Top Ten Chicago Bears 2014 NFL Draft Targets
Barely a month after watching the 2013 NFL draft take place; it makes little sense to already start speculating on what can happen in 2014. Then again part of building a winner in sports is like playing chess: one must think four or five moves ahead. The Chicago Bears will see a lot of changes next season what with so many players expected to become free agents. That could make their draft plans that much more important to their future. Phil Emery has built a good roster for this season. Yet with a strong class expected next April what are ten names fans should get familiar with?
THE LOVE TO HAVES
There is no such thing in NFL terminology as “too many pass rushers.” Emery has made that part of his credo, having drafted two defensive ends during his first two seasons as GM. Both Shea McClellin and Cornellius Washington have athletic skill and can become solid players, but they aren’t Julius Peppers. The Bears defensive leader is the cornerstone of their pass rush, averaging double digits sacks since he joined the team in 2010. The problem isn’t with his production, it’s with time. Peppers is 33-years old. He suffers from chronic plantar fasciitis in his foot and his contract will eat up $17 million in salary cap space next season. The fact Clowney, a defensive end out of South Carolina, draws eerie comparisons to him should greatly interest the Bears. He is fast, instinctual, and athletically gifted. With another year in college his already superb game should have more polish, making him perhaps the best defensive end since Peppers to enter the draft.
If there is any true “need” position for the Bears going into 2014 it will be cornerback. All top five names on the roster, including Pro Bowlers Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings, will become free agents. That means finding a young corner early is paramount. Roby is as complete a corner as there is. He loves to play press coverage and can blanket receivers by himself. Even better he proved last year he is more than willing to offer run support. If he can learn not to relax when quarterbacks aren’t challenging him, he can become a true shutdown defensive back.
Bears fans don’t want to think about it, but the reality is there. Jay Cutler has one year left on his contract. Emery made it clear that he has this season to prove he can become a franchise quarterback under new head coach Marc Trestman. If he fails, then Chicago will either offer a cap friendly deal or more likely dip into a talented college class. Among the most popular of late is Louisville passer Teddy Bridgewater. His rare combination of athleticism and outstanding mechanics was a big reason why the Cardinals tore apart the Florida Gators in the Sugar Bowl. His footwork and accuracy are pro-ready. Another year of experience will only help. The upside with him is through the roof.
Next to pass rushers, teams always could use more weapons for the quarterback. Lee won’t blow people away with his body, but his speed, route running and power after the catch made him a nightmare for defenses despite the quarterback problems at USC. His ability to not only make tough catches but get open with speed is something the Bears need more of since Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery already bring size. Lee can easily find a niche in the Trestman offense and blossom.
The scary thing about this kid is he anchored the left tackle spot for the dominant Alabama Crimson Tide in their national championship run and he hasn’t turned 21 yet. He’s got the long arms and big body to absorb bigger rushers while boasting quick feet to handle speedier guys coming off the edge. As he continues learning under Nick Saban he will only get smarter and stronger moving towards the draft next year. Chicago spent a lot of money to bring in Jermon Bushrod from New Orleans. Still, if Kouandjio keeps improving at the rate he did last year then they cannot afford to pass him up.
This category comes based on many predictions that the Bears will be a playoff team this season. If that turns out to be the case they won’t select in the draft until at least the 21st pick or later. That means the top ranked college prospects are off the board. So what gems can they find despite their later positioning?
This kid can do it all. He was a versatile nightmare for defenses in the trademark Chip Kelly offense at Oregon. In 2012 he averaged 7.6 yards per carry on 92 rushes and 9.9 yards per catch on 45 receptions. In total he had over 1,100 yards and scored 16 touchdowns. His lightning-fast 4.34 speed is also a dimension teams can’t ignore. What makes him such a juicy target for the Bears is how he fits in their new offense. The West Coast system calls for a running back who can line up all over the field from behind the quarterback to outside as a wide receiver. That creates confusion in coverage, which leads to mismatches. If teams get him the ball in space, it often will lead to big gains and touchdowns.
Any time a player has “versatility” attached to his scouting profile, Emery is probably intrigued. The Bears GM loves players who can do multiple things well. Yankey proved that at Stanford. After proving himself as an excellent guard, the Cardinals moved him out to left tackle where he hasn’t slowed down. Experts believe his body and athleticism make him a better guard prospect, but also think that once he shifts back he can become dominant. His power and aggressiveness need work, which explains why he stayed in college for another year. Once those improve he is athletic and smart enough to start right away.
Thomas’ teammate at Oregon doesn’t get as much attention as other quarterbacks because of the nature of the offense he played under Chip Kelly. However, if one looks closer the kid has the tools to function in any offense. At 6’4” he has ideal height. He showed an ability to not only see the whole field when passing but a willingness to mix up his targets from receivers to tight ends and running backs. He’s also accurate, completing 70% of his passes, and displays plenty of arm strength. His mobility as a runner is an added bonus. The question is can he bulk up. At present he only weighs 196 pounds. That is awfully lanky for the NFL.
Chicago has a lot of uncertainty at defensive tackle. They have two good starters in Henry Melton and Stephen Paea but not a lot of proven depth. LSU talent Johnson is a freak athlete with what is rated as “rare” quickness off the snap. He doesn’t just swallow blocks but actually disrupts the ability to even run a rhythmic offense. His lower body is not in question. Where scouts will be looking for improvement is his upper torso where he needs to use his hands to better shed blocks.
The Bears already took two linebackers in the 2013 draft but there is nothing wrong with adding depth if the player is rated highly. Mel Kiper of ESPN believes Smallwood was the best player of the UCONN Huskies defense, and he was the only one out of five prospects to stay in college. He has good size at 6’3”, 235 lbs and what Kiper believes is uncanny instincts. At some point it seems to him like the young defender is always half a second ahead of everybody else. That sounds like just the player a team wants leading its defense. Having 4.58 speed doesn’t hurt either.