By Chris Emma–
(CBS) Ryan Pace understood he was in for a challenge when becoming Bears general manager.
When Pace assumed the office previously occupied by Jerry Angelo and Phil Emery, he realized what his Bears needed — playmakers, talent, depth and even just general competence. Pace is now into his second offseason, one ever so critical to his vision.
The NFL Combine winds down Monday with Pace and his brass filling their scouting notebooks with plenty of information. With so many team needs across the board, the Bears were busy in Indianapolis. Pace and his evaluators left few stones unturned, working countless meetings with prospects and doing their homework on every prospect in town.
While many teams arrive in Indianapolis looking at specific needs, Pace and the Bears were extremely thorough in their work to be prepared for whatever scenario could arise in the draft.
The Bears need help at every position group. Let’s take a look at their work from the combine.
On Day 1 of the job as general manager, Pace stated that he prefers to take a quarterback in each draft. Then, the Bears went without drafting a signal-caller in 2015. This time around, it would be a shock if the team didn’t take a quarterback.
Three names stand out as potential quarterback options for the Bears, the first of which provides the most intrigue. That would be Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg, once projected as the top quarterback in this draft before a junior season filled with struggles. The Bears met with Hackenberg in Indianapolis, and — like every other team that met with the quarterback — inquired why his stock has fallen so considerably. Hackenberg’s projected to be a second- or third-round pick, per CBSSports.com.
“I can get better,” Hackenberg said. “I know my potential, and I’m on the right path to reach it.”
Hackenberg is projected to be picked in the middle rounds. Two other names to watch are Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott and Stanford’s Kevin Hogan, both of whom met with the Bears. Prescott is projected to go in the middle rounds, while Hogan’s tabbed for the late rounds.
Pace seems set to draft a quarterback for the Bears, looking for a high-ceiling player who could either become that reliable backup he’s sought or perhaps even overtake Jay Cutler one day.
Matt Forte’s time in Chicago has come to a close. Pace made it clear that the team let the 30-year-old veteran of eight productive seasons walk away because there’s great belief in Jeremy Langford and Ka’Deem Carey, but the Bears need one more back in their stable.
The question at hand for the Bears is where and how they would like to add at running back. The first option is free agency, where names like Reggie Bush, Ronnie Hillman and Chris Ivory are considered options. In the draft, the first name to watch is Ezekiel Elliott, the terrific runner from Ohio State who has been open about his hopes of joining the Bears and running backs coach Stan Drayton.
Elliott is just one of many options available, and the Bears aren’t likely to use a high-round resource on a position of lower need. Pace could look to the middle or later rounds for a running back, with UCLA’s Paul Perkins and Northwestern H-back Dan Vitale among players with whom the Bears met.
“Obviously, that would be pretty incredible, being a Chicago Bear,” Vitale said. “Being a hometown kid, I grew up watching the Bears, through the highs and the lows. That would be something pretty cool to go in there and help them be successful.”
Here’s another position that isn’t a desperate need for the Bears. After locking up Alshon Jeffery for 2016 with the franchise tag Monday, the team will feature Jeffery, Kevin White and Eddie Royal as their top three receivers. The Bears will be looking for a reliable fourth receiver, especially after experiencing difficulties with injuries last year, but Marc Mariani could be that guy.
If the Bears are looking for a receiver in the middle rounds and Ohio State’s Braxton Miller still available, he’d be a steal. Rutgers standout Leonte Carroo could be another name to follow.
The Bears will likely be in the market for one tight end and could be needing a pair. A trade of Martellus Bennett could be constructed this offseason, perhaps sometime in March. Meanwhile, Zach Miller is set to explore free agency after a productive and healthy 2015 season. So what’s next for the Bears?
Hunter Henry, the standout from Arkansas widely viewed as top tight end on the board, met with the Bears this past week in Indianapolis. He stands at 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, with projections to go in the first two rounds. Stanford’s Austin Hooper is another possible option, part of the weak tight end class in this draft.
Additionally, South Carolina’s Jerrell Adams and Harvard’s Ben Braunecker are players to follow in the fourth and fifth rounds.
Any questions involving the Bears’ future at offensive line surrounds what’s next for three-time Pro Bowler Kyle Long, who spent his first two years at guard before shifting to right tackle in 2015. The team has stated that Long will play tackle, but the question revolves around which side of the line. Pace expressed his confidence in Charles Leno at left tackle, and Leno’s suited at all to play on the right side. Will the Bears play Long at left tackle or right, and who gets the other spot?
