Holding the third overall pick in this year’s NFL Draft, Thursday will prove to be a very pivotal day in general manager Ryan Pace’s efforts to rebuild the Bears. At this point, the draft boards are finalized and teams are discussing possible trades while preparing for every possible scenario in what is always an unpredictable process.
As a rule of thumb: when in doubt, stick to your draft board.
After months of reviewing tape and researching the top prospects, here’s how I would stack the top 20 on the Bears’ Big Board for Thursday night:
1. DE/OLB Myles Garrett, Texas A&M — 6-4, 272
Garrett is the closest to a “sure thing” in the NFL Draft since Andrew Luck went No. 1 overall to the Colts in 2012. His speed, strength and athleticism are off the charts. Garrett explodes off the ball and is versatile enough to win on the outside or inside. He can play with his hand on the ground or standing up. Some question why his production dipped in 2016, but Garrett was playing through a leg injury for most of the season. If you want to get picky, his technique still needs work, but the idea that Garrett is not a finished product is hardly a negative. The Cleveland Browns can’t screw this up, right?
2. FS/SS Jamal Adams, LSU — 5-11 3/4, 214
It has been nine years since the Bears had a truly reliable, playmaking safety. A difference maker on the back end. A leader. A defensive “quarterback” in the secondary. I’m, of course, describing Mike Brown, who played for the Bears from 2000-2008. But I’m also describing Jamal Adams, who was LSU’s “Mike Brown” the last two seasons as a starter. Adams is actually bigger and more athletically gifted than the former second-rounder, which is why he has a chance to be a Top 5 pick. The two common knocks on Adams are his lack of long speed and ball production, but he ran in the 4.3-4.4 range at his Pro Day and wasn’t asked to be a true centerfielder in LSU’s defense. When he played in coverage more in 2015, he had four interceptions. Keep in mind that Vic Fangio likes versatile safeties. Adams can thrive in the Bears’ defense and give the secondary a huge boost as a Week 1 starter.
3. DE Solomon Thomas, Stanford — 6-2 5/8, 273
Thomas is my top-ranked defensive lineman this year and he seems to fit the mold of previous Ryan Pace draft picks as he is young, athletic and versatile with outstanding character and an arrow that is pointing up. Only a redshirt sophomore, Thomas elected to go pro after a dominating Sun Bowl performance against Mitchell Trubisky and North Carolina. He’s extremely quick off the ball with strong, powerful hands that move offensive lineman easily. He’s double-teamed and chipped constantly, but almost never loses the line of scrimmage. I think Thomas is ideally suited as a 3-4 defensive end where he can control the run game and kick inside in sub-packages to rush the passer. I have some concerns about his weight inside against powerful NFL guards, but he has the frame to add more muscle. Thomas would be worthy of the No. 3 overall pick and is capable of starting Week 1, creating a very strong defensive line alongside Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman. His best football is ahead of him.
4. RB Leonard Fournette, LSU — 6-0 1/2, 240
In terms of pure talent, Fournette is right up there with Myles Garrett in this draft. The only reason I don’t have him higher is because of the position he plays. The Bears proved last year that you can find a Pro Bowl running back in the fifth round — one good enough to give you what you need from the running back position. But make no mistake, Fournette is better than Howard. In fact, he’s probably better than Ezekiel Elliott, who was drafted fourth overall by the Cowboys last season. Fournette is built like a rock — a tough, physical runner who seeks out contact even though he has the speed to run away from you. He was good enough to be playing in the NFL two years ago and the only reason his production dipped in 2016 is because of injuries. The Bears were very interested in Elliott last year and you have to wonder if they would be drafting Fournette this year had they not found Howard. Honestly, Fournette is good enough that I wouldn’t object if they still took the LSU running back.
