NFL Draft position preview: Will Bears grab an OLB a year early?

The Bears can get a jump on replacing Robert Quinn in this year’s draft. Picking No. 20 overall could land the best college edge rusher as opposed to the sixth-best quarterback, third-best cornerback, fifth-best offensive lineman or fourth-best wide receiver.

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Duke’s Chris Rumph II makes a tackle against Notre Dame in 2019.

Duke’s Chris Rumph II makes a tackle against Notre Dame in 2019.

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Last of a 10-part series previewing the NFL Draft and analyzing the Bears’ needs

Few teams throw more money at outside linebackers than the Bears.

They employ the highest-paid edge rusher ever, Khalil Mack. And the $14.7 million cap hit they’ve allotted for fellow outside linebacker Robert Quinn this year is more than they’ll give Mack.

Last year, only three teams spent more on edge rushers. This year and next, only two will.

So why in the world would the Bears consider picking an edge rusher in the first two days of the draft? Because Quinn probably won’t make it to 2022.

Despite signing Quinn to a five-year, $70 million deal last offseason, the Bears can let him walk after this year, having paid him $30.1 million over two years. They seem likely to do just that after Quinn was the most disappointing player on the team last season, totaling only two sacks even though teams sent extra blockers at Mack on almost every down.

At least Quinn had a small salary-cap hit of $6.1 million last year. This season, that figure has ballooned to the ninth-highest among the league’s outside linebackers. In 2022, it increases to $16 million — for a player entering his age-32 season. While the Bears are optimistic that Quinn will have a bounce-back season, he’d likely have to turn in All-Pro effort to be worth keeping at his 2022 price.

The Bears can get a jump on replacing Quinn in this year’s draft. Picking No. 20 overall, they could land the best college edge rusher — be it Michigan’s Kwity Paye, Georgia’s Azeez Ojulari or one of the Miami duo of Jaelan Phillips and Gregory Rousseau — as opposed to the sixth-best quarterback, third-best cornerback, fifth-best offensive lineman or fourth-best wide receiver.

That move wouldn’t maximize the Bears’ 2021 roster, though. And general manager Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy need to win this season in order to start worrying about what awaits them in 2022.

Pace has built his roster to make a college edge rusher redundant. Signing the Broncos’ Jeremiah Attaochu to a one-year deal gives Pace a better third pass rusher than last year’s choice, Barkevious Mingo. In two seasons with the Broncos, Attaochu had 8½ sacks in limited action. Mingo, who signed with the Falcons last month, has 7½ since 2014.

The Bears took an outside linebacker in last year’s draft, too, trading a 2021 fourth-round pick to the Vikings for the fifth-round selection that yielded Tulsa’s Trevis Gipson. He played only 71 defensive snaps as a rookie, though, and doesn’t figure to play enough this season to make his case to start in 2022.

Outside of quarterback, the Bears’ salary-cap sheet shows that Pace values outside linebacker as the second-most important position on the field. Using a first-round pick on an edge rusher who wouldn’t be guaranteed to start, though, is a luxury he can’t afford.

OUTSIDE LINEBACKER

Grading the Bears’ need: Low — but high next year, when the Bears figure to be in the market for yet another starter to play opposite Khalil Mack.

On the roster: Mack, Robert Quinn, Jeremiah Attaochu, Trevis Gipson, James Vaughters, Ledarius Mack.

The five best prospects: Michigan’s Kwity Paye, Georgia’s Azeez Ojulari, Miami’s Jaelan Phillips, Penn State’s Jason Oweh, Miami’s Gregory Rousseau.

Keep an eye on: Duke’s Chris Rumph II — whose father is the Bears’ new defensive line coach — figures to be taken in the third round or later. He faces some of the same questions that Leonard Floyd did when the Bears drafted him in the first round. Rumph has a relentless motor, but at 6-2, 244 pounds, he might lack the bulk to bull-rush an NFL tackle.

Close to home: A former star wrestler at Crystal Lake Central High School, Romeo McKnight took the long way to the draft, enrolling at Iowa before transferring to Illinois State and, later, Charlotte. In two seasons at ISU, he totaled 15 sacks and 25 ½ tackles for loss. He transferred after the Missouri Valley Conference shifted to a spring season. In six games for the 49ers, he had 1 ½ sacks and five tackles for loss. The 6-4, 251-pounder has a history of knee injuries but has shown he can be productive when healthy. He’ll likely be an undrafted free agent.

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