NFL Draft preview: Hope finally springs eternal for Pace and Bears

By Robert Zeglinski

The past few seasons haven’t been kind to the Chicago Bears, who haven’t made the postseason since a fateful loss to the Green Bay Packers in the 2011 NFC Championship Game.

With the ouster of former head Marc Trestman and ex-general manager Phil Emery came the exuberant energy of Ryan Pace, who has Halas Hall pointed north like it hasn’t been in a long time. The hiring of John Fox from the outset spoke volumes: even though the Bears were a 6-10 team last season there proved to be a true culture change. All that was needed was a talent influx in the draft and free agency

Pace hasn’t disappointed the orange and blue faithful.

After drafting promising young players Eddie Goldman, Jeremy Langford, and Adrian Amos in last year’s NFL draft to combine with the signing of stalwart Pernell McPhee on the open market, Pace set the tone for a promising future. That isn’t even counting first round pick receiver Kevin White, who missed all of last season due to a calf injury. The brass certainly believe he is a long-term keeper.

One could say that in one season, the 38-year-old did more to make the Bears a lasting contender than Emery did in all of his three seasons.

With the draft this week, Pace made boosting moves again in free agency. Who could argue with the signings of star linebacker Danny Trevathan, picking up Jerrell Freeman, and the added defensive line depth in Akiem Hicks? What was the ultimate downfall for the team last year – a lack of depth down the middle defensively – is now a definitive strength.

And that isn’t even mentioning signing Bobbie Massie to play right tackle. Massie may not inherently play well, but he allows Kyle Long to swing back to right guard, a position where we has been a two-time Pro Bowler.

For a little under a frugal $20 million, Pace significantly improved the Bears while leaving room for flexibility. That’s impressive.

That brings us to this week’s draft as mentioned: what should the Bears do?

There has been talk of drafting a quarterback to groom in the stead of Cutler, but it seems like this team is invested in winning with the 32-year-old so that’s out the window.

Realistically, the Bears are one true franchise piece away on defense from having a great defense again. They’re missing a pass rushing 3-4 defensive end. Lucky for them, there’s an abundance of prospects available for the job in the 2016 draft.

Former Ohio State star Joey Bosa is certainly going into the top 10 so you can cross him off, even if he is a perfect fit. But with the over eager trades by the Philadelphia Eagles and St. Louis Rams to move into the top two, talent trickles down to the Bears at 11.

Shaq Lawson, arguably the best player from last year’s Clemson team that lost in the national title game could also be considered. A raw junior with 12.5 sacks is the exact mold Chicago needs. Lawson has one of the highest talent ceilings in this draft according to several scouts and is the kind of player that took over games by himself on a very talented Clemson front.

Lawson is described as “a tank” who is “scheme versatile” with “great instincts.”

This is exactly the kind of special innate young talent the Bears need on their defensive front. Issues such as flexibility or nuance to pass rushing are things Lawson can work on given how raw he is as a young player. This is why his ceiling is so high. He’s already a polished player but the Bears can work his technique. Given his size and athleticism, it also wouldn’t be out of the question for them to use Lawson as a 3-4 outside linebacker instead of an end.

Either way, Lawson is a likely long-term starter in the NFL. It’s just about fully maximizing his potential under the right coaching staff. That’s where Vic Fangio, noted defensive genius, comes in and saves the day. It all comes full circle for Chicago.

That, of course, is a luxury this franchise should strive for.

Drafting an offensive tackle like Ronnie Stanley from Notre Dame to bolster a youthful offensive line isn’t a bad idea either, but you have to think Pace sees things differently.

If I’m on the clock as the Chicago Bears on Thursday, I choose a versatile defensive end, because a guy like Lawson will be the best player available and will have the Bears make strides moving forward.

With the 11th pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, the Chicago Bears select defensive end Shaq Lawson.

Don’t call him the missing link. Just call Lawson the logical step in the detailed plan of a team architect whose inexperience seems like no issue at all.

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