7 2014 NFL Draft Picks Who Could Be Opening Game Starters for Chicago Bears
In less than a month, all 32 NFL teams will come to New York City with the hopes of bolstering their roster and finding players that can instantly contribute as a starter.
Bears general manager Phil Emery has made plenty of moves this offseason to help bolster a terrible run defense from 2013, but there is still plenty of room for improvement.
Every team wants to be able to draft a first-rounder who can start immediately, but there are many players available outside of the first round who have the potential to be Week 1 starters in 2014.
Here are seven 2014 NFL draft picks who could crack the starting lineup for this year's Chicago Bears.
Deone Bucannon, Safety, Washington State
The Bears have been busy this offseason trying to improve their safety position, signing Ryan Mundy, M.D. Jennings, Danny McCray and Craig Steltz to compete with the incumbent Chris Conte, via ChicagoBears.com.
The safety core took a hit last month when the team announced, via Larry Mayer of ChicagoBears.com, that Conte will be out four to five months after undergoing shoulder surgery in late March.
"I know I'm going to have to compete for my position on this team," Conte told ChicagoBears.com. "I am prepared to do that and felt having this surgery was the best way to be 100 percent healthy and be the best player I can possibly be."
The free agent market has appeared to dry up, leaving the draft as the best option for the Bears to find an impact starter at safety.
The team could take a look at Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (who was mentioned earlier) or Louisville's Calvin Pryor at No. 14 but could find more value in the second round if Washington State's Deone Bucannon is available.
Bucannon is a physical safety who is not afraid to come up in the box and make a tackle but will need to improve his coverage skills at the next level. He did show improved range in 2013, and he has the ability to be a playmaker.
Keep an eye on Washington State SS Deone Bucannon. Has size (6-1, 216), will close on the ball with some speed & he wants to compete.— Matt Bowen (@MattBowen41) January 21, 2014
At the combine, Bucannon showed off the speed by running a 4.49 40-yard dash. Bleacher Report's Matt Miller commented on his combination of speed and hitting ability:
When offensive players see the Cougars' strong safety coming in to make a play on the ball, you can forgive them for thinking he's an outside linebacker. Bucannon hits like a linebacker but moves like a smaller safety prospect. And he uses that speed to produce all over the field as a tackler, as a ball hawk and as a coverage safety.
The Bears have reportedly shown interest in him, as Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com tweeted that Bucannon had a pre-draft visit with the Bears.
WSU SS Deone Bucannon visits Bears http://t.co/cvXO9P7Br7— Jeff Dickerson (@ESPNChiBears) April 2, 2014
The Bears likely view Ryan Mundy as their pre-draft starter at strong safety, but drafting Bucannon would give the Bears the flexibility to move Mundy to free safety and have him compete with Conte and Jennings. Bucannon would not come in and be named the immediate starter at strong safety, but if drafted, he would quickly become the most talented safety on the roster.
Jordan Tripp, Linebacker, Montana
In 2013, the Bears struggled with depth at the linebacker position when both D.J. Williams and Lance Briggs were out for portions of the season. The team re-signed Williams to play middle linebacker and the team plans on having Jon Bostic compete with former first-round pick Shea McClellin, who is converting from defensive end to linebacker, for the opening at strongside linebacker.
Even though the team took two linebackers in last year's draft in Bostic and Khaseem Greene, Montana's Jordan Tripp may be too difficult to pass up in the third or fourth round.
"I don't want to sound arrogant, but I believe that I'm the most versatile linebacker in this draft," Tripp told FoxSports.com. "I believe I can run and cover better than any linebacker in this draft."
According to NFL.com, Tripp had the fastest 20-yard shuttle run (3.96) for a linebacker since A.J. Hawk in 2006. He also was in the top 10 among linebackers in the 40-yard dash (4.67 seconds, ninth best), three-cone drill (6.89 seconds, fourth-best), vertical jump (37.5 inches, tied for sixth best) and broad jump (10 feet, ninth best).
During the 2013 season, he had 100 tackles as well as three interceptions, two sacks and three fumble recoveries.
Many have looked at Tripp as a "sleeper" in this year's draft with Bleacher Report's Matt Miller comparing him to last year's breakout rookie, Kiko Alonso.
