Most long-term successful football teams create their victories in the draft. The paper champion in March’s annual free agency so rarely wins a championship. It’s about making a topping splash to a foundation. Your infrastructure must almost always first come through the draft.
For the Chicago Bears, after a well-played second tier market fix by general manager Ryan Pace, the mandate is now on continuing to add to a talented core while the rest of the roster fills out in the most efficient means possible. Pace has said it best himself of his draft philosophy.
“This is what I believe in. I believe that to have sustained success, you must build your team through the draft,” pronounced the Bears head personnel man.
Given how Chicago played free agency with one-year deals such as to Kendall Wright or Prince Amukamara, that ideal hasn’t changed. If the Bears are to succeed in the Pace era, they will aim to drive it from April selections while filling in holes when necessary on the open market. It’s the not the sexy way of doing things and it does require patience, but is the sound direction a team should take.
This is a mock draft with the Bears best needs in mind immediately post-spending spree and a realistic approach towards the 2017 draft with players they can cater to their schemes.
With all of the recent developments to Chicago’s roster - which slightly telegraphs their thought process - let’s get to the picks.
First round, number three overall: QB Deshaun Watson, Clemson, 6-foot-2, 221 pounds
The Bears are in year three of the Pace era. They’ve yet to draft a quarterback they intend to build around long-term. This isn’t a position they can wait any longer on drafting in this rebuild. It’s not that difficult for me to pass on “defensive game-changer” when this is such a deep draft at almost every defensive position. Sure the Bears can draft a safety with the third pick - poor positional value - but potential Pro Bowlers will still be available in the second. Keep that in mind.
As studies show, most quarterbacks that blossom in the NFL, really only come in the first round. Finishing a supporting cast completely before inserting a quarterback is a luxury almost no NFL team enjoys. You fill in as best as possible instead.
Getting the franchise passer right is what will define Pace’s career in Chicago. This is a guy that has to be the face of the Bears for a decade or longer. Given how Pace continually glosses about guys who “elevate the program” or have had overall success in college, no one quarterback in this draft fits that profile better than Watson.
The two-time Heisman trophy runner-up closed his career by leading Clemson to consecutive national championship games - one loss, one win. Following a stellar performance against Alabama in 2016, there was talk that Watson would have been the number one overall pick if he was able to come out, but instead people focused on a slight step back in performance this year overall.
With some struggles, including 17 interceptions last season and accuracy issues, Watson lost a bit of his high stock. It is my belief that there was more context to the 21-year-old’s late struggles than simply saying he can’t flourish in the NFL. Watson is the most polished passer in this draft, the safest pick at quarterback, and does almost everything well even if he will have to refine some aspects of how he plays at the professional level.
He’s a natural leader. Watson has solid pocket mobility and knows how to manipulate space to create throwing lanes. He’s a great athlete outside of the pocket and can throw accurately on the move with a tight throwing motion. And even if Clemson’s offense was a bit simplified at times, he is very capable of going through multiple progressions - a common and lazy criticism that many say spread quarterbacks can’t do at all to fall back on. Of course, as a game gets tight, so does his own individual game in lighting it up. Pressure is his strong suit.
He will have to work on some accuracy issues and fix parts of his throwing motion to fix an underwhelming velocity, but in the right situation given to his growth, such as with the Bears who have their bridge quarterback in Mike Glennon - Watson will become a star.
Bleacher Report’s lead scout, Doug Farrar said it best: “Every quarterback drafted in 2017 will need help with coaching, development, and scheme. When I study the tape, it’s fairly easy to assert that Watson is the player with the most positive and obvious attributes at this time.”
Patience will be key here with Watson in not throwing him into the fire. It seems the Bears are ready to wait it out and do just that.
Second round, number 36 overall: S Budda Baker, Washington, 5-foot-10, 195 pounds
When was the last time the Bears had a true center fielding safety? Mike Brown would be the answer and he last played for the Bears in 2008. Since then, this position has been cannon fodder in Chicago and arguably been as much of a struggle in finding a premium player as with quarterback.
