If the early returns from the 2015 Bears season are any indication, Chicago might have a very valuable pick in the 2016 Draft. The team has experienced a massive amount of change in a short period of time and when that is mixed with some poor luck on the injury front, the roster looks inadequate to be a legitimate contender. Plainly said, the Bears lack horsepower in the player department and the draft is the best way to rebuild the engine of the team.
The quarterback position is always a source of significant debate on any team and nowhere is that more true than in Chicago. Jay Cutler is a lightning rod for opinions. For my purposes I'll sidestep those debates and talk about some facts. Cutler is not young in NFL terms, at 32. He is not ancient, but the NFL is a young man's game and he will not last forever. He is exceptionally tough but he's taken a ridiculous pounding and is currently injured. While he may have 2-4 decent years left, his figurative wheels may fall off much sooner than that due to his relatively "high mileage". Few teams win regularly without their top QB on the field and the Bears cannot afford to take that chance.
Starting signal callers come from the first round (or very high second) of the draft. You can scream Tom Brady and Russell Wilson all you want, but they are massive exceptions. 22 of 32 starting (69%) QB's last week were first rounders or high-second-rounders. Chip in starters that would be taking the field if they were not injured and were drafted in the same range (Cutler, Brees) and the number edges up to 24 (75%). Who makes up the last 25%? The aforementioned Brady (6th round) and Wilson (3rd), plus Tyrod Taylor (6th), Josh McCown (3rd), Ryan Mallett (3rd), Ryan Fitzpatrick (7th), Nick Foles (3rd) and Kirk Cousins (4th). If you pull Brady and Wilson as the rarities they are, and you pick outside of top rounds, you are looking at Taylor, McCown, Mallett, Fitzpatrick, Foles or Cousins to lead your team. On average, that will not lead to wins on a regular basis.
Connor Cook, Quarterback, Michigan State University
Last year Connor Cook's name came up on more than one occasion, even though he pledged to forgo last year's draft and return to school. I saw him on film multiple times while scouting Spartan offensive players (Jeremy Langford, Tony Lippett) and Michigan State opponent's defenders. I was not impressed. I was fairly hard on him throughout most of the process and shut a few people down when they proclaimed him "the next great thing" at quarterback.
In the film I had seen, he obviously had good size, run well and had a good arm, but got rattled fairly easily, didn't throw well on the move and had several mechanical issues with his throwing motion that caused him to struggle with both accuracy and consistency. He certainly had some significant tools, but as quarterback (as opposed to an athlete) he did not show up on film as anywhere near elite. Then something funny happened very late in the scouting process that made me see him differently. Not completely, but enough to warrant a different look at his film this season.
I was scouting some late-round WR targets the week before the 2015 Draft and watched Tony Lippett (Michigan State) vs. Purdue. Cook was throwing that day and looked different from other tapes I'd seen. His throws to Lippett were in rhythm, on target and had appropriate velocity; again and again. The difference in his demeanor, decisions and ball placement were obvious. In short, I finally "saw" what other people got excited about in Cook. If coaches see that in a player once, they will be pretty sure they can get it out of him again.
The funny thing is that it was all a matter of changing perspective. If you watch all of Cook's throws from that game they tell a very different story than just the throws to Lippett. It is almost like he saved all his great tosses for his favorite receiver. The rest of his passes that day showed the player that frustrates scouts. He threw balls in the dirt. He stared down receivers. He hopped in the pocket before many throws. That hop kept him from establishing a good base and he sailed shots over his receiver's heads. He threw at least 2 balls that should have been picked off and one that was (almost for a pick six - Cook made the saving tackle himself). Generally he looked like an inconsistent mess that needed a lot of work. So it goes with Connor Cook: he teases you with some beautiful, effortless throws, he just doesn't usually do it for a whole game.
So that was last year. How's Cook started off this season? In some ways about the same, but slightly better. Through 4 games he is completing 58% of his passes for 838 yards, 9 touchdowns and just a single interception in 4 straight victories. That is a hair over 200 yards and 2.25 TD's per game. Not awful by any stretch, but not numbers that make your eyes light up in college football either. When I watch tape this year I will focus on Cook in the big games (he's already beaten Oregon and played well doing it) and see if he looks more like that automatic football-throwing robot he was at times last year, or closer to the scattergun he was against Nebraska and others. He'll get drafted high either way, but the tape will tell whether that is a good bet for the Bears or not.
Making Their Mark (2015 draftees who are making impacts in the pro game)
Tyler Lockett (WR/KR Seahawks) - Oops he did it again. Lockett showed up in the preseason as a weapon in the return game and he hasn't stopped since. He burned Chicago for a long special teams TD last Sunday. If he can stay healthy his impact on special teams might be talked about in the same breath as a certain former Bear who was pretty handy on returns himself.
Marcus Peters (CB Chiefs) - Peters was my choice for the top CB in the draft last year, based on his skills alone. His off-field history was a reason for pause, but he's been a humble learner in Kansas City by all accounts and his play on the field is already head and shoulders above many veteran corners.
Henry Anderson (DE Colts) - I really liked Anderson out of Stanford and thought he'd be a nice 4-3 DE that could be drafted in the later rounds. Once the Bears announced the switch to a 3-4 defense I cooled on him a bit, but he has been a force for the Colts so far.
Failure to Launch (rookies that have not yet showcased their skills on the NFL stage)
NOTE - It is way too early (3 games into the season) to put any player here, so the only point of listing anyone now is because they have not flashed YET, compared to their hype. It is NOT a prediction that they will never get their game going.
Denzel Perryman (LB Chargers) - Coming from Miami Perryman got a lot of hype. He managed 1 tackle the first week and had 5 in week 2. Things were looking up, but he failed to record a single statistic in week 3. 6 tackles over 3 weeks is nothing to write home about in the NFL.
Gerrod Holliman (FS Free Agent) - Early in the draft process some called last year's NCAA interception leader one of the better safeties available. Once film study caught up with him, scouts called him the same thing I did: "fool's gold". He got drafted late but couldn't learn to tackle in Pittsburgh either, so they cut him and he hasn't been given another shot yet.
Reel-to-Real (tips for watching game film on your favorite players)
Diversity is the spice of life: don't always watch the same games. If you have a choice, mix it up. Pick a couple of high-level opponents and one of a lower grade. If you are watching a defender, see if you can find a mix of running and passing teams and see how he reacts to both. Over time you will see players and schemes you might not have otherwise, and it will keep the process fresh throughout the draft season.