INDIANAPOLIS — 10 thoughts from the NFL scouting combine, at which the Chicago Bears were one of the top storylines as the owners of the No. 1 pick and the most available salary-cap space of any team.
The organization has a lot of directions it can go in a pivotal offseason with opportunities to fill roster needs.
“The feeling is of excitement because as a front-office person this is a bit of a dream in terms of the flexibility and options that you have to improve the football team,” Poles said about owning the No. 1 pick in the draft.
He mentioned the team will have to adjust to some curveballs, something he said you learn if you are in the league long enough. He also has been around long enough to know you don’t get too many chances to take a swing with the first pick. If a team keeps picking at the top of the draft, eventually someone new will be making the picks. So it’s important the Bears have a fruitful offseason in what remains the early stages of the rebuilding process. The easy part — the teardown — is complete.
Considering the depth chart on each side of the ball — it would be shorter to list positions they don’t need help at than the ones they do — and knowing the Bears have three picks in the top 100 (Nos. 1, 54 and 65), I don’t believe flexibility comes unless Poles trades the No. 1 pick.
The Bears need more draft ammunition — and the 2024 draft — to really get this roster rolling. They can highlight the fact opportunities are ahead and it is an exciting time, but don’t lose sight of the reality this roster is in dire need of help. They didn’t finish 3-14 — losing the final 10 games — because they encountered bad luck and injuries. They were terribly deficient throwing the football, stopping the run and rushing the passer, and if you’re bad in those three phases, you have next to no chance.
Flexibility exists for a team such as the Seattle Seahawks, who have four picks — fifth, 20th, 38th and 53rd — before the Bears have their second pick, a result of the bounty received in the Russell Wilson trade a year ago. The Detroit Lions pick sixth, 18th and 49th before the Bears’ second pick and then own No. 56. That is flexibility.
Poles amassed a bunch of picks a year ago with a flurry of trades, but eight of the team’s 11 selections were in Round 5 or later. That means eight picks out of the final 100. Imagine having even six picks in the top 100. That would be flexibility.
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With critical needs at defensive tackle, defensive end, offensive line, wide receiver, weak-side linebacker and arguably cornerback, Poles needs more flexibility than he currently has in terms of draft capital to begin acquiring building blocks for the future. The Bears could/should be seeking three new starters on the defensive line and two on the offensive line. All of these answers won’t come via free agency. It would be best if most of them arrived via a blockbuster draft.
“We have flexibility,” Poles said. “We have opportunity. We can gather all of that information, and I know our entire front office, our entire organization, is pumped with the opportunity that we have to do something special.”
There is a level of flexibility in being able to mix and match with free agents to fill some needs. But Poles needs more flexibility via the draft, which is why we’ve heard for a week that there’s intense interest in the pick already.
“That was the Bears putting up a ‘For sale’ sign,” one player personnel director said of the national reports. “That’s the heads up for teams to start putting their packages and offers together. No doubt that came straight from the team.”
I don’t think anyone can answer this right now. It’s why there is a chance the Bears will use the No. 1 pick on April 27 when the draft kicks off at Union Station in Kansas City, Mo.
If there were a can’t-miss quarterback in this class — a player clearly ahead of his peers such as Trevor Lawrence, Joe Burrow or Andrew Luck — Ryan Poles would probably stay put and draft that quarterback. That’s a hypothetical and sure to tick off the most ardent Justin Fields supporters, but it’s what I firmly believe. No quarterback stands out like a beacon light, to borrow from former GM Jerry Angelo, and the Bears seem almost certain to build around Fields.
The quarterbacks were measured Saturday morning, and Alabama’s Bryce Young came in at 5-foot-10⅛ and 204 pounds. This wasn’t surprising. The Crimson Tide listed Young at 6 feet, and for months scouts have said he was likely under 5-11. Young was listed at 194 pounds in college, and most thought his playing weight was closer to 185. Adding weight for an event like this isn’t particularly difficult.
Some pointed out that Young is very similar to Kyler Murray, drafted No. 1 in 2019. Murray was the same height at the combine that year and was 207 pounds. Murray possesses a thicker upper body, and they play with different styles. Young is a much more polished pocket passer. Murray is a more dynamic runner.
