First-and-10: If Bears want a playmaker at 8, defense likely the only way to go

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Bears shouldn’t be afraid to draft Virginia Tech defender Tremaine Edmunds. | Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times via AP

The best guard in decades, Notre Dame’s Quenton Nelson, helps Mitch Trubisky, but so does an elite defense.

With their franchise quarterback in tow and no wide receiver worthy of the No. 8 pick, the Bears’ best chance for a difference-maker in the first round of the NFL Draft on Thursday is on defense.

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Virginia Tech linebacker Tremaine Edmunds and Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith in particular seem like the best candidates to fortify a Bears defense that finished 10th in yards and ninth in points last season but still is in dire need of the bite that makes a unit special.

Smith is the apparent safe pick — a prototypical Luke Kuechly-like middle linebacker who can tackle, cover, close and blitz and seems to have the “it” factor, something this team desperately needs on the field and in the locker room.

But general manager Ryan Pace shouldn’t be afraid to take a big ol’ Javy Baez swing for the fences with the 19-year-old Edmunds if that’s his guy. The 6-4, 258-pound junior — with his size, closing speed and 83-inch wingspan — has the makings of a versatile every-down linebacker with elite pass-rushing ability.

Smith is more likely to be an immediate factor, but if Pace is intent on improving the pass rush, this is the time to take a roll of the dice. Edmunds would be joining a top-10 defense that returns 11 starters — most of whom will be in their third year in coordinator Vic Fangio’s system.

When outside linebacker Leonard Floyd was drafted ninth overall in 2016, he joined a rebuilding defense that was 14th in yards and 20th in scoring and had seven new starters — and Floyd still had seven sacks and a touchdown in 12 games as a rookie.

Compared to Floyd, Edmunds would have the wind at his back in a defense in which he is surrounded by established starters who won’t themselves be burdened by learning the same defense he is.

Despite six, three and five regular-season victories in his first three seasons as the Bears’ general manager, Pace doesn’t need to choke up and protect the plate. On the contrary, the draft has been Pace’s strength as a GM. With three years of draft preparation to lean on, Pace and the Bears’ personnel/scouting staff should be better prepared than ever to strike gold in the 2018 draft. He has made his mistakes. But he has his coach. He has his quarterback. And he still has Fangio. This is the moment Pace has been waiting for.

2 Nelson, Edmunds and Smith — in that order — are the most popular Bears picks at No.  8 in a perusal of various mock drafts. But Pace outfoxed almost everybody last year when he traded up from No. 3 to No. 2 to take Trubisky.

In fact, according to a review of more than 100 mock drafts by SB Nation, only three analysts had the Bears taking Trubisky — Dane Brugler of CBS Sports, Andrew Gribble of ClevelandBrowns.com and Adam Stites of SB Nation. The most popular picks were LSU safety Jamal Adams, Ohio State cornerback Marshon Lattimore, Stanford defensive end Solomon Thomas, Alabama defensive end Jonathan Allen, Ohio State safety Malik Hooker and Clemson quarterback DeShaun Watson.

3 The best player available vs. the need for a pass rusher could be a particularly intriguing dilemma for Pace if Nelson — expected to be a plug-and-play Pro Bowl-caliber player — is on the board.

Nelson also fills a need with Josh Sitton having been released, but the pick is hardly a no-brainer at No. 8. You can find good-enough guards elsewhere, but elite pass rushers are tougher to find. The Eagles’ starting guards in the Super Bowl were drafted in the second and third round. Three of their most effective pass rushers were drafted in the first round — Chris Long (second overall), Fletcher Cox (12th) and Brandon Graham (13th).

That’s not cherry-picking, either. Of the 40 starting guards in the Super Bowl the last 10 years, only four were drafted in the first round. Twenty were drafted in the fourth round or later, including nine undrafted free agents.

4 Pace will meet with Chicago media Tuesday at Halas Hall for a pre-draft news conference. It always has been an awkward affair because the last thing a GM wants to do is tip his hand.

Then again, it’s an opportunity to disseminate misinformation, as well. In 1975, every paper in town had the Bears zeroing in on Texas A&I running back Don Hardeman after a pre-draft interview with general manager Jim Finks. The Bears took Jackson State running back Walter Payton and later admitted they were so set on Payton, they would’ve taken him No. 1 overall if they had that pick.

5 Floyd’s durability is another reason to address the pass rush early in this draft. He could blossom into a double-digit sack guy at any moment, but he has to stay on the field. He played 12 games as a rookie and 10 games last season.

The sprained knee he suffered against the Lions didn’t seem like a devastating injury, but five months later, Floyd still wasn’t able to participate in the Bears’ minicamp last week.

“I don’t know exactly where he’s at [physically],” coach Matt Nagy said. “I’m not concerned about him, and I feel good about his situation.”

6 If the Bears can’t replace Cam Meredith with a second-round draft pick (or a third-rounder, if they get one), they hired the wrong coach and drafted the wrong quarterback. One player to keep an eye on at No. 39 overall: 5-11, 200-pound Anthony Miller out of Memphis. He doesn’t have impressive speed or size but is a noted route runner with a knack for getting open early — a likely big key to success in Nagy’s offense. The mark on his prospectus doesn’t figure to scare away the Bears — Miller suffered a broken foot in his last college game and did not participate in the Senior Bowl or work out at the scouting combine.

7 Kudos to Matt Forte and Devin Hester, who retired as Bears on Monday at Halas Hall. Hester’s touchdown moments have been well-chronicled, but besides his 19 touchdowns on kick returns with the Bears, he also had 11 returns of 50 or more yards without reaching the end zone, including kickoff returns of 95, 80, 79, 76, 73 and 68 yards. He also had kickoff returns of 66 yards with the Falcons and 60 with the Ravens and a 75-yard field-goal return with the Falcons that did not end in touchdowns.

8 Forte retired as the Bears’ second-most productive running back of all time behind Payton — 13,012 yards from scrimmage in 122 games (106.7 average). His worst season with the Bears might say the most about him: In 2009, when he dropped from 1,238 rushing yards to 929, from 3.9 yards per carry to 3.6 and from 12 total touchdowns to four, Forte played 16 games with 315 touches despite being hampered by a hamstring injury and a sprained knee — injuries he never complained about or used as an excuse in the face of criticism about his diminished performance.

He took those knocks that he had been overused and wasn’t the same runner he was as a rookie with typical stoicism but without whining, had offseason knee surgery, regained his burst and by 2011 was in the Pro Bowl and back on track for a stellar career. That’s Forte’s legacy in Chicago.

9 Tyre Brady Watch: The 6-3, 208-pound junior at Marshall, who transferred from Miami, could’ve parlayed a big bowl-game performance — six receptions for 165 yards and a 76-yard touchdown against Colorado State in the New Mexico Bowl — into an NFL career. But he decided to forgo the draft this year.

“I still have things I want to work on with my game, and I didn’t like how things ended last year, as far as our team,” Brady told the Herald-Dispatch of Huntington, West Virginia. “We have a great team coming back, and I want to help lead my team to a championship.”

Brady had 62 receptions for 942 yards (15.2 average) and eight touchdowns in 10 games last season.

10 Bear-ometer: 7-8-1 — at Packers (L); vs. Seahawks (L); at Cardinals (W); vs. Buccaneers (W); at Dolphins (W); vs. Patriots (L); vs. Jets (W); at Bills (T); vs. Lions (W); vs. Vikings (L); at Lions (L); at Giants (W); vs. Rams (L); vs. Packers (W); at 49ers (L); at Vikings (L).

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