Bears Draft Stock Watch: 5 Players Rising and Falling on Chicago's Board
The Chicago Bears have done a nice job of adding depth to their roster via free agency this offseason, but general manager Ryan Pace knows he needs to build his roster through the draft.
"The recipe to winning Super Bowls is stringing successful drafts together again and again," Pace said in January at his introductory press conference, according to the Chicago Tribune.
The Bears have added eight players so far in free agency, and Bleacher Report's Dan Pompei thinks Pace's moves have given the Bears flexibility in this year's draft:
6. I like that Ryan Pace has addressed many holes with short-term, bargain free agents ad it frees him up to take best available in draft.— Dan Pompei (@danpompei) March 25, 2015
Following a disappointing 5-11 2014 season, the Bears will pick seventh overall when the NFL draft begins in late April.
The evaluation process for the 2015 draft has been an ongoing task for Chicago's scouting department for the better part of the last few years. Players rise and fall on draft boards all season long, but with the draft getting closer, Chicago's board has likely become more defined.
With the NFL draft a little more than a month away, here are five players who are rising and falling on Chicago's draft board.
Rising: Amari Cooper, Wide Receiver, Alabama
They did sign veteran Eddie Royal to a three-year deal at the start of free agency, but he will likely spend the season playing out of the slot, leaving the team without a true No. 2 wide receiver behind Alshon Jeffery.
If the Bears want to address the position with their first pick in the draft, Alabama's Amari Cooper could be an option.
Cooper hauled in 124 catches for 1,727 yards and 16 touchdowns last season and was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy. Alabama relied on its running game during Cooper's first two seasons, but after Lane Kiffin was hired as offensive coordinator in 2014, the team became more pass-oriented.
Bleacher Report's Matt Bowen thinks Cooper is a top-10 talent and praised Cooper's ability as a route-runner, writing:
This isn't a receiver that has to sink his hips, restart and go find the football. It's all fluid with Cooper, and that allows him to create separation versus man coverage. Plus, he has the lateral quickness to beat press coverage and get up the field (a key to winning at the line versus NFL competition).
Cooper's route-running was on display during positional drills at the combine. He followed that up with a pro-day performance that an NFL scout simply described as "electric." The hands to snatch the ball, the sweet footwork, the burst in his routes. It was all there.
Aside from Cooper's route-running ability, another reason why the Bears may be interested in him is because he has a connection to Chicago's wide receivers coach, Mike Groh.
Groh spent two seasons as a wide receivers coach at Alabama and was at Cooper's pro day, according to Charles Robinson of Yahoo Sports.
Cooper had nothing but good things to say about Groh at the scouting combine back in February.
"Coach Groh is a great coach," Cooper said, per Jeff Dickerson of ESPN Chicago. "He's really specific. He's really diligent in the way he wants to teach us. He'll go out and watch a lot of film on other guys, NFL wide receivers, and come back and try to teach it to us so we can be the best we can be."
Considering Cooper's connection to Groh and Chicago's need at the position, the former Heisman Trophy finalist may be quickly rising up the Bears' draft board.
Falling: Danny Shelton, Nose Tackle, Washington
The Bears are making the switch from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 defense in 2015, and while the nose tackle position is very important in a 3-4, the Bears may end up passing on Washington nose tackle Danny Shelton with the seventh overall pick.
Shelton is a dominant 0-technique nose tackle who can anchor the middle of a 3-4 defense, but at 6'2" and 339 pounds, according to NFL.com, he does not fit the mold for the position in defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's scheme.
While 3-4 nose tackles are typically giant space-eaters, Fangio's defenses have relied on smaller, quicker nose tackles. Instead of using 340-plus-pound nose tackles, Fangio used smaller guys like Quinton Dial (6'5", 318 lbs) and Ian Williams (6'1", 305 lbs) last season in San Francisco.
Shelton is surprisingly athletic and agile for a man of his size, but he often plays too high off the snap and does not possess consistent explosiveness off the ball. He is durable, but one NFC area scout thinks Shelton backs down against tougher competition.
"Shelton is a bully. If you let him walk all over you early in the game, he's going to keep doing it," the scout said, according to Lance Zierlein of NFL.com. "But watch how he kind of fades into the background when he goes up against guys who stand up to him. I want to see him show up all the time."
Taking Shelton seventh overall would help add depth to Chicago's defensive line, but with so many other needs on both sides of the football, it may not be worth it for the Bears to take a nose tackle that high in the draft.
Rising: Marcus Mariota, Quarterback, Oregon
Earlier this offseason, the Bears decided to move forward with Jay Cutler as their quarterback.
"We went through the process of thoroughly evaluating the roster and we're moving forward with Jay as our starting quarterback," Pace said earlier this month, according to Kevin Patra of NFL.com.
