It’s Week 5 in the 2017 season. Passionate Bear Danny Trevathan is suspended for playing through the whistle and incidentally knocking helmets with Davante Adams. 2016 stud Jerrell Freeman and up-and-comer Nick Kwiatkoski are both out due to pectoral injuries. John Timu, a practice squad promotion, falls forward over a pinned, externally-rotated leg and is out for the game. Play-calling duties fall to Christian Jones, who doesn’t waste any time demonstrating his lack of experience in the role, proceeding to miscommunicate assignments and let an outside pitch to Jerrick McKinnon go for a 58-yard touchdown. The Bears lose 20-17 in Mitchell Trubisky’s debut.
Fast forward to the 2018 draft. Jerrell Freeman is off the team. Kwiatkoski is healthy and Trevathan is unsuspended, but the lack of depth is frightening. A little “Bears luck” will lead to the McKinnon play repeating itself. I’m not terrified, but I’m at least as worried as my cat gets when his food bowl is half empty. To continue the metaphor, I’m here to meow incessantly for 1000 more words.
The Bears, at the very least, need some quality depth at linebacker, but it’s fun to fantasize about what defensive coordinator Vic Fangio could do with a truly elite middle linebacker prospect. Luckily, there’s cream at the top and fruit at the bottom of the linebacker position in this draft class.
1. Roquan Smith or Tremaine Edmunds?
Patti Curl: I may be the only one here at Windy City Gridiron, but I’m definitely Team Roquan. I see the appeal of Edmunds, and will jump on board if he’s the Bears’ pick, but I’ll take Smith’s instincts, football IQ, and leadership over Edmunds’ four inches and 17 pounds. The biggest concern about Smith is he has had trouble shedding blocks when taking them square on. However, he needed to do this so rarely because he diagnoses and quickly gets around blocks almost every time. Shedding blocks is a skill he’s never needed to develop to be successful. If the faster NFL game leads to more square-on blocks for Smith, I’ll bet on him to develop that trait.
Robert Zeglinski: I like Smith, but Edmunds is my favorite prospect in the 2018 NFL Draft. At No. 8 overall, I want the Bears to consider taking a risk considering there aren’t many locks or sure things in this draft than normal. I want them to take a malleable player, who they can mold under their control, and who can play all over the field. I want a prospect that by the time he ideally reaches a second contract, is just 23 to 24 years old and has an entire career ahead of him. All of those things describe Edmunds who is dripping with potential and needs a defensive coordinator to hone him in with polish. There’s not many better for that task than Fangio.
Does Edmunds play like a bull in a china shop at times? Yes.
Is he more athlete (albeit one of the best coverage linebacker prospects I’ve ever seen) than football player at this stage? Unequivocally yes.
Are these that much of a concern to me, for a player in Edmunds that I believe can be an All-Pro with a much higher ceiling than Smith? Yes, absolutely.
Projection versus floor, and environment as well as coaching. That’s what this comes down to. I’ll take the projection and the Bears’ solid coaching environment with Edmunds 10 times out of 10.
Lester A. Wiltfong Jr.: Right now, Smith is the better football player. If the Bears are targeting an inside linebacker, Smith is the safer pick. Edmunds is a raw prospect, and it’s that rawness that has scouts thinking he can make the move to the outside. I think his athleticism will allow him to eventually thrive where ever he ends up. I think the Bears take Edmunds if Notre Dame’s Quenton Nelson is off the board. He seems like a Pace pick to me, but I wouldn’t be mad at Smith’s selection either.
Jacob Infante: You’re not alone in your love for Smith, Patti. I have him as the No. 5 overall player in this class for a reason: he’s a very good prospect. He’s the type of player who can step in right away and develop into a Pro Bowler early. He’s a phenomenal athlete who is a consistent tackler and has arguably the best instincts in this year’s linebacker class. His work ethic for studying film is apparent when you watch his tape, and he seemingly knows where to go on every play. He’s slightly undersized, sure. But you don’t need to be big to be an elite linebacker anymore.
I like Edmunds, but I’m not sure he fits what the Bears need right now. Ryan Pace’s free agent additions indicate that they intend on competing right away, and picking Edmunds wouldn’t stick to that plan. He’s raw, he occasionally takes bad angles to the ball, and his instincts in space need fine tuning.
However, the upside is palpable with Edmunds. He’s a lengthy linebacker with jaw-dropping athleticism who can change direction well, drop back in coverage with ease, and blitz up the middle. Ultimately, I think that Smith would be the better pick because he’s more of a “sure thing”, if such a thing exists in the draft. I realize that you shouldn’t draft just for the present, but Smith would give Chicago a better opportunity to compete while Mitchell Trubisky is on his rookie contract.