I’m not convinced Young’s measurements changed many questions about him. He’s still undersized. Perhaps getting over 200 pounds will help him, but is he going to weigh that much in Week 4 of his rookie season? Maybe a small handful of teams won’t carebecause they really like what they see on tape.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and it takes only one team to fall in love with a player for action. How do you explain the New York Jets selecting Zach Wilson at No. 2? Or the Bears trading up to draft Mitch Trubisky at No. 2? Or any of the other failed quarterback choices within the top few picks over the last decade-plus.
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“I don’t see how anyone trades up to No. 1 for Bryce Young when every team is going to have the same question,” one veteran personnel man said. “Is he big enough and strong enough to withstand the physical demands of the position? If he was 6-foot-1, 205 pounds, it’s a no-brainer. He’s the guy. He’s got a thin frame. He’s slender. He’s not going to have a thicker upper body like some of the shorter quarterbacks — Russell Wilson, Kyler Murray, some of the other guys.
“If a team is trading up to No. 1, they’re moving up because of traits.”
NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah ranks Young atop his list of QBs — ahead of C.J. Stroud, Will Levis and Anthony Richardson.
“You are going to have to take a risk with any of these quarterbacks,” Jeremiah said in a media conference call. “It’s just a different type of risk. Some might be how they’re going to continue to develop. The accuracy is going to improve or the instincts are going to get better. With Bryce, the gamble is just the durability. Is he going to be able to physically hold up?”
Stroud really helped himself in the College Football Playoff when he showed the ability to make plays off schedule, something he didn’t do a lot during the regular season. Levis has the size and physical attributes but battled injuries last fall, and there are questions about his decision making. One offensive coordinator compared him to Blaine Gabbert and, gulp, Jake Locker. Richardson is a physical specimen with a high ceiling, but he won only six games as the starting quarterback at Florida.
The sheer demand — as many as 10 teams could be in play for a trade — could lead one to make a trade simply because it believes the top quarterback on its board is significantly better than the next. But the lack of a clear target for a team trading with the Bears shrouds this in mystery.
Some have suggested the Bears should deal down no lower than No. 4 with the Indianapolis Colts. The idea is the Bears likely would be in position to select one of the top two defensive players, although that theory was clouded last week by the arrest of Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter on charges of reckless driving and street racing in connection with a crash that resulted in the deaths of a Bulldogs teammate and a staff member. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Carter provided law enforcement with conflicting statements of what happened. More on Carter in a little bit.
The problem with setting the Colts at No. 4 as the floor is the Bears would eliminate too many other opportunities. That would reduce to two the number of potential trade partners — the Houston Texans at No. 2 and the Colts. The Arizona Cardinals are at No. 3 and won’t be taking a quarterback. New GM Monti Ossenfort actually could be looking to trade out of the pick.
A trade with the Texans or Colts is a best-case scenario as the Bears potentially would be positioned to trade down twice. No team ever has traded the No. 1 pick and then traded down again in the top 10. If it happens, Ryan Poles could acquire a bonanza of draft picks in 2023 and beyond to give the Bears all sorts of flexibility and ammunition.
If Poles wants to come away with a potential blue player in this draft, he probably would need to stay in the top 10. The Philadelphia Eagles are at No. 10 and there’s no way they are drafting a quarterback, so that sets the Carolina Panthers at No. 9 as a floor for a trade and gives the Bears potential options with the Seattle Seahawks at No. 5, Las Vegas Raiders at No. 7 and Atlanta Falcons at No. 8. Just spitballing here: I think the Texans, Colts, Seahawks and Panthers are the best opportunities for the Bears.
[ [Don’t miss] Ryan Poles says trading the No. 1 pick could be an ideal scenario, but the Chicago Bears will ‘investigate everything’ ]
I will point out there’s a chance a team (or teams) in the top 10 in need of a quarterback could decide their draft grades on the quarterbacks in this class are not great and the cost of a trade up is prohibitive, and they already are eyeing what looks to be a stronger class in 2024 with USC’s Caleb Williams and North Carolina’s Drake Maye.
