Three positions the Bears could eye if they draft outside the lines

Here are three position groups — beyond both offensive and defensive lines — that could tempt general manager Ryan Poles in the first round.

SHARE Three positions the Bears could eye if they draft outside the lines
Ohio State receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba catches a pass at the NFL Scouting Combine.

Ohio State receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba catches a pass at the NFL Scouting Combine.

Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The Bears need beef.

Barring an unexpected move, they will enter the draft on April 27 with needs at offensive tackle, defensive tackle and defensive end — and four opportunities to realistically land a Day 1 starter. The Bears are set to pick ninth overall and again at No. 53 and 61 in Round 2. They have the first pick in the third round, No. 64.

It would be a shock if at least half those picks weren’t linemen. General manager Ryan Poles, though, left the door open to look elsewhere if it lined up with his draft board.

“I’ve always kind of believed in the front,” Poles said last week. “But at the same time, I think one of the things you also look into is a little bit of the supply. Where is the draft thin? Where is it heavy? And you weigh all those things — and the likelihood of you getting certain players at certain parts of the draft.”

Poles already has shown a willingness to zig when others zag — he paid Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards when most of the league was finding off-the-ball linebackers to be fungible. Then again, signing those free agents — instead of an expensive tackle or defensive lineman — is why the Bears are in the situation they’re in now.

Here are three position groups — beyond both offensive and defensive lines — that could tempt Poles in the first round:

Cornerback

Two cornerbacks figure to land in the top 10: Illinois star Devon Witherspoon and Oregon standout Christian Gonzalez.

Witherspoon’s hitting skills — he’s a missile of a tackler — make him the safer play against spread offenses. At 6-1, Gonzalez isn’t a good tackler but is a “physical freak” in a league that values tall corners, ESPN analyst Todd McShay said this week.

“Witherspoon is more complete,” he said. “If you’re looking for the best cover corner to take away your No. 1 receiver, Gonzalez is going to be your guy.”

Illinois’ Devon Witherspoon celebrates after sacking Sean Clifford of Penn State during a 2021 game.

Illinois’ Devon Witherspoon celebrates after sacking Sean Clifford of Penn State during a 2021 game.

Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

The Bears have used second-round picks on corners in two of the last three seasons — Jaylon Johnson, who has a year left on his contract, and Kyler Gordon, who had an up-and-down rookie year. Adding one in the first round would allow the Bears to bump Gordon inside to slot cornerback, which is his best position, and give them insurance were they unable to re-sign Johnson.

If Johnson stays, though — and that’s the most likely outcome — the Bears could build their defense with three cornerbacks 24 and under.

Cornerback is becoming a premium position — in the last five years, five have been drafted in the top 10. Sauce Gardner, picked fourth by the Jets last year, already looks like a steal — he was an All-Pro, made the Pro Bowl and earned AP Defensive Rookie of the Year and PFWA Rookie of the Year honors last season.

Wide receiver

The Bears have drafted one receiver in the first round since 2002 — and Kevin White caught only 25 passes in his time with the Bears. In what should come as absolutely no surprise, the Bears have the fewest passing yards in the NFL since 2002.

Perhaps this is the year that changes. Every decision the franchise makes should be to find out whether Justin Fields is the star quarterback they believe he can be. If their top draft pick doesn’t block for Fields, he might as well catch passes.

Fields is friends with the top receiver in the draft, too — his former teammate, Ohio State slot receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba. A hamstring injury cost him all but three games last season, but he put up historic numbers in 2021, averaging 192 receiving yards in the last five games and catching 15 balls for a jaw-dropping 347 yards in the Rose Bowl.

Poles talked a year ago about trying to get Fields a security blanket; a slot receiver with whom he already has established chemistry certainly qualifies. Poles and seemingly half of Halas Hall watched Smith-Njigba — and, more notably, offensive tackle Paris Johnson Jr. — at Ohio State’s pro day last month.

“His football instincts, his feel for the game and his short-area quickness — getting in and out of breaks and being able to separate with subtle moves, with sharp-cutting moves — is what separates him,” McShay said.

TCU’s Quentin Johnson stands 6-4 and is more likely to be a solid NFL blocker — a trait the Bears value — while Boston College’s Zay Flowers and USC’s Jordan Addison also could be first-round picks.

Last month’s trade gave the Bears a receiving corps of DJ Moore, Darnell Mooney, Chase Claypool, Equanimeous St. Brown and second-year returner Velus Jones. The position is not as deep as it looks, though — Mooney and Claypool are entering the last year of their contracts. St. Brown is on a one-year deal to primarily serve as a blocker and Jones has shown little indication he can be a reliable pass-catcher.

There’s plenty of room for another receiver.

Running back

Texas’ Bijan Robinson is better at what he does than any other draft pick is at what they do. He’s a three-down back in an era of specialization. At 5-11, 215 pounds, he’s as effective outside as inside — and he gets better with more carries — and an above-average pass-catcher. He broke 104 tackles last season, the most Pro Football Focus has ever documented for a college player.

“Everybody says that Bijan Robinson is not only the best running back in this class, he is one of the five best players in this class — he is elite,” NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said.

Texas running back Bijan Robinson runs a drill at the NFL Scouting Combine.

Texas running back Bijan Robinson runs a drill at the NFL Scouting Combine.

Darron Cummings/AP

The league generally views running backs as disposable. Does Poles? D’Onta Foreman and Khalil Herbert shouldn’t keep him from adding Robinson — if he wants to.

McShay considers Robinson the fourth-best player in the draft and “slightly” better than Saquon Barkley was when the Giants drafted him second overall in 2018.

McShay called Robinson a “huge test” for draft strategy — virtually no one takes running backs in the top 10 anymore. Only five have gone in the top 10 in the last 10 drafts: Barkley, Leonard Fournette (No. 4 in 2017), Christian McCaffrey (No. 8 in 2017), Ezekiel Elliott (No. 4 in 2016) and Todd Gurley (No. 10 in 2015). Barkley is the only one still playing for his original team.

“We’ll find out a lot about the running back position and how it’s viewed by NFL teams,” McShay said.

The Latest
Timberlake has shows scheduled at the United Center on Friday and Saturday.
Black Chicagoans helped many parts of the city blossom culturally and economically, but they were also subject to financial exploitation, intimidation and racial violence — challenges later faced by immigrants from Mexico in the mid-20th Century.
The three victims were all listed in fair condition, police said.
Invictus manages to capture most of the play’s challenging, dramatic sprawl.