INDIANAPOLIS — General manager Ryan Pace has been hit-and-miss in the draft during his tenure with the Bears, but with few meaningful picks and some important pieces needed, he must be near-perfect in this one.
Pace sold off significant parts of this draft in the Khalil Mack deal and by trading up to get running back David Montgomery last year. He’s fine with the cost of acquiring two players he felt the Bears needed. But it also ratchets up the pressure on him to get it right in April.
The Bears have seven picks, but only two that could reasonably be expected to produce immediate contributors: second-round selections at Nos. 43 and 50 overall. They also expect to get a compensatory pick at the end of the fourth round.
Beyond those, they have a fifth-rounder, two in the six and two in the seventh.
Pace will get a shot at free agency first, but he’s limited there, as well. The Bears will have $26 million in salary-cap space, according to Spotrac, which ranks 23rd in the NFL. That would change if they make additional cuts or see a spike in the cap from a new collective-bargaining agreement.
With that in mind, here’s a prudent path for the Bears in the upcoming draft:
Help the offensive line immediately at No. 43
After Pace spent a second-round pick on guard James Daniels and lavished $120 million worth of extensions on left tackle Charles Leno, right tackle Bobby Massie and center Cody Whitehair, he believed the line would be a fortress for years to come. Instead, it has been an ongoing puzzle.
That’s especially problematic considering the Bears’ philosophy of blaming Mitch Trubisky’s struggles more so on the problems surrounding him than on his own development.
“We believe we need to be better around him, you know?” Pace said. “And that’s what this time of year is all about . . . things we’re doing with coaches, things we’re doing with scheme, things we’re doing with personnel and then his growth as a young player.”
The best move for the Bears would be to draft an offensive tackle such as USC’s Austin Jackson or Auburn’s Prince Tega Wanogho (Jackson is the pick if he lasts that long) and play him at guard for the upcoming season before moving him to his natural position in 2021. It’s not perfect, but teams have done it before, and it’s a good answer for the Bears’ short-term and long-term needs.
Go for the tight end at No. 50
Tight end, the most important non-quarterback position in coach Matt Nagy’s offense, is an area of concern for the Bears. Trey Burton has injury issues, and his contract expires after the 2021 season (the team can also cut him a year from now for a $1.8 million dead-cap hit).
If they strike out on their moon shot for two-time Pro Bowl selection Austin Hooper, anyone they get in free agency likely will be a short-term answer.
So they need to spend one of their precious second-round picks on a tight end. Florida Atlantic’s Harrison Bryant would give them a high-potential threat. Tight ends often struggle with blocking as rookies, but Bryant is 6-5, 240 pounds and has basketball-style athleticism. He can be a dangerous pass catcher immediately.
Turn the compensatory pick into a wide receiver
The Bears expect to bolster their draft haul with a compensatory pick, which will probably fall somewhere around No. 140 overall. There’s still a good chance to find quality there. Pace plucked Eddie Jackson, Tarik Cohen and Nick Kwiatkoski in the fourth round in the 2016 and ’17 drafts.
The best odds of success are in the wide receivers at that point because the draft seems extremely deep there.
“It’s strong, and they’re all so different,” Pace said. “We interviewed a handful of them [Monday], and . . . there’s this explosive speed guy, then there’s the big targets and possession guys. That’s a strength of this draft, for sure.”
One name for the Bears to follow: Florida’s Van Jefferson. The son of longtime NFL wide receiver Shawn Jefferson, he put up 1,160 yards and 12 touchdowns over his junior and senior seasons. He also needs foot surgery (he’s expected back for spring practices), which could help him slide to the Bears.
Get a corner and quarterback out of the late-round picks
The fifth round is where it starts to get dicey, so the Bears can’t count on getting much out of their last five picks. The top priority should be a cornerback because they need to replace Prince Amukamara and eventually Kyle Fuller, and no team ever has enough good corners.
After that, they need to take a flier on a quarterback. Whomever they find this late probably won’t be Trubisky’s replacement, but it’s worth a shot. Teams should always have a developmental quarterback on the roster if for no other reason than to turn him into a tradable asset.
So in the fifth round, the Bears should shoot for Michigan State cornerback Josiah Scott.
It’s strictly a matter of taking the best available talent at this point. In the sixth, the goal is Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate and Miami linebacker Michael Pinckney. With the two seventh-round picks, the Bears should eye Notre Dame offensive tackle/guard Tommy Kraemer and Clemson safety Tanner Muse.