Part 10 of a 10-part series previewing the NFL Draft and analyzing the Bears’ needs.
The Bears made Prince Amukamara a salary-cap casualty on Feb. 21.
On April 24, they might actually find his replacement.
The Bears’ best chance to add a 2020 starter with one of their two second-round picks in next week’s draft is to take a cornerback to play opposite two-time Pro Bowl player Kyle Fuller.
The moves they’ve made to this point haven’t filled the void left by Amukamara, who started for three years. Last month, the Bears signed Steelers 2016 first-round pick Artie Burns, who played only 66 defensive snaps last year. They’ve added CFL standout Tre Roberson, who has no NFL regular-season experience. Both will, at least for now, compete with Kevin Toliver, who has started two games in two seasons as Amukamara’s backup.
Perhaps one of the three grows into a reliable starter. The Bears would be foolish to bank on it.
The team could always dip back into the veteran-cornerback market after the draft — the familiar names still available include Amukamara himself — but the fastest path to finding a starter is to draft one.
There would be no argument here if the Bears fell in love with a quarterback in the second round — but he won’t help in 2020. They could draft a starting right guard, but they selected a left guard, James Daniels, in the same spot two years ago.
Even in the most stacked receiver draft in recent memory, a second-round pick would probably slot in as the team’s third wideout in 2020. The same goes for tight end, an even greater area of need but one with a steeper adjustment curve for rookies.
There’s an opening at strong safety — Deon Bush would take the first snap tomorrow — but it’s the most fungible position on any defense, much less next to Eddie Jackson and his monster contract.
Picking a cornerback, though, will be a priority for a team that needs to win in 2020.
It would be new territory for general manager Ryan Pace. He has drafted only three cornerbacks, and all were afterthoughts. Deiondre’ Hall (fourth round in 2016), Duke Shelley (sixth in 2019) and Stephen Denmark (seventh in 2019) combined to play 88 snaps for the Bears, with no starts.
Relying on veterans for years has left the Bears desperate for new blood — to restock the cornerbacks room and to provide some financial stability. Fuller is entering his age-28 season, and starting slot cornerback Buster Skrine will turn 31 the day after the draft ends. Roberson is 27.
TCU’s Jeff Gladney, Auburn’s Noah Igbinoghene, Virginia’s Bryce Hall and Mississippi State’s Cameron Dantzler could be available when the Bears draft in the second round.
Because they don’t pick again until Round 5, the Bears will have to find a starting cornerback there — or not at all.
Grading the Bears’ need: High. The Bears released Prince Amukamara, who had been a starter the last three seasons, to clear cap space. They haven’t found a surefire replacement yet.
On the roster: Kyle Fuller, Buster Skrine, Duke Shelley, Artie Burns, Tre Roberson, Kevin Toliver, Stephen Denmark, Michael Joseph, Xavier Crawford.
The five best prospects: Ohio State’s Jeff Okudah, Florida’s C.J. Henderson, Alabama’s Trevon Diggs, LSU’s Kristian Fulton, Clemson’s A.J. Terrell.
Keep an eye on: Auburn’s Noah Igbinoghene could be the best cornerback available when the Bears draft in the second round. Igbinoghene has only played two years on defense; he was a receiver and the Tigers’ kick returner in 2017. The Bears need help in 2020, though. Can the raw Igbinoghene, who left school a year early, start right away? He comes from an athletic family. His mom, Faith, won an Olympic bronze medal in 1992 for Nigeria in the 400-meter relay. Amazingly, Amukamara’s mother, Christie, also was a sprinter for Nigeria in the Olympics. She ran in 1984.
Close to home: Southern Illinois’ Madre Harper doesn’t get the same attention as safety Jeremy Chinn, his college teammate. But Harper, a 6-1 cornerback, figures to get drafted, too. Teams will have questions about the circumstances that got Harper dismissed from Oklahoma State for a violation of team rules early in the 2017 season. If he can answer them, though, Harper has enough athleticism to warrant a third-day selection.