The Bears’ defensive rebuild was trumped by opportunity Thursday night. With a chance to get a potential difference-making defender with the third pick, the Bears instead traded up to No. 2 and went for a quarterback, paying a heavy price to get him.
The Bears passed on LSU safety Jamal Adams, Stanford defensive end Solomon Thomas, Alabama defensive end Jonathan Allen and LSU cornerback Marshon Lattimore, among others, to draft North Carolina quarterback Mitch Trubisky after trading with the 49ers to move up one spot.
Instead, the Bears figure to bolster their defense with the fourth pick of the second round (36th overall) Friday night. In a draft that general manager Ryan Pace acknowledged was deep defensively, the Bears still will have a chance to strike gold. Even if you don’t draft a Brian Urlacher in the first round, there sometimes is a Mike Brown (second round in 1999), a Charles Tillman (second round in 2003) or a Lance Briggs (third round in 2003) who can become difference-makers.
Among the players still available: cornerbacks Kevin King (Washington), Jourdan Lewis (Michigan), Quincy Wilson (Florida) and Chidobe Awuzie (Colorado); safeties Obi Melifonwu (UConn), Budda Baker (Washington), Josh Jones (N.C. State) and Marcus Maye (South Florida); and defensive linemen Malik McDowell (Michigan State) and Jordan Willis (Kansas State).
With Trubisky not expected to play in 2017 and the Bears no longer having their third-round pick (No. 67) and one of their fourth-round picks (No. 111), that 36th overall pick is bigger than ever.
“It’s going to be critical,” Pace said. “We’ll go over that [Thursday] night and [Friday] morning. There’s still a lot of good players on the board. The scouts are up there right now working through that. That’s on us. We’ll find those players.”
But the decision to take Trubisky instead of a likely defensive starter with the second pick indicates a level of confidence the Bears feel in their defensive rebuild.
“Part of the free agency was kind of the shotgun approach of adding a lot of players — maybe more free agents than any other team,” Pace said. “We did a lot there. When we’re picking top five in a draft and there’s a quarterback we really like, that’s the only chance you’re going to have to get a guy like that.”
The defensive players signed in free agency still look like stopgap upgrades — safety Quintin Demps and cornerbacks Prince Amukamara
and Marcus Cooper. Clearly, the Bears are counting on growth from within to make the biggest impact. Outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, last year’s ninth overall pick, had seven sacks as a rookie. The Bears are counting on a quantum leap in 2017 — is it too much to ask for something similar to the jump the Falcons’ Vic Beasley made last year — from four sacks as a rookie to 15½?
But the pressure is on others as well — most notably third-year nose tackle Eddie Goldman and second-year defensive end Jonathan Bullard. Goldman, a second-round pick in 2015, has flashed Pro Bowl potential but only played in eight games last season because of injuries. Bullard, a third-round pick last year, was a nonfactor as a rookie but has the quick first step that others have parlayed into huge career jumps. With the Bears passing on Thomas and Allen, it’s almost imperative that Bullard plays up to his potential.
Veterans can make a bigger impact as well. Linebacker Danny Trevathan, who suffered a season-ending ruptured right patellar tendon in Week 12 last year, is a huge question mark coming into this season. But he expressed supreme confidence he’ll be there in a tweet Thursday: “Grinding for it all. Believe me … my best is coming this year. #iwillnotfail”
The Bears still have opportunities to improve their defense in the draft — though two fewer chances after trading third- and fourth-round picks to get Trubisky. But the unspoken message Thursday was: “We’re good.”
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