By Greg Gabriel-
(CBS) With the initial wave of free agency now over, you can get a fairly good idea of what your favorite NFL team will do in the first round of the draft. The conventional thinking here in Chicago has been that the Bears’ No. 7 overall pick will be used on an edge rusher from the strong quartet of Vic Beasley, Dante Fowler, Shane Ray and Randy Gregory when they make their selection on April 30.
After watching what the Bears have done (and haven’t done) in free agency and looking at the strengths and weaknesses of this draft, I no longer believe that’s the direction they will go.
The Bears recently traded receiver Brandon Marshall to the Jets. During free agency, they signed receiver Eddie Royal, who just happened to have his best year as a pro when Jay Cutler was throwing him passes. While Royal is a competent player, he’s more suited to play in the slot. If the Bears decide to take an outside receiver with their first pick, that selection could well be West Virginia’s Kevin White or Alabama’s Amari Cooper. One of those two players will certainly be there at No. 7.
While that’s a possibility if the Bears stay at No. 7, my belief is they will attempt to trade down and go in a different direction.
The Bears are switching their defensive scheme to a 3-4 from the one-gap 4-3 they have run since Love Smith was hired in 2004. When I look at the personnel the Bears currently have, I don’t see too many players currently on the roster who can play in the new scheme.
When new Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio was in San Francisco, he didn’t play with the big 340-pound defensive linemen that, for example, the Ravens have been known to use. Rather, Fangio used smaller, more athletic types who could be disruptive as pass rushers. Looking at the Bears’ current roster, there aren’t many defensive linemen who are capable of playing in that scheme.
There were certainly defensive linemen who were fits available in the early stages of free agency, but the Bears chose to pass on signing them. Other than Ndamukong Suh, most didn’t get huge contracts. In fact, many have received one- and two-year deals. That tells me the Bears just weren’t that interested in any of them.
Assessing the Bears’ roster, guys like Willie Young, Jared Allen and Davis Bass will be tried as outside linebackers. None of them have the bulk to play down in a 3-4 and hold up. At the press conference to introduce newly signed Pernell McPhee, coach John Fox said that Lamarr Houston may also be tried at one of the outside linebacker spots. He’s also capable of playing as a 5-technique.
Elsewhere, there are only a few players who can play in the new scheme. Defensive linemen Jeremiah Ratliff and Ego Ferguson are the only players who I know are fits. Last year’s third-round pick, Will Sutton, may also be fine, as he does compare to some of the players Fangio used in San Francisco. After that, there’s no one who we can say is capable of being a contributor.
In the draft, the strengths of the early rounds are edge pass rushers, interior defensive linemen and receivers. While there isn’t an interior defensive lineman worthy of being taken at No. 7, the Bears could trade down and be in perfect positon to select one the interior defensive linemen not long after.
Defensive linemen like Arik Armstead (Oregon), Danny Shelton (Washington), Eddie Goldman (Florida State), Jordan Phillips (Oklahoma) and Malcom Brown (Texas) will all be strong picks between the 10th and 20th slots. All have the capability to play in the Bears’ new scheme. The question that Chicago faces is who far to trade back?
Assessing the trade charts, if the Bears moved back three or four slots, they would most likely get an extra third-round pick. If they move back seven or eight slots, they could easily get a second-round pick to make the move.
It’s my opinion that moving back seven or eight spots would be the best move. If the Bears had three selections in the first two rounds, they could easily get two defensive linemen and either a wide receiver or edge pass rusher with those picks and wouldn’t be reaching to fill a need. Knowing the strength of each draft is the key to trading down.
In the the first half of second round, the Bears could be looking at defensive linemen such as Carl Davis (Iowa), Xavier Cooper (Washington St.), Michael Bennett (Oho St.) or Mario Edwards Jr. (Florida State). Receiver in that range who could be available would be Nelson Agholor (USC), Phillip Dorsett (Miami) or Devin Smith (Ohio State). The edge rushers may well be Nate Orchard (Utah) or Hau’oli Kikaha (Washngton). There’s an abundance of quality players in that range.
The Bears’ needs and the strength of the draft just happen to coincide this year. What could be a bonus for the Bears is if quarterback Marcus Mariota is still available at No. 7, as Chicago could then be in position to collect a bounty for its pick.
The key to good drafting isn’t only acquiring strong players but also setting up a sound strategy.
Greg Gabriel is a former NFL talent evaluator who has been an on-air contributor for 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @greggabe.