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A young man’s game: best and worst case scenarios for the 2018 Bears’ draft class

The Bears’ rookies first taste of the NFL is almost here. Some, like Roquan Smith, have higher expectations than others.

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Marmot Boca Raton Bowl - Memphis v Western Kentucky
Anthony Miller will be rightfully expected to light it up from the start.
Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images

Not since 2014 (that worked out well, didn’t it?), has there been this much bubbling excitement around the Bears. General manager Ryan Pace has pieced together a team on paper that at minimum, should be entertaining to watch, if not competitive immediately. That’s due in part to the efforts of building around promising second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky this off-season, and thanks to a worthy finishing touch of Chicago’s 2018 draft class.

There’s going to be pressure on guys like Roquan Smith and Anthony Miller to be high impact players as soon as they step on the field. Patience for more polished prospects has never been a virtue. That pressure is heightened in a hyper-competitive NFC North and NFC as a whole where the Bears have put themselves in position to be in the mix.

For a Chicago franchise that hasn’t made the postseason since 2010 and hasn’t been over .500 since early 2014, that’s a step in the right direction. Progress is progress and it can’t be discounted. That progress only happens if players such as Smith and Miller reach the heights expected of them.

With rookie minicamp starting this weekend at Halas Hall, its going to be the first time the Bears’ new youthful pieces get the opportunity to showcase how they fit as football players. It’ll be the first time the Bears coaches can mold them into their system and start their developmental track.

Before their NFL journeys are endlessly picked apart, let’s examine the best and worst case scenarios for each of this year’s Bears’ draft picks.

Roquan Smith, LB

SEC Championship - Auburn v Georgia
Smith can join special company as the unique player he already is.
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Best case: Defensive Rookie of the Year

The ability the 21-year-old Smith has puts him in the running to be recognized as the NFL’s top young defender. As an instinctive linebacker that already played in a professional defensive scheme at Georgia, there’s no reason he’s not a household name by the end of his first season. With defensive coordinator Vic Fangio as his mentor, Smith is going to be a force to be reckoned with as soon as he slips on his Bears uniform.

Worst case: Immediate starter

Of every Bears’ draft pick this year, Smith has the highest floor. If he doesn’t win an award for his efforts, he’s going to be playing and flashing more and more each week as the 2018 season progresses, regardless. Likely any part of Smith not winning Defensive Rookie of the Year is going to be more about other more impactful positions getting a look, like pass rusher Bradley Chubb with the Broncos. The point is: there isn’t much bust factor with Chicago’s defensive centerpiece.

James Daniels, OG/C

Best case: PFWA All-Rookie Team

What’s fascinating about the top of this Bears’ draft class is that each player can shine among the league’s young crop. With his sound technique and athletic readiness, Daniels fits that description to put Chicago’s offensive line back on the map. That readiness means he can excel at guard or center.

An offensive lineman has never won a Rookie of the Year award and certainly never will because this is a position that doesn’t put up flashy box score statistics. As a consolation prize, if Daniels comes into his own, he’ll be named to the All-Rookie team: a distinction to share with his interior line mate Cody Whitehair (2016).

Worst case: Position shuffles go off course

It’s doubtful that offensive line guru Harry Hiestand doesn’t put his group in the most comfortable parameters. Not many coaches understand how to polish up an offensive lineman and put them in a spot to succeed like Hiestand does. These Bears under Pace in particular, love versatility out of their front line. For a college center like Daniels, that makes him a clear asset. It may also lead to rough patches as he transitions to a new position at guard.

Going from center to guard and vice versa isn’t nearly as difficult as making a move to tackle. Yet, it’s going to take time to get used to for Daniels if he stays there.

Anthony Miller, WR

Best case: Offensive Rookie of the Year

In the last 20 years, only four wideouts have won Offensive Rookie of the Year: Randy Moss (1998), Anquan Boldin (2003), Percy Harvin (2009), and Odell Beckham Jr. (2014). Without fail, this is an honor a top quarterback receives by default, similarly to Most Valuable Player because it’s the most important position.

However, know that Miller is worthy of joining that prestigious squad of playmakers. His desire to be the best, polish as a route runner, and athletic ability in the confines of Matt Nagy’s unique offense opens a seam for Miller to explode.

Miller was many’s favorite receiver in the draft evaluation process. He has the chance to now step into the national spotlight and live up to that adoration.

Worst case: Slow development

It doesn’t look like a huge drawback going in, but Miller was recovering from a foot fracture around the time of the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine. Rookie minicamp is going to show how much that’s affecting him, if at all.

Also, consider that not every receiver lives up to their hype from the start. For example, just last year, the TitansCorey Davis put up a paltry 34 receptions for 375 yards. In accordance with being the No. 5 overall pick and who should’ve been a focal point in Tennessee’s offense, that was a disappointment. No one sees Davis as a bust because of a slow start, though.