Don't be surprised if Jordan Tripp is this year's Kiko Alonso.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) March 31, 2014
One of Tripp's biggest strengths is in coverage, where he has the speed to match up with tight ends and running backs and plays with good footwork and fluidity. He does a good job at times of taking on two blockers to free up opportunities for others, but he can sometimes get too caught up and lose containment in the running game.
“I just want to come in and contribute right away and I believe that I can,” Tripp said. “I know I can be an impact player right away. I just need a team to fall in love with me and I’ll get that opportunity.”
With the Bears having an open competition at strongside linebacker, it is a real possibility that Tripp could beat out both Bostic and McClellin for the starting role and become the team's opening day starter.
Ryan Shazier, Outside Linebacker, Ohio State
In 2013 the Bears had to rely on two unproven rookies in Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene after injuries to linebackers D.J. Williams and Lance Briggs. Both struggled at times but here is still hope for both Bostic and Greene to continue to develop.
Regardless of the team's belief in their young linebacker duo,the team needs to continue to add youth and depth, and Ohio State's Ryan Shazier could be the answer.
Shazier had an impressive 42-inch vertical leap and a 10-foot, 10-inch broad jump at the NFL Scouting Combine but was hampered by a hamstring injury and was unable to run the 40-yard dash.
Last month he was able to impress scouts with an impressive 40-yard time.
Ohio St. OLB Ryan Shazier reportedly clocked a 4.36 at the Buckeyes Pro Day. 42-inch vertical at the Scouting Combine too. #1stRoundTalent— Scott Wright (@DraftCountdown) March 7, 2014
According to USA Today's Jim Corbett, NFL.com analyst Bucky Brooks told him, "Ryan is always the model of what you're looking for at the linebacker position. Ryan is very fast, super athletic and has that positional versatility you look for. He can cover tight ends but also rush off the edge."
Shazier's best position in the NFL is probably at weakside linebacker, which is currently occupied by Lance Briggs for the Bears, but he has the versatility to play all three linebacker positions.
Ryan Shazier reminds me of Bobby Wagner. Can play just about any linebacker position and has tremendous agility.— SI_DougFarrar (@SI_DougFarrar) April 10, 2014
Drafting Shazier would provide the Bears with an explosive linebacker that knows how to get to the ball-carrier and while he would not be an ideal fit at strongside linebacker, he is more than capable of earning that position this offseason.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Safety, Alabama
The need at safety is evident for the Chicago Bears after both Major Wright and Chris Conte struggled in their starting roles last season.
The additions of Ryan Mundy and M.D. Jennings help fortify the team's depth, but there is still a need for a play-making safety on this Bears defense.
Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix has been described as a prototypical ball-hawking safety, as he consistently has a great break on the ball and has good enough hands to haul in interceptions.
He can play well up at the line of scrimmage and against the run but has a tendency to take bad angles at times when tackling and will need to improve on his strength when facing bigger and stronger receivers in the NFL.
I love Ha Ha Clinton-Dix ability to anticipate and break on potential throws to his area. Hate his tendency to drop head when tackling.— Sigmund Bloom (@SigmundBloom) February 27, 2014
His struggles as a tackler should be easy to fix with a veteran defensive backs coach like Jon Hoke on the Bears staff and regardless of his minor shortcomings, he would immediately become the team's most talented safety.
NFL.com's Bucky Brooks thinks Clinton-Dix is an ideal fit for Chicago, writing: "Clinton-Dix would be an ideal fit as a deep-middle defender in the Bears' zone-heavy scheme. He displays exceptional range, instincts and awareness while playing over the top, and he's also an aggressive hitter and playmaker between the hashes."
The biggest question surrounding Clinton-Dix this May will not be if his tackling can be corrected but if he will still be available when the Bears pick at No. 14.
Terrence Brooks, Safety, Florida State
If the Bears opt to address their defensive line or linebacker in the first round, Florida State free safety Terrence Brooks may be a viable option in the second round.
Flying under the radar of first round guys like Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Calvin Pryor, Brooks has quickly risen up draft boards and Bleacher Report's Matt Miller has taken notice, tweeting:
I'm a big Terrence Brooks fan, and it's possible I was under-ranking him all along. Can do it all at safety (slot CB, single-high FS).— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) April 11, 2014
Brooks has a great combination of speed, agility and awareness while his versatility gives him the ability to cover tight ends or wide receivers in the slot, come up and play the run in the box, as well as man the back-half of the field as a single-high safety.