Even though the team appears to be moving forward with Cutler for at least the foreseeable future, Pace commented earlier this week about 2014 Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota.
“I think you have to watch a lot of tape on those guys to feel good with it,” Pace said Tuesday, according to Adam Jahns of the Chicago Sun-Times. “And we’ve done enough research on [Mariota] that I think he’s a good quarterback. That [system] doesn’t scare me away from it at all.”
The system Pace was referring to is the spread offense Mariota ran while at Oregon. The concern is that Mariota is not used to running an offense with multiple reads, and CBSSports.com's Rob Rang explained Mariota's weaknesses, writing:
The Ducks' innovative offense simplifies QB decisions and this is roughly the same scheme Mariota played in high school. As such, some of the basics like taking the ball from under center and scanning downfield while dropping back are skills Mariota hasn't been asked to master yet.
Overly reliant on his first read, and occasionally commits the cardinal sin of throwing late across his body. Accuracy can be an issue, as Mariota misses too many open receivers, including high-percentage underneath passes.
Despite his lack of experience in a pro-style offense, he has many of the tools teams look for in a quarterback. He is quick and athletic, is not afraid to step up in the pocket and he rarely forces throws into coverage.
There is no guarantee Mariota will still be available when the Bears pick seventh overall in next month's draft, but Pace has stated in the past that he would like to take a quarterback every year.
“I think it’s a good idea to add a quarterback every year,” Pace said, according to John Mullin of CSNChicago.com. “Sometimes that’s going to be in the upper rounds, sometimes that’s going to be in the later rounds or college free agency.”
If Mariota is still available when the Bears are on the clock next month, it looks like there is a real possibility they could take him.
Falling: Shane Ray, Edge-Rusher, Missouri
After adding outside linebacker Pernell McPhee in free agency, the Bears do not necessarily need to take a pass-rusher with their first pick in the draft.
Pass-rushers like Florida's Dante Fowler and Nebraska's Randy Gregory will likely be off the board once Chicago's first selection comes around, leaving Missouri's Shane Ray as the next-best available edge-rusher.
In 14 games last season, Ray registered 65 total tackles, 22.5 tackles for loss and 14.5 sacks.
While he is explosive and powerful, he spent the majority of his career at Missouri as a 4-3 defensive end, and some think he does not have the ability to be a 3-4 outside linebacker.
"I don't like him," one scout said, according to Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "People see who he is, they're going to fall off him quick. The body structure. No way in hell he can be an outside backer."
Ray had a chance to silence his critics by running a fast 40-yard dash at the combine back in February, but he was unable to run due to a foot injury.
CBSSports.com's Dane Brugler heard good things about Ray's pro day, but he thinks Ray is limited:
Reports say Shane Ray looked good in LB drills today, but he's still a pass rusher only for me. Great first step and then ?'s after that— Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) March 20, 2015
Ray has the ability to develop into a productive pass-rusher, but since the Bears already committed money to the position with the McPhee signing, they will likely pass on him because he still has a ways to go in his development.
Rising: Trae Waynes, Cornerback, Michigan State
Even though the Bears took cornerback Kyle Fuller in the first round of the draft last May, the team still has a need at the position.
Tim Jennings signed an extension last offseason, but he struggled at times in 2014. After registering 13 interceptions between 2012 and 2013, Jennings did not come away with an interception last season.
Head coach John Fox acknowledged at the NFL owners meetings that Jennings struggled last season and they will need him to play better.
“I think Tim will tell you the same thing,” Fox said, according to Jahns. “Our biggest thing is to get him to perform better than he did a year ago.”
The Bears planned on using Jennings inside at nickelback last season whenever the team went into their nickel package, but after Charles Tillman went down with a season-ending injury, he remained on the outside.
The new staff has not commented on how it wants to use Jennings this season, but if it wants to use him in the slot in its sub-package, it could be looking for a cornerback early in the draft.
One name skyrocketing up draft boards is Michigan State's Trae Waynes.
A two-year starter for the Spartans, Waynes registered 96 total tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, one sack and six interceptions in his final two seasons in East Lansing.
He plays physical at the line of scrimmage and has experience playing bump-and-run coverage. According to NFL.com, he was the fastest cornerback at the combine, posting a 4.31 40-yard dash.
Brugler compared Waynes to Fuller in his scouting report.
"Waynes plays like a young Fuller and if he can introduce more discipline to his game moving forward, he will have bright future in the NFL," Brugler wrote.
Much like Fuller, Waynes is not easily intimidated and is not afraid to play physical.
Taking Waynes with the seventh overall pick may be a bit of a stretch, but if Pace and the Bears feel like he is the best option for the team moving forward, he could end up being their guy.
Matt Eurich is a Chicago Bears Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America.