In that respect, the Bears lucked out in a search for an improved defensive backfield on the heels of one of the best safety classes in years. Baker is the perfect man to take for Chicago. Currently, he’s being projected as a late first rounder to early second rounder so there is a slight chance he may not fall. Still, his ability would be an ideal add to a budding Chicago secondary that could use foundational playmakers.
Baker is a polished safety that’s always around the ball. The two-time First Team Pac 12 safety and reigning 2016 First Team All-American has a knack for coming through with timely plays. In three seasons at Washington, Baker had 138 tackles, 18 passes defended, 5 interceptions, four sacks, and three forced fumbles - showcasing wild versatility.
There aren’t many things to dislike about Baker.
He’s always bouncing around on the field with tremendous energy. Baker’s hips are smooth and he’s rarely caught of position with poor technique as he reads and diagrams offensive plays on the fly very well. From every area of the field, he’s quality in coverage and only reads the quarterback’s eyes in understanding where to take him to the apex of a play. Obviously, when around the ball, he’s exceptional. He moves like a corner. His aggression as a sure tackler with speed around the box is something to behold. There are really no weaknesses to his game.
The only thing that may be tricky in relation to Baker is how his frame could be a detriment as a professional. At 195 pounds and with the passion that he plays, the 21-year-old may leave himself susceptible to injury over time. It’s why some have compared him to former Colts safety, Bob Sanders, who had a variety of injury issues in his career while an All-Pro player. Barring strength and weight added, there could be limitations in how the Bears would deploy the young man. Given how a Vic Fangio is built around having premium safeties though, this won’t be too much of a concern.
Channeling a player’s energy and putting him in the best possible area to succeed using his special talent is a Fangio trademark. He has not yet had a safety like Baker in his Chicago defensive coordinator stint. It’s safe to say he’d find a way to unleash his new favorite weapon in the secondary.
Third round, number 67 overall: CB Kevin King, Washington, 6-foot-3, 200 pounds
With reports of Deiondre’ Hall possibly moving to safety, the need for a young boundary corner in Chicago just grew. Marcus Cooper and Prince Amumakara are decent free agent additions but hardly the answers that eliminate the need for a cornerback. Baker’s teammate in the lanky press man in King is the perfect player to select in that light.
The reason a player with ball skills like King falls to the third is that there are concerns about his playing speed. For all of his athleticism and natural speed (he ran a 4.43 40-yard dash at the Combine) many are concerned that his technique can falter. His hands in press play can be all over the place which allows quicker guys to get space and burn him. And in being a taller cornerback, he does have trouble shifting his body in coverage, so he needs to excel when pressing.
Nevertheless, the Bears do prefer length and a guy who still has plenty of positive attributes. King uses his size well to restrict catching windows and is intelligent about where he leads his guys along the field. He’s a patient player, who only reads the quarterback’s eyes, and while not a fantastic tackler in the running game, he’s capable of making a play when the time comes. A crazy ballhawk on occasion (six interceptions in his college career) should he receive the opportunity as noted above, too.
There’s a lot to polish up in King’s game, but given time, he can be a number one cornerback and is worth the investment for the Bears and as a pupil for secondary coach, Ed Donatell.
Fourth round, number 111 overall: DE Derek Rivers, Youngstown State, 6-foot-4, 248 pounds
Two picks in the fourth round gives the Bears an interesting strategy here. Given the edge prospects, a guy like Rivers goes first with the value he could bring.
Rivers is one of those players that flies a bit under the radar because he didn’t play for a major program in college and is seen as a bit of “tweener” linebacker and defensive end. But make no mistake, his high-level production (37.5 sacks, 173 tackles, and 56.5 tackles for loss in four seasons at school) makes him one of the best edge defenders in this class after the guys with program pedigree. Rivers’ high upside would appeal to Pace.
In Fangio’s 3-4 defense, Rivers’ incredibly high motor and natural pass-rushing moves would be unleashed as an outside edge player. He has one of the fastest first steps in this entire class and would be unfair to other teams in tandem with Leonard Floyd and his freakish ability. This is a player with a quality second gear, who is flexible and capable of dipping around the edge and who uses his leverage and length well to create space to get to the quarterback. A complete but raw player given the competition he went against at times.
