By Chris Emma–
LAKE FOREST, Ill. (CBS) — Well into the wee hours of Friday night and Day 2 of the NFL Draft, Bears general manager Ryan Pace wore fatigue on his face. Tireless months of scouting led to these sudden moments bringing pick by pick off the board. Instantly, draft boards are made or broken.
Hard work and preparation unfolds in three days and seven rounds of NFL Draft action, then the class is set. Pace still had a long Saturday ahead of him, but it was filled with optimism.
Pace came forward Saturday after Mr. Irrelevant was selected looking just as tired, but he was thrilled with what the Bears accomplished with their nine draft picks.
“We’re excited,” Pace declared after the conclusion of the NFL Draft.
Excited with good reason, too.
If you’re joining the masses and handing our draft grades, give the Bears an “A” for this class, at least for its pure potential. Chicago added nine players — six defensive, three offensive — to the roster, filling voids on the roster and adding important depth lost through years of poor draft decisions by Pace’s predecessor, Phil Emery. While there’s no telling how this draft class will develop, the projections are promising.
Chicago’s second draft with Pace in command of the front office at Halas Hall brought the Bears the kind traits that coach John Fox has won football games with in his decorated past.
“We got better,” Fox said. “We needed to. We were a 6-10 football team that needed to improve.”
In terms of pure abilities, the Bears are a much better team. How that translates to on-field production is another question, though optimism is warranted.
When Pace inherited office in January 2015, it was no secret that the Bears’ roster was in serious trouble. The 2014 creation of Emery and Marc Trestman was a disaster in many ways. A longtime NFL scout, Pace made it clear that the draft would provide the lifeblood to his organization. Hitting on picks early and late would be essential.
Edge rusher Leonard Floyd, the Bears’ first-round pick, was viewed by the Bears as someone so important that they moved up two spots to draft. He’s the face of this class, and while he’s far from a sure thing, that upside is intriguing.
“We added a major pass rush threat to our defense,” Pace said of picking Floyd.
From there, the Bears traded down twice in the second round (acquiring a pair of fourth-round picks for 2016 and one for 2017) and still came away with first-round value Cody Whitehair, the guard from Kansas State. The best player on the Bears’ board at the time, he solidifies Chicago a strong interior line, joining three-time Pro Bowl guard Kyle Long.
Explosive defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard came in the third round, bringing the Bears a starting front seven created entirely by Pace. The picks of Whitehair and Bullard could be remembered in the same light as a first-round pick years down the road.
Now, the Bears have Bullard, Eddie Goldman and Akiem Hicks starting up front, plus a linebacking group of Floyd, Pernell McPhee, Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman. Perhaps fourth-round pick Nick Kwiatkoski can find his chance at inside linebacker too.
The Bears went from one of football’s worst front sevens to a pretty solid unit, plus added to the secondary with mid-round values in Miami safety Deon Bush, Northern Iowa cornerback Deiondre’ Hall and FCS All-American safety DeAndre Houston-Carson of William & Mary.
“I know that we’re trying to get back to the old Bears defense, the defense that dominates the whole league,” Floyd said. “That’s what Coach has been preaching to me, getting back to being that dominant defense. I’m excited to be a part of it.
“I’m so freaking excited to be a Chicago Bear.”
Pace came through with shrewd moves on Day 2, twice trading down and standing firm to his convictions on the draft board. Rather than standing pat and reaching, he found a way to maximize each round.
What Pace and the Bears were able to accomplish is Belichick-like, staying true to his scouting convictions. If the Bears were forced to reach at that slot for their best player available, they would find a way to move back.
Defensive depth was upgraded for the Bears, and two skill positions were covered, too. Indiana running back Jordan Howard — taken in the fifth round — brings Chicago the needed bellcow complement for penciled-in feature back Jeremy Langford. And Danny Braverman, the seventh-round pick out of Western Michigan, gives the Bears a “throwback” slot receiver for Jay Cutler.
Credit the Bears for not reaching for a quarterback they didn’t like, instead signing veteran Brian Hoyer to a one-year deal at the conclusion of the draft. Hoyer worked under new Bears offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains with the Browns in 2014.
In evaluating the Bears’ entire draft class, the difference in speed and athleticism is obvious. Pace touted the toughness and instincts, too, something his scouting staff ensured during the evaluation process. Before this new regime arrived in Chicago, there was a stark difference in each of those traits.
“He does a tremendous job,” Fox said of Pace. “I think we had an excellent draft a year ago, and this one may be even better.”
The Bears maximized their 2016 draft to shore up positions of need while creating depth and competition across the board. All across the Bears’ depth chart, there’s a better look than when Pace arrived at Halas Hall. If this 2016 draft class develops into what Pace hopes, Chicago’s football future will be bright.
What can at least be said is that the Bears should be in position to compete for the playoffs this season. Sure, there’s plenty of randomness set to unfold in any NFL schedule, but this roster looks good on paper.
That “A” on the report card comes from the belief in this talented class combined with a confidence in Pace and his front office. Bears fans should be excited.
Pace and the Bears brass used this group of nine draft picks to finalize a roster that’s come a long way. A lot of work went into that process, but Chicago can hope its reward is coming.