As the calendar flips to April, the list of prospects who I believe are near-slam dunks at the top of the 2017 NFL Draft is down to just three players.
And let’s be clear: There really is no such thing as a slam dunk in the NFL Draft, but in most years there are two or three players you can look at with about 95 percent certainty and say, “Yup, they’re going to be All-Pros for many, many years.” That remaining five percent of doubt, of course, leaves open the possibility of unforeseen freak injuries that are uncontrollable in football.
Sure, there are plenty of other first round talents who also have the potential to be perennial Pro Bowlers, but I detailed in Bears Mock Draft 2.0 how many of this year’s top 10 talents come with legitimate questions, even in what is considered to be a deep draft, especially defensively.
Here’s the thing: while I agree that this is a deep defensive draft, I’m not sure it’s flush with extremely rare talent at the very top. And picking at No. 3 overall, the Bears are right on the edge of that extremely rare talent.
Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett is easily the top player in the draft and as long as the Cleveland Browns don’t pull a Cleveland Browns, he should go No. 1 overall. I also believe LSU safety Jamal Adams is an extremely rare talent, even if others believe you shouldn’t draft a safety in the top three (I took him third overall in Bears Mock Draft 1.0, which is why you won’t see him in this mock). So who is the third “can’t miss” player I’ve been alluding to?
Let’s get to the picks…
1st round, No. 3 overall — TE O.J. Howard, Alabama (6-6, 251)
In a perfect world, Bears general manager Ryan Pace would probably prefer to trade back a few slots before taking Howard in the first round. The depth of this draft is really evident on the defensive side of the ball in the second and third rounds and I believe the Bears would love to add at least one more pick in that range.
That said, you need to have a partner to pull off a trade and I’m guessing the rest of the NFL is looking at this draft very similarly. There just aren’t many players you would want to trade up into the top three for, especially if you have to give up a second round pick that is as valuable as ever.
Some would call it crazy to draft a tight end No. 3 overall, but if Howard is destined to be one of the league’s most dynamic receiving threats, then why does it matter? I have far fewer questions about Howard than I do Solomon Thomas (what’s his position?), Jonathan Allen (arthritic shoulders), Reuben Foster (shoulder surgery, character concerns), Marshon Lattimore (hamstring problems) and Malik Hooker (raw; two offseason surgeries). That’s not to say I don’t like those players, but I’ve mentioned this many times: Ryan Pace cannot blow this pick. It’s too important.
Howard is the best offensive player in the draft, in my opinion, and tight end is a big need for the Bears. Zach Miller turns 33 in October and is in the final year of a two-year extension after missing eight games last season. The Bears signed Dion Sims last month, but he’s more of a blocking tight end who can be a receiving threat in short-yardage situations. In discussing Sims, John Fox admitted the Bears “really didn’t address” replacing Martellus Bennett last year, and Howard projects to be a much better receiver than Bennett. He’s more like Greg Olsen as a receiver and similar to Bennett as a blocker.
Howard didn’t need to go to the Senior Bowl, but I love that he did, and he proved on Day 1 that he was the best player there. The only thing preventing Howard from being a top five pick is this “idea” that you don’t draft a tight end that high. I find that ridiculous, especially in a league where dynamic tight ends are so impactful, yet hard to find.
Again, ideally the Bears would select Howard only after trading back, but I don’t project trades in these mock drafts and I still think he’s a good enough talent to take third overall.
2nd round, No. 4 (No. 36 overall) — CB Adoree’ Jackson, USC (5-10, 186)
It’s funny. Adoree’ Jackson gets compared to Devin Hester like it’s a bad thing.
“Great returner who doesn’t have a position,” they say.
Cool. Hester was a second-round pick who revolutionized the return game and is worthy of being in the Hall of Fame. He was one of the Bears’ better draft picks in the last 20 years (low bar, I know).
Jackson likely won’t match Hester’s production as a returner (I’m not sure anyone ever will), but he does possess the talent to be a game-changing kick/punt returner Week 1 and he enters the NFL with much better cornerback skills than Hester ever had. In fact, Jackson’s tape is much better than he gets credit for. Sure, he’s on the smaller side, but he has impressive instincts and ball skills — the type of ball skills the Bears lack right now. Worst case scenario: Jackson is just a solid slot corner, but a very good returner. If that’s the floor, I’m more than willing to take him at No. 36 overall.
3rd round, No. 3 (No. 67 overall) — FS Justin Evans, Texas A&M (6-0, 199)
Some believe Evans might eventually end up at corner because the instincts at safety are lacking on tape from time-to-time. He’s a big hitter, but his aggressiveness leads to too many missed tackles. There are obvious concerns about his size too, which is why I’m not convinced he’ll go in the first two rounds.
