Breaking Down the Most Important Pro Days for the Chicago Bears
Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery has been active this offseason, ridding the team of a big contract and signing a combination of young and veteran talent to improve the defense.
At the start of free agency and the new league year last week, Emery struck deals in the first week with defensive ends Lamarr Houston and Willie Young, linebacker D.J. Williams, cornerback Charles Tillman, safeties M.D. Jennings and Ryan Mundy, wide receiver Domenik Hixon and special teamer/linebacker Jordan Senn. He also released defensive end Julius Peppers, via ChicagoBears.com.
Improving the team through free agency is just one facet of the big picture, and while he will continue to try and upgrade his team via free agency, Emery will also focus on the NFL draft.
Chicago scouts, as well as Emery, have attended and will be attending various collegiate pro days, as prospects get one final chance to work out for teams in a large setting.
Many players have already concluded their pro days, but some still have opportunities coming up in the next few weeks.
Here are five of the most important pro days for the Chicago Bears.
Aaron Donald, Defensive Tackle, Pittsburgh: March 3
Pittsburgh's Aaron Donald has seen his stock rise precipitously since the end of the season.
Strong showings at the Senior Bowl and the NFL Scouting Combine have many believing he will be a top-20 pick in the upcoming draft. Bleacher Report's Matt Miller has been high on him:
It seems like every week I'm moving Aaron Donald up in the rankings, but he's worth it. There are no new revelations here; his game has been fully reviewed and charted. But what does change is my feeling about him as a sure-thing 3-technique pass-rusher. And the value of an interior pass-rusher in today's NFL is what causes me to keep moving Donald up the board.
Despite the fact that the Bears brought back veterans Jeremiah Ratliff and Nate Collins and added Lamarr Houston and Willie Young, they still need a young, effective pass-rusher in the middle of their defensive line.
Donald participated in Pittsburgh's pro day on March 3 but opted to stand by his numbers from the combine. In Mobile, Ala., he ran a 4.68-second 40-yard dash, had 35 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press and registered a 32-inch vertical jump and 116-inch broad jump, per NFL.com.
At his pro day, he did participate in the drills, and NFL.com's Gil Brandt was impressed, saying he "looked very good, showing fluid movement and substantiating the performance he displayed at the combine."
Despite his size (6'1" and 285 lbs), Donald is disruptive and uses his short stature to play with a low pad level that is hard for offensive linemen to counteract. He would help the Bears get younger on defense, and his explosiveness would make him a perfect fit at the 3-technique position.
Calvin Pryor, Safety, Louisville: March 17
Despite the Bears signing safeties Ryan Mundy and M.D. Jennings at the start of free agency, Phil Emery said he still plans on addressing the position, as reported by the Chicago Sun-Times: "We’re definitely going to look at the safety position. Continue to look at it extensively in the [free-agent] market and the draft and post-draft.”
One name for the Bears to keep their eyes on is Louisville safety Calvin Pryor.
The hard-hitting player has the ability to come up in the box and make tackles as a strong safety but also possesses the athleticism and ball-hawking abilities of a free safety. He plays with great instincts, has fluid hips that allow him to turn on the ball and is one of the most feared hitters in this draft class.
As the league moves toward having the strong and free safety being interchangeable, Pryor is a perfect fit in the modern NFL.
Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune tweeted that the Bears did have a scout in attendance at Pryor's pro day on March 17:
I am told #Bears assistant college scouting director Jeff Shiver was at Louisville pro day today.— Brad Biggs (@BradBiggs) March 17, 2014
Many may be fixated on Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix for the Bears at No. 14, but Pryor may have the better upside and more versatility, something this rebuilding defense needs.
NFL.com's Gil Brandt was complimentary of Pryor after the combine: "Pryor looks like a carbon copy of Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas; he really punishes people as a tackler and has great coverage skills."
That seems like awfully high praise from Brandt, but the NFL Network's Mike Mayock also had high praise, via DetroitNews.com: "Calvin Pryor to me is like a bigger and stronger Bob Sanders. He flies around and hits people. He just explodes everywhere. I think he’s a little better in the box than at the back end, but that might just be the way Louisville used him."