Andrew Link: If the Bears had a bigger need and were closer to winning this season, I would have said Smith. He is a better player today. But will he be the better player down the line? I am not sure.
I also question the long-term fit. Smith is undersized and struggles with sorting through “the trash.” He is a great fit for a defensive coordinator that has a bit more innovation to their scheme. I go with Edmunds because I think that he has a higher upside. The Bears would also have a year to get him ready for prime time and to figure out what his position is. There is a chance that Edmunds could play edge. There is zero chance that Smith can. I am willing to bet on the versatility and upside of Edmunds versus the undersized but polished Smith.
2. If the Bears don’t draft a linebacker in the first round, who are some possible targets you’d like to see the Bears draft later?
Patti Curl: I think UCF’s Shaquem Griffin has what it takes to earn a starting job at off-ball linebacker. Even if he doesn’t, he has the type of motor and work ethic that could be infectious to motivate the entire defense to give their all every play. He’s said in interviews that after a game, he goes to sleep because there’s nothing else he can do. That’s an elite play-hard attitude. Having one hand is a limitation in some scenarios. But on the other hand, his speed will allow him to be in better position, giving him an advantage that should more than outweigh his disadvantage.
Beyond Griffin, there are a number of promising, athletic, late-round linebackers I’d love the Bears to consider: including BYU’s Fred Warner, Memphis’ Genald Avery (it will be nice to keep him together with Anthony Miller after the Bears draft him in the second round), Wisconsin’s Jack Cichy, and Alabama’s Shaun Dion Hamilton.
Robert Zeglinski: It’s not wise for this team to attack linebacker early on unless it’s Edmunds or Smith, so look at late Day 2 or Day 3. Someone that constantly comes to mind is Cichy. So much so, that I don’t see any reason to target much of any other prospect later on. After missing the entire 2017 season due to a torn ACL, Cichy fell off the radar as a highly touted prospect. He’s now seen as more of that injured player with value type, of which I wrote about a few weeks ago.
That’s unfortunate for Cichy and a godsend for teams like the Bears because he had a very impressive two-year run from 2015 to 2016 with the Badgers. This is a linebacker that can rush the passer (6.5 sacks), roam sideline to sideline as a twitchy athlete (121 tackles), and is overall incredibly instinctive. You take Cichy if you’re the Bears, knowing you’re completely comfortable with his recovery, and of whom you can plug and play as a contributor from the get-go.
Lester A. Wiltfong Jr.: I haven’t looked at many inside linebacking prospects, but one late round guy that stood out to me was Josey Jewell of Iowa. He didn’t have the best combine from an athletic standpoint, but when you watch him play you can see his instincts are solid. He plays a physical brand of football which gets you noticed.
Jacob Infante: Three unheralded linebackers I’ve come to like in the draft process are also Cichy, Avery, and Indiana’s Tegray Scales. Cichy is a consistent tackler in open space. He has injury concerns, but his tape from 2016 shows a potential future starter. Avery has the tools to play edge rusher and off-ball linebacker at the next level. He takes good angles to the ball, can change direction well, and has good closing speed. Scales is undersized, but he is a good blitzer and a reliable tackler who also has value in coverage. All three of them would initially serve as valuable backups with roles on special teams. All three of them have potential to become starters in time.
Andrew Link: It depends on the flavor. The days of an inside linebacker just being a tackling machine are virtually over. So guys come smaller, quicker, faster, and more athletic than ever before. If the Bears see themselves using a nickel safety, but don’t want to sacrifice too much size, a guy like Dorian O’Daniel from Clemson could be an interesting pick. If the Bears want someone who can play on the outside and inside, then Avery is a stud. He has pretty awesome traits as an edge but plenty of athleticism to play in space too.
Probably the best overall player that you could have later in the draft is Matthew Thomas from Florida State. He is tall, long, fast, and can do whatever you ask him to. I like Thomas a lot, and could see him fighting for a starting role as a rookie.
There’s a lot of depth at linebacker in the 2018 NFL Draft, as evidenced by the array of players that have caught our collective eye here at Windy City Gridiron. There’s also two elite prospects at the top who could be worth investing in despite the fact there’s opportunity to get talent later. This is a position I expect to see the Bears target at some point over the coming weekend.
WCG Contributors: Jeff Berckes; Patti Curl; Eric Christopher Duerrwaechter; Kev H; Sam Householder; Jacob Infante; Andrew Link; Ken Mitchell; Steven Schweickert; Jack Silverstein; EJ Snyder; Lester Wiltfong, Jr.; Robert Zeglinski; Like us on Facebook.