By Chris Emma–
(CBS) As a longtime NFL scout before he became Bears general manager, Ryan Pace knows well how to approach the quarterback position.
Teams in desperate need jump for that first wave of quarterbacks, often stretching for a pick. Then, that next phase falls to the middle or late rounds. For every Peyton Manning or Cam Newton picked No. 1 overall, there exists the opportunity for middle- and late-round steals like Tom Brady and Russell Wilson.
Pace and the Bears brass worked thoroughly at the NFL Combine last week, doing their homework on the quarterback prospects on hand. Names like Jared Goff, Carson Wentz and Paxton Lynch are expected to go early in the draft. Chicago can only hope two or three quarterbacks go in the top 10, pushing players at positions of greater need — notably on defense — to their 11th pick.
The Bears are highly unlikely to take a quarterback with their first-round pick — not with so many urgent needs across the board. Pace has openly stated that he’s building this offense around quarterback Jay Cutler for 2016 and wants to find complements to bring the Bears success.
Still, look for the Bears to be aggressive in the quarterback market after the first two rounds.
“There are also a handful of quarterbacks in the middle part of the draft that I feel good about,” Pace said at the Combine. “We’ve got to make sure we’ve accurately graded, and that’s where our scouts really earn their money.”
The Bears are eagerly seeking a quarterback in this draft in order to solidify their future at the position. Cutler’s the surefire starter for 2016, but a rookie would add depth and potentially become the next man up should Chicago move on from Cutler, whose guaranteed money is paid off after the 2016 season.
The most intriguing name the Bears have examined is Christian Hackenberg, the inconsistent quarterback from Penn State. He was once projected to be the top overall pick in this draft. Now, he’s hoping to go in the third round.
Hackenberg threw for 2,525 yards and 16 touchdowns with six interceptions as a junior, but he was beaten up in the backfield. His strong arm was often far too inaccurate, creating concerns for his NFL future. The Bears are among teams doing their homework on whether Hackenberg can flourish at the next level.
“I just want to be the best player I can be,” Hackenberg said. “Whatever I have to do, the step I have to take, the sacrifices I have to make, I’m willing to do it.
“My biggest fear is not being able to reach my full potential.”
Perhaps Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott may be the better fit for Chicago in the middle rounds.
A 6-foot-2, 226-pound prospect, Prescott matches the speed to his size. He’s an impressive dual-threat quarterback who has become an enticing option for NFL teams. He’s an intelligent player with a lot of upside. Still, the concern is that his natural comparison is Tim Tebow — another dual-threat quarterback whose arm was questionable.
The Bears were one of many teams to meet with Prescott at the Senior Bowl, getting insight to his transition into the NFL. Projections show Prescott going in the third or fourth round. He’s viewed as an outstanding leader with the intangibles scouts desire, but he understands the need to prove he can be a pocket passer just as much as a runner.
“I have to show people that I can make all the drops from under center,” Prescott said.
Like Hackenberg and Prescott, Stanford standout Kevin Hogan was another quarterback busy making the rounds with NFL teams, the Bears included.
Hogan was a starter during each of his four years with the Cardinal, showing his NFL readiness in a pro-style system. He believes that’s among the great benefits to his game. Hogan threw for 2,867 yards and 27 touchdowns to just eight interceptions during Stanford’s Rose Bowl season of 2015.
Team executives will like the fact that Hogan improved each season at Stanford, doing so within an NFL-type system.
“I feel like I am able to learn any offense very well,” Hogan said.
Hogan isn’t the fastest quarterback with the strongest arm, but he may be one of the safest bets in the later rounds. He hopes to develop a more compact delivery and a quicker release.
Other quarterbacks expected to go later in the draft include Ohio State’ Cardale Jones, Alabama’s Jake Coker, Arkansas’ Brandon Allen and Indiana’s Nate Sudfeld. Michigan State’s Connor Cook was initially projected as a second- or third-round selection, though NFL teams are aware of character concerns linked to his name.
Pace and his trusted scouting team have been busy sorting through each quarterback prospect and their strengths and weaknesses. By now, they have a good idea for how each skill set translates to the NFL game and who in this group has the makeup of a franchise quarterback.
After all, teams aren’t just looking for backup quarterbacks in the later rounds — they hope to find that next Tom Brady.
With nine draft picks, the Bears have plenty of options in finding their potential future at quarterback.