NFL draft preview: Could Bears pass on Notre Dame guard Nelson at No. 8?
Eighth in a series
For the first time in recent memory, the guards in this year's draft crop of offensive linemen are rated more highly than the tackles.
That's not a knock on the bookends; it's just a really impressive group of guards. And the top two centers -- James Daniels and Billy Price -- could project to guard in the NFL, which makes the interior group even more valuable.
Notre Dame OG Quenton Nelson is the only lineman projected in the top 10, but farther down in the first round, there is a cluster of seven or eight with similar rankings who could be part of a run that extends into the middle of Round Two.
The Bears' No. 39 overall pick could wind up right in the middle of that OL feeding frenzy.
The Bears need one starting-caliber interior lineman if Kyle Long is guaranteed to be on the field by the start of training camp -- two if he's not.
Because they let four-time Pro Bowl OG Josh Sitton leave rather than guarantee his $8 million salary, the Bears have a hole to fill at left guard. They have some flexibility because the versatile Cody Whitehair could remain at center or kick back out to his natural OG position, which would leave a void at center. The $8.848-million question is whether Long (who's on the books for that much in 2018) will be back to his Pro Bowl self after shoulder, elbow and neck surgeries.
Depending on what happens in the draft, Eric Kush could get a chance to start camp as the No. 1 left guard, but they would prefer he fill the swing role as a backup at all three interior positions. Hroniss Grasu is a possibility at center, but to date he has not displayed the bulk or strength to be the starter.
On the outside, the Bears like Charles Leno enough to have locked him down last year with a four-year, $38-million extension. On the right side, Bobby Massie has been adequate, but he'll be an unrestricted free agent after this season. Bradley Sowell is seen as a backup, but he showed some versatility last year, starting once at left guard and once at right tackle.
Here's what the Bears may be thinking on draft day:
Day One: Because he's quite possibly the safest pick in the draft and potentially a multiyear Pro Bowl player, the Bears would have to think long and hard before passing up Notre Dame OG Quenton Nelson if he fell to them in the 8-hole.
Critics contend an interior O-lineman isn't worthy of such a high pick, but Nelson is considered the best offensive lineman in the draft -- and by a wide margin. He's a 6-foot-5, 329-pounder who's built like a bank safe with long arms (33.75-inch). He's a go-for-the-throat mauler who's technically sound after four years of working under respected OL coach Harry Hiestand, who now holds the same post with the Bears. Negatives on Nelson? He won't win any foot races.
Day Two: Assuming the Bears are looking more for interior players than tackles, Texas-El Paso's Will Hernandez and Georgia's Isaiah Wynn are studs, but it's looking more and more like both will get snapped up in the first round.
Daniels, the Iowa product and top pivot prospect, could give the Bears something to think about. At 6-3 and 295 pounds, he could use some bulk, but he wins with exceptional quickness and has long arms (33.75 inches) for the position. He's more impressive as a pass blocker and enough of an athlete to consider at guard if he gains some good weight.
Ohio State's Price is another consideration at No. 39, and he started for four years at guard or center. He's bigger and stronger than Daniels and plays a more physical game, but he also has enough athleticism to get to the second level and hit a moving target. Price, who plays with almost too much of an edge sometimes, was expected to put up a huge number on the bench press at the combine, but on his third rep suffered a partially torn pectoral muscle. That may drop him some, but not that far. At Ohio State's pro day, he said, "I'll be choking dudes out here by the time training camp comes."
Day Three: OL bargains can be found late in the draft, like Leno, who was the Bears' seventh-round pick (246th overall) in 2014.
Ohio State's Jamarco Jones had an awful combine -- 8.32 3-cone, 4.99 short shuttle, 24-inch vertical -- but he was a two-year starter for the Buckeyes at left tackle. The 6-foot-5, 310-pound Jones attended De La Salle High School in Chicago, and he learned behind Lions first-round draft pick Taylor Decker at OSU before taking his place. If he doesn't have the athleticism to remain at left tackle, he could be groomed for a year behind Massie at right tackle, but he'll need to add weight-room and playing strength.
Alex Cappa was a Division-II All-America tackle at Humboldt State and the top offensive lineman all four years in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference. At 6-7 and 305 pounds, he probably needs to bulk up and get stronger but could project as an NFL right tackle down the road. He dominated his level of competition, but he's still a project.
Bears depth chart:
LT: Charles Leno and Bradley Sowell; LG: Eric Kush and Jordan Morgan; C: Cody Whitehair and Hroniss Grasu; RG: Kyle Long and Earl Watford; RT: Bobby Massie and Cameron Lee
Bears picks: Round 1 (eighth overall); Round 2 (39th); Round 4 (105th) and (115th); Round 5 (145th); Round 6 (181st); Round 7 (224th)
2018 salary-cap situation: Even after trimming Sitton's salary, the Bears have $27.719 million invested in O-line spending for 2018, 22nd in the league, according to spotrac.com. In addition to Long's nearly $9 million, Massie counts just over $6 million and Leno a bit less than $6 million. Whitehair, who has started all 32 games since he was drafted in the second round, is a tremendous bargain at $1.152 million.
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