Should Evans fall to the Bears at No. 67, they should pounce, especially if they don’t draft a safety in the first two rounds. With a 41.5-inch vertical and 32-inch arms, it’s not a surprise that Evans has tremendous ball skills. He’s a former centerfielder, which is something scouts value in potential free safeties. That’s where I would play him to start, with cornerback as a fall back plan.
4th round, No. 4 (No. 111 overall) — OLB Tarell Basham, Ohio (6-4, 269)
Basham didn’t blow anyone away at the NFL Combine, but he certainly caught my eye at the Senior Bowl, where the Bears were coaching him. Basham was an extremely productive player at Ohio with 29.5 sacks and 41.5 TFLs as a four-year player. He has great height and length for an edge rusher and could learn a ton from Willie Young as he makes the transition from being a 4-3 defensive end. If Basham had tested better at the Combine, he’d probably be at least a Round 2 guy, but there are some limitations in his athleticism and speed around the edge. That said, he’s a guy who looks faster and more explosive on tape than in underwear, and he there’s definitely a lot of untapped potential here. His pass rush techniques need to be refined and he needs more experience dropping into coverage, but put Basham in the hands of Vic Fangio and I think he’s a solid starter by Year 2. Plus, his last name is Basham.
4th round, No. 10 (No. 117 overall from Buffalo)** – WR Josh Reynolds, Texas A&M (6-3, 194)
Like his teammate Evans, Reynolds impressed me at the Senior Bowl. He doesn’t necessarily separate from coverage easily, but he showed in one-on-one drills that he has good hands and the ability to make contested catches by high-pointing the football. He’s a former hurdler and high-jumper, so his knack for going up and getting the football isn’t a big surprise.
While Reynolds has good long speed, he’s not especially twitchy in his breaks and the lack of play strength will be an issue early on in his career. That’s why he likely falls to Day 3 of the draft. There’s definitely some good potential here though and with Alshon Jeffery moving on, I think the Bears need to add another receiver at some point in the draft.
It’s also worth noting that while Ryan Pace went to Texas A&M’s Pro Day last week to meet with Myles Garrett, he also got to see Evans and Reynolds up close. Pace and other members of the Bears’ front office were also in attendance when Texas A&M beat Arkansas 45-24 at Cowboys Stadium the day before the Bears played Dallas in September. Reynolds caught a 92-yard touchdown in that game.
5th round, No. 3 (No. 147 overall) — OT Dan Skipper, Arkansas (6-10, 309)
It just so happens that Arkansas left tackle Dan Skipper also played in that game at Cowboys Stadium (that’s just a coincidence, not why I’m making this pick). To be honest, I seriously considered taking a quarterback like Tennessee’s Joshua Dobbs here, but I just like Skipper’s pro potential more. And that’s why I can actually see a scenario where Pace doesn’t draft a quarterback for the third straight year. (It’s a small scenario, but it’s there.)
Without getting completely sidetracked on the Bears’ quarterback situation, I’ll just say this: Pace’s 1-2 year flyer on Mike Glennon tells me that he doesn’t like any of these quarterbacks at No. 3 overall. Now, if the Bears were to trade back or if one of the top four QBs were to fall to No. 36, I could see Pace pulling the trigger, but Glennon makes it easier not to push the issue. That goes for the later rounds too. Pace truly wants to take the “best player available” at each pick, and that means not reaching for a quarterback if he’s not at the top of your draft board (even if it means ignoring the position in the draft for the third straight year). I do these mock drafts to simulate the process, and ideally, each pick is made in a vacuum while staying disciplined to your draft board. In this case, I like Skipper over Dobbs. Skipper is a huge offensive tackle with underrated athleticism. He was a four-year starter at Arkansas, spending the last three at left tackle. I think he’s probably going to have to move to the right side in the NFL, but I’m not completely ruling out his chances on the left side. The truth is, the Bears don’t have a lot of depth at offensive tackle and neither Charles Leno or Bobby Massie are exactly Pro Bowlers. This is a position I think should be addressed in the draft.
7th round, No. 3 (No. 221 overall) – K Zane Gonzalez, Arizona State (6-0, 202)
I could be wrong, but in the seven years I’ve been doing these Bears mock drafts, I think this is the first kicker or punter I’ve selected. It’s hard to gauge where a special teamer will be drafted and it won’t surprise me if Gonzalez goes earlier, but I think the Bears could do a lot worse in the seventh round if he’s available. Gonzalez has a huge leg (7-of-9 from 50-plus yards as a senior) and it would be wise for the Bears to find a young, reliable kicker who can kick through the Soldier Field wind for many years to come.
Connor Barth was re-signed to a one-year deal with very little money guaranteed so it’s not like the Bears are married to him. Gonzalez would be an immediate upgrade and if you can solidify the kicker position for the next 10 years with a seventh round pick, you do it.