2014 NFL Draft Prospects Who Could Be Instant Starters for the Chicago Bears
Each and every year, teams in the NFL put hours upon hours into scouting various players all around college football. The ultimate goal is to draft and develop players who can start from day one and be contributors in their rookie seasons.
Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery has been at the helm of two drafts during his tenure, but has only been able to find one day-one starter with his first-round pick (Kyle Long) last season.
In order to sustain success in the NFL and to be the most cost-effective, teams need to draft well and find players who can start from day one—and that will be Emery's biggest focus heading into the 2014 draft.
Kony Ealy, Defensive End, Missouri
In 2012, the Chicago Bears finished eighth best in the league with 41 sacks, 11 behind the league-leading Denver Broncos and St. Louis Rams. But in 2013, they finished tied for last with 31 sacks, 29 behind the league-best Carolina Panthers.
By simply looking at those numbers, it is safe to say that the Bears need an impact defensive end in 2014. The team could look in free agency but could be in the mix to draft Missouri's Kony Ealy in the early rounds of the May draft.
The first thing that jumps out when watching film on Ealy is his explosiveness. He used that explosiveness off the edge to register 14 sacks in 38 career games for the Tigers. His terrific first step and spin move made some of the best tackles in the SEC look silly at times, but he will need to work on lowering his pad level and disengaging better in the run game.
He would provide an immediate improvement over Shea McClellin against both the pass and run and likely won't be a liability in obvious running situations. He has the physical tools to step in immediately at either right or left defensive end and could provide the Bears the pass-rushing presence they lacked in 2013.
Chris Borland, Linebacker, Wisconsin
Injuries ravaged the Bears defense in 2013. Due to injuries to starting linebackers Lance Briggs and D.J. Williams, rookies Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene were forced to play significant roles.
Neither Bostic (a second-round pick) nor Greene (a fourth round pick) were expected to contribute on much more than special teams in their rookie seasons, but they still disappointed when they were thrust into game action.
Both struggled with gap integrity and seemed completely out-of-sorts at times on the field, but one season will not be the definition of their careers in Chicago. Phil Emery stated in December about Bostic, according to ESPNChicago.com's Jeff Dickerson, "He’s at middle linebacker; maybe in the future his best position might be at one of those outside spots where he is filling from the backside and able to use his unique talents to the best of his ability.”
Considering Emery's statement about Bostic moving outside, the team will need to look for a starter at middle linebacker. They could always look to free agency to bring back Williams or find another suitable replacement, but they could always look to the draft for their answer.
Wisconsin's Chris Borland has everything you are looking for in a middle linebacker. He is a great downhill tackler with a nose for the football, can quickly read and diagnose plays and plays with the "passion" that fans clamor for from their team's stars.
Despite his production on the field and his intangibles, one of the biggest knocks on Borland is his size. According to NFLDraftScout.com, he measured in at the Senior Bowl at 5'11" and 245 pounds, considerably smaller than the typical middle linebacker prototype.
Despite his small size, history has proven that smaller linebackers like London Fletcher and Zach Thomas can still excel in the NFL. Borland's size will likely drop him in the draft, but if the Bears can put two veterans next to him at the outside linebacker positions then he could excel in Chicago his rookie season
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Free Safety, Alabama
Just as the Bears searched far and wide for their franchise quarterback, they have been doing the same at the safety position for years.
During Lovie Smith's tenure in Chicago, he seemingly drafted a safety in the third round each year, only to watch them fail as they go on the field. Mike Brown was one of the few brights spots at the position in the past decade, but others like Danieal Manning, Al Afalava and Craig Steltz have struggled to lock down the position.
There was hope for 2013 starters Major Wright and Chris Conte to finally prove that they were taking a step in the right direction, but both struggled mightily this past season.
Wright is set to become a free agent and it seems unlikely that he will return after his struggles last season, while Conte still has one year left on his rookie deal.
The team will likely look to free agency to upgrade one, if not both, safety positions, but could find an impact starter in the draft in Alabama's Ha'sean "Ha Ha" Clinton-Dix.
Clinton-Dix has been described as a prototypical ball-hawking safety, as he consistently has a great break on the ball and has good enough hands to haul in interceptions. Bleacher Report's Matt Miller says of Clinton-Dix, "Like Eric Reid and Kenny Vaccaro from the 2013 class, the Alabama safety can step in and make an impact from his first day on the job."
He can play well at the line of scrimmage and against the run but has a tendency to take bad angles at times when tackling and will need to improve on his strength when facing bigger and stronger receivers in the NFL.
Drafting Clinton-Dix does not automatically fix all of the team's problems in the secondary, but he could become the playmaking safety this team has desperately needed.
Trent Murphy, Defensive End, Stanford
Just as we touched on it earlier with Kony Ealy, defensive end is a big need for the Bears this offseason. Julius Peppers, David Bass, Cheta Ozougwu and Cornelius Washington remain the only defensive ends signed for 2014, but Peppers' future is up in the air considering his high price tag.
