By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) Best available athlete?
Not a chance.
Teams that love to spout that they will be looking for the best available athlete on Draft Day are just filling your ears with soupy oatmeal.
The best available football player in the NFL Draft this year is quarterback Andrew Luck of Stanford. He will be selected by the Colts with the No. 1 pick. There’s no way Luck is the best available athlete. You can make a case for almost-certain No. 2 pick Robert Griffin III of Baylor, but is he a better athlete than Oklahoma State wide receiver Justin Blackmon or LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne? Probably not.
So you are not looking for the best athlete. You are looking for the best football player. Luck and RGIII may be legitimate game changers, but teams like the New England Patriots (Tom Brady) and the Green Bay Packers (Aaron Rodgers) would not have a need for either prospect. Both teams would almost certainly trade out of the position if they had the top picks.
The point is that no matter what you hear, all teams consider their most important needs before drafting. Luck and RGIII command explosive draft value, but outside of those two, all teams must consider their most important needs before selecting.
For the Bears, that means wide receiver, defensive end and the secondary. The acquisition of Brandon Marshall gives Jay Cutler a big-play, downfield threat who will make opposing defenses respect the Bears’ ability to hit home runs. Marshall is a diva who may wear thin as the season moves along – just ask his teammates and coaches with the Dolphins – but the Bears obviously believe in him. The Bears also signed Devin Thomas, who appears to be a solid special teamer but a longshot at wide receiver. Phil Emery may be tempted to use the No. 19 pick in the draft on a wide receiver like Kendall Wright of Baylor or LSU’s Reuben Randle, but he is more likely to go the defensive route.
A legitimate pass rusher who has the speed to turn the corner like Nick Perry of USC or Whitney Mercilus of Illinois might be the right move for Emery to make. Perry is a bit of a reach because he will probably be better as a 3-4 outside linebacker than as a 4-3 defensive end since that’s the system that the Trojans played. He’s also a bit undersized at 6-3 and 274 pounds, but if you can overlook those two factors you have a legitimate game changer. He led the Pac-10 with 9.5 sacks last year and can make plays with his speed or strength. He can play the run and punish the ball carrier as well as come around the corner and get to the quarterback.
Mercilus is an explosive player who was a sack machine for the Illini with 16.0 sacks in 2011. He has the kind of speed to come around the corner that would complement Julius Peppers and make the Bears’ pass rush that much harder to stop. Mercilus started for one year and does not have the power to handle the running game on a consistent basis. While he will not back down from any challenge, it may be a bit too much to ask him to stop power running attacks on a consistent basis.
Jerry Angelo did not view cornerback as a game-changing position and rarely turned his attention to the position with his top draft picks. Emery does not have that mindset. He may be looking at Alabama’s Dre Kirkpatrick, who has All-Pro type self-confidence and wants nothing more than to face the opponent’s top receiver on a one-on-one basis. He has the size and strength at 6-2 and 186 pounds to do it and the speed to turn and run downfield. He has excellent ball skills even though he did not record an interception. He had nine passes defensed last season, seven tackles for loss and two forced fumbles.
It will probably come down to Perry, Mercilus or Kirkpatrick when the Bears select April 26. None of those three are a sure thing, but Kirkpatrick will provide an upgrade to a secondary that needs help. His confidence will allow him to win a job in training camp and help the Bears from the start of the season.
Look for Emery to consider offensive line help along with a pass rusher in the second round.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.