Mercifully, there is just one game left in the 2016 season, and luckily it comes against the Vikings, a team I take great pleasure in watching the Bears pummel into the earth. But once 3:15 pm rolls around on Sunday afternoon, it’s over. No more painful turnovers, no more injured stars, no more Bears losses.
By 3:15 on Monday afternoon, John Fox may be fired. Does he deserve to be? Probably not, but if the front office doesn’t want to move forward with him that would be just fine with me. Immediately following a firing comes the anticipation of a coaching search. While that process is never very fun, it’s compelling to follow and is more exciting than actually watching the Bears play football this year.
Whether or not Fox gets fired, this offseason will be full of debate over who the Bears should select with the 3rd-5th pick in the upcoming 2017 NFL Draft. The outcome of Sunday’s game can only move the Bears up or down two places, so it’s set in stone that the Bears will have a top five pick.
With an upcoming draft, there is a slow trickle of action and awareness that begins during the season and steadily turns into a stream as the playoffs conclude, draft order is set, and prospects meet at the Senior Bowl. The mock drafts pick up, the so called experts update their prospect rankings and slowly but surely excitement builds as a flood of information is published and the draft picture becomes clearer.
During this draft prep phase, free agency begins and seeing how a team mixes the two main areas of building a roster is always an interesting process. Last year the Bears killed it in both areas, signing Akiem Hicks, Jerrell Freeman, Danny Trevathan, and to a lesser extent, Bobby Massie all to reasonable deals. Massie aside, all met or exceeded expectations and lay the groundwork for a top ten defense.
The Bears took the momentum they built up in free agency and stayed on a roll in the draft, selecting a possible game changer in Leonard Floyd with the ninth overall pick, and with their next selection landed a potential pro bowl center in Cody Whitehair. While they stumbled by picking Jonathan Bullard, DE out of Florida, it made sense what they were doing as their first three picks were all on either the defensive or offensive line.
In the fourth round the selection of LB Nick Kwiatkowski out of West Virginia looks to be a win so far, as he stepped up and played well when injuries ate away at the Bears linebacking depth. Then came the best pick of this Bears regime, and maybe they just got lucky, but Jordan Howard in the fifth round is going to look like even more of a steal ten years from now than it does today, and it looks like pure highway robbery right now. London Heist style.
Jordan Howard, just saying his name in my head makes me swoon. He is pure Chicago the way he just runs over people, but still has the moves to make the next defender miss. He’s the running back I never knew this town needed until seeing him play. Matt Forte was great, but he’s already a distant memory. No Bears running back can ever replace Sweetness, but not since Water Payton has any Bears starting running back averaged over 5.0 yards per carry as Howard has, and yet somehow only two teams in the NFL have less rushing attempts than the Bears.
What exactly is Offensive Coordinator Dowell Loggains game plan each week if not ground and pound with an elite running back? Especially considering he has a young, inexperienced quarterback in Matt Barkley. It literally hurts my brain pondering this question. The only excuse I can come up with is that the Bears are trying way too hard to see what they have in Matt Barkley.
Barkley is what he is: a poor man’s Rex Grossman. While that is obviously nothing to get excited about, it does have value in the NFL as a decent backup and quality third stringer. Maybe he’s better than that, but there is no way he should begin 2017 under center absent an injury.
In 2017, we will experience a new hope for this Bears team. Our memory of 2016 can be dialed in purely on a Cubs World Series Championship, and nothing else. In 2017, this Bears team could be closer than most people think to competing, especially when surveying the NFL landscape and seeing one disappointing team after another. Then you look up and notice that a bad Packers team is playing for the division title against a Lions team the Bears nearly swept this year. While the Packers did sweep the Bears, in both games the outcome could have gone either way, and Matt Barkley played in six out of the eight quarters. When it’s Matt Barkley vs Aaron Rodgers and it’s close, you know there is a talent disparity when comparing the rest of the two rosters. In 2017, the NFC North is up for grabs.
The Bears two biggest needs in order to have a chance at the NFC North title next year are secondary, and offensive tackle. While they can use depth everywhere, if those two areas are both upgraded the Bears will have a chance to compete every week. Some will argue they still need a QB. To that I ask, why? No, Jay Cutler is not a top ten quarterback but with a powerful running game and top 10 defense, he doesn’t need to be. In 2015 Jay had a 92.3 QB rating and his only multiple interception game was the last game of the season. In 2016, he was injured basically the entire year. Bad Jay showed up, and Good Jay showed up, but the last time Chicago had a bad/good QB they went to Super Bowl and Jay is much better at quarterback than Rex Grossman.
Consider that Cutler is under contract for just $12.5 million next season and is signed for an average of $15.5 million the two seasons after that, and none of it is guaranteed. That means that Jay Cutler has to earn his contract year in and year out. Brock Osweiler recently signed a contract that hits the Texans with a cap hit of $20 million per season for the next three years, if that’s the going rate for a bad QB I’ll sign up for a non-guaranteed deal at below market rate for a guy with Cutler’s talent all day long. That doesn’t mean the Bears shouldn’t look into trading Jay and seeing what they could get in return, and it’s a foregone conclusion that they will select a QB at some point in the draft.