One knock on his game is his inconsistent tackling. Often times he has a tendency to approach the ball carrier a bit out of control, giving up more yards compared to if he was able to square him up. He is still relatively new to the position, having come to Florida State as a cornerback, but he has become a student of the game, telling Tyler Dunne of the Journal Sentinel:
There’s nobody else behind you and you’re the commander of the defense. You have to know everything. You have to know everybody’s position, where everybody’s supposed to be at. You have to be the quarterback of the defense. That’s probably the hardest part to get across. You really want to be great, you’ll apply yourself to it. To me, it’s not that hard to keep learning because I’m still new to the position.
Brooks has the ability to come in and take over at the free safety position for the Bears and be the team's opening game starter, particularly if he can shore up his tackling woes.
One thing is for sure, he does not lack confidence. “I’m ready to take over, man. I’m ready to take everything by storm," he told Dunne. "I feel that a lot of people will start catching on to how good I really am.”
Aaron Donald, Defensive Tackle, Pittsburgh
Despite the signings of Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston, Willie Young and Israel Idonije along the defensive line, via ChicagoBears.com, the team still need an impact player at defensive tackle, particularly at the three-technique.
Pittsburgh's Aaron Donald has been one of the biggest risers throughout this offseason, beginning with a solid week at the Senior Bowl along with an impressive performance at the NFL Scouting Combine in February.
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. His first step is one of the best in this draft class but his short arms restrict him when trying to create separation.
It’s never really gotten to me. It is what it is. Thinking about it or letting it get me mad, ain’t going to get me no taller. So all I can do is go out there and play the game of football like I play it – hard-nosed and trying to make plays.
His disruption and ability to create pressure also benefits those around him, as Bleacher Report's Matt Miller tweeted:
Really amazing how many plays Aaron Donald set up for his teammates. Constant pressure and pocket flushing.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) April 11, 2014
Donald finished his senior year with 11 sacks and 28 tackles for loss en rout to being named the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, the Bednarik Award winner as the nation’s top defender and the Outland Trophy winner as college football’s best interior lineman.
He would instantly become the team's starter at the three-technique but also has the flexibility to slide over to nose tackle in certain situations.
If his production can translate to the next level, a starting front four of Houston, Donald, Stephen Paea and Allen could be one of the NFC's most productive 4-3 defensive lines.
Timmy Jernigan, Defensive Tackle, Florida State
If Aaron Donald has already come off of the board when the Bears pick at No. 14, Florida State's Timmy Jernigan could wind up being a great consolation prize.
Jernigan had an impressive 2013 campaign, finishing the season with 35 tackles, 11 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. One of his most impressive games was in the BCS National Championship Game against Auburn. He finished the contest with nine tackles and was a disruptive force all night for the Seminoles.
He has a strong upper body and can clog up the middle of the field, but he also has shown an impressive first step and the ability to create disruption.
In his latest mock draft, Bleacher Report's Matt Miller has Jernigan going to the Bears, writing:
Timmy Jernigan is a good second option for Phil Emery and the Bears staff in their quest to find a 3-technique tackle. Jernigan looked like a top-five pick at times this year. Turn on the national championship game, and it is easy to see that he was the best player on the field. His quickness off the ball is matched by his strength, and when Jernigan is dialed in, he's unstoppable.
One knock on Jernigan's game is that he too often disappeared for the Seminoles. Like Miller wrote, when Jernigan is on, he is one of the best, but he will need to prove to teams that he has the ability to give 100 percent effort all of the time.
One big positive to his game is his ability to play both the 3-technique and nose tackle, telling Doug Farrar of SI.com:
I’ve played in the shade, I’ve played over the center, I’ve played in the 3-technique so I can play a 3-technique. When it’s a pass situation, when you want to go to a three-man front, you can put me on the nose guard, right on the zero[-technique]. I can get pressure from the middle of the offense. I feel like that’s where my game changes from anyone else’s.
Much like Donald, Jernigan could instantly step in as the team's best option at the 3-technique and become a terror in the middle of the defense.