By Robert Zeglinski
Building an NFL contender is an inexact science. There’s no true method that consistently works. Plus, fortune with moves made plays a great part into actual success regardless of efforts.
However, most agree that quality drafting – particularly drafting that has selected players stick around on second contracts – plays the most sizable role in an NFL team staying relevant. If you consistently draft well and are able to get your homegrown talent to stick around past a rookie contract, you heavily mitigate fortune not smiling upon your team.
It is here where the modern Bears have failed the most. Where a team that has just four playoff appearances in the 21st century has routinely fallen short. From Jerry Angelo to Phil Emery and Ryan Pace (though Pace’s selections are still early to make any second contract judgment on yet), Chicago has rarely had had drafted players sign second contracts with the organization.
Since 2000, the Bears have drafted 139 players. Of that talent pool, just 11 have stuck around on second contracts: Brian Urlacher, Mike Brown, Terrence Metcalf, Alex Brown, Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman, Rex Grossman, Devin Hester, Matt Forte, Kyle Long, and Kyle Fuller. If one includes pending decisions on 2015 draft picks Eddie Goldman (likely) and Adrian Amos (50-50), that number rises to 13. Not ideal roster construction.
You could also make the claim that guys like Metcalf and Grossman (who signed short-term deals) weren’t the types of guys you look for on second contracts in actuality.
In any event, a little over 10 percent of drafted Bears staying on second contract extensions is a paltry figure that leads to the Bears being caught in the molasses of one of the NFL’s worst modern franchises on the field. If not for their place in a major market like Chicago, this horrid effort in drafting would leave the Bears in the shadows of the sports conversation until they were absolute contenders again.
The moral is that Pace needs to reverse this trend if they hope to make the Bears a contender year in and year out for the first time since the 1980s. Since Pace is early in his tenure, we won’t be able to properly ascertain his second contract drafting for some time. As mentioned, guys like Goldman and Amos, are only now leading the discussion as they enter their fourth professional seasons. And they were part of Pace’s first Bears draft class.
Following 2018, it’ll be time to put the 2016 Bears’ draft class under a microscope. That is the draft led by first rounder Leonard Floyd.
Let’s examine the parameters from the crown jewels of Chicago’s 2016 draft in Floyd, Cody Whitehair, and Jordan Howard. And, whether they’ve earned another deal, have more work to do, or are unlikely to return once their rookie contracts are up.
Leonard Floyd, Edge: First round, No. 9 overall
Earned a second contract? No
Quotable: “I know they’re chomping at the bit to get out here, but we just need to be smart,” Nagy said of Floyd and Allen Robinson during this year’s organized team activities, who are both recovering from knee injuries.
What must be accomplished: Floyd is one of the most naturally gifted players in football. The Bears count on him to cover tight ends and running backs, set the defensive edge, and rush the passer because he’s a stellar athlete. However, he’s missed 10 games in two seasons due to a variety of injuries. Right now, he’s not worth keeping around on a monster second deal.
Of course, being Pace’s crown jewel defensive pick, the Bears would prefer that Floyd does prove to be worthy of calling Chicago a long term home. If Floyd stays on the field for a majority of the games Chicago plays next year, he should be a consistent force that the Bears have no problem talking extension with next spring. Note that since Floyd is a first round selection, the Bears have the choice of using a fifth round option on him: which they must decide by next May.
Cody Whitehair, C: Second round, No. 56 overall
Earned a second contract? No
Quotable: “Having consistency in what they’re being asked to do, and then doing it over and over,” offensive line coach Harry Hiestand on Whitehair and 2018 second round pick James Daniels, to The Athletic.
What must be accomplished: As a rookie in 2016, Whitehair was one of the NFL’s bring young offensive lineman. He was named to the PFWA All-Rookie Team and picked as a breakout player going into the 2017 season. He was everything the doctor ordered for the Bears at center.
2017, after being moved around due to injuries along Chicago’s offensive front, was a different story as Whitehair struggled to maintain the form he showcased as a rookie. From bad snaps to lost leverage, Whitehair seemed like a shell of himself, though one that had more been shaken by an incompetent coaching staff, than a guy who had forgotten how to play.
With the guru Hiestand in the fold, a young partner in James Daniels, and a coaching staff that generally understands its most optimal to keep players comfortable: Whitehair shouldn’t have to worry about being jerked around further. 2018 begins an era for the 25-year-old that allows him to get back on track towards becoming a true elite Bears center in the same conversation as former perennial All-Pro Olin Kreutz.
By the end of next season, Chicago should have no issues locking in Whitehair as the foundation of their offensive line for years.
Jordan Howard, RB: Fifth round, No. 150 overall
Earned a second contract? Maybe
Quotable: “In this offense, it’s more game-specific,” Nagy on what the bruising Howard’s role is in his scheme.
What must be accomplished: From a production standpoint, Howard doesn’t have to do more to show he belongs in the NFL. He clearly does.
Howard’s already 14th in Bears’ history with 2,435 yards. He’s the only Bears running back to rush for 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons and is the fastest to 10 100-yard games. That includes Walter Payton, Gale Sayers, and Matt Forte. Whether his career in Chicago continues beyond his rookie four-year deal is a different story from whether he should play a lengthy amount of time as a professional, because he will.
No, where Howard needs to prove himself, is that the powerful runner can exist in a diverse offense that demands he be more of a receiving threat. In his first two years, Howard has dropped 12 passes despite only 82 combined targets. He’s not a legitimate weapon in the passing game and likely never will be: even with slight improvements as an occasional safety valve for the quarterback.
The question is how much this limits Howard’s role in Chicago’s new offense. Howard is closer to a running back that plays in a stable of players who can grind it out between the tackles when called upon, than a complete tailback like Los Angeles’ Todd Gurley or Kansas City’s Kareem Hunt, that do it all for their teams.
Howard will find an easier time with wider running lanes given how less predictable this Bears’ attack purports to be. But that doesn’t mean his production automatically rises. He’ll have a role to play, yet he’s not someone that should expect to be around 250 carries again. There are too many weapons and other complete options that Chicago possesses.
If Howard proves valuable enough in his niche role, then perhaps the Bears extend him. If he’s expecting a lucrative deal in that scenario, then he’ll be sorely mistaken. Running backs do not get immense commitments of this nature. If the top all-around guys like Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell have been fighting for a new deal for a few years, then Howard has another battle of his own on the way regardless of his 2018 performance.
Robert is your guy for all things Bears. Find him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.