First, a little perspective.
“If there is one area that stands out for me as an evaluator and our coaches and our scouts, we all came away from looking at him as having high-level football instincts. This is a very natural football player. He has very natural ability to find the right path to the ball. He’s a small-town guy and a great character fit for us. He is relentless in terms of his motor. He’s a great teammate.”
That was Phil Emery’s enthusiastic endorsement of Shea McClellin, his surprise first-round pick (19th overall) in his first draft as an NFL general manager in 2012.
Outside of McClellin being a small-town guy, a great character fit and a great teammate, Emery’s words mostly ring hollow today, with McClellin clinging to his NFL career, playing his third position in his fourth NFL season.
In fairness to Emery, new Bears GM Ryan Pace had a lot more to work with Thursday night with the No. 7 overall pick. We don’t know if Kevin White, the wide receiver from West Virginia, will be a Pro Bowl player, a bust or something in between. But Pace at least took a player any other GM in his place would have taken. He took a player who knows what his NFL position will be. In these parts, that’s a good start.
For what it’s worth Pace sold the pick more enthusiastically and resolutely than he probably needed to. Pace has taken a measured, if unemotional approach to his new job. But on draft night anyway, it turns out the 38-year-old still has a lot of little kid in him.
“Trust me —there was a lot of fist-bumping and high-fiving going on when we knew this is how it was going to unfold,” Pace said at a press conference at Halas Hall. “We couldn’t be more thrilled. This guy’s dynamic. He’s big. He’s strong. He’s ultra-competitive. If I could stress one word for him, he’s competitive. You see it after the catch. You see it in the way he attacks the ball in the air. This is a dynamic play-maker for our offense.
“I can tell you right now that the most excited guy in the building is [offensive coordinator] Adam Gase. This is good, guys. Big-play weapon for us —competitive, tough player. We couldn’t be more thrilled to have him.”
One knock on White as a prospect is that he’s not as NFL ready as Alabama’s Amari Cooper, the other top receiver in this year’s draft. It’s a potentially critical point for a player in a Jay Cutler offense. But Pace handled that issue head-on. In fact, it only ramped up Pace’s enthusiasm for the pick.
“When I hear that – and I did a lot a lot of work on that,” Pace said, “ you think about a receiver when you hear the word ‘raw’ and you think maybe route quickness or those things. At West Virginia his route variety sometimes you question.
“I saw every route I needed to see from that player. One of the most difficult routes for a receiver to run is a comeback route. You see that from him. You see it at his pro day. You see it at his workout.
“If you watch enough film on him, you see all that. This guy is a special athlete. For his size, he’s big, he runs 4.3 [40-yard dash], he’s strong after the catch, and he’s a physical blocker. He really checks all the boxes you’re looking for in a receiver in our offense.”
Pace almost made the 6-3, 210-pound White sound too good to be true.
“This guy can play all over,” Pace said, “so I see him as an outside receiver, but what’s dangerous about this guy is he can catch a quick slant and break a tackle and go 99 yards —he has that kind of play-making ability. You see the wide receiver screens, the “now” routes [quick-hitters] and things like that. You throw him a little, short check-down and he’s gone.”
With each response, Pace seemed to build up a head of steam. His enthusiasm was almost over-the-top.
“He’s a dynamic playmaker.”
“I love the fire and energy he plays with.”
“He’s highly intelligent.”
“We have a whole video quiz we take him through and he hit that out of the park, too.”
“He checked very box we were looking for.”
The selection of White is a fair test of Pace’s ability to identify NFL talent. White had only one season of significant production at the major-college level — 109 receptions for 1,447 yards and 10 touchdowns for West Virginia as a senior after modest production (35-507, 5) as a junior and two years a junior college.
The difference-making quality? White’s “ultra-competitiveness,” a trait that could turn some question marks into exclamation points. If Pace has that kind of perception, that kind of intuition, he’s going to hit more than he misses.
“It jumps off the way he runs routes. He’s a physical route-runner,” Pace said when asked how White’s competitiveness made an impression on him. “He’ll go attack the ball. Some people wait for the ball. He’ll go attack the ball in a crowd.
“His release — guys come up and try to jam him. He’s strong, so he’ll try to rip through the release.
“And then after the catch, he’s elusive. But he’s also strong. So he’s shrugging off tackles.
“You see the competitiveness in the red zone.
“And lastly, as a blocker. This guy’s competitive as a blocker. You’ll see him drive guys out of bounds. A lot of receivers don’t do that. This is a competitive, feisty, strong player.”
Hey, if Kevin White’s that good, let’s start training camp tomorrow. Only when he was asked about reasonable expectations as a rookie did Pace slow his roll. But even then, only a little.
“I don’t want to put a label on that right now,” Pace said. “ This guy … after the catch he’s dynamic. He’s got great hands. He’s strong. He’s big. He can run. He checks all the boxes.
“I don’t want to put an expectation on him right now. But we’re thrilled about this and how Adam Gase will integrate him into the offense. There are a lot of creative things we can do with him. I’m excited. I can’t wait for you guys to see him live, too.”
Neither can we, Ryan. Neither can we.