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2020 NFL draft: Way-too-early preview of potential Bears needs and targets

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The 2020 draft is roughly nine months away, but here’s an early preview to identify some names to watch in the upcoming college football season.

NCAA Football: SEC Championship-Alabama vs Georgia
Dylan Moses is arguably the best off-ball linebacker in the nation heading into 2019.
Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

As their roster stands right now, the Bears have one of the best teams in the National Football League.

Both sides of the ball are loaded with playmakers, big and small. Their defense is one of, if not the most complete unit in the league, with players like Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks, Eddie Jackson and Kyle Fuller all among the best at their respective positions. The offense isn’t too shabby, either, as they possess several dangerous weapons, a reliable offensive line and a quarterback who has shown flashes of greatness in Mitchell Trubisky.

As is the case with any contending team, though, re-signing some of their players will eventually become unattainable. With so much talent and only so much money to throw around, players those teams deem as crucial will be prioritized, while more expendable talent will chase expensive contracts elsewhere.

Assuming they re-sign Mitchell Trubisky when his rookie deal expires, the Bears will be hard-pressed with the task of choosing which other starters will be casualties of a lack of available cap space. This season saw two good players in Adrian Amos and Bryce Callahan depart because the team was unwilling to fork over a large sum of cash to players they felt they could still succeed without. The trend will surely continue in offseasons to come.

That makes the draft incredibly important for teams like the Bears. The opportunity to secure productive starters on cheap deals allows them to retain some of their franchise cornerstones. Eddie Jackson has developed into an All-Pro safety—arguably the best player at his position—and only carries a cap hit of roughly $800,000. Other players like Tarik Cohen and Cody Whitehair have far outplayed their rookie deals, allowing the Bears to add more expensive talents like Khalil Mack and Allen Robinson while fielding the best roster possible.

The 2020 draft is still over nine months away, but the Bears are going to be faced with a lot of tough decisions when it comes around. With several expiring contracts on the books in the next two offseasons, there will be a couple of holes opening up on their roster soon. Their 2020 draft picks are currently as follows:

If all goes well for the Bears, they could have as many as eight picks next April, with six of them potentially being in the first five rounds. There are many different paths they could take with those selections, so let’s take a look at some of their long-term needs, as well as a couple of targets in next year’s draft.

Safety

The Bears replaced Adrian Amos at strong safety with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix: a low-risk, high-reward move that could potentially benefit both parties.

Though the addition of Clinton-Dix gives the Bears’ defensive backfield more range in coverage this year, the odds he sticks around past 2019 are slim. If he comes back to his Pro Bowl form, then several teams will line up to offer him a contract the Bears simply won’t be able to give him. If he proves to be a liability in run support and doesn’t offer much more value in coverage than Amos did, then the team will likely look to add someone else. Either way, they will likely be in the market for a safety in the 2020 draft.

Grant Delpit from LSU is the consensus top collegiate safety in the nation and makes a great case as the best overall prospect in the 2020 class. The 6-foot-3, 203-pound Delpit has size, range, instincts, ball skills, tackling ability, and versatility in his skill set; there’s very little he doesn’t do right. He figures to be at least a top-10 pick at this rate. Outside of the first round, the Bears could target Alabama’s Xavier McKinney, an intelligent and athletic safety who isn’t elite in any particular area but does a lot of the little things right.

If Chicago plans on looking outside of Day 2 to add a strong safety, then Michigan’s Khaleke Hudson could be a target for them. He plays a linebacker-safety-pass rusher hybrid position called the “viper”, a role Jabrill Peppers filled before him. He’s not anything special in coverage, but he’s a solid athlete, a reliable tackler and a dangerous blitzer. That versatility could pique Chuck Pagano’s interest.

A deep sleeper at safety is Kyle Dugger from Division II school Lenoir-Rhyne. At 6-foot-2 and 217 pounds, Dugger has an imposing frame and great length for a defensive back. He plays with a very high motor and is a sideline-to-sideline tackler with dangerous closing speed. He’s not very rangy, and his mental processing in coverage will need to speed up at the next level, but he could find his way on an all-star game roster or two after the 2019 season.

Edge rusher

When a team has a edge rusher like Khalil Mack, whoever plays alongside him is sure to reap the benefits.

