Bears’ most urgent NFL Draft need: Finding help at CB for Jaylon Johnson

Other than Johnson, cornerback was a big problem for the Bears last season. That’s a good place for them to start in the upcoming draft.

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Bears cornerback Jaylon Johnson walks off the field after a 2021 game.

Bears CB Jaylon Johnson didn’t have much help last season.

Nam Y. Huh/AP

When the Bears introduced Ryan Poles as their general manager, it was a career breakthrough. After 13 years working his way up the ranks with the Chiefs, Poles finally earned the job he always wanted.

But that was also the day he inherited all the problems left behind by predecessor Ryan Pace as well as limited resources to address them. As Poles goes into his first draft, which begins Thursday, he has no first-round picks and will choose only three times in the first 140 selections.

That’s not much help for a team that desperately needs it after cratering to 6-11 last season and cleaning house.

The draft outlook was even bleaker when Poles arrived, but he offloaded pass rusher Khalil Mack and his massive contract to the Chargers for an extra second-round pick. He has Nos. 39 and 48 in that round, No. 71 in the third, then gets to roll the dice with two fifth-rounders and a sixth-rounder.

Unless an incredible talent drops to the Bears unexpectedly, Poles needs to triage the various emergencies at Halas Hall. He can’t assume he’ll find long-term starters beyond those first three selections.

As Poles surveyed the deficiencies of his roster again last week during voluntary minicamp, the three that should have stood out are cornerback, offensive line and wide receiver.

The Bears went into last season with an indefensible plan at cornerback in which Jaylon Johnson was the only sure thing. The rest were mostly practice-squad-level players, and, unsurprisingly, the Bears allowed an NFL-worst 103.3 opponent passer rating.

That situation isn’t any better now. Poles signed former Ravens depth piece Tavon Young (seven starts last season) and recent Rams and Bills practice-squad player Greg Stroman to minimal contracts.

While the Bears are obviously prioritizing their future and viewing this as a transition season, cornerback is their most urgent issue.

The weak spots at offensive line and wide receiver could be troublesome not only this season, but down the road if they continue to hinder quarterback Justin Fields’ development.

At receiver, Darnell Mooney is coming off a 1,055-yard season, Byron Pringle had 42 catches last season and everyone else is a mystery. The Bears hope Equanimeous St. Brown is on the cusp of a breakthrough, but he played only 34% of the Packers’ offensive snaps last season and 26% in 2020.

Fortunately for Poles, this wide-receiver class is thought to be so loaded that teams can find dynamic contributors beyond the first round.

The Bears believe they’ve corrected many of the elements that worked against Fields last season simply by their coaching hires, implementing an offense tailored to his skills and clearing the way for him to be the unquestioned starter. But the impact of those changes will be muted if his receivers can’t get open — or if he can’t stay upright.

The Bears gave up a league-high 58 sacks last season, which was one of many factors in Fields’ rookie struggles. Poles didn’t bat an eye at guard James Daniels leaving in free agency, and he immediately installed newcomer Lucas Patrick at center. That leaves Sam Mustipher to scrap for a job at right guard.

It’s also unclear whether the Bears have answers at right and left tackle as they shuffle second-year players Teven Jenkins and Larry Borom between those spots. Figuring out where they belong — and whether they belong in the long-range plans at all — could take well into August.

The Bears added some insurance at tackle Monday by signing veteran Julien Davenport, who has 32 starts in five seasons, including four with the Colts in 2021.

The upside is that Poles seems to have a clear grasp of how extensive the problems are. He doesn’t seem to be looking for quick fixes. And if he finds legitimate answers at those three spots, it’ll go a long way toward accelerating his rebuild.

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