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Draft analysis: With Khalil Mack in place, Bears looking for pass-rush projects

The Bears have put all their resources into setting up Mack, Akiem Hicks and Robert Quinn as the heart of their pass rush, so the position isn’t a high priority in the draft. But there are some long-term projects worth a look.

The Bears would rather have Khalil Mack, one of the best pass rushers in recent history, than draft picks.
The Bears would rather have Khalil Mack, one of the best pass rushers in recent history, than draft picks.
Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

Part 2 of a 10-part series previewing the NFL Draft and analyzing the Bears’ needs.

It’s better to have proven talent than draft picks who might never fully develop, and that was the Bears’ mindset when they traded for outside linebacker Khalil Mack.

General manager Ryan Pace dealt the Bears’ first-round picks in 2019 and 2020 for Mack and filled out the heart of the Bears’ pass rush with Akiem Hicks on the defensive line and sack master Robert Quinn opposite Mack. He’ll take his chances with those three for another season or two.

It’s a wise plan, and the many resources Pace has allocated to the pass rush — the aforementioned trio has a collective $44.5 million salary-cap hit this season — has made it arguably the strongest aspect of his team.

So heading into the draft, edge rusher isn’t much of a concern for the Bears. That’s just as well because Pace has struggled to find the right prospects.

The most notable frustration was Leonard Floyd, whom he traded up to pick ninth overall in 2016. He managed only 18œ sacks in 54 starts, despite playing opposite Mack for two seasons, and bottomed out at three last season.

Two seasons ago, when the Bears looked like potential Super Bowl contenders, they were third in the NFL with 50 sacks. They dropped to 24th last season with 32, in large part because Hicks was injured and Floyd didn’t produce. That left Mack facing a parade of double- and triple-teams.

The Bears’ top-heavy spending at the position limits their depth, and their draft priorities make it difficult to justify taking an outside linebacker or defensive end early. It’s essentially all or nothing on the Mack-Hicks-Quinn trio.

Behind Mack and Quinn, the Bears are working to develop Isaiah Irving and James Vaughters. Both were undrafted. If the Bears find a pass rusher who looks good enough to overtake one of them as an attractive project, then it would be worth it for them to spend a sixth- or seventh-round pick.

That’s likely the area the Bears will be shopping in, if at all. It’s possible to find pass-rushing talent late in the draft, but it’s difficult. In the last decade, only seven players chosen in the fifth round or later posted a season of double-digit sacks (nine undrafted players have hit the mark). The most recent to do it was sixth-round pick Erik Walden, who had 11 for the Colts in 2016.

NOTES: The NFL informed teams Monday that they are required to keep all involved employees working separately from their homes during the draft April 23-25. They aren’t allowed to gather in any way, meaning they can communicate only by phone and internet.

Bears general manager Ryan Pace had hoped to get a limited number of staff together at Halas Hall or to use a makeshift draft headquarters at an alternate location. Pace was concerned about the possibility of having everyone work from separate locations.

• The NFL delayed the start of its offseason workout program and is working on a plan with the NFL Players Association about how to proceed during the coronavirus pandemic.

DRAFT SPOTLIGHT

Edge rushers

Grading the Bears’ need: Low. While it’s always important to have a strong cast of pass rushers and the Bears must be aware of Quinn’s age (30 next month), they have many more important needs. This would be a late-round pick, if at all.

On the roster: Khalil Mack, Robert Quinn, Barkevious Mingo, Isaiah Irving, James Vaughters.

The five best prospects: Ohio State’s Chase Young, LSU’s K’Lavon Chaisson, Penn State’s Yetur Gross-Matos, Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa, Alabama’s Terrell Lewis.

Keep an eye on: Utah State’s Tipa Galeai. The Bears won’t be able to get a recognizable name in the fifth round or beyond, but Galeai is intriguing. He is expected to slide because of a pedestrian senior season and his dismissal from TCU because of an assault in 2017. If the Bears think he has turned himself around off the field and can play like he did as a junior, when he led the Mountain West with 10½ sacks, he’s worth a look.

Close to home: Wisconsin’s Zack Baun. The former quarterback was an explosive player for the Badgers last season with 12½ sacks and seven other tackles for loss. He’s undersized at 6-2 and 238 pounds, but he’s fast and versatile. He’s projected to be a second-round pick.