Along those lines, there’s no guarantee the Texans are set on drafting a quarterback. Perhaps GM Nick Caserio will go that route, but the Texans have a roster in disarray, much like the Bears, and a rookie quarterback wouldn’t have much of a chance for instant success. It’s possible the Texans take that view and decide to do everything they can to improve the depth chart around the quarterback with an eye toward adding one a year from now. Take a quarterback now, and Caserio and new coach DeMeco Ryans are on the clock.
“That’s one way to look at it,” a general manager said. “But if Houston likes one this year, they have to take one. No telling where they will be picking a year from now. If you’re there and you like one, you have to take him.”
Additionally, if the Texans have similar grades on their top two quarterbacks — or if they have some doubt a team will meet the Bears’ demands for the No. 1 pick — they could stay put at No. 2.
The Seahawks loom as an interesting trade partner for the Bears. Geno Smith had a fantastic season, but he’s a 32-year-old free agent. Do GM John Schneider and coach Pete Carroll simply want to re-sign Smith and roll with him? Do they want to move forward with a rookie? Do they want to pair a draft pick with Smith and have a franchise quarterback to develop?
This is the highest draft pick the Seahawks have had since Carroll and Schneider were hired in 2010. They selected left tackle Russell Okung at No. 6 that year. They drafted left tackle Charles Cross at No. 9 last year. Their other first-round picks have been at Nos. 14, 25, 15, 31, 27, 29 and 27.
“The position that we are in, we are totally connected to the quarterbacks that are coming out,” Carroll said last week. “This is a really huge opportunity for us. It’s a rare opportunity for us. We’ve been drafting in the low 20s for such a long time, you just don’t get the chance for these guys. So we’re deeply involved with all of them.”
Each team is outfitted a little differently with draft capital. Here is a look at the picks in the top 100 for the six QB-needy teams in the top 10.
- Texans (5): Nos. 2, 12, 34, 66, 74
- Colts (3): Nos. 4, 36, 80
- Seahawks (5): Nos. 5, 20, 38, 53, 84
- Raiders (3): Nos. 7, 39, 71
- Falcons (3): Nos. 8, 45, 76
- Panthers (4): Nos. 9, 40, 62, 94
That was before the news broke Wednesday morning that Carter allegedly was involved in an accident that claimed the lives of teammate Devin Willock and recruiting staff member Chandler LeCroy.
Athens-Clarke County police charged Carter with two misdemeanors — reckless driving and racing — alleging he was racing a vehicle driven by LeCroy when it crashed. Police have said LeCroy’s vehicle was traveling at 104 mph, and her blood-alcohol level was measured at .197 — more than twice the legal limit. After returning from the combine to Georgia to surrender to authorities, Carter issued a statement in which he said he expects to be “fully exonerated.”
The tragedy killed two young people, and it only complicates draft matters for Carter. Teams have been digging into information about his background for some time, and this is a new and serious matter that needs to be resolved, especially considering a report from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Carter was not forthcoming when speaking with police. Initially he said he was a mile away when the crash happened. He reportedly was alongside LeCroy’s vehicle when the crash occurred.
“There’s a lot to get into,” one GM said when asked about Carter in January.
Said a national scout on Tuesday: “It’s going to take a strong organization with a strong coach, a strong locker room and a strong position coach to draft him.”
Now NFL teams have even more to unravel. Two teams that met with Carter in Indianapolis before Wednesday told me he did not mention his potential entanglement in the accident. Teams are permitted to schedule 45 one-on-one interviews in Indianapolis and they are 18 minutes in length, so that’s not the setting to dive into character questions that would need much more time to flesh out.
What this does for Carter’s draft stock remains to be seen. One veteran personnel man said that, on tape, Carter is the best player in the draft, that when he turns it on, he’s an absolute force. Character issues can lead players to slide in the draft. Will this knock Carter out of the top five? The top 10? If he’s a character risk in the top five, is he a safer pick in the teens?
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One player personnel director talked about a player his organization drafted years ago — a guy who was a front-line player for a decade after a draft-day slide because of an arrest record and concerns about clashes with coaches in college.
“He was a bad guy in the first round, a character risk in Round 2 and by the time you got to the third round, you looked at him and said, ‘He’s not too bad,’ ” the personnel director said.
