Bears

Patrick Finley: Whom the Bears should draft with their first-round pick Thursday

Sun-Times Bears beat writer Patrick Finley breaks down who the Bears should take in the first round of Thursday’s NFL Draft, who will be selected in front of them, and why:

PATRICK FINLEY’S DRAFT

1. Browns — QB Sam Darnold, USC

2. Giants — QB Josh Rosen, UCLA

Notre Dame offensive lineman Quenton Nelson is expected to be drafted early Thursday. (AP)

3. Jets — QB Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma

4. Browns — RB Saquon Barkley, Penn State

5. Broncos — QB Josh Allen, Wyoming

6. Colts — DE Bradley Chubb, North Carolina State

7. Buccaneers — S Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama

At No. 8, the Bears will take …

G Quenton Nelson, Notre Dame

The Bears didn’t need Aaron Lynch to suffer an injured left ankle last week to be reminded they’re painfully thin at outside linebacker. It would be a shock if they escaped the first two rounds of the draft without an edge rusher to pair with Leonard Floyd, though finding a worthy one Friday is a task as difficult as Ryan Pace has faced in any of his four drafts.

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Still, the way my draft board goes, the Bears won’t be able to take an edge rusher with a straight face — unless they trade up or down. They’ll find it impossible to pass on Nelson, whose floor is that of an above-average starter and whose ceiling reaches all the way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Picking Nelson would stick to the Bears’ offseason theme. No one in the draft can better help quarterback Mitch Trubisky become the best version of himself. Not coincidentally, the Bears have a starting spot at left guard, which opened when they let Josh Sitton walk, waiting for him.

Taking the 6-5, 329-pounder also would buck Pace’s draft history, which has focused on loud athleticism over a history of college dominance. In only three years, Nelson started 36 games for the Irish, one more than first-round picks Kevin White and Mitch Trubisky, combined. Leonard Floyd had 32, but he wasn’t an every-down edge rusher at Georgia. He played inside linebacker and dropped into coverage, too.

Inside linebackers Roquan Smith and Tremaine Edmunds — the latter is only 19 and might be converted into a 3-4 edge rusher later in his career — started for two years at Georgia and Virginia Tech, respectively. Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward averaged only 30 defensive snaps in 2016 before becoming a starter last year. They fit Pace’s draft profile better than Nelson, who is as close to a finished product as anyone in the draft.

What little polishing Nelson needs could be accomplished by his college mentor, offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, who was coach Matt Nagy’s first hire with the Bears. Nelson wants to reunite with Hiestand. Given their success together, the feeling must be mutual.

Pace vows every year to draft the best player, regardless of position. If Nelson is available at No. 8 — and that’s a big if — he’s the pick.