After recovering from his hand injury early in the year, Leonard Floyd put together arguably the best season of his professional career. Though his stats weren’t eye-popping, he was a consistent force off the edge. His athleticism and versatility make him a fun chess piece for the Bears who can contribute in a variety of ways.

However, Floyd’s contract expires after the 2020 season, and he will likely command too much money on the open market for Chicago to keep him around. Without a young talent on the bench who looks capable of being a long-term replacement, a pass rusher could be in the cards early in either of their next two drafts.

The two top edge rushers on most boards are Ohio State’s Chase Young and Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa. Young specializes in his hand usage, impressive bending ability, and pad level, while Epenesa is a power-first rusher who lacks top-end athleticism but makes up for it with heavy, quick hands and overall strength.

While those two are likely to go in the top half of the first round, a more realistic target for the Bears would be Boise State’s Curtis Weaver. Weaver, who has 20.5 sacks and 28 tackles for a loss in his first two collegiate seasons, has great hip flexibility and can dip underneath offensive tackles on his rip move very well. He has good acceleration off the snap, and he hunts down ball carriers with good closing speed in space. His motor runs high consistently, and he has shown physicality and flashes of good hand usage in his game. His ability to consistently get leverage and hold his own in run support needs work, but he could be a solid target after the first day of the draft.

Yetur Gross-Matos from Penn State has been deemed by many draft analysts a potential first-round pick, but he has some work to do before he can be a true value that early. The second round would be a better slot for him, though. He has good acceleration off the snap, solid range as a tackler, and good lateral agility in space. At 6-foot-5 and 262 pounds, he has a pro-ready frame with length and bulk that scouts will love. He’s a top-heavy rusher who needs to add a few more moves in his pass-rushing arsenal, but Gross-Matos has the physical tools to be an eventual NFL starter.

If the Bears are looking for a player who can fill a similar role to Floyd, then Notre Dame’s Julian Okwara could be worth a look. The brother of Lions pass rusher Romeo Okwara, Julian is a lanky rusher at 6-foot-5 and 241 pounds. He has good acceleration off the snap, hip flexibility in space, and value in coverage, where he has solid range in zone coverage. He plays with a high motor and keeps his hands and feet active. Okwara will have to bulk up and add lower body strength, as he does a good job of getting low but doesn’t have much weight underneath him when he engages with blockers. He could also stand to add a few more pass-rushing moves in his arsenal, and his hands aren’t very heavy. Overall, though, his physical attributes could make him a player worth looking at.

Cornerback

It appears to be a foregone conclusion among fans that the Bears will release Prince Amukamara after this season, saving the team $9.5 million in cap space.

While the veteran is coming off of arguably the best year of his career, he may be made a casualty in order to retain younger talent. If that scenario were to take place, then the Bears would certainly have to look into drafting a young cornerback early, especially if Kevin Toliver doesn’t make significant strides this season.

An enticing prospect could be Florida’s C.J. Henderson, who has had six interceptions in his first two collegiate seasons. Listed at 6-foot-1 and 191 pounds, Henderson is a fluid athlete who can change direction very well and accelerate quickly coming out of his breaks. He can tackle pretty well, and he offers versatility as an outside cornerback, a nickelback or a safety. He also has the physicality and technique to gain leverage on receivers and jam them in press coverage. Though he’s better in squat press than being lined directly on a receiver in quick-jam press, he offers a little bit of everything and would be a great value in the second round.

If the Bears miss out on Henderson, then there will be numerous other lengthy cornerback prospects they can target. Utah’s Jaylon Johnson had four interceptions last season, and he has very good athleticism, hip fluidity and length at 6-foot. At times, he looks more reactive than predictive, so his instincts will need some work, and his effort in run support could be improved. He’s better in off-man coverage—where Kyle Fuller specializes—but Johnson is solid in squat-press, too.

Alabama’s Trevon Diggs could be another athletic project worth developing. A former wide receiver who stands at 6-foot-2, Diggs has the ball skills of a wide out and can high point passes well. His deep speed and acceleration coming out of his breaks is impressive, and he has hand skills better than most defensive backs with just two years of experience at the collegiate level. His tackling, instincts in zone coverage and understanding of leverage all need work, as one would expect for a player as raw as he is. In the long run, though, Diggs carries a very high ceiling.

Inside linebacker

Roquan Smith proved in the second half of last season that he was well worth the eighth pick in the 2018 draft.

