grasu fails to improve it will be interesting to see if the Bears are willing to start Slauson there as the best player despite the other drawbacks.
Defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard also fits into this mold. Bullard played most of last season as a one-gap three technique defensive tackle but projects well as a two-gapping 3-4 player. That means that the Bears can play him at defensive end in their base set but move him inside to rush the passer when they go into the nickel formation. This has become more and more important as teams spend more and more time defending the pass.
2. The Bears are looking for under-sized players who can add bulk without losing quickness.
The best example of this is Thursday’s first round pick, pass rusher Leonard Floyd. Multiple reports indicate that Floyd has the frame to add more bulk and that he is going to need to. The vast majority of good 3-4 outside linebackers come in at about 250 lb. Floyd was 244 pounds at the combine and indicated that he had lost four pounds since then.
Bullard is in the same boat. Described as having “the frame to add more functional strength and mass” he’s going to need to do just that to develop into a two-gapping defensive lineman while keeping the needed agility to rush the passer.
Even Whitehair is described as a “tireless worker bee in the weight room“.
Like former general manager Phil Emery before him, Pace is betting heavily on the Bears strength and conditioning staff.
3. The Bears are looking for attitude, toughness and discipline.
This wouldn’t appear to be a revelation as most teams will say that. But more than in the past, the Bears seem to be putting actions behind the words.
Whitehair is described as “gritty”. He reportedly is an extremely hard worker in in practices and brings a high degree of dependability and consistency. One scout said, “No question about toughness. Shows good fight and works to execute assignment.” And Pace said of him, “He’s smart. He’s tough. He’s instinctive… [T]hose are all things I like.” It’s obvious that Pace considered these characteristics as being more than enough to compensate for Whitehair’s short arms.
Floyd also stands out in this respect. He attended Hargrave Military Academy between high school and college and undoubtedly that instilled more discipline than the average college NFL prospect will have.
But it’s Bullard who is really the prime example of the Bears commitment to bringing strength in the area of toughness and perseverance over physical attributes. One scout said of Bullard, “Despite multiple nagging injuries during the second half of 2015, Bullard had his best season as a senior (66 tackles, 17.5 TFL and 6.5 sacks)… He’s a grinder. Lacks elite physical tools but he grows on you the more tape you study of him. High motor player. Will pursue from behind. Makes a bunch of effort plays. Good toughness. Backs down to nobody. Battles versus double teams and rarely waives the white flag…plays with a physical edge and relentless motor… brings a tone-setting mentality to the front seven.” Another described him as “Hard-charging, high-effort defender… Competitive and willing to mix it up.”
Toughness, versatility and physical upside in terms of size and strength. These are the characteristics with which Pace hopes to redefine the Bears. It will be years before we know whether the plan will add up to wins. But at least now we know what to look for.