Much of Chicago rookie quarterback Justin Fields’ – and the Bears’ – success hinges on the development of its two rookie offensive tackles.
Rookie OT Teven Jenkins recently to practice. Jenkins, the No. 39 overall pick out of Oklahoma State, hasn’t played since opting out of the 2020 season in late November 2020 after hurting his back. The team traded its second-, third- and sixth-round picks to Carolina for that pick and a fifth-rounder – which was used to draft offensive tackle Larry Borom of Missouri, who has played well since being inserted into the starting lineup earlier this month.
However, the interior of Chicago’s line hasn’t played up to expectations. Left guard Cody Whitehair, who signed a 5-year, $51 million contract extension in 2019, is having a down year. The same can be said of center Sam Mustipher — a year after the team thought it had found its starting center of the future with the 2019 undrafted free agent out of Notre Dame. Mustipher will likely be back for at least one more season as he will be an early rights free agent at the end of the year.
The lone interior lineman who’s having a good season, RG James Daniels, is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year. Daniels was taken in the second round in 2018. Like Jenkins, Daniels was taken with the 39th overall pick.
In a worst-case scenario, Daniels signs elsewhere, Mustipher’s development stalls as the starting center and restricted free agent Alex Bars is inserted into the starting lineup at LG out of a lack of choices.
However, drafting a guard gives the team options it currently doesn’t have. One scenario is pairing the re-signed Daniels and a rookie at guard and moving Whitehair to center, which would make Mustipher a backup “swing” interior lineman. A rookie could also potentially fill Daniels’ spot in the starting lineup.
Drafting a center, though, is a bit more of a challenge if the team doesn’t re-sign Daniels because it would still need to find a starting LG. Of course, that’s a moot point if Daniels re-signs and Whitehair bounces back, as a center would then compete with Mustipher for the starting spot.
Something else to consider: Would the team be comfortable starting a rookie center and a rookie left guard?
Either way, mark it down for Chicago to draft at least one interior lineman.
That’s only part of what ails the 3-6 Bears, who are without a first-round pick in the 2022 NFL draft.
Chicago traded the pick away along with this year’s fourth-round pick as part of the Fields trade.
That means, Chicago only has five picks in the upcoming draft.
Much of the offseason will be centered around getting Fields some help. That includes receiver, where Allen Robinson (30 receptions for 339 yards and 1 TD) has underwhelmed this season and is set to become an unrestricted free agent.
But the biggest need might be along its defensive line. Defensive end Akiem Hicks will be an UFA at the end of the season and has been injured much of the season. Edge Robert Quinn has delt with back issues, defensive tackle Eddie Goldman has underperformed and Bilal Nichols hasn’t done much in the final year of his contract. And Hicks, Quinn and Edge Khalil Mack are all over 30.
Translation: Defensive line is just as big of a priority for the Bears.
The good news? Chicago’s needs perfectly line up with the 2022 draft’s strong points.
Most of the time, premium positions – quarterback, wide receiver, offensive tackle, pass rusher and cornerback – all go higher, simply because those are “impact” positions and therefore more difficult to find. And you can almost always find pretty good quality at positions like safety, linebacker, running back and offensive guard in the later rounds.
The 2022 draft is no different.
However, what could make the next draft so unique is the number of quality Day 3 prospects. Many players opted to return for another year of eligibility after last season’s Covid complications. The end result should be a Day 3 that’s stocked with better talent than most years. Same goes for the number of quality rookie free agents.
Lastly, this is expected to be a solid year for pass rushers, with a jaw-dropping 29 listed among the top 150 in the latest Jake Rigdon-Fanspeak big board.
Looking to give Fields some help with a receiver and a lineman? Need to add a pass rusher?
Don’t have a first-round pick and only five overall?
No problem – you can find potential starters at those positions on Day 3.
It would be a coup for Chicago if Leal is still here in the early part of the second round – but it’s possible. While many draft evaluators rank the 6-foot-4, 290-pound Leal as a first-rounder (he’s No. 25 in the Rigdon big board), he’s somewhat of a tweener at the next level: Not big enough to take on double-teams along the interior, and not quite refined enough as a strong-side defensive end, where he’s recently received a lot of snaps.
Instead, most evaluators say Leal’s best spot would be as a 3-tech DT in a 4-3 defense or as a 5-tech Edge (ala Hicks) in a 3-4 defense.
Therefore, Chicago would seem like a natural landing spot if Leal falls that far. Leal has seen his rankings dip a bit since the start of the season, part of which could be attributed to his good-but-not-amazing statistics: 48 tackles, team-leading 10.5 TFLs and 6.5 sacks. Leal recently fell from No. 5 to No. 21 in the latest big board update by The Athletic’s Dane Brugler. From Brugler: “… Leal hasn’t been as dominant as his traits and stats suggest, but NFL teams will be more than willing to bet on his high-upside talent. He flashes Jonathan Allen ability with his physical hands to play the run and the body control to force himself into the backfield.”