According to Joel Corry of CBSSports.com, Peppers has a $14 million salary in 2014, and his cap number is more than $18 million. The Bears will gain $9.82 million of cap room by releasing him before June 1.
A name that could interest the Bears in the draft if they are able to trade back or if he's still available in the second round is Stanford's Trent Murphy.
Murphy is quick and athletic and led all the NCAA FBS in sacks with 15 in 2013, but is viewed as somewhat of a "tweener"—situated between a hand-in-the-ground defensive end and pass-rushing outside linebacker, similar to what the team already has in Shea McClellin.
The comparisons to McClellin will likely make Bears fans worried, but Murphy is a more accomplished all-around defensive end. He has struggled at times against the run but showed improvement during his final season at Stanford.
Bradley Roby, Cornerback, Ohio State
Despite signing Tim Jennings to a long-term deal just after the conclusion of the 2013 season, the cornerback position still remains an area of need for the Chicago Bears.
The future of veteran Charles Tillman is still up in the air even though he did state recently on the Laurence Holmes Show, via CBS Chicago, "In a perfect world, I will finish as a Bear. I guarantee you I will retire as a Chicago Bear. I guarantee that."
Even if the team re-signs Tillman, they still need depth at the position and if he does not re-sign, they will likely look early in the draft to find a starter.
Heading into the 2013 season, Bradley Roby stood near the top of many draft boards and was considered to be a surefire first-round pick after a stellar sophomore season for the Ohio State Buckeyes.
An early-season suspension due to a disorderly conduct charge in the offseason, combined with some inconsistent play early in the season, has led to Roby dropping down many draft boards.
NFL.com's Bucky Brooks said Roby is "unquestionably one of the most explosive athletes in college football" and cites his amazing physical traits as something teams covet for their No. 1 cornerback.
Roby has fluid hips and can change direction extremely well, allowing him to keep up with quick and fast wide receivers, and while he has excelled in zone coverage, that athleticism.
CBSSports.com's Dane Brugler said, "Roby has world-class speed with the click-and-close ability to play tight coverage and mirror receivers all over the field. 4.39-second 40-yard speed and a good fighting attitude to battle for the ball."
A speedy corner that has the ability to fight for the football transcends any scheme in the NFL and Roby has the ability to be a contributor from day one.
Aaron Donald, Defensive Tackle, Pittsburgh
A bit undersized at 6'0" and 285 pounds, Pitt's Aaron Donald is another quickly rising defensive tackle. CBSSports' Dane Brugler said Donald had been an "unstoppable force" at the Senior Bowl practices and showed off his great quickness and aggressiveness. His explosiveness is what has made him such a great player, and despite his smaller size, he still has the potential to be a solid NFL player.
Bleacher Report's Matt Miller felt rather strongly about Donald's Senior Bowl practice performances, tweeting out last month:
If asked to pick one player who really dominated today, it'd be Pitt DT Aaron Donald. But, that's what he did all year too.
— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) January 21, 2014
His size is one area that concerns teams, but as long as he can produce, Donald's size should not be a concern. He is very explosive off the ball and is able to use his small size as leverage against bigger offensive lineman. His short reach can deter him at times but his explosiveness is exactly that teams look for from a three-technique defensive lineman.
Travis Swanson, Center, Arkansas
Phil Emery made it his top priority last offseason to upgrade an offensive line that may have been the worst in the league during Jay Cutler's tenure in Chicago.
Emery brought in left tackle Jermon Bushrod and left guard Matt Slauson via free agency and drafted right guard Kyle Long and right tackle Jordan Mills. While the line is vastly improved from last season, it still needs some work moving forward.
Little time was wasted trying to re-sign Slauson, as Emery and his staff inked him to a new deal at the conclusion of the season, leaving Roberto Garza as the only starter on the offensive line currently not under contract.
After the season ended, Phil Emery stated, according to Adam Jahns of the Chicago Sun-Times, “I’ve let Roberto know that I was proud of his season, and obviously we will work through it, but we would like him back."
While it is still possible that Garza is back, the team could be intrigued by Arkansas' Travis Swanson in the draft.
Many big boards have Swanson as their top-ranked center, although where he will ultimately be picked is up in the air. He uses his hands well and has tremendous football IQ. He will need to work on getting stronger at the point of attack, as he has a tendency to lean on his opponent instead of pushing him back.
Bret Bielema, Swanson's coach at Arkansas, raved about him, telling NFL.com's Chase Goodbread, "I just really am blown away with what he can do, how incredibly physical he is, and how much stamina he holds." He later stated that Swanson will be "no less than a second-round pick."
Considering the fact that most centers are not taken early in the draft, the Bears could find an anchor to the middle of their offensive line as late as the third round.