Why the Bears’ No. 9 pick is a real turning point in the 2024 draft

By | March 27, 2024

Why the Bears’ No. 9 pick is a real turning point in the 2024 draft originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

We’re about a month away from the start of the NFL draft, and Caleb Williams will almost certainly be the Bears’ selection with the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft. However, that’s not the case with the team’s No. 9 pick. The Bears have several paths they can take with their second pick in the first round, and they may not know which way they go until they’re back on the clock.

Everything points to a drama-free selection at No. 1: Williams’ tape, the team’s rave reviews from their meeting in Los Angeles, the Justin Fields trade, the not-so-subtle hints from both the Bears and Williams. Figuring out the QB question was the biggest priority for the Bears in 2024. Now we have an answer. But the team still has several holes on their roster and will use that No. 9 pick to add another high-impact player, or add more picks.

Now that the QB evaluation is all but complete (Williams is still scheduled to visit Halas Hall early next month for a tour of the top 30) the Bears will turn their attention to that No. 9 pick. They divide into groups to identify the best wide receivers, offensive tackles and pass rushers, and then they discuss which of those players will help the team the most, both in the short and long term.

Here’s how those arguments might go.

WIDE RECEIVERS

DJ Moore proved to be the dominant WR1 the Bears have needed since the drop of Allen Robinson in 2021. He is an incredibly reliable target who thrives on picking up yards after the catch and can work effectively in any area of ​​the field. But the best offenses have more than one great wide receiver, so GM Ryan Poles acquired Keenan Allen from the Chargers. Like Moore, Allen is an excellent route runner and can create separation seemingly at will. The duo is a dream team for a rookie quarterback looking to make the transition to the NFL.

But Allen turns 32 next month and shouldn’t be considered a long-term option at the position. He likely has a few more seasons of productive football ahead of him, but he obviously can’t be counted on to be a bear catching passes from Williams for the next decade if all goes to plan.

Furthermore, neither Moore nor Allen are burners who can challenge the defense vertically with pure speed. The Bears have been looking for a big threat like this for several years with picks like Velus Jones Jr. and Tyler Scott, but neither choice worked out in a small sample size. There is certainly still time for them to improve and fill the void, but the Bears will likely want to add competition for the WR3 job.

Right now, there is a consensus “big three” at wide receiver in this year’s class: Marvin Harrison Jr., Malik Nabers and Rome Odunze. Harrison Jr. is all but certain to be off the board before the Bears No. 9 pick materializes. There is a chance that Nabers and Odunze have also disappeared. But if any of them fall to the Bears, they will have to seriously consider adding them to give Williams one of the best pass-catching units in the NFL for years to come.

OFFENSIVE TACKS

It’s all about setting Williams up for success in 2024 and beyond. One of the best ways to do that is to make sure it is well protected from the front. We know the Bears value building out the trenches given Poland’s OL pedigree and assistant GM Ian Cunningham, so it shouldn’t be a huge surprise if the team chooses to strengthen the unit.

The Bears currently have two young tackles in place in third-year player Braxton Jones and second-year player Darnell Wright. Last season, Wright showed all the qualities of a good tackle who could hold the position for years. Jones continued to improve after a rough rookie season and if his trajectory continues in the same positive trend, he could become one of Poland’s top picks. Finding a starting left tackle in the fifth round is no small feat.

Behind Jones and Wright, the Bears don’t have the depth needed in case of injury. Larry Borom fell out of favor with the team’s new regime when the Poles took over for Ryan Pace. He lost his starting job in 2022 and struggled when called up as a reserve in 2023. The team has added more competition for backup snaps with free agents like Matt Pryor, but they could still be added to the group.

If a player like Joe Alt – whose exceptional athleticism fits perfectly with what the Bears want out of offensive linemen – is available, can the Bears resist? Adding Alt would help the Bears keep Williams afloat and ensure the Bears have reliable options to slot into the lineup when injuries inevitably strike.

BEWARE RUSHERS

If mounting excellent quarterback play is the most important thing a football team can do in today’s game, then hindering the opponent’s quarterback play is the second most important. The best way to do that is with a fearsome pass rush.

Exhibit A should be how much the Bears defense improved when Montez Sweat arrived. Before Sweat, the Bears’ defense had 10 sacks and six interceptions in eight games. After Sweat, they had 20 sacks and 16 interceptions in nine games. That’s practically double the sack rate and almost triple the interception rate!

You might wonder what Sweat has to do with the Bears’ pass interceptions, and that’s a good question. He plays defense, so it’s not like he spends all his time covering receivers or hanging in passing lanes to undermine routes. But the way the Bears defense is set up, they want to generate pressure with just four players so they can leave seven players in coverage. Before Sweat arrived, they couldn’t do that, so Eberflus had to bring blitzers to help with the pass rush. That meant there were fewer players in the secondary who could create takeaways.

Looking ahead, the Bears need to replace both Yannick Ngakoue and Justin Jones as starters on defense. DeMarcus Walker played well as a starter and as a backup after the Sweat trade, and his versatility allowed the team to use him at DE and DT. Gervon Dexter improved during his rookie season and the team could see him as a starter this year. However, the Bears want multiple waves of rushers ready so players can stay fresh throughout the game. In order for them to keep that rotation at a high level, they need to add players into the mix before Week 1.

There is expected to be a big run on offensive players at the top of the draft. With JJ McCarthy climbing the draft boards, the aforementioned “big three” wide receivers, pro-ready left tackle Alt and even dynamic tight end Brock Bowers in the mix, there’s a real chance the Bears get a chance to to field the first defensive player. If there is one pass rusher they have circled as a force multiplier who is significantly better than the rest of the class, they could take the opportunity to add him and keep the defense on last year’s upward trajectory .

TRADE BACK

After trading for Allen and agreeing to a trade for Ryan Bates, the Bears will make just four draft selections next month. An argument can be made that one top-10 selection would help the team more than a top-25 pick and a top-75 pick, especially if one of their top players is still on the board. Making a top-75 pick usually means you’re finding a good starter. Making a top-10 pick means finding a guy who can serve as a cornerstone of the franchise.

However, let’s just say Harrison Jr., Odunze, Nabers and the team’s best pass rusher and offensive tackle are all gone. The Bears then look at their group of players to see who is left in their top tier and how many are left in the tier below. If they believe the best of the best are all gone, and they can still get a great player after moving back a few spots, a trade back in the draft comes into play.

An argument can also be made that once the Bears have Williams in place, they’ll want as many pieces around him as possible on a similar timeline. If they can improve their pass rush, increase their receiving core, and increase their depth on the offensive line all at once, their rebuild would essentially be over. From there, the Bears could focus 100% of their attention on developing Williams and closing the small remaining holes if necessary. If the Bears want to go this route, another trade will come back into play.

Whatever route the Bears choose, they may not know where they’re headed until the picks actually come off the board. There are still so many scenarios that need to play out from numbers 2 through 8 that it’s hard to predict exactly what will happen next month.

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