Everyone saw the poll a few days ago here on our very own WCG, and there wasn't a whole lot of surprise that the top four positions of interest were Tackle/Guard/Defensive End/Free Safety. What was a lot more surprising to me is that both FS and DE received more votes than either of the offensive line positions. I hate to step out on a limb and get combative with folks, but I would like to do some serious clarification here. Our biggest needs should NOT be our biggest targets in the draft, if you think DE and FS are those biggest needs. Follow me below the fold while I explain myself further.
So first let us establish a few givens. We're mostly Bears fans here, which means we historically enjoy a great defense the way most fans would enjoy a great offense. There is nothing wrong with that, and well with our defensive issues the past few years I can definitely sympathize and understand where there is a huge desire to bolster our defense this off season. However, just because our defense needs bolstering does not make the draft the place to do it.
The NFL Draft is a very unique animal when it comes to the ranking of positions. Sure some positions require more skill, some are "worth" more on the open market, but the extremes the NFL draft takes this position valuation to is something bordering on fantasy. For instance, you can usually make an easy bet that at least three LT will be taken before a G ever comes off the board. You can also be fairly safe with a bet that places RB/WR before TE, and that no FB will be picked before the 3rd round at the earliest. Also, Robbie Gould, even if he re-entered the draft right now, would be lucky to be picked in the 4th round.
What does all of this mean? It means that when you're dealing with draft day you have to look at not only the depth of the position in this draft, but also it's relative value towards your needs; and the strength of the pick on its own two feet. For instance, a lot of the time you'll find a fairly noticeable drop off in game ready talent after the top 5 at any position in the draft, and an even more noticeable drop off in talent after the top 10. Good scout work can help find the diamonds in the rough, but in general you're not going to find the next Orlando Pace in the sixth round. So when you're ranking your needs it's very important to compare your list of needs to the positions of value, and where your picks correlate to the best chance of filling those holes on your roster.
Why does all of this matter to our current situation? It matters because Defensive Ends are extremely popular in the first two rounds of the draft, severely diluting the remaining talent pool by the third round. Generally if you're after a DE and he's still there in the third, he's probably going to be there in the fourth as well, and even if not someone usually will be that isn't that far off your talent evaluation of the guy you wanted in the third. The groupings are much closer together talent-wise after the first two rounds.
It also matters because S is traditionally not a deep position, and hasn't been for quite some time. This year is starting out a bit different with quite a few early entries trying to get in before the lock out. My last count was that there were about eight safeties that had a 2nd round grade or better, and even more that were just off the bubble as third or fourth round picks. This is quite a bit different than most years as S is usually an extremely underrepresented position. What this means is that this year you're still going to have those two or three fantastic "can't miss" players that are picked in the first and early second, but there are going to be a lot of quality safeties falling down the draft board. This isn't the place for predictions, but don't be surprised to see the Bears pick up Myron Lewis in the 4th or 5th round as he's not only a taller guy with a knack for coming up with the ball, but he projects as a FS/Cover2CB and he's from Vandy. Value + Need + Vandy = Bears are grabbing him.
Now despite my prediction I really don't care who the Bears pick up to play FS, but it's very important to note that there are more 2nd round or better safeties in this coming draft than have been picked in total through the first five rounds on average going back about 10 years. This means that grabbing a safety in the 3rd round when there is going to be a huge amount of quality left is foolish since there is still going to be quality going all the way to the 5th round.
Now I can hear you saying now, who cares where we pick the guy as long as we get our guy? I agree completely in a perfect world, but this isn't a perfect world. We're hamstrung with very few picks in an extremely deep draft class, and our needs on the offense are at keystone positions along the line. The only thing worse than rebuilding a line is being forced to do it again two years later when you realize the guy you got isn't your guy. That's why it's important to go offensive lineman with our first pick. RT are always at less of a premium than LT, and this is turning out to be a fairly deep class of tackles meaning: we're likely going to have our pick of the top two or three RT in the draft with our first pick of the draft. Guards are historically even less valued than RT with all but the best of the crop falling into the late second at best. You combine that with a really deep T class, and you're probably going to see some really good guards still on the board even in the fourth round and later.
We're in a unique position folks, and the thing about unique positions is that they haven't been done that many times before and are open to being resolved in different ways than your standard "I need a QB so let's grab the best QB on the board ". We have realistic openings across the line, Garza has one, possibly two years left so for all intents and purposes his position is open in the mid to late term, we have two open positions at LG and RT. This means while we don't have a lot of picks, and we have very specific needs, they run the gamut across the line enough to allow us to pick for the best player available to fill one of multiple needs, and to likely do so again in the fourth.
To summarize: We need to address the DE position outside the draft, the position isn't deep enough and is too popular to have anything but extremely depleted talent left in the third. FS, while a definite need, is extremely stacked this year with quality and the drop off is going to be much less severe from the third to the fifth round. Our three needs, RT/LG and to a lesser extent RG, give us flexibility to get the absolute best linemen left on the board in the third round as well as being less "important" positions making the likelihood of finding a foundational player for the team going into the future much more likely.
My suggestion is to go either RT/LG in the third, BPA between what you didn't pick adding FS in the fourth, and BPA between what's left in the fifth adding RG. The likelyhood of us filling all three positions isn't terrible, and fairly high of hitting two out of three. Combine that with a DE from FA and we should have a fairly significant boost specially for a team without a first day pick.