One potential wild card to follow in the draft is the possibility of the Bears taking a tackle in the first round, with names like Michigan State’s Jack Conklin or Notre Dame’s Ronnie Stanley. Should Stanley fall to the 11th pick, Pace may have a hard time saying no.
In the later rounds, the Bears could also look to Tyler Johnstone, a tackle out of Oregon who once lined up with Long and Hroniss Grasu.
“As long as I can stay healthy and take care of myself like a professional would, I think the sky’s the limit,” Johnstone said.
On the interior, the Bears have Grasu at center and Matt Slauson at left guard but could use stability at right guard. That would seem more likely to come in free agency, though it’s possible Pace could find fit in the middle or later rounds.
Eddie Goldman is the rock of the Bears’ defensive line, drafted in the second round last season to be the nose tackle of Vic Fangio’s 3-4 defense. Still, the Bears could look for line versatility and play Goldman at the end position in a rotation. What’s next for the defensive line will be determined first in free agency.
The Bears would like to target defensive end Malik Jackson, though the Broncos seem prepared to bring him back. It seems that Pace could add a defensive end in free agency, but it’s an option in the draft, too. Defensive ends Joey Bosa (Ohio State) and DeForest Buckner (Oregon) would be a dream, but there’s very, very little chance of either falling to the 11th spot.
Alabama defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson could be a first-round option for the Bears, as would be another Alabama defensive tackle, Jarran Reed. Louisiana Tech defensive tackle Vernon Butler and Louisville defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins are other names to watch.
“I got strength and power, so those two combined, with the size I have, is really great,” Robinson said. “I think that sets me apart from everybody else.”
There’s a deeper class of defensive tackle available for the Bears on the draft board, while ends could be at more of a premium. That may mean signing an end in free agency is the priority, while perhaps picking a tackle in the draft.
When training camp in Bourbonnais arrives, the Bears’ linebacking group will look a little different. Pernell McPhee will be back as an edge rusher, but he could complemented by three new linebackers — two in the middle, one on the edge.
Alabama’s Reggie Ragland is an enticing name at inside linebacker, while Ohio State’s Darron Lee had an exceptional combine showing. Both are projected first-rounders.
Lee’s seen as a new breed of linebacker, running a 4.43 on the 40-yard dash, the fastest time for a linebacker since 2006.
“Linebackers are changing,” the 6-foot-1, 232-pound Lee said. “They’re are lot smaller, not much bigger guys, but the game’s getting faster.”
Much of the Bears’ future at linebacker will depend on whether the team can sign a reliable Mike linebacker in the offseason, with the Broncos’ Danny Trevathan already the front-runner to join Chicago. The team must also decide whether Shea McClellin will return to a starting role.
UCLA’s Myles Jack would be an outstanding addition if he’s available at 11th overall, though that seems unlikely. Meanwhile, the mystery of Jaylon Smith’s health should keep the Bears away from the injured former Notre Dame standout. Joe Schobert of Wisconsin is a talented player who should be available in the fourth or fifth round.
The Bears can follow up on their need for linebackers in the draft, but free agency offers the first crack at making moves.
When Kyle Fuller was selected by the Bears in 2014, the team had hoped he would become the shutdown cornerback for their future. Fuller showed flashes toward the end of the 2015 season but still has a long way to go to reach his potential.
The Bears can cross their fingers and hope that Florida’s Vernon Hargreaves falls to their position at No. 11, though Clemson’s Mackensie Alexander is a more realistic option.
Perhaps the Bears could look to free agency for finding a cornerback or find one in the middle or later rounds. There will certainly be some options available in the first two rounds.
For years and years, the Bears have been seeking their future at safety. Angelo and Emery swung and missed on all of their safety selections. Pace may have found a fifth-round steal last draft in Adrian Amos, the Penn State product who was the Bears’ leading tackler in 2015, playing nearly every snap.
The 2016 safety class is weak, with some projections showing only Ohio State’s Von Bell going in the (late) first round. Miles Killebrew of Southern Utah and Jayron Kearse of Clemson are middle- and late-round names to watch.
Pace will have to be creative in identifying talents among a weak field at safety.