5. FS Malik Hooker, Ohio State — 6-1, 206
The ideal “centerfielder” in this draft, Hooker is a highly instinctual safety against the pass. He’s able to read the quarterback and get a jump, covering a lot of ground to make plays on the football (seven interceptions in 2016). That said, his instincts are not as good against the run and his tackling technique needs work, so his versatility could be limited. Additionally, Hooker is very raw with only one year of experience as a starter and he’s coming off two surgeries — labrum and hernia — so he could be playing catch-up going into his first NFL season.
6. S Jabrill Peppers, Michigan — 5-10 7/8, 213
Sometimes you just have to stop poking holes in a prospect and understand that he’s a tremendous football player who is going to make a difference. Peppers has been difficult to evaluate because he played safety, cornerback, linebacker and even running back at times at Michigan, but he projects best as a safety at the next level. The lack of ball production could be looked at as a concern, but considering how Peppers was moved around, it’s not surprising that he only had one interception in college (and he made a tremendous catch on that one interception, by the way). Once he can focus on just one position, Peppers will be able to use his instincts to take off as an NFL player. While there will likely be an adjustment period on defense, Peppers will be a dynamic kick/punt returner Week 1, which would fill another big need for the Bears.
7. TE O.J. Howard, Alabama — 6-5 3/4, 251
If you’re annoyed by all the safeties I have this high on my board, then you’re really going to be annoyed by a tight end being here. But Howard is a rare tight end prospect who should immediately be a dynamic receiving weapon and a mostly reliable blocker. He’s very similar to Greg Olsen as a receiving tight end — he can line up all over, run crisp routes and make tough catches up the seam in traffic. He’ll also enter the league as a better blocker with Olsen and will only get better in that area. Howard will likely only be in play for the Bears if they trade back, but tight end is a big need for them.
8. DL Jonathan Allen, Alabama — 6-2 5/8, 286
Four months ago, Allen probably would have been No. 2 on this board behind Myles Garrett, but we’ve since learned that Allen already has arthritis in both shoulders after college surgeries. Of course, every NFL defensive lineman has an issue like that by their third year in the league, but Allen comes with pre-driven mileage that is hard to justify at No. 3 overall. There’s no question he’s a very good player. Like Thomas, Allen is quick off the ball, strong and comes with great character. In fact, he’s more of a pure pass-rusher than Thomas. I think Allen will be best suited in a 40-front as a 3-technique, although he’s probably versatile enough to work as a 3-4 defensive end. Despite his stellar college career, I just struggle with the durability. Why draft Allen when you can draft Thomas, who is younger, healthier and appears to have more upside? I worry that Allen is closer to his ceiling already, especially with the shoulder issues.
9. CB Marcus Lattimore, Ohio State — 6-0, 193
If you were to draw up the perfect corner with ideal size, length, speed, quickness and ball skills, Lattimore might be the guy you draw up. From that standpoint, he’s exactly what the Bears need at the cornerback position right now. There’s just one big issue: he has hamstring problems that go back to high school. After redshirting 2014 to get the problem fixed, Lattimore still only played five games in 2015 because of his hamstrings. Then, after finally putting together a full season in 2016, Lattimore pulled up lame in the 40-yard dash at the Combine, saying it was a hip flexor injury. Impressively, Lattimore still ran a 4.37 in that 40-yard dash, showing off his raw talent. Injuries aside, he is worthy of the No. 3 pick, but given all the soft tissue problems the Bears have had the last two seasons, can they justify taking Lattimore that early?
10. OT Ryan Ramczyk, Wisconsin — 6-5 5/8, 310
One of many “one year wonders” in this draft, Ramczyk is my No. 1 offensive lineman in a year that doesn’t have many legitimate offensive tackles. Ramczyk’s rise is pretty incredible when you consider he was playing at D-III UW-Stevens Point in 2014. After being offered a walk-on opportunity at Wisconsin and redshirting the 2015 season, Ramczyk stepped in as a Day 1 starter at left tackle and cemented himself as an NFL player. His footwork is already polished and he shows good enough athleticism to pull and get out in space. He rarely loses ground in pass protection and comes from a pro-style offense, which should allow him to be a plug-and-play starter Week1. Ramczyk had one more year of college eligibility but opted to go pro despite needing surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right hip — an injury he played through in 2016. Despite the surgery, Ramczyk is good enough to go in Round 1. If for some reason he slips, however, the Bears would be wise to pounce at No. 36 overall.