I’m not suggesting Carter is going to slide to the third round or even out of Round 1, but I would be stunned if some teams don’t remove him from their draft board. This is just an example of how character is used on a sliding scale in different rounds. It’s why sometimes players taken near the top of Round 2 don’t pan out. The tape looks pretty good and, in some cases, is first-round material. Character issues can push a player into Round 2. Teams look at the player and say, “It’s worth the risk here.” If the character issues persist, the player can eventually fail.
Carter could become a dominant force in the NFL, and it will be some time before the legal situation plays out — perhaps not until the draft has come and gone. But significant questions existed for Carter before his arrest, which makes it more difficult to say he’s right there with Alabama edge rusher Will Anderson as the top two defensive players in the draft class. That certainly muddies things for Ryan Poles and the Bears.
“You have to get answers to questions you don’t want to have to ask,” a veteran personnel man said.
Then teams have to ask themselves how Carter would comport himself once he’s drafted and paid.
”I would study the hell out of what the Eagles did with Jalen Hurts,” one coach said. “That was some genius (stuff) to see how much better that offense became and how Hurts improved by leaps and bounds.”
It’s eye-opening to see how Hurts improved into an MVP candidate in his third season in the league, completing 65.3% of his passes for 3,701 yards with 22 touchdowns and six interceptions. He averaged 8 yards per attempt, up from 7.3 in 2021, and was a dynamic running threat.
One key for Fields has to be improved accuracy. He was at 60.4% last season, and a greater emphasis on check-down throws would easily increase that figure. He’s a skilled deep-ball thrower but he wasn’t wired to take the “cheap” completions, as Getsy referred to them during the season.
Fields regularly searched for the big play, which isgood when he scrambles for 15 yards or escapes from the pocket and finds a target downfield for a 20-yard gain. But it led to taking more hits, and a lot of times there’s nothing wrong with a 5-yard pass on first-and-10. Live to play another down.
Charting running back targets in the passing game by the top three backs on the roster, the Bears were 31st in the league with only 62. The Eagles were last at 61. But keep in mind Hurts had A.J. Brown, Devonta Smith and Dallas Goedert to throw to, a far superior group than the Bears ran out on the field. Nine teams had 120 targets or more for their top three backs.
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”They’ve got to tailor the offense to Justin,” a defensive coordinator said. “More of the RPO/run game stuff. Justin is a better athlete than Jalen, he’s got a stronger arm, he’s a faster runner. Jalen is stronger. The run game in Philly really drove it all. That’s why the play-action game worked so well. They can mimic that with Justin.”
I think Getsy did tailor the offense to Fields, and they each got better as the season went along. It’s one thing to say, “They need to fit the offense to Justin.” It’s another thing to be in there working to do that and incorporating the parts around him. Getsy adjusted as the season went along. We saw the scheme shift in late October, starting with the road victory against the New England Patriots. It remains a work in progress and it’s something I am sure Getsy and his staff are studying this offseason.
One thing was clear: Getsy had good plans almost every week. The Bears scored on 70.6% of their opening drives, the best in the NFL. As Warren Sharp noted, they had the fewest punts in the NFL on opening possessions and the third-most points. That means Getsy was coming up with a pretty sharp opening script each week, and his players were executing it.
Obviously the Bears struggled to sustain that as they finished 23rd in scoring at 19.2 points per game. To me, that leads to the overarching problem with the offense — the one the head coach and coordinator acknowledged is an obstacle: The personnel needs a supreme upgrade, the kind that will require multiple offseasons.
Comparing Fields to Hurts is fun — and potentially instructive — but did the Bears have a single offensive starter you would have taken over the Eagles’ primary starter last season? The Eagles were loaded on offense (and defense), which is why they came within a play or two of winning the Super Bowl.
It’s probably difficult for Getsy and his staff to do too much planning until they know what they’re going to have in the way of personnel. The Bears need to upgrade the offensive line and need a dynamic wide receiver, and their existing players such as Chase Claypool, Darnell Mooney and Cole Kmet need to be better in the passing game.
”I think you could drop Fields into Philadelphia and that offense would be humming,” the defensive coordinator said.
The challenge is you cannot drop the 10 starters the Eagles had around Hurts into Halas Hall — not in one offseason anyway. Maybe not in two. But Getsy did well with what he had to work with, so there should be confidence the product will improve in Year 2 all the way around.
