By his standards, general manager Ryan Pace played it “safe” in regards to a Bears’ draft.
There’s no such thing as a safe draft pick. This lottery is a crapshoot because of it. But some prospects are more polished and likely to play well right away than others. After three years of taking on a variety of projects to develop, and swinging hard for home runs, Pace elected to go for singles and doubles in the 2018 NFL Draft.
Why did this trend change? Perhaps a young quarterback in Mitchell Trubisky, a first time head coach in Matt Nagy, and a roster on the precipice pushed forward a new mantra. One that necessitated the Bears finish their roster now as to contend as soon as possible. As to place that young face of the franchise in Trubisky in the most optimal position to succeed.
While we won’t know how any of the seven players picked by the Bears this year pan out until they start playing, this was the obvious goal by Pace and his scouting staff: take the road more travelled. No more games. No more head scratch picks that take time to develop like the previous three years.
Let’s examine each selection of the Bears’ 2018 draft, and what their outlook looks like with Chicago.
Overall grade: A
As soon as they fired John Fox to start the new year, Pace and the Bears let on that they were on a mission to reverse the trend of 14 wins in the last three seasons combined. Since that fateful first morning of 2018, they’ve put themselves on the fast track to relevancy this franchise hasn’t experienced in seven years. Unlike that 2011 NFC Championship Game failure, this is success that feels as if it could legitimately be sustained the way Pace often drones on about.
Each of Roquan Smith, James Daniels, and Anthony Miller will be Day 1 starters for the Bears. Each could be a long term cornerstone with Pro Bowl potential. They should play well from the get-go, considering their skill sets, make up, and talent surrounding them. That’s on a more loaded defense by the day with Smith, on the offensive line with Daniels beside Cody Whitehair and a mentor coach in Harry Hiestand presiding over, and Miller’s presence in one of the most diverse skill position groups across the board in the NFL.
Towards the bottom, the Bears needed defensive depth, and they have that with Joel Iyiegbuniwe, Bilal Nichols, and Kylie Fitts. Each of these players presents a construct of Pace betting on defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and his staff maximizing them to their fullest. Each of these guys have raw ability at linebacker, on the defensive line, and on the edge that Chicago needs to become a winning defense. It has to be unlocked by an experienced group of coaches with the Bears.
This is the type of draft the Bears could’ve only dreamed of after jettisoning Fox and hiring Matt Nagy a week later. And, after reeling in the biggest fish on the receiver market in Allen Robinson in free agency. This 2018 off-season realistically couldn’t have gone any better for Chicago, and this draft is the perfect cap to that picture.
You want to win now in the NFL? Take a look at the aggressive but calculated approach Pace has taken with the Bears in the past four months. Rinse and repeat it, over and over.
First round, No. 8 overall: Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia
A worthy addition to Bears’ linebacking tradition.
After Notre Dame’s Quenton Nelson ended up being drafted by the Colts, Smith was the best available player on the board when the Bears’ were up at No. 8 overall. Next to Bradley Chubb, Smith was the complete defensive prospect of the entire draft. It was somewhat under the radar, but given the injury and reliability issues Chicago has had at inside linebacker in the past two seasons, they needed a face to build around at the position and for the defense as a whole. That makes this pick a no-brainer to laud for the Bears.
The last time the Bears drafted an inside linebacker in the top 10 was Brian Urlacher at No. 9 overall in 2000. That worked out, as Urlacher is set to receive a gold jacket in Canton this upcoming August. The funny thing is, each time they’ve selected an inside linebacker in the top 10 has worked out beautifully, as Dick Butkus in 1965 at No. 3 overall also eventually walked away with a gold jacket. For a franchise that does linebacker better than everyone in football, history is on their side with the selection of Smith.
It’s too early to reasonably project Smith being that kind of legendary player for Chicago. Take into account his instincts, rising exemplary supporting cast, and a coach in Fangio that famously knows how to bring out the shine in his linebackers, and he’s on the fast track. Look for Smith to be a potential Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2018. Much like Urlacher himself once was.
Second round, No. 39 overall: James Daniels, C, Iowa
An essential building block for the wall in front of Trubisky.