11. WR Mike Williams, Clemson — 6-3 5/8, 218
Williams is built like a top-end NFL wide receiver with the size, hands and catching radius to go up and catch anything. He’s a little bit like Alshon Jeffery in that he’s never going to run away from you, but he’ll always get just enough separation to make the contested catches. Williams does a great job of adjusting to the ball in the air and while DeShaun Watson rightly gets credit for the comeback against Alabama in the National Championship Game, Clemson doesn’t win that game with out two NFL-level catches by Williams in the fourth quarter. He’s also a willing blocker and a guy who will command enough attention to get his teammates open. On the downside, Williams suffered a broken neck in 2015 and while he proved in 2016 that he’s over the injury, it makes you wonder about the hits he’ll inevitably endure at the NFL level.
12. CB Gareon Conley, Ohio State — 6-0, 195
Lattimore is getting more attention, but his teammate from Ohio State isn’t far behind him as an NFL prospect. Built similarly, Conley actually has longer arms and bigger hands. He’s a great athlete with elite leaping ability and the speed to keep up with top receivers at the next level. That said, Lattimore is quicker in tighter spaces with looser hips and does a better job mirroring receivers under 10 yards. Lattimore also has more proven ball skills, which is why he gets the edge here. Still, Conley has a much cleaner injury history and I could see why some teams would prefer him over Lattimore because he’s probably the safer pick.
13. WR Corey Davis, Western Michigan — 6-2 3/4, 209
I see a lot of Brandon Marshall’s game in Davis, who is incredibly competitive after the catch. He can go up and get it when needed, but he’s most valuable sitting in soft spots and making things happen after the catch, despite not necessarily being a speed guy. Davis should have been playing in the Big Ten, but the word is his high school GPA limited his offers until Western Michigan came calling. Despite the soft MAC competition, Davis had solid games against Michigan State, Northwestern, Illinois and Wisconsin in his last two seasons, although Ohio State quieted him in 2015. There’s little doubt he would have been a very good receiver at a higher level in college and he should be able to prove that at the NFL level. I like that Davis came to Western Michigan and immediately posted 67-941-6 as a true freshman and got better each and every year.
14. WR Zay Jones, East Carolina — 6-2 1/8, 201
The all-time D-1 leader in receptions (399) caught an astounding 158 passes as a senior in 2016. Those numbers were inflated by East Carolina’s offense and a lot of short, intermediate routes, but 158 receptions is a 158 receptions. The question at the Senior Bowl was whether or not Jones could run NFL routes and show a vertical game and he easily answered those questions, running by talented cornerbacks in both practices and the game. Eastern Washington’s Cooper Kupp seemed to get more attention in Mobile and I just didn’t understand it. Other than O.J. Howard, Jones was the best offensive player at the Senior Bowl. A team captain, extremely durable, with experience lining up all over the field, I struggle to find flaws in Jones’ game. He’s an easy first-round pick for me, but there’s a good chance he’ll be available for the Bears at No. 36. It’s worth noting that the Bears coached Jones at the Senior Bowl.
15. QB Mitchell Trubisky, North Carolina — 6-2 1/8, 222
Trubisky is my No. 1 quarterback this year and the only one that I am giving a first-round grade. He enters the NFL Draft with limited experience (only 13 college starts) and it showed against defenses that were good at disguising coverages. Still, Trubisky values the football and finished college with a very good 5-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He has a strong arm, quick release and moves his feet well in the pocket to avoid pressure. He had a tremendous battle against Solomon Thomas in the Sun Bowl, successfully sidestepping Thomas’ pressure even though the Stanford defensive lineman was camped out in the UNC backfield for most of the game. Despite the limited experience, Trubisky showed me he can be a clutch quarterback with big time throws late in games against Pitt, North Carolina State and Stanford. If the Bears are going to take a quarterback in the first round, it should be Trubisky, although I think he would be a bit of a reach at No. 3.
