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King of the hill: Without a first-round pick, the Bears still influenced the NFC North

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For the first time in years, the Bears’ fingerprints could be seen all over Day 1 of the draft.

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Chicago Bears Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Bears general manager Ryan Pace isn’t one to tip his hand. But with no first-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, he had no choice but to have a little fun. As he professed before Thursday night’s proceedings, instead of focusing on prospects, Pace and the Bears elected to celebrate their best player Khalil Mack during the first round. On an otherwise quiet night at Halas Hall, when the Raiders came up to use the No. 24 overall pick they acquired from the Bears for Mack’s first-team All-Pro services, the Bears played 2018 Mack highlights. Like their own “Rains of Castamere,” the Bears reveled in the victory of their addition of a future Hall of Famer.

To most, it was the only noise, the only influence the Bears had on the entirety of the first round. A celebration of one special player and relative amusement over what the Raiders tried to accomplish with a bevy of early draft picks. That is of course, if you only take a cursory glance.

Look deeper and the Bears’ influence was present everywhere, in particular for their closest competitors.

It can be overlooked this time of year, but as a defending division champion, the Bears have a bullseye on their back. They’re the team everyone else in the NFC North is chasing and attempting to emulate until further notice. When the Bears were a bottom feeder with four straight last place divisional finishes from 2014-2017, they were the team trying to pick up the pieces while hunting the Packers and Vikings. No one took them seriously, and rightfully so.

With Chicago possessing one of the most complete NFL rosters on paper for the time being, the Packers, Vikings, and Lions all found themselves tailoring their 2019 first-round draft plan around finding a way to beat the Bears.

In this arena, the Bears are the king of the NFC North hill, and you have to do more than charge straight on to get them off the top. Three of the four first-round picks made by the Bears’ divisional rivals had a latent plan behind either beating the Bears, or copying what they had accomplished in 2018.

Detroit Lions: No. 8 overall, T.J. Hockenson, TE

Fighting defensive fire with tight end fire

NFL: NFL Draft
If the Lions have anything to say about it, Hockenson is about to torment the Bears for years.
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Listing off what the NFL’s best reigning defense does well can be a fruitless exercise. From sitting at No. 1 overall in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, to forcing the most turnovers (36), the Bears did everything possible to shut down the opposition last season.

One of the most underrated aspects behind the Bears’ defensive success in 2018 was how they defended tight ends. In a modern game where the tight end can act as a game-breaking X-factor a defense has no answer for, the Bears routinely took away opposing Y’s and H-backs. According to Football Outsiders, despite facing the fifth-most pass attempts per game (7.8) toward No. 1 tight ends last season, the Bears allowed an average of just 41.6 receiving yards a game to the position — sixth-least in the NFL. Against a lockdown unit, opposing offensive coordinators tried to find a weakness with their tight ends in former defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s scheme, and they failed time and again.

The only tight end who enjoyed a measure of success against Chicago was 49ers Pro Bowler George Kittle, who caught seven passes for 74 yards in a late December matchup. Great coverage linebackers such as Roquan Smith, Danny Trevathan, and even Leonard Floyd were otherwise too much to deal with one-on-one.

Within the NFC North specifically — where the Bears went 5-1 — they allowed a total of 13 receptions for 92 yards and no touchdowns to the division’s respective No. 1 tight ends over six games. That includes big names like Kyle Rudolph and Jimmy Graham among a ledger of porous tight end production.

By taking 2018 John Mackey and Ozzie Newsome Award winner T.J. Hockenson at No. 8 overall (both rewarded annually to the best college tight end), the Lions have a clear intent on flipping this fact back on the Bears. A lack of a tight end threat was one of the biggest underlying reasons Chicago was able to sweep the Lions last season. Independently, Detroit has desperately needed a complete playmaker at tight end for years. (Former first-rounder Eric Ebron didn’t work out until he was in Indianapolis.)

Another Iowa product like Kittle, the well-rounded Hockenson is considered to be better coming out than the San Francisco star was. He’s a tight end the Bears have to appropriately game-plan for two times a year. A legitimate matchup problem they have to worry about sitting on top of the hill.

You fight defensive fire with tight end fire.

Minnesota Vikings: Garrett Bradbury, No. 18 overall, C

Hear about this great timeshare opportunity

NFL Draft
Bradbury has a tough task ahead of him against Eddie Goldman and Akiem Hicks. The Vikings think he’s ready.
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

In the last three decades, the Vikings have taken three interior linemen in the first two rounds of the draft. One of those players was Hall of Famer Randall McDaniel in 1988. The others were the short-lived careers of Marcus Johnson and Ryan Cook. Who? Exactly.

