Part 8 of a 10-part series previewing the NFL draft.
It was either a threat or a promise.“I don’t think you can have enough good pass rushers,” Bears GM Ryan Pace said last month. “And I think Seattle is an example of that. So, if the right pass-rusher is there in the first-round, we’ll take that.”
But would they, really? The Bears’ three most expensive outside free agent signings of the past two years — Pernell McPhee, Lamarr Houston and Jared Allen — play outside linebacker. So does Willie Young, the team’s 2014 sacks leader, who is recovering from a torn Achilles’ tendon.
This year’s draft class is teeming with pass-rushers, though, in the first round and beyond Florida’s Dante Fowler, Jr., Missouri’s Shane Ray, Nebraska’s Randy Gregory, Clemson’s Vic Beasley and Kentucky’s Bud Dupree are considered first-round locks.
But perhaps none of them make sense for the Bears, ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper said Tuesday. At No. 7, the Bears must draft someone in the top five on their board. An edge rusher might not meet that requirement.
“I just felt like at that point you take more of a sure thing than an outside linebacker who there are some concerns with,” he said.
Fowler and Ray might both be off the board by the time the team picks seventh, and Gregory failed a test for marijuana at the NFL Scouting Combine.
Kiper said the safer route would be for the Bears to draft a receiver, be it Alabama’s Amari Cooper or West Virginia’s Kevin White.
“Randy Gregory, with obviously not having a great year and the off-the-field issue,” Kiper said. “Vic Beasley not playing the run well enough and being the guy that some games had a sack and that was his only tackle. … and Bud Dupree, it’d be too high for.”
Kiper, though, called Dupree a rising prospect that will be taken in the top half of the draft.
The Bears plan to keep eight or nine linebackers under Vic Fangio’s 3-4 scheme. On passing downs, some outside linebackers could shift to defensive end. While outside linebackers will have to be able to cover, dropping into the flat on occasion isn’t seen by Bears brass as a difficult task.
Fowler, the consensus top edge rusher, played in both two- and three-point stances in college, but is considered a prototypical strong-side outside linebacker in the NFL.
Both Gregory and Ray, the reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year, played 4-3 defensive end in college. Dupree played both end and outside linebacker. All three are expected to make the transition to a 3-4 without incident.
Pace said the Bears’ know the fastest way to revive their defense — which was the worst in franchise history in 2013 and the second-worst in 2014 — is to “hit the quarterback.”
Whether that’s worth the Bears’ first pick is another question.
“Obviously I think the best pass defense in the world is a pass rush,” coach John Fox said. “It’s no special coverage — otherwise, everybody would run it. “
POSITION SPOTLIGHT: OUTSIDE LINEBACKER
Rating the Bears’ need: Medium
The Bears gave Lamarr Houston $35 million last year and Pernell McPhee $40 million in March. They have a future Hall of Famer, Jared Allen, and a reigning sacks leader, Willie Young. All four will play outside linebacker in Vic Fangio’s new scheme.
However, they don’t know yet whether Young, when healthy, or Allen can play the position. And there’s no way to tell how well Houston, signed to play tackle and end, will transition to the 3-4.
The Bears signed linebacker Sam Acho, who, after four seasons in the Cardinals’ 3-4, will help coach others, including Houston, his former University of Texas teammate.
David Bass, Cornelius Washington and Austin Lane — who don’t meet the Bears’ 290-pound threshold to stay there in a 3-4 — will have a chance to provide depth at outside linebacker.
Best of the best
Florida’s Dante Fowler, Jr., highlights a fearsome fivesome of outside pass rushers that includes Missouri’s Shane Ray, Nebraska’s Randy Gregory, Clemson’s Vic Beasley and Kentucky’s Bud Dupree.
The Bears could find good value in the second round or later in what is considered a deep pass-rushing class. Utah’s Nate Orchard, UCLA’s Owamagbe Odighizuwa and a pair of Washington Huskies — Shaq Thompson and Hau’oli Kikaha — provide Day 2 sizzle.
ESPN analyst Mel Kiper said “history tells us” that quality edge rushers can be found “a little later in the draft” than the first round.