Iowa football has become a hotbed of NFL offensive line talent in recent years.
Since 2007, Marshal Yanda, Bryan Bulaga, Riley Reiff, and Brandon Scherff have been drafted by the Ravens, Packers, Lions, and Redskins, respectively. That core squad has a combined 346 starts, eight Pro Bowl appearances, and five All-Pro selections. Each are currently chugging along as linchpins for the same teams that drafted them high, except for Reiff, who signed a huge contract with the Vikings last season. He is chugging along in Minnesota.
With that context in mind, the emotional Daniels is merely the latest entry into successful professional translation of hefty Hawkeyes terrorizing football. What the Bears have with their core offensive group and Hiestand in Daniels is someone that’s going to lock down the interior of their line for years. I don’t believe for one second that Daniels doesn’t start Week 1 at center for the Bears, despite what Pace tries to tell you in the spring. It doesn’t matter anyway. Whether he’s at guard or center, he’s going to be an anchor.
Fun fact: Daniels was one of the most athletic offensive linemen in this 2018 draft. He was so athletic, that he had a better 20-yard shuttle time than new Falcons receiver Calvin Ridley, and almost had a better vertical too. In the Bears’ hybrid zone slash spread scheme under Nagy, Daniels should be a force.
Only time will tell as to the ceiling that Daniels reaches the Bears. Given the history of his college up front, his own natural talent, and like Smith - a coach in Hiestand that is known for creating elite offensive linemen - the sky’s the limit.
Second round, No. 51 overall (trade): Anthony Miller, WR, Memphis
Exactly what you seek in a lightning ball of a No. 2 receiver.
“Dear NFL GM’s, my name is Anthony Miller, and I think I’m the best wide receiver in this draft.”
That is what Miller (ghost) wrote in the Player’s Tribune two days before the start of this year’s draft. Confidence in one of the most competitive receiving prospects to come out in years. Someone who plays with controlled anger, and who puts his tremendous quickness to good use.
To get the self-proclaimed best receiver in the draft, the Bears traded their second rounder next year and No. 105 overall this year, a fourth rounder. Since they had no third round selection this year and likely had Miller as the second best receiver on their draft board at a position of need after the departure of Cameron Meredith, this trade made sense for Chicago.
I initially thought it was too much of a price to pay for an unproven commodity, but future assets are overrated. The Bears and Pace wanted to lock in their offensive core. The 24-year-old Miller is an excellent puzzle piece from that vantage point, and should be the best of friends with Trubisky from the start. With how he blocks, wins vertically, and seemingly grabs every contested ball, he’ll be a sworn enemy of defensive backs.
Fourth round, No. 115 overall: Joel Iyiegbuniwe, LB, Western Kentucky
A piece to mold as a foundational brick for the Bears’ defense.
When the Bears drafted Iyiegbuniwe, most (including yours truly), were wondering “who?” and “why?”
Who, because Iyiegbuniwe was a relatively obscure prospect coming out of a small school. And why, because the Bears had not yet drafted a pass rusher on the edge: which was one of their main needs going into the draft. With Smith in the fold, drafting another inside linebacker felt like a waste of draft capital.
That is until you understand that Danny Trevathan has only $1.5 million in dead cap money if cut after the 2018 season ends. If Trevathan doesn’t prove to be more healthy next season than he he’s been in his first two years, the Bears can move on and plug in Iyiegbuniwe as part of their young linebacking duo of the future with Smith. This is about preparing for a reality without Trevathan. You don’t double dip on the same position within the first four rounds if you don’t expect them both to eventually be major contributors.
Digging deeper, the Bears were much more uncomfortable with their inside linebacking situation than they let on. For the most part, they swung and missed in 2016’s free agency with Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman at the position, as the two combined for 32 of 64 starts the last two years. They thought they didn’t have to worry about inside linebacker, when that actually proved to be a hole for them anyway. Instead of prescribing to the perils of the open market again, this time around they went for the dangers of the draft to develop their next duo under their wing from the start. A completely contrasted and safer approach.