Another possibility is Patriots backup and former Eastern Illinois star Jimmy Garappolo. If the Bears look at Garappolo and believe he can be their franchise QB of the future I’d sign up for that as well. Jimmy G looked fantastic in his three games this season, and while you can’t trust any trade with Bill Belichick, it’s not as if he’s going to sprinkle magic “Bad” dust on Jimmy on his way out. I think it’s clear that Garappolo is talented, but is it enough, and are the Bears willing to pay the Patriots enough to pry him lose? That’s another question.
With so many questions that don’t have answers surrounding this Bears team, a fan can’t help but at least be intrigued by what’s going to happen next. During the season fans didn’t have that luxury, as what came next was simply another Bears loss. If the Bears lose Sunday, then fine, as a Bears fan I will accept the third overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. The last time the Bears drafted close to that high was in 2005 when they had the fourth selection. I cannot write the name of the man(child) the Bears picked that year, my body physically won’t allow it, but his first name starts with a C and last name starts with a B.
The man I wanted the Bears to pick that year was Texas linebacker Derrick Johnson. He had a move where he would whip his arm around an offensive player and pop the ball out, similar to the Peanut Punch. Watching those highlights, I thought he had to be a Bear, and I would drool just thinking about a linebacking core of Urlacher, Briggs and Derrick Johnson. The Chiefs ended up taking him 15th overall, and he is still on the Chiefs 11 years later with a career that has seen him pick up 27.5 sacks and 21 forced fumbles.
That’s how important this upcoming draft is. If the Bears hit a home run with that first pick, a true game changer (and I hope it’s on defense) this Bears team that already has the bones of a contender will be that much closer to making an impact next year. The interior of the Bears O-line is unmatched with potentially three pro bowl caliber players and the interior of the D-line with nose tackle Eddie Goldman plugging the middle, and Akiem Hicks pressuring the pocket looks good to go. They could use a young powerful defensive end to go alongside Hicks, and there are two at the top of the draft that could turn into game changers: Alabama’s Jonathan Allen, and Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett.
Garrett is considered by most to be the best player in the draft, and the Cleveland Browns will be faced with a familiar problem for the team picking No. 1 overall: draft the best player available, or draft the quarterback you so desperately need. Hopefully Cleveland is going to pull a classic Browns move and reach for the quarterback, but most mock drafts have them taking Garrett.
In the most recent mock draft over at Walter Football, my favorite football site for draft coverage and against the spread picks, Walter has Garrett going No. 1, then North Carolina QB Mitch Trubisky going No. 2, before the Bears select QB Deshone Kizer at No. 3. The fourth pick in that mock is Alabama DE Jonathan Allen. If that is truly how this draft plays out, I’m going to be sick.
There is consensus right now among all draft evaluators that no QB is worth a top five pick in this draft, so if the Bears pass on a potential franchise defensive player and reach for a so called “need” they are only going to fan the flames of another dumpster fire worthy season.
Looking back at Bears past draft picks in order to see when the last time they picked as high as No. 3 led to some sad, as well as some amazing Bears drafts. Looking earlier than the decidedly sad (don’t cry too hard C.B.) draft in 2005, the next Bears top ten pick was even worse when they took David Terrell at No. 8 in 2001. However, just a year earlier the Bears made one of their all time great picks, selecting Brian Urlacher ninth overall. Another prime example of just how important this upcoming draft can be. The next top ten pick? Curtis Enis at No. 5 overall in 1998, again showing just how easy it is to screw this up.
To illustrate Bears draft perfection we have to go back to 1979, a year that began a series of seven draft classes that built the greatest team of all time, the ’85 Bears. Here are the Bears first round picks starting in ’79:
1979: DE Dan Hampton- No. 4
1980: LB Otis Wilson – No. 19
1981: OT Keith Van Horne – No. 11
1982: QB Jim McMahon – No. 5
1983: OT Jimbo Covert – No. 6
1984: LB Wilber Marshall – No. 11
1985: DT William Perry – No. 22
Those seven consecutive picks are so beautiful it makes me want to cry. That is what it takes to build a team like the ’85 Bears. With that in mind, Ryan Pace absolutely cannot screw up the first pick in this upcoming draft. The Bears desperately need to pick the next Brian Urlacher, and not the next Curtis Enis.
(By the way, the last time the Bears picked No. 3 overall, it was 1972 and they picked offensive tackle Lionel Antoine…never heard of the guy)
After suffering through this season, the fun is about to begin. It starts on Sunday, with one last look at this 2016 Bears team before fans can kick them off theirs screens never to be seen again. Before that happens though, a chance to sweep the Vikings is at stake. If the Bears only win four games this year, at least I can be happy if two of them came against the Vikings. If not, bring on Myles Garrett or Jonathan Allen with the third overall pick, because I think we’re all ready for a new era of elite Bears defense.