The negotiating window that leads into free agency has greatly reduced the deals (outright tampering) that happen. Agents and teams fish with one another for numbers, and in a lot of cases, neither side says a lot. Agents want to know what range in terms of money teams are thinking for their clients. Teams want to know what ranges the agents are hearing about their clients from other teams.
”Everyone is sort of playing hide the ball,” one GM explained.
That being said, where do things stand with the Bears and running back David Montgomery?
”I’m not going to get into all of those specifics and who we’re talking to and who we’re not talking to,” Ryan Poles said. “But my feelings for David haven’t changed, so we’re going to go through this process and gather information and have conversations and see what happens.”
Poles, Matt Eberflus, Luke Getsy and before them Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy always have thoroughly praised Montgomery. That is because he is a thorough professional, always going about his job the right way.
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Montgomery is the highest-profile free agent the Bears have. He’s coming off a bit of a down season, rushing for 801 yards and averaging 4 per carry while sharing the load with Khalil Herbert. Montgomery’s pass-catching numbers were down (34 receptions for 316 yards), but as I explained above, the team wasn’t throwing to backs much. Montgomery is far better than Herbert in pass protection.
Montgomery should have a market, but the complicating factors for him are a slew of veteran backs are set to reach the market and it’s a rock-solid position for the draft. Contending teams or those short on draft picks could be in the market for a veteran back, and the guess here is the range for Montgomery is somewhere between $4 million and $5 million per season.
Given Poles’ background in Kansas City and how the Chiefs have been successful plugging in running backs on rookie contracts, this will be particularly interesting because Montgomery does provide intangibles the Bears value. It will come down to how seriously they want him. Everything the team has said is positive. The eventual numbers — assuming an offer comes — will tell you how the franchise truly feels about him.
- Word is Dre’Mont Jones is seeking $18 million per season. The marketplace for high-caliber defensive tackles has soared the last two years, and Jones is a good player. The Denver Broncos remain in talks with him, but it would be surprising if he doesn’t test the market. The Bears were going to pay (overpay) Larry Ogunjobi $13.5 million per season to be the three-technique last year before medical concerns kiboshed the deal. So given their intense need and the lack of options after the Washington Commanders placed the franchise tag on Daron Payne, it stands to reason they might overpay Jones.
- Javon Hargrave is a terrific player at the same position with more production over the course of his career. But he’s 30 and I’m not sure his age fits the profile of the kind of player the Bears want to spend big on.
- The right tackle market will be expensive. It sounds as if the floor for the San Francisco 49ers’ Mike McGlinchey might be $15 million per season. Jawaan Taylor of the Jacksonville Jaguars, if he makes it to free agency, likely would cost just as much and he’s almost three years younger. Kaleb McGary of the Atlanta Falcons could be a little cheaper than those two. He had a cardiac ablation procedure as a rookie in 2019, which will be flagged by some teams but not all.
- It sounds as if the Bears could have interest in interior lineman Wes Schweitzer, 29, who spent the last three seasons with the Commanders. He can play guard and center and played his first three seasons with the Atlanta Falcons working under Bears line coach Chris Morgan. Schweitzer has 60 career starts. When the Bears talked about having a good veteran presence in the room last season with guys such as Riley Reiff and Michael Schofield, this makes sense because Schweitzer could bring a similar presence and knows the scheme. Whether he’s in position to compete for a starting job or considered a high-caliber backup — if signed — I don’t know. But keep an eye on Schweitzer and know the Bears are most likely moving on from Sam Mustipher, who started 40 games at center the last three seasons and is a restricted free agent.
- Bobby Okereke is a productive 26-year-old free agent whom the Bears could plug in at weak-side linebacker. He could command around $10 million per season. The only question I have about adding him would be if this is a position at which Matt Eberflus has confidence the Bears can draft and develop a starter. Coming from Indianapolis, Okereke could be plugged in immediately without having to learn a new scheme.
Players were asked to evaluate a variety of elements, including locker room features, strength staff, training staff, training room, weight room, team travel, food/nutrition and treatment of families on game day.
