Home Sports Column: Timing and good fortune help an NFL rebuild — and the Chicago Bears have a little of both

Column: Timing and good fortune help an NFL rebuild — and the Chicago Bears have a little of both

by staff

The Denver Broncos’ firing of coach Nathaniel Hackett on Monday after 15 games was a reminder of how fortunate the Chicago Bears are that the Seattle Seahawks rebuffed their effort to trade for Russell Wilson.

The Seahawks’ decision to keep Wilson for another season before shipping him to the Broncos is a great example of how sometimes the best deals are the ones you don’t make. The Broncos in March sent two first-round picks, two second-round picks, a fifth-round pick, tight end Noah Fant and quarterback Drew Lock to the Seahawks for Wilson and a fourth-round pick. Couple that with the massive five-year, $242 million contract with $161 million guaranteed and Wilson could be an anchor the franchise cannot retrieve for several years.

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The Bears and former general manager Ryan Pace likely would have paid three first-round picks and then some for Wilson, a nine-time Pro Bowl selection in 10 seasons in Seattle, but Pace never got down to hashing out specific compensation before Seahawks GM John Schneider said there would be no trade. Wilson has had a disastrous season and was benched in a 51-14 loss to the Los Angeles Rams on Christmas Day after throwing three interceptions.

Since Hackett was ousted, Wilson has been lambasted for having his own office and parking spaces at the team facility, and one only can imagine what level of treatment he might have received at Halas Hall.

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The Bears have Pace to thank for pivoting from pursuit of Wilson to trading up from No. 20 in the first round to select Justin Fields at No. 11 in 2021. The organization remains eager to see how Fields will develop after they go about the heavy task of upgrading talent around him on the offensive line and at wide receiver.

Sometimes a little good fortune is needed, and in this case it was Seahawks coach Pete Carroll nixing a Wilson trade to the Bears because he didn’t want to start a rebuilding process at that time. It’s impossible to say how Wilson would have fared if he were with the Bears in 2021, but the Broncos began this season with more skill-position talent around him than Matt Nagy’s offense offered a year ago.

Of course, luck went against the Bears in 1969 when they finished 1-13 and tied with the Pittsburgh Steelers for the worst record. The Steelers blew fourth-quarter leads in their final two games to wind up having a coin toss to determine the No. 1 pick. They won and selected quarterback Terry Bradshaw, who in three short years helped turn a perennial doormat into an AFC juggernaut. The Bears are still looking for their version of Bradshaw, an elite player at the position, and they are bullish on Fields and have more draft capital than they would have if they were still paying off a trade for Wilson.

Timing is critical too. As this season winds to a close, the Bears (3-12) will be positioned to have a high pick. If the draft order were based on current standings, they would select No. 2 but they’re still in play for the top pick, a half-game behind the Houston Texans (2-12-1).

The top of the draft board, which is where the Bears will be unless GM Ryan Poles trades out of the spot, looks like fertile ground. Not every class is the same. Look at 2017, when the Bears traded up one spot from No. 3 to choose quarterback Mitch Trubisky. The Cleveland Browns took defensive end Myles Garrett with No. 1 pick. He is an elite player, head and shoulders above the next five selections: Trubisky, defensive tackle Solomon Thomas, running back Leonard Fournette, wide receiver Corey Davis and safety Jamal Adams. There are as many clunkers at the top of the draft as there are prospects who become elite players.

The top two picks last year were outside linebacker Travon Walker (Jacksonville Jaguars) and defensive end Aidan Hutchinson (Detroit Lions). They could be overshadowed by a couple of front-seven players in 2023 in Alabama edge rusher Will Anderson and Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter when looking at non-quarterbacks in discussion for a top-five pick.

Alabama edge rusher Will Anderson Jr. celebrates a sack against Vanderbilt on Sept. 24 in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Anderson is projected to be a top-five pick in the 2023 NFL draft.

“If I was going to take an edge guy, I would take Anderson in a second,” one national scout said. “He is worthy of being the first pick, really. He is better than both of those dudes last year that went 1-2.”

Carter is intriguing because there is such a scarcity of disruptive interior defensive linemen, and coach Matt Eberflus has called the three-technique the “engine” of his defense — which would be helpful for a defense that blew the transmission before the season started. There are only a handful of truly impactful interior players, and they’re valuable because they affect the game on every snap.

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In terms of timing, being at the top of the 2024 draft could be even more fortuitous. USC quarterback Caleb Williams will be eligible and could be the prohibitive favorite to go No. 1. North Carolina redshirt freshman quarterback Drake Maye also has captured a ton of attention.

“Sophomore so I haven’t scouted him yet,” one assistant GM said. “But when you see Williams play, he oozes talent and special playmaking ability. Long way to go but you want to talk about a guy teams might really tank for? The UNC quarterback is a good one to watch too.”

Jared Goff, Lions quarterback

Lions quarterback Jared Goff (16) throws during the second half against the Bears on Oct. 3, 2021, at Soldier Field.

Information for this report was obtained from NFL scouts.

Jared Goff, 6-foot-4, 217 pounds, is in his second season in Detroit after the Lions acquired him and draft picks in the deal that sent quarterback Matthew Stafford to the Los Angeles Rams. The No. 1 pick in 2016 out of Cal, Goff is having his best season since 2018, when he helped the Rams reach Super Bowl LIII.

Goff, 28, has completed 64.5% of his passes this season for 3.959 yards with 26 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He was viewed as a bridge quarterback for the Lions, but it’s worth wondering if he has performed well enough for Detroit, which has two first-round picks, to focus on improving a porous defense. Goff is under contract through the 2024 season.

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“I think there’s a strong chance that is the route they take,” the scout said. “There is uncertainty with this quarterback class, and they have built this offense to fit Goff’s traits. They have a powerful offensive line and they can protect him and he needs a clean pocket. When he’s got that, he can light it up. He’s not a mover and he can’t create a lot of off-script plays but he can throw the ball. They’ve got personnel around him that fits in that passing game — Amon-Ra St. Brown, DJ Chark and you’re seeing Jameson Williams emerge now.

“They can give Goff what he needs in terms of protection right now. The flip side is taking a chance on a college kid, and now you’re using draft resources they absolutely need on the defensive side of the ball. If they have a competent defense, they are competing for the division title this year — not next year. The other risk in getting rid of Goff and bringing in a young kid is then what happens to the development of Williams? He and St. Brown are serious playmakers, and now you’re potentially going backward on the side of the ball that is your strength.”

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