16. DE/OLB Derek Barnett, Tennessee — 6-3, 259
Barnett is leaning on his outstanding college tape after a tough pre-draft process. Coming out as a junior, he didn’t have the opportunity to show off on the field at the Senior Bowl and his Combine testing was sub-par, in part because he was battling an illness. But this is a prospect in which you just need to trust the tape. He arrived at Tennessee in 2014 and immediately posted 20.5 TFLs and 10 sacks as a true freshman, which is ridiculous. He left Tennessee after breaking Reggie White’s sack record (33) in just three years. And while Barnett does not possess Myles Garrett’s athletic ability, there were one-on-one matchups (like against Alabama left tackle Cam Robinson) in which Barnett performed better. While there are some limitations in Barnett’s athletic ability, he has a non-stop motor that makes up for it. If he’s going to stand up in a 3-4 defense, I think there will be growing pains in Year 1 (i.e. Falcons’ Vic Beasley) but Barnett has the work ethic and pure pass rush ability to figure it out. I’ll be shocked if he’s not a good, productive NFL player.
17. TE David Njoku, Miami — 6-4, 246
One of the more athletic players in the draft, Njoku is a former high-jumper who can make incredible catches and gain a lot of yardage after the catch. He has first-round receiving skills in a tight end’s body and will be able to line up all over the offense (i.e. Jimmy Graham). Njoku is not as big as O.J. Howard, however, and he’s not nearly as polished of a receiver as Howard. He has yet to show he can be a consistent blocker and it’s possible that never happens at the next level. Still only 20 years old, Njoku is a raw, exciting, receiving tight end whose best football is ahead of him.
18. OLB Hassan Reddick, Temple — 6-1 1/2, 237
I love guys who “win” every phase of the pre-draft process and that is exactly what Reddick did with a strong senior season, great Senior Bowl showing and impressive NFL Combine. Somewhat unknown going into the 2016 season, Reddick racked up 22.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks as a senior. Playing defensive end at Temple, it was obvious his size dictated a move to outside linebacker at the next level and I was very impressed with how easily Reddick handled that transition at the Senior Bowl. He didn’t lose any of his pass rush ability and the way he dropped into coverage made it look like he had been playing outside linebacker for years. Reddick is going to be a very good 3-4 edge rusher at the next level and unfortunately for the Bears, it sounds like he’ll be long gone by the time the No. 36 pick comes around.
19. CB Kevin King, Washington — 6-3, 200
King stood out to me in every Washington game I watched over the last two years. Originally a safety, King was correctly moved to corner where his rare size and length could be put to better use. He tested great at the combine, showing that any struggles he had near the line of scrimmage were likely technique related and not a matter of physical ability. With proper coaching, King can improve his jams at the line of scrimmage and some of the concerns about his tackling. If he slips to the second round, the Bears should pounce as King has the ability to start Week 1 with the potential to quickly develop into a No. 1 shutdown corner.
20. CB Adoree’ Jackson, USC — 5-10, 186
Jackson is small and there are understandable concerns about how he will hold up at the NFL level, but his instincts and ball skills are worthy of a first-round selection. There are comparisons to Devin Hester in that Jackson might be limited to just return duties at the next level, but his corner skills are much better than Hester’s when he was coming out of Miami. Worst case scenario, Jackson will be a solid slot corner and a very good returner, which the Bears sorely need. Frankly, the return game has been completely overlooked by the Bears since Hester moved on and Jackson would provide an immediate fix if he’s still available at No. 36 overall.