How the Bears can nail the NFL Draft: A road map through all 7 rounds

After a season as the worst team in the NFL, the Bears have a long list of needs. Here’s a look at how to fill some of them in the draft.

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Alabama defensive end Will Anderson lining up before a snap last season.

Alabama defensive end Will Anderson could be the game-changing pass rusher the Bears lacked this season.

Vasha Hunt/AP

MOBILE, Ala. — There are astronomical expectations on the Bears this offseason. Everything general manager Ryan Poles did in his first year on the job was aimed at setting up this pivotal opportunity, and he’s loaded with an NFL-high $90.9 million in salary-cap space and a full slate of draft picks.

While free agency comes first and could reshape Poles’ wish list, the draft is typically where teams find cornerstone players. And with the No. 1 pick for the first time since 1947, the Bears should be able to put key pieces in place as they try to develop Justin Fields into a franchise quarterback.

Poles, assistant general manager Ian Cunningham, coach Matt Eberflus and various other personnel have been scouting the Senior Bowl practices this week, and offensive coordinator Luke Getsy is head coach of the American team.

Poles has minimal track record to examine since he was hired as a first-time general manager, but he has already shown an inclination to trade down, so the current lineup of draft picks almost certainly will change between now and April.

Selections will shift, too, when the NFL awards compensatory picks next month — the Bears aren’t expected to receive any — but here’s a road map for how they could nail the draft:

First round, No. 1 overall

Teams can find stars anywhere in the draft, illustrated most clearly by Tom Brady going late in the sixth round, but the odds are far more in Poles’ favor the higher he picks. And when teams are drafting this high, they’re hoping to get a player whose number they’ll eventually retire.

The caveat for the Bears is that they’re not shopping for a quarterback, and seven of the next eight teams picking after them need one. It’s a perfect opportunity for Poles to trade down, acquire more assets and still get the player he would’ve taken first overall. If he swings a deal with the Colts at No. 4, he’d almost certainly still be able to take Alabama defensive end Will Anderson or Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter. It’s possible he’d still have his choice of the two.

The Bears were last in the NFL in sacks and second-worst against the run, so Anderson or Carter would fit an enormous and urgent need. There’s no wrong answer between the two. Since pass rusher is the second-most important position on the roster, go with Anderson.

Second round, No. 56 overall

Almost every move Poles made in his first year on the job was with an eye on maximizing his opportunity this offseason, but there was one outlier: sending the Bears’ second-round pick to the Steelers for wide receiver Chase Claypool.

While he justified it because he was unimpressed by the upcoming free-agent class at wide receiver, Poles might’ve hesitated a bit more had he known how high that pick would be. Since the Dolphins got their first-round pick stripped by the NFL for tampering, the Bears’ second-rounder would’ve been No. 32 overall. This second-round pick came from the Ravens when Poles offloaded All-Pro linebacker Roquan Smith.

At this point, Poles probably will have to add a receiver by trade as teams did when they picked up A.J. Brown, Tyreek Hill and Davante Adams last year. So with this pick, he needs to help Fields by upgrading the line with Ohio State center Luke Wypler.

Third round, No. 65 overall

If the Bears don’t take Carter at the top of the draft, they can still get a forceful defensive tackle in the middle of the draft. Former Bears star Akiem Hicks was a third-round pick, as was Eagles defensive tackle Javon Hargrave — a seven-year starter and one-time Pro Bowl pick.

Bowling Green’s Karl Brooks would be a good target with this pick. He’s 6-foot-4, 300 pounds and had 30 1/2 tackles for loss over his final two seasons and has the versatility to line up at defensive end, too.

Fourth round, Nos. 103 and 134 overall

This is typically where player evaluations become difficult and fluctuate significantly from team to team. No one realistically plans on finding major contributors here. But with so many holes on the roster, the Bears need to get lucky.

Houston wide receiver Tank Dell is worth watching in this range. He’s just 5-foot-10, 165 pounds, but he’s absurdly fast and clocked the third-fastest time at his position in Senior Bowl practices at 20.16 miles per hour. He totaled 199 catches, 2,727 yards and 29 touchdowns his last two seasons.

“He dominated the one-on-ones probably more than anybody,” said Getsy, who has Dell on his team this week. “Really cool kid to be around. Knows what he’s doing.”

The Bears also need to get serious about a dual-threat quarterback to develop behind Fields the way the Ravens have stacked their depth chart behind Lamar Jackson. There’s a decent chance Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker drifts in the draft because of his ACL injury, so the Bears could pounce.

Fifth round, Nos. 136 and 154 overall

From the fifth round on, it’s time to swing big. Picking a player with huge potential should be the priority over positional needs. In some cases, though, those two approaches will overlap.

The Bears should be bringing in offensive linemen and cornerbacks nonstop in the hope that they find a starting-caliber player. In the fifth round, they could go with Iowa State guard Trevor Downing and Maryland cornerback Jakorian Bennett.

Note: The Bears’ own pick currently is slotted at No. 136, but they haven’t disclosed the conditional fifth-rounder they got from the Ravens. This is assuming it is the fifth-round pick the Ravens got from the Patriots.

Seventh round, No. 220 overall

Poles made a nice pick in the seventh round last year by taking punter Trenton Gill out of North Carolina State, and he was a solid, cheap replacement for Pat O’Donnell.

Florida wide receiver Justin Shorter had a modest final season with the Gators, but he’s 6-foot-4, 223 pounds and was ESPN’s top-rated wide receiver recruit as a senior in high school. He clearly has the physique and talent, and it’d be worthwhile for the Bears to see what they can get from him.

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