Only time will tell if Pryor can develop into a player like Thomas or Sanders, but his pro day will go a long way in determining if he is worth taking in the first round at No. 14.
Timmy Jernigan, Defensive Tackle, Florida State: March 18
Just as the Bears will be looking at a guy like Aaron Donald to help bolster their defensive line, Florida State's Timmy Jernigan will be in the discussion at No. 14 in this May's draft.
He has experience playing the 3-technique but played better at nose tackle in college. While at 282 pounds, he lacks the ideal size to play nose tackle, he could gain some bulk moving forward.
He does a good job of maintaining his gaps and uses his frame and long arms to move past strong defenders. If he can bulk up, he could give Stephen Paea a run for his money on the interior of the defensive line.
He is classified as a high-motor guy, and while he doesn't necessarily get a lot of sacks, he has shown the ability to be disruptive up the middle and provide pressure on the quarterback.
At his pro day on March 18, the Orlando Sentinel's Brendan Sonnone tweeted about Jernigan's performance:
Timmy Jernigan is absolutely mauling tackling dummies with his big ol paws. Quick feet too, that's an underrated aspect with him.
— Brendan Sonnone (@osfsu) March 18, 2014
The Bears could be drawn to Jernigan's versatility. He told the Chicago Sun-Times' Adam Jahns in an interview during the combine: "As far just schemes, I feel like I can play in any scheme whether it’s a three-man front, which we did play at Florida State, [or] I can play in a four-man front as well. I can attack. I can two-gap. It really doesn’t matter. I feel like I can play anywhere I’m on the front. Just put me on the field."
Jernigan's pro day will be important for the Bears if he can show his versatility and how it would help him fit on the team's revamped defensive line.
Stephon Tuitt, Defensive End, Notre Dame: March 20
The signings of Lamarr Houston and Israel Idonije prove that Phil Emery prefers versatility with his defensive linemen. Both Houston and Idonije have been successful in the past playing both inside and outside, and the team may still look toward the draft to find more of that same versatility.
Notre Dame's Stephon Tuitt had a bit of a disappointing 2013 season after he exploded onto the scene in South Bend in 2012. He finished with 7.5 sacks in 2013 after posting the second-most sacks in a season in school history in 2012 with 12.
He was still productive in 2013 but appeared to lack the explosiveness he showed in 2012. He was hoping to show off his explosiveness at the NFL Scouting Combine in February, but he was sidelined with a small fracture in his left foot, via NFL.com.
He could be a perfect fit for the Bears interior defense at the 3-technique in their 4-3 scheme. He also has the potential to play the 5-technique in a 3-4 defense if they decide to make that switch in the future.
Tuitt plays terrific against the run, both inside and outside, and gets most of his pressure in the passing game by rushing from the inside. He needs to work on his explosion off the line of scrimmage, as he tends to pop up instead of explode through the blocker.
Like Houston and Idonije, he has the size and length that allow him to move around the defensive line and be effective at nearly every position.
His pro day will go a long way in proving he has healed from his foot injury. If he demonstrates his explosiveness and the Bears are lucky enough, he could be waiting for them in the second round.
Kony Ealy, Defensive End, Missouri: March 20
A year after finishing eighth in the league in sacks in 2012 with 41, the Bears finished 2013 with 31 sacks, tying for last with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The Bears need to improve their pass rush and may look to Missouri's Kony Ealy in the draft as the answer.
The first thing that jumps out when watching film on Early 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 has great size, length and strength, but Bleacher Report's Matt Miller writes: "The biggest key for Ealy's NFL success is learning to put it all together—taking his length, natural strength and explosiveness and putting it into one package that tackles can't predict or plan for."
At the NFL Scouting Combine in February, he told the Chicago Sun-Times' Patrick Finley what he wanted to show teams: "Explosiveness, good numbers of course. That I’m coachable, I can go hard, and I’m consistent.”
All of those things will once again be the focus surrounding Ealy at his pro day on March 20. His performance can go a long way in helping the Bears decide whether he is worth taking at No. 14.