Analysis: Defining expectations for the Bears’ draft class for 2018
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The Bears’ promising rookie class — one that was lauded nationally — can start to show off that promise when Matt Nagy’s first rookie minicamp opens Friday. With high hopes in mind, here’s a look at what the expectations should be for the rookie class:
LB Roquan Smith
The job: Tone-setting starter.
Smith’s transition should be eased by joining a Bears defense that finished 10th in total yards last season and with building-block players all around him.
But that only enhances expectations for him.
Smith’s makeup — his sideline-to-sideline speed, athleticism, instincts and tenacity — are expected to help transform a good defense into a great one.
That said, comparisons to Patrick Willis should be curtailed in the early going.
When Vic Fangio took over the 49ers’ defense in 2011, Willis was in his fifth season and already an All Pro/Pro Bowl player. Navorro Bowman, another All Pro/Pro Bowl linebacker under Fangio, was in his second season.
Smith must impress off the field, too. The Bears’ defense became his when they selected him with the eighth overall pick. He needs to be the tone-setting leader he was at Georgia
“He has outstanding intangibles,” general manager Ryan Pace said.
Quarterback Mitch Trubisky could be the perfect sounding board. Trubisky naturally assumed a leadership role last year despite being a rookie and beginning the season as a backup.
G/C James Daniels
The job: Full-time starter.
After selecting Daniels with the 39th pick, Pace said he would compete at left guard, mentioning veteran Eric Kush as a versatile interior lineman to consider.
Right guard, meanwhile, is in flux, with Kyle Long still improving after three offseason surgeries. Earl Watford (six-year veteran) and Jordan Morgan (2017 fifth-round pick) are also on the roster.
“They have to battle all-out,” Pace said.
But it’s a battle in which Daniels — widely considered one of the best interior linemen in this year’s draft — starts off as a leader.
At 20, Daniels is an ideal pupil for esteemed line coach Harry Hiestand. Daniels’ athleticism and experience
in Iowa’s zone scheme help, too.
Under Pace, the Bears weren’t timid about starting Cody Whitehair as a rookie.
Nagy also will look for Daniels to play early on. Tackle Eric Fisher (No. 1 pick, 2013), guard Zach Fulton (No. 193, 2014) and center Mitch Morse (No. 49, 2015) were full-time starters for the Chiefs as rookies.
WR Anthony Miller
The job: Instant contributor.
Some rookie receivers struggle immensely with timing and expanding their routes because of the college offenses they came from. See Kevin White.
But Miller’s route-running is considered
“He likes to stick the top of the route, and it’s sharp,” Nagy said of watching Miller. “So what that does is, it sets the angle for the quarterback. And you don’t see that from every wide receiver.”
Nagy said that Miller, the 51st overall selection, can play anywhere, but he will start off as the “zebra” or in the slot.
That doesn’t mean that Miller will be behind speedster Taylor Gabriel or that Gabriel already has been replaced (the Bears are paying him too much money).
Nagy described his offense as flexible. Gabriel and Miller are different receivers who provide Nagy with more options.
Again, Nagy won’t limit a skilled rookie, either.
In Nagy’s first season as the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator in 2016, receiver Tyreek Hill, a fifth-round pick that year, caught 61 passes for 593 yards and six touchdowns. He also ran for three scores and 267 yards on 24 carries.
LB Joel Iyiegbuniwe
The job: Special-teams stalwart.
The selection of Iyiegbuniwe was interesting because Smith was taken in the first round. The Bears also passed on Kansas edge rusher Dorance Armstrong Jr., who was drafted by the Cowboys immediately after Iyiegbuniwe.
Pace essentially described Iyiegbuniwe’s selection as taking the best player on their board, particularly one whom the scouts and coaches were unified on.
In time, Iyiegbuniwe’s emergence could spell the end for veteran Danny Trevathan and prompt a change in job description for Nick Kwiatkoski.
Pace highlighted Iyiegbuniwe’s speed, athleticism and physicality. But as a reserve, Iyiegbuniwe needs to establish himself on special teams, filling an important role vacated by Christian Jones.
That might not be a problem for Iyiegbuniwe, who said he was on the punt team the last three years and the kickoff team his first two years at Western Kentucky. He also had stints on the kickoff-return team.
DL Bilal Nichols
The job: Rotational player.
Mitch Unrein’s departure in free agency left an opening in the defensive line’s rotation that shouldn’t be overlooked.
Before being put on injured reserve, Unrein started eight games last season, establishing career highs with 2½ sacks and 24 solo tackles. He was on the field for 37 percent of the defensive snaps.
Pace said that Nichols (6-4, 290) profiles as a five-technique end in their base defense, the primary position that Unrein held. The fifth-round pick’s primary competition is Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris.
OLB Kylie Fitts
The job: Pass-rush support.
Fitts’ college career was derailed by injuries. It’s essentially why he was drafted in the sixth round.
But Fitts has ample opportunities in front of him, arguably more than any other Day 3 selection.
The Bears need a pass rusher to emerge opposite Leonard Floyd, and there is a shortage in competition. Aaron Lynch, Sam Acho and Howard Jones stand in Fitts’ way of getting on the field early on.
WR Javon Wims
The job: Special-teams surprise.
Wims was Georgia’s leading receiver last year, displaying the ability to make difficult, highlight-reel catches.
But for Wims, impressing the Bears involves more than making big catches in training camp. He needs to prove his worth on special teams, as all fourth, fifth and sixth receivers must do.
That could be problematic for a former high school basketball star who lacks experience.