LAKE FOREST, Ill. – Thursday night’s opening round of the 2021 NFL draft (ESPN/ESPN App) feels like uncharted territory for a Chicago Bears team that has grown accustomed to picking either in the top 10 or not at all on Day 1.
Since the current front-office regime took control in 2015, the Bears’ first-round draft history is as follows:
2015: Kevin White, seventh overall
2016: Leonard Floyd, ninth overall (traded up from No. 11)
2017: Mitchell Trubisky, second overall (traded up from No. 3)
2018: Roquan Smith, eighth overall
2019: Pick sent to Raiders for Khalil Mack
2020: Pick sent to Raiders for Mack
The landscape at No. 20 overall (Chicago’s current draft spot) figures to be much different.
Regardless of any public rhetoric, the Bears are not totally content at quarterback. How can they be? Andy Dalton is serviceable, but should the opportunity present itself (as unlikely as it may be) to move up high enough to draft one of the top quarterback prospects, the Bears ought to pounce and not look back.
Bears coach Matt Nagy did not travel to pro days for Mac Jones and Justin Fields for the frequent-flyer miles. Sure, teams sometimes use pre-draft workouts and visits as smoke screens, but without the combine or private visits because of COVID-19, those rare instances in which college prospects worked out in front of scouts, coaches and general managers this spring took on a much more serious tone.
In case you haven’t noticed, the Bears need a quarterback of the future. The fan base is testy. The organization needs to sell them on something.
In fact, the Bears’ problem has been the opposite: They have failed to draft enough quarterbacks. Chicago has chosen just three quarterbacks in the first round since 1988: Cade McNown, Rex Grossman and Trubisky. General manager Ryan Pace had the right idea in 2017, but he took the wrong guy. What’s done is done, the Bears have to try again, and they know that.
But the odds of Chicago finding a willing trade partner to bolt up that high appear very slim. Although, as we have all learned, nothing is impossible in the NFL.
The more likely scenario is the Bears stay at No. 20, outside of the range of the top-five quarterback prospects, but still in good position to draft an immediate starter, which the Bears desperately desire.
NFL executives love to throw out the buzzword “best available player.” That’s fine, but the Bears’ recent track record suggests they draft for the “best available player … at a position of need.”
This draft class is strong at cornerback, wide receiver and offensive tackle.
ESPN’s Jeff Legwold lists 15 wide receivers, 15 cornerbacks and 14 offensive tackles in his annual top-100 prospect rankings.
All three are glaring needs for the Bears.
Chicago did sign veteran cornerback Desmond Trufant (zero guaranteed money, which should be noted) and offensive tackle Elijah Wilkinson ($987,500 guaranteed, which means he’s on the team) for insurance purposes, but the losses of Kyle Fuller and Bobby Massie leave the Bears vulnerable at those positions long-term.
At receiver, the future of Allen Robinson II beyond 2021 is incredibly murky. Robinson received the one-year franchise tag ($17.980 million) but he wants a multi-year agreement, either in Chicago or somewhere else. Counting on Robinson to be a Bear in 2022 is risky.
Darnell Mooney looks like a keeper, but the Bears have made no secret they are all but done with former second-round pick Anthony Miller, who is on the trade block, according to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter. The last straw was Miller’s ejection in the playoff loss to New Orleans.
At offensive tackle, the Bears declined Bobby Massie’s contract option and need a new starter on the right side.
The Bears successfully addressed cornerback (Jaylon Johnson) and wide receiver (Mooney) last year in the second and fifth rounds, respectively.
Cornerback is a premium position, and the good ones are often gone after two rounds, but the excess surplus might afford the Bears the opportunity to exercise a little patience. Still, Northwestern’s Greg Newsome II is an exciting prospect who doesn’t turn 21 until late May. Newsome ran an unofficial 4.38 40-yard dash at the Wildcats' pro day atteneded by Nagy and Pace. The downside is that Newsome missed 14 games from 2018-20.
Some have linked the Bears to Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley, who many view as the draft’s best cover corner. Again, the negative is health. Farley recently underwent a second back procedure after opting out last season due to COVID-related concerns at home. Farley’s camp says he will be ready by training camp.
However, in a year where medical information is as scarce as ever, the idea of drafting a player in the first round with potential medical red flags seems a bit dicey, especially for a Bears team that is under enormous pressure to win in 2021.
Speaking of dicey, the Bears have struggled to identify receivers via the draft. Mooney is by far the Bears’ best wideout taken since 2015. Of the other notable receivers selected by the current regime: White unfortunately turned out to be a massive bust, Miller is on his way out of the door, and 2019 fourth-round pick Riley Ridley has yet to make an impact.
Perhaps a better argument can be made that Chicago’s best option – depending on how the board falls – is to grab an offensive tackle to replace Massie on the right side. The odds are remote that Virginia Tech’s Christian Darrisaw falls to No. 20. USC guard/tackle Alijah Vera-Tucker is also projected by many to be gone by the time the Bears are on the clock.
But Oklahoma State offensive tackle Teven Jenkins could be there at 20. Jenkins is a nasty player. The Bears, quite frankly, could use some mean streaks on that offensive line. Like cornerback, tackle is a premium position, and the best ones are snapped up quickly. Initially, the Bears' hole is on the right side, but keep in mind that starting left tackle Charles Leno Jr. is entering the final year of his contract. The Bears may need to overhaul both starting tackles in the next 12 months.
Leno is an anomaly. He’s enjoyed a very good NFL career despite being picked in the seventh round by former general manager Phil Emery. That is typically not the norm, however.
The Bears, outside of a shocking trade to draft a quarterback, are better off playing it safe. Three of the past four first-round picks are no longer Bears. Unless the organization begins to yield better results on Day 1 of the draft, there will probably be another front office in place in short order.