Outside of overuse of jargon and Twitter GIF threads, what the NFL’s draft season mostly produces by April is over analysis of “millennial” individual prospects. Because there’s nothing left to discuss that isn’t beating a dead horse (in this case, mercilessly chopping it up): the early spring is about taking away the worst traits of clearly useful players, to prop up the one you prefer most.
This line of thinking is rooted in the most nonsensical of “what about-ism’s?” in sports analysis. Forget the bright outlook a legitimately polished player offers. If he struggles in one area, it’s time for him to fall down the draft board. Instead of focusing on the impact of any number of legitimately good options in the draft, some prospects are not worth anything in comparison to an ideal. The basic principle here is “this raw amateur can’t excel here in comparison to what this raw amateur can do, therefore he is worthless!”
Draft cabin fever, as everyone settles into their respective fetal positions, consumes the most stable of minds.
When it comes to the Bears and the 2018 NFL Draft, this thought centers around Notre Dame’s Quenton Nelson. The “Local Kid” in Nelson (he’s from New Jersey, and Notre Dame is 94 miles away from Chicago) is the favorite for Chicago’s selection at No. 8 overall. That’s a universal idea across much of Bears media and the fanbase itself. He’s one of the most elite guard prospects in years and is widely regarded as a future Hall of Famer in casual mentions.
Somehow, if the Bears don’t draft Nelson, their first round pick amounts to a failure. That’s taking into account that it’s incredibly likely he might not slide to No. 8: meaning the decision can be out of Chicago’s control altogether (no, they should not trade up for a guard). This type of draft analysis is so frail and reactionary (that’s how the draft has always been, social media has just amplified it), that it boggles the mind.
The draft, in case anyone needs a reminder, is about finding the best value and fit at each pick. It’s about building the foundation of your team as optimally as possible through every selection and opportunity at hand. One player in one slot does not make or break an entire draft. Especially with most other top talent still available. If that’s how this evaluation process unfolded, the NFL would be even more parody-stricken than it already is. The Patriots would stop trading first round picks, having only used two opportunities in the last five years, for example.
Nelson is a tantalizing fit for the Bears. They have his college offensive line coach in Harry Hiestand. He’s a plug-and-play player that makes Chicago’s front incredibly formidable. Mitchell Trubisky would have a bunch of friends he can start buying Rolexes and fancy dinners for with Nelson’s selection. He’s that good, and worth the hype.
Rest assured, the Bears are okay if they don’t draft him. They are fine if they just miss out on taking him. This isn’t an all-the-eggs-in-the-basket situation. The Bears once missed out on drafting Aaron Donald in the 2014 NFL Draft, and while that hits close to home for a generational player: Kyle Fuller wasn’t an awful consolation prize. Any number of other players such as the Steelers’ Ryan Shazier, Cowboys’ Zack Martin, and Packers’ Ha Ha Clinton-Dix would’ve worked well and also helped change the culture at Halas Hall. Forget this while you watch Donald tear through offensive lines, and breathe.
This same framework plays out in the draft every year. This shouldn’t be a fresh concept of making mountains out of mole hills, but its easy to dwell on in hindsight: aftermaths not withstanding. There are other scenarios for the Bears to hit a home run on with their 2018 first round pick. That’s Nelson not withstanding. It doesn’t have to be him should he fall to Chicago for the organization to make the proper move.
The first scenario without Nelson, involves Georgia’s Roquan Smith. He’s the most instinctive and explosive linebacker available in this class, (oh no!). The Bears could seamlessly slot him in next to Danny Trevathan and have him usher in the next transcendent phase of Chicago linebackers. Smith could be a force behind a defensive front of Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, and Leonard Floyd.
The second scenario without Nelson, describes the fit of a versatile defensive back. This means either Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick or Florida State’s Derwin James.
Modern football has gradually moved towards secondary players without positions. If you’re playing on the back end and can’t cover, tackle, or play a variety of cornerback slots, then you’ll be phased out over the coming years. The archetype for this defender is Fitzpatrick or James: guys Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio would be pleased to play around with.
The third scenario (boy, there’s so many), means taking a pass rusher or versatile linebacker: which the Bears desperately need more than any position on their current defense. Think Boston College’s Harold Landry or UTSA’s Marcus Davenport. Think of the versatility of Virginia Tech’s uber raw Tremaine Edmunds. Spare me the conversation that it’s a reach for the Bears to take one of the three most important positions in football and mold one of these players in their building.
Spare me the deeper line of thinking that any of these guys aren’t worth the development time in comparison to the pro-ready Nelson. This goes for everyone, not solely the Bears. There are more avenues to flourishing in the NFL than relying on one player falling in what amounts to an unpredictable lottery. This isn’t black and white. The balancing beam of draft rumor season strikes again.
Every one of these mentioned examples can reasonably help the Bears. Do they have their flaws? Undoubtedly, like any new NFL player would. Tearing their potential impact down to prop up another only looks foolish, instead of helping the other player seem more proficient.
When Bears general manager Ryan Pace calls in Chicago’s selection for No. 8 overall on Thursday night, it’s no guarantee he selects a player that pans out. It’s no guarantee that Nelson is the player that does pan out. He’s no sure thing himself. That’s part of the inexact science of the draft, in both the immediate surprise, and years later.
The consistently victorious NFL franchises often miss out on their top desired options because they’re drafting so far back. Somehow, they’ve made the best of finding contributors regardless of their perfect puzzle not coming together. Are they playing 4-D chess while the rest of the league is stuck on Connect Four?
Or, have they not limited themselves to one option as an ultimatum, and found a way to persevere with their draft capital?
I’ll lean towards the latter of evaluation good faith and ask: why should the Bears be any different?
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times, an editor for Windy City Gridiron and Inside The Pylon, and is a contributor to Pro Football Weekly and The Athletic Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.