However, Rivers can be weak in the running game given his in-between status of weight and at a position. His size can be taken advantage of and gap awareness overall leaves something to be desired. By all respects, he sounds like a rookie Floyd who will need a full offseason of training and some seasoning to become the star he’s capable of being.
Given where the Bears sit in their rebuild, Rivers is the perfect long-term companion for their 2016 rookie phenom in Floyd.
Fourth round, number 117 overall: TE Jake Butt, Michigan, 6-foot-5, 246 pounds
Butt’s ACL tear suffered in the Orange Bowl is the only reason he falls to the mid-rounds. Otherwise, he would have been one of the top tight ends selected in the 2017 Draft. Given his adequate recovery time for the injury and how far medicine has come in general, I don’t think the Bears will be scared off from taking the polished Michigan product as their future starting tight end.
For Butt, he has some of the best hands of any receiving weapon in this class. This is a guy who makes plays in traffic regularly, a must for a target in the middle of the field, and is a savvy and physical route runner who makes up a for a lack of speed. He’s incredibly difficult to bring down after the catch and is a smart player in the red zone and in zone coverage. I can’t help but think how a Bears quarterback would salivate in using Butt as a versatile target marker.
As noted, he isn’t very fast and is hardly a fantastic athlete. He’s also a weaker blocker that better defenders threw around. However, these are aspects of his game he can work on over time with Zach Miller, Dion Sims and company already in tow. Butt won’t be expected to be the guy right away and can gain strength and find other ways to make up for his lack of quickness with patience. The Bears tight end of the future.
Fifth round, number 147 overall: CB Damontae Kazee, San Diego State, 5-foot-10, 184 pounds
The Bears load up with another cornerback to add to their repertoire in the lightning quick Kazee. You can never have enough talent on the back-end as the 2016 Bears received a harsh reminder of. Given his size, Kazee may end up being more of a nickel corner in the NFL, but don’t doubt his potential ability to stick on the outside.
Kazee is one of the best ballhawks in this class with 17 interceptions in four college seasons. He’s highly active in run support and always finds him at the peak of a play. He’s relatively smooth with loose hips and finds himself bouncing around with quick feet and excellent awareness. This is a toy that Fangio and company would love to play around with and exercise his high compete level to see what comes of it.
In the NFL, opposing offensive coordinators will look to take advantage of his smaller stature so Kazee will have to adjust accordingly. This is a corner who can’t be loose in his coverage at any time, but even so, found himself being beaten over the top or run out of position occasionally. Previous Bears’ defense’s would’ve accepted that notion with little to no talent to step in for under-performers. Kazee won’t have that luxury. A depth addition with upside.
Seventh round, number 221 overall: WR Michael Rector, Stanford, 6-foot, 193 pounds
With the departure of Alshon Jeffery to Philadelphia, there are still huge questions in the Bears receiving core. The additions of Markus Wheaton and Wright don’t quell any of these concerns. Who knows what Kevin White will become and Cameron Meredith is still growing. It’s hardly among the Bears’ primary needs in my mind to address for 2017, but they could use a developmental prospect such as Rector.
Rector is a solid route runner with enough speed to execute the entire route tree as a deep threat when called upon. He doesn’t have the best hands but can make a spectacular catch every now and then. And while this isn’t necessarily a positive, he’s not a complete liability as a stalk-blocker in the running game.
However, there is a reason Rector sits in the seventh round for Chicago. He’s had drop problems in his entire career at Stanford and isn’t a guy you rely on for using the entire route tree even if he’s capable of it. Purely a player to send downfield for deep bombs. He’s also easy to bring down in the open field.
In the end, Rector has a lot to work on that he may never fix, but in the meantime can stretch a defense and offer the Bears a needed vertical dimension. He’s a seventh round pick and if you can find value here, you’re being successful.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for the Rock River Times and is a staff writer for Windy City Gridiron and Second City Hockey. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.