Iyiegbuniwe has much to work on as he’s an unfinished linebacker that played against smaller level competition in college. But his range from sideline to sideline is undeniable. As is his physicality at the point of attack, and fit into a modern NFL defensive scheme. Give Iyiegbuniwe the seasoning he needs, and the Bears’ reasonable homegrown plan at linebacker pays off with fantastic dividends.
Fifth round, No. 145: Bilal Nichols, DT, Delaware
The Bears’ defensive line can breathe a sigh of relief.
Towards the end of the 2017 season, Akiem Hicks was running on fumes. The star defensive end was on track towards an All-Pro selection before finishing with 1.5 sacks in the last eight games of the year. By the midway point, because Roy Robertson-Harris and Jonathan Bullard weren’t playing, Hicks was playing 95 percent of defensive snaps in games. By the end of the year, the Bears mercifully began to sit Hicks more and he finished playing 84 percent of their defensive snaps.
That’s not a recipe conducive to maintaining a 324 pound man’s production. Everyone needs a breather, especially the big boys.
Thankfully, for the Bears’ sake, they’ve made a move in that direction with the addition of Nichols to their defensive line rotation. While yes, the disruptive Nichols played at defensive tackle in college, he’s going to receive a cushion to bulk up and play as a 3-4 end in Chicago. That’s because of the pass rush ability he possesses, and his frame at 6-foot-4.
To have a quality rotation up front defensively, you need at least four players that can hop in. While Nichols is for sure at the bottom of this group for now, he helps complete that grouping with Robertson-Harris, Bullard, and Hicks. If you have an opportunity for depth on the defensive line, take it and run.
Sixth round, No. 181 overall: Kylie Fitts, Edge, Utah
One of the defensive steals of the draft.
I called Fitts a steal of the draft if the Bears could unlock his abilities at full health, and I still believe that. It’s difficult to find the partner you’ve been desperately seeking opposite Leonard Floyd in the sixth round, but under Fangio and the Bears’ patient system, they may have done that with Fitts.
Before foot injuries derailed his junior and senior seasons Utah, Fitts was becoming one of the top defensive players in college football. A vaunted and polished pass rusher with discipline. The 6-foot-4 and 260 pounder actually even compared favorably to one of this draft’s best pass rusher’s athletically in Harold Landry. Landry went in the second round, and the Bears acquired Fitts in the sixth. Based off value and talent, he’s that mentioned steal.
Right now, with projection, the Bears’ No. 2 and No. 3 outside linebackers are Aaron Lynch and Fitts. Both Lynch and Fitts have a rough go of it lately in the NFL and college, respectively. Both have a ton of upside that you know Fangio is just waiting to tap into and bring out again. If the Bears’ defensive coordinator is successful with his mentoring, Chicago’s defensive edge goes from roster hole to problem for offensive tackles across the league.
If Fitts stays healthy, he “Fitts” like a glove in Chicago. I’ll never get tired of these puns.
Seventh round, No. 224 overall: Javon Wims, WR, Georgia
Worth the seventh round breathtaking flier at best. Minimal effect and doesn’t make the team at worst.
Flash back to this year’s College Football National Championship Game and you’ll remember the 6-foot-4 Wims making Alabama cornerbacks look silly while catching jump ball after jump ball. He was an integral red zone weapon for Georgia that should have the same skills translate to the NFL. The only question is whether this seventh rounder can refine everything else like route running to last as a pro, because he’s not likened to be a special teams ace.
The Bears wanted playmaking receivers surrounding Trubisky. They have that in Robinson, Miller, and Taylor Gabriel. They wanted the bottom of their receiving corps to have competition, because that’s what Wims is going to provide. Don’t count Kevin White and Joshua Bellamy as safe with Wims’ presence (okay, maybe White, but only because of his rookie contract).
Wims is a raw player but is hungry with the penchant for the big play. In the end, he likely doesn’t make the final 53-man roster come the end of August. That means expectations are low. Hey, he’s a seventh rounder, remember? Know that he’ll have pushed for a job in the most exciting ways downfield imaginable.
You grade the 2018 Chicago Bears Draft Class.
This poll is closed
B- or lower
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.