If Miller has a similar rookie year, it’s similarly okay. Especially considering that he won’t be the No. 1 option in Chicago’s attack.

Joel Iyiegbuniwe, LB

NCAA Football: Rice at Western Kentucky
Iyiegbuniwe is as “future” of a pick as it gets.
Joshua Lindsey-USA TODAY Sports

Best case: Part-time contributor, specific packages

The Bears selected Iyiegbuniwe in thinking he can become a starter down the line, not initially. They understand that he’s a twitchy athlete that brings pop to ball carriers, but is a raw linebacker who needs seasoning to acclimate to the NFL in comparison to their prized piece in Smith. That doesn’t mean that Iyiegbuniwe can’t help the team in a smaller role. He has pass rush ability, and in unique cases could be used on passing third downs in platoons there, if need be.

Should an injury happen to Smith or Danny Trevathan, there’s the possibility Iyiegbuniwe steps in sooner than ready too. While he’d be a little rough around the edges at first, the raw reward outweighs the risk in that situation.

Worst case: Redshirt year

A season on the sideline spent learning the intricacies of his position could offer Iyiegbuniwe benefits. While the Bears would like to see him make an impact sooner rather than later, some players take off-hand teaching and channel it. Seeing as how there’s no place for Iyiegbuniwe to play on Chicago’s defense without sacrifice currently, a redshirt rookie year wouldn’t be shocking. Long term, it’s sound coaching at work.

Bilal Nichols, DT

Best case: Rotational player

A great defense has great starters and trench depth. Akiem Hicks is a player that will reasonably be named a Pro Bowler or All-Pro through the rest of his Chicago career. But he needs an occasional spell every now and then. He needs a capable partner in the defensive end opposite him. For now, that’ll come in the form of Jonathan Bullard or Roy Robertson-Harris. Whoever doesn’t win becomes a part of the backup convoy with Nichols because every solid defensive line rotation has four players.

Yes, Nichols played as an under tackle in college, but the hunch is that the Bears drafted him with the plan of eventually moving him over to end in their 3-4 scheme. The explosive 6-foot-4 monster possesses the pass rushing prowess (5.5 sacks in his final year at Delaware) to be deployed in this capacity as a rookie.

Worst case: Redshirt year

Unlike Iyiegbuniwe, the Bears would be more disheartened if Nichols can’t find a way onto the field in 2018. They drafted him with the hope of manufacturing quality part time snaps, even in his raw mold. If Nichols proves to be less able than originally envisioned, Chicago’s defensive line reverts back to the 2017 version where Hicks is stretched thin year’s end.

Kylie Fitts, Edge

NCAA Football: Senior Bowl
The Bears’ depth on the defensive edge is shallow. All Fitts has to do is reach for his shot.
John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Best case: Regular starter

This is a lonely opinion at this stage, but if Fitts stays healthy under Fangio’s tutelage, there’s no way he isn’t starting by November. That’s to do with the fact that the Bears are dangerously thin at edge rusher, so a sixth rounder stepping in isn’t shocking. It’s also in line with the idea that Fitts isn’t your typical sixth rounder. Before injuries derailed the latter half of his amateur career at Utah, he was one of college football’s rising pass rushers.

Get Fitts and his disciplined power and hands in an NFL program, and watch him become a starter quickly.

Worst case: Injury woes continue

Fitts appeared in only nine of a possible 24 games his last two years at Utah because of a foot injury and other lingering issues that nagged away at his body. That’s the main reason he fell to late Day 3 of the draft because if he was healthy the Bears would have had had no chance to draft him as late as they did. The talent and work ethic is there for Fitts to thrive and become an immense draft steal for Chicago. His story isn’t different from many others that came before him. Sometimes ability is present, but the fortune and durability to hold up isn’t. The nature of the football beast.

Javon Wims, WR

Best case: Fringe roster weapon

You won’t find many receivers as apt at high-pointing the ball than Wims. Standing at 6-foot-4 with the knack for outmuscling defensive backs in contested situations, Wims made a career out of vertically snatching away hope at Georgia. As a senior, the physical freak was one of college football’s top red zone targets with seven touchdowns scored in the red area. That versed unique playmaking can win you a job near the bottom of an NFL roster. Because let’s be honest, the Bears are comfortable with Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, and Miller as their top three receivers. After that trio, it’s anyone’s game.

Two special team aces in Bennie Fowler and Josh Bellamy stand in Wims’ way towards sticking with Chicago. If he can prove to be a more reliable splash receiver than these two, he’ll be held in high esteem.

Worst case: Practice squad

Wims high points the ball proficiently, no one’s denying that. Every other aspect of his play is lacking, though. He’s plodding in his vertical breaks, his routes aren’t sharp, and he can be taken away with effective press coverage. That’s not a recipe for making noise. Wims has some upside, but necessitates patience. Given the Bears’ plans in 2018, the late round flier has to find that time while stashed away for the future.

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.