Much needed strip sack by DeMarvin Leal on Matt Corral for Texas A&M. Speed to power to put Broeker on skates pic.twitter.com/iymhTfTiSA
— Bobby Football (@Rob__Paul) November 14, 2021
While Michigan State transfer running back Kenneth Walker III gets most of the hype at Michigan State, Reed is slowly climbing up the draft ranks, too.
The 6-foot, 185-pound junior has average measurables by today’s standards, but he comes up big in big moments. Reed has 45 receptions for 829 yards (and 18.4 average) and 7 TDs this season, giving him a line of 134-2,033-18 in three years. He’s also returned three punts for a TD in his career, including two this year, and has a rushing TD this season as well.
Pro Football Network’s Ian Cummings says Michigan State wouldn’t have defeated rival Michigan without Reed this season. From PFN: “… Reed doesn’t have an overly imposing frame. But he’s an easy accelerator with breakaway speed. On top of that, he has many appealing fundamental traits as well. The Michigan State WR tracks the ball downfield, can rise and contort in contested situations, and has great hands as well.”
Touchdown, Michigan State.
Thorne finds wideout Jayden Reed for a 29-yard score to put the Spartans up by two possessions in the first quarter.
Thorne is 5-for-6 for 111 yards and two touchdowns. pic.twitter.com/YlvaLyXEZ2
— Testudo Times (@testudotimes) November 13, 2021
Chicago could use a corner and a safety. Former Georgia Southern 2020 fifth-rounder Kindle Vildor has started every game at CB this season but has yet to record an interception. Safety Tashaun Gipson is over 30 and in the final year of his contract.
In Hodges-Tomlinson, the team gets a bit of both. Many evaluators peg the 5-foot-9, 177-pound junior as a slot corner/nickelback at the next level because of his size, Hodges-Tomlinson has nonetheless played most of his career on the boundary – and excelled. He entered the season as Pro Football Focus’ most valuable returning defender. Thus far, Hodges-Tomlinson has 35 tackles, 2 TFLs, 2 INTs and 4 PDs, giving him a three-year total of 69-2-2-18. He’s also forced two fumbles this year.
But where Hodges-Tomlinson’s versatility enters the picture is at safety, where he has received spot duty this season. He was moved to the position during the Texas game and finished with a career-high 9 tackles (and one forced fumble) despite not practicing at the position.
I see you Trevius Hodges-Tomlinson pic.twitter.com/hcnWfAqjyZ
— Cam Mellor (@CamMellor) November 14, 2021
Love him or hate him, Edge Robert Quinn is here to stay in Chicago – the penalty for cutting him all but assures that after his contract was recently restructured. Quinn has rebounded well from last season, when he had 2 sacks in his first year in Chicago. His 6.5 sacks this season rank him first on the team, a half-sack ahead of Mack.
But, as mentioned previously, both Quinn and Mack are on the wrong side of 30.
Luckily for Chicago, the 2022 draft could be loaded at pass rusher. While some of the 29 pass rushers in the Rigdon big board’s top 150 might return to school, the opposite is true, too. Plus, there’s bound to be names who shoot up the rankings after the Senior Bowl, Combine and pro days. Therefore, it won’t be surprising to see a player like the 6-foot-5, 257-pound junior still available in the fifth round.
Mathis has had a bit of a down season with 41 tackles, 4 TFLs and only 2 sacks this season, compared to a line of 44-12.5-8 as a sophomore and 40-9-2.5 as a redshirt freshman. So why wouldn’t Mathis stay in school in an effort to boost his draft stock? The coaching change may have something to do with both Mathis’ and Hodges-Tomlinson’s draft decisions after long-time coach Gary Patterson was asked to step down earlier this season.
Talk about a no-win situation… Get sacked by Ochaun Mathis or throw a pick pic.twitter.com/m8HsBUOwaz
— Mike Spencer Hrynyshyn (@MikeH_Draft) September 27, 2021
It’s almost laughable to call any player drafted in the sixth-round as “plug-and-play” – but that may be the case with Lindstrom, whose older brother Chris starts for Atlanta and was a 2019 first-rounder. Lindstrom isn’t going to wow you with his size – 6-foot-3, 298-pounds – but the graduate student is technically sound and good at the point of attack. From a July Walter Football report: “Lindstrom has quality height and length for center, but could use more weight for the NFL. That could come along as he ages. Alec and Chris’ father, also named Chris, played in the NFL and coached them in high school. Hence, the brothers are polished and more developed in technique than the average player.”
Eliminating RPOs/Screens is a good way to filter and evaluation pass blocking reps for OL.
Among the highest graded (per @PFF_College) this season:
–@ASUFootball’s Kellen Diesch (#74 below)
–@WSUCougarFB's Abraham Lucas
–@USC_FB's Andrew Vorhees
–@BCFootball's Alec Lindstrom pic.twitter.com/IOQQYFu8b5
— Eric Galko (@EricGalko) November 15, 2021