In recent years — with head coach Mike Zimmer in the fold — the Vikings have tailored their early draft philosophy around rebuilding their secondary with cornerbacks like Trae Waynes, Mackensie Alexander, and Mike Hughes. That’s because all Minnesota has had to primarily worry about was defending an explosive Packers passing game led by Aaron Rodgers — the team they’ve most often butted heads with for divisional supremacy.

After Green Bay has fallen off following two consecutive missed postseasons, Minnesota approached the first round of the 2019 draft in a different manner. This time, they were gunning for the lead dog Bears.

As the first first-round interior lineman the Vikings have drafted since McDaniel, NC State’s Garrett Bradbury was picked mostly in mind to combat the galvanizing Chicago trio of Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, and Bilal Nichols. Three bullies up front who set the tone for the best part of the Bears defense, and destroy the worst part of the Vikings offense.

In two games against Minnesota last season, Hicks alone had nine tackles, 7.5 tackles-for-loss, four quarterback hits, and 2.5 sacks. Nichols had four tackles, three quarterback hits, and one sack. Goldman had three tackles, one tackle-for-loss, one quarterback hit, and one sack. When you talk about stuffing the shat sheet with stars and depth, the Bears had it in spades against everyone, but especially the Vikings. They not only took control of the interior, they owned it. It was as if Hicks and company told Minnesota about lucrative and exclusive timeshare opportunities through two separate grueling three-hour presentations on the field. All the Vikings wanted to do was get to the pool and beach and relax, but they couldn’t. These were timeshares designed to only take advantage of the Vikings.

Collectively, the prowess of the Bears’ defensive interior was on display throughout the entire year. According to Football Outsiders, the Bears allowed the third-least amount of rushing yards up the middle and were second only to the Lions in allowing the least amount of successful attempts up the middle at 46.2 percent. The Vikings meanwhile were the 26th-least successful rushing team behind their center or either guard, garnering a mere 4.11 adjusted line yards when electing to ground-and-pound. Where the Bears were at their best, Minnesota was at its worst. Beyond the foibles of Kirk Cousins, Chicago’s interior dominance over the Vikings was the biggest reason they snatched away the divisional crown.

Bradbury, while a solid prospect who should have a good career, faces a tall order to quickly shift Minnesota’s fortune against the Bears’ main defensive strength. The Vikings, in making such a grand investment in his future to beat Chicago, expect nothing less.

Green Bay Packers: No. 21 overall, Darnell Savage, S

A copycat league forever

NFL: NFL Draft
Everyone wants their own Eddie Jackson.
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Thanks to fancy draft finagling on their part, the Packers started Thursday night with multiple first-round picks. As a franchise that considers itself to be a part of the NFL’s gold standard, they also had a plan of emulating the Bears they’d stick to at all costs.

One of the best aspects of the Bears is another 2018 first-team All-Pro in Eddie Jackson. To this stage in his career, he’s on pace to potentially be the best playmaking safety the Bears have ever had. The 26-year-old is a modern reincarnation of the feared Ed Reed. If that sounds ludicrous, ask the first-ballot Hall of Famer in Reed about the valid comparison.

Naturally, when you have such a talented player like Jackson at your disposal, your closest competitors are going to find a way to copy your success if they can. In a cliche copycat league, everyone wants the “next Eddie Jackson”. Green Bay already signed former Bears safety and all-out thumper Adrian Amos to an expensive deal in March’s free agency. But they still needed a ballhawk with coverage range and instinct like Jackson beside him.

Savage, while a reach at No. 21 overall, fits the Packers’ bill to a tee.

Over the last two years, Jackson and Amos formed quite the complementary pair. Amos, the hybrid in-the-box safety. Jackson, the rangy closer covering for everyone else’s mistakes even when they didn’t ask. By nabbing Savage — and trading up for him to boot — the Packers want to copy the template of the 2017-2018 Bears. Amos is still the thumper, but now Savage is the rangy closer.

General manager Brian Gutekunst and the Green Bay front office don’t make this pick if they aren’t envisioning what the Bears have built over the past couple of seasons. For one, if Amos was really a complete all-around coverage player, Savage isn’t a Packer right now. But then again, the Packers never considered his faults in such a manner. They signed Amos with an idea in mind that they were always going to find his more nimble ballhawk and Jackson-like friend in the draft. The Packers following the Bears’ lead. After over a quarter century of a tilted rivalry ... what a world.

Future ramifications

For once, everyone else in the NFC North wanted to be like the Bears and they didn’t hide it. For once, the Bears had a direct influence on how their competitors approached the most important acquisition day of the year, and they didn’t have to do anything but exist.

For once, the Bears learned it’s good to be the king.

Robert is the Editor-in-chief of The Blitz Network, the managing editor of Windy City Gridiron, and the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times. Follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.