MOBILE, Ala. — The Bears kept their assistant coaches at home this week, convinced they were better served watching film of last year’s players rather than interviewing a senior class that could contain a potential draftee.
Coach Matt Nagy accompanied general manager Ryan Pace and his front-office staff to the Senior Bowl, sitting high in the stands at Ladd-Peebles Stadium during practices. At night, they interviewed players in a more casual environment than at the NFL Scouting Combine.
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Holding the eighth overall pick April 26, the Bears likely haven’t interviewed their future first-round pick yet. ESPN’s Mel Kiper projected that all but eight players selected in the first round will be underclassmen; the Senior Bowl, with rare exception, caters to those who’ve exhausted their eligibility.
That took some of the sizzle out of the annual all-star game, particularly for teams that weren’t considering quarterbacks Josh Allen or Baker Mayfield. Another team that made a coaching change this offseason, the Raiders, didn’t send a single coach to watch.
In that sense, the Bears’ Senior Bowl trip was as much about scouting midround picks and priority free agents than it was about lining up a blockbuster choice.
It also marked a dry run for Nagy, a first-time head coach, to meet with players.
When the Bears left Mobile on Thursday — exactly 13 weeks before the opening night of the draft — it was clear their preparation work was just beginning.
Here is what’s next for the Bears as the draft season gets rolling:
• Combine time. Nagy will use his newly gained experience at the combine, which begins Feb. 27 in Indianapolis. The full coaching staff will be involved in interviews, unlike at the Senior Bowl.
The draft’s top prospects will be present there, including those who fit the Bears’ needs: N.C. State defensive end Bradley Chubb; Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson; Alabama cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick; Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward and Alabama wide receiver Calvin Ridley.
• Staff matters. Nagy’s coaching staff is all but assembled with the team waiting on only a few low-level positions. Assistants will spend the next weeks self-scouting the 2017 team and determining which players are fits.
Pace and Nagy will take their time in filling two positions that will be critical to the team’s success — or, if the past two seasons were any indication, lack thereof.
The Bears fired strength and conditioning coach Jason George earlier this month and head trainer Nate Breske this week. The Bears must find replacements who will have greater success keeping their players healthy. They finished 2016 with 19 players on injured reserve and had 16 more last year.
• Free agency. The Bears will try to fill holes at wide receiver, edge rusher, cornerback and elsewhere during the free-agency period. Negotiations begin March 12 and players can sign starting March 14. The Bears currently have about $41.6 million in cap space, per OvertheCap.com. That number will grow larger when they cut quarterback Mike Glennon and others, perhaps as early as the middle of February.
The Bears hope to have more luck than they did with free agents last season. Free agents were spooked by the lack of an established quarterback and John Fox’s uncertain future. Cornerback A.J. Bouye told the Houston Chronicle last week that he turned down more money from the Bears to join the Jaguars, where he made the AFC title game and his first career Pro Bowl.
• Trade deliberations. Only after free agency will the Bears be able to debate exactly what to do with the No. 8 pick. With four quarterbacks expected to be drafted in the first round — USC’s Sam Darnold, UCLA’s Josh Rosen, Allen and Mayfield — the Bears could look to take advantage of passer-needy teams eager to trade up.
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