He was a true, sideline-to-sideline force, combining impressive athleticism with calculated instincts. He and Danny Trevathan enter this year as one of the better off-ball linebacker duos in the league, but their future together beyond 2019 is questionable.

Trevathan will be a free agent at the end of the year, and his steady play will surely earn his a sizable contract next offseason. Though he turns 30 next March, he has shown no signs of slowing down. He is a valuable piece of Chicago’s defense, but with other expiring contracts of key players coming off the books, he may be able to receive a heftier contract from a different team.

While the 2020 class doesn’t have a prospect who appears to be on the caliber of the aforementioned Smith or Devin White, it does have a legitimate first-round talent in Alabama’s Dylan Moses. The 6-foot-3, 233-pound linebacker has very good linear speed and can accelerate very well in a straight line. His mental processing abilities are sharp, and he’s quick to diagnose plays and act on his reads. A form tackler, Moses’ athleticism is complemented by his high motor in run support, giving him sideline-to-sideline range as a tackler. He doesn’t offer much as a pass rusher, and his fluidity in coverage could use some work, but he has the instincts, size, and speed necessary to succeed at the next level.

Another possible target could be Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons, who could more realistically be available for the Bears in the second round. Listed as 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, Simmons is a lengthy and athletic defender who played safety before switching to linebacker in 2018. He has dangerous closing speed and is a fantastic linear athlete for the linebacker position. His motor runs high consistently, and he takes good angles to ball carriers as a tackler. Simmons’ skill set is somewhat similar to that of 2018 first-round pick Tremaine Edmunds, in that he’s a freak athlete for his size who has flashes of dominance when he knows what he’s doing, but his instincts still need a lot of work.

Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray stands out as another potential target. While he lacks top-end speed and fluidity, he’s an intelligent player and a sound tackler who plays to the whistle nearly every play. He also offers value as a blitzer and a love for contact, which makes him unafraid to engage fully with blockers. He projects as a solid starter at the next level. A lot of the same could be said about both Northwestern’s Paddy Fisher and Miami’s Shaquille Quarterman. The two of them could end up being solid value picks at some point on Day 2.

Offensive line

The Bears have one of the league’s most well-rounded offensive line units.

Charles Leno Jr. and Cody Whitehair are coming off of a season which earned them both Pro Bowl appearances. James Daniels showed promise aplenty in his rookie year and figures to be a breakout candidate in 2019. Bobby Massie is also coming off of his best season as a Bear, one that saw him earn a contract extension.

The question mark of the group is now Kyle Long, a thought that would be crazy to think about a few years ago. Formerly a Pro Bowl-caliber guard, the veteran has missed 22 games in the past three seasons and will be turning 31 in December. While he is a fan favorite who could be available to re-sign next offseason on a team-friendly contract, the Bears may have to think about a future without one of their longest-tenured players.

Beyond that, Chicago could look to add depth in the draft, as well as a potential replacement for Massie down the line. The team could save $8.2 million in cap space by releasing him after the 2020 season. Drafting a tackle in next year’s draft could give them a more enticing option at swing tackle who could potentially develop for a year under Harry Heistand’s guidance.

Among the best guards in the 2020 class is Michigan’s Ben Bredeson: a 6-foot-5, 320-pound brute who plays with an intriguing blend of technique and strength. He plays with very good pad level, keeps his weight underneath him and gets inside hand placement regularly. Oregon’s Shane Lemieux is also a powerful blocker who brings size and intensity to the table. Though those two are talented blockers, a better fit for the Bears’ offense is Alabama product Alex Leatherwood. His anchor strength and consistency in his hand placement could be improved, but he is a very fluid athlete in space who can move around well in a zone-blocking scheme like Chicago’s.

The near-consensus top offensive tackles in next year’s draft are Georgia’s Andrew Thomas and Stanford’s Walker Little. Thomas is a technically-sound and athletic blindside protector, and the same could be said for Little, though he has a higher motor and less athleticism than Thomas. At 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-7, respectively, both have ideal length for the tackle position. However, both prospects are likely to come off the board in Round 1.

If the Bears really trust Heistand’s ability to develop talent, then they could look into Auburn’s Prince Tega Wanogho as a late pick or an undrafted free agent. Though his hand placement and pad level need a lot of work, he’s a great athlete at 6-foot-7 and has physical tools galore. He will have to improve in 2019 to become a draftable prospect, but an NFL team could be intrigued with the idea of molding him into a solid player.