The Bears grades:
- Treatment of families: C-minus (tied-22nd)
- Food service/nutrition: D-plus (t-18th)
- Weight room: A (t-5th)
- Strength coaches: A-minus (t-17th)
- Training room: A-plus (t-1st)
- Training staff: A-minus (t-15th)
- Locker room: A (t-5th)
- Team travel: C-minus (t-23rd)
That reflects well on the improvements the team made to Halas Hall, strength coach Jim Arthur and his staff and head athletic trainer Andre Tucker and his staff. Players complained about the timing of meals and food before practice. They dinged the Bears for a lack of first-class seats for air travel. They also complained about the intensity of offseason workouts, which led the Bears to forfeit an OTA practice last spring. Complaints about space for families on game days can be attributed to Soldier Field lacking in a lot of ways because of poor planning.
Overall, the Bears got high marks, and it’s worth noting that incoming President/CEO Kevin Warren had a long run with the Minnesota Vikings, who ranked first overall in the survey. That bodes well for the future.
Looking ahead to the list of 14 opponents in 2023 — the schedule will be released this spring — they play five games against teams that had no change: the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers (two games each) and Las Vegas Raiders. That’s it.
Every other opponent experienced some level of change. The Arizona Cardinals, Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos hired new head coaches and staffs. The Los Angeles Chargers have new offensive (Kellen Moore) and defensive (Derrick Ansley) coordinators. The Kansas City Chiefs (Matt Nagy), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Dave Canales) and Washington Commanders (Eric Bieniemy) hired offensive coordinators. The Atlanta Falcons (Ryan Nielsen), Cleveland Browns (Jim Schwartz), Minnesota Vikings (Brian Flores) and New Orleans Saints (Joe Woods) hired defensive coordinators.
Change sometimes leads to slow starts or can complicate game plans as teams are not quite certain what to expect from new staffs. That’s why it always is instructive to see where on the schedule teams with new staffs/playbooks are. There can be a great deal of unknown when playing a team with a new staff at the start of the season.
Conventional thinking is the Bears have a chance to be selected as the “visiting” team for that game, but a team official I spoke with said Halas Hall hasn’t received any word about an international game in 2023.
The Lions last played an international game in 2015, when they lost to the Chiefs in London. The Bears last played overseas in 2019 — a loss to the Raiders in London. The Lions were scheduled to play the Jaguars in London in 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic scrapped that plan.
With the introduction of the 17-game season in 2021, the league has rotated between AFC and NFC teams playing home games internationally. This year, five AFC teams will play home games outside of the United States.
If the Bears are not selected to play the Chiefs in Frankfurt, they have a decent chance to be tabbed as one of five NFC teams to play a home game abroad in 2024. The Bears have yet to have a home game overseas. They were the road team in a 2011 victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Wembley Stadium in London in 2011. Chairman George McCaskey is a member of the league’s international committee.
The league has increased interest in playing in Germany — the New England Patriots also will play a home game in Frankfurt this season — and the Bears have been assigned Spain as part of the NFL’s International Home Market Area system.
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10a. The No. 1 pick has been traded only once since the NFL revamped the pay structure for draft picks in the 2011 CBA. That happened in 2015, when the Tennessee Titans dealt the pick to the Los Angeles Rams, who moved up to select quarterback Jared Goff. Previously, the last time the No. 1 pick was traded was 2001, when the Atlanta Falcons swapped with the San Diego Chargers to draft quarterback Michael Vick. Before that, the No. 1 pick was traded in 1997, 1995, 1991, 1990 and 1984, dating to 1980.
Teams in need of a quarterback have been less inclined to trade the pick in this era — and before the current slotting system. In the previous system, when contracts for top draft picks soared, teams at the top of the draft often were eager to trade down. The Bears traded the fourth pick in 2003. Two years later they tried to trade the fourth pick but couldn’t get a taker and wound up with running back Cedric Benson. It was cost-prohibitive to be drafting at the top. Recall that Sam Bradford, the last No. 1 pick in the old system, got a six-year, $78 million contract from the St. Louis Rams in 2010.
In the current slotted system, the contracts are far less burdensome. Travon Walker, the top pick last year, got a $37.3 million contract from the Jacksonville Jaguars — less than half of what Bradford signed for. So teams have been less inclined to move out of the top few picks because of exorbitant contracts. Of course, the Bears have a “For sale” sign posted at Halas Hall.