By Robert Zeglinski
Bears general manager Ryan Pace has always emphasized the importance of building in the draft. Even in years where the Bears have had minimal draft capital (2017), it’s clear there was a priority to make the most of limited chances on, at best, guesses of prospects. Pace, ever the aggressive executive, had to get creative in these moments.
After making a franchise-shifting move for Khalil Mack in September, Pace and the Bears have known they were going to be shorthanded in the 2019 NFL Draft for a while. They readily accepted this reality if it meant acquiring a walking inevitability such as Mack. With only five selections to make on draft weekend, but several underlying holes remaining, Pace again had to be uncommonly inventive to place the Bears in a comfortable situation.
From a versatile running back, to a physical freak of a converted defensive back, the rationale behind each of the Bears’ 2019 draft picks was incredibly transparent.
No. 73 overall, third round (trade up with Patriots): David Montgomery, RB
For the entirety of the 2019 off-season, the Bears have desperately combed through the possibilities of adding every running back in existence, both active and retired. They had to cover their bases, so why not look back upon the exploits of Hall of Famer Barry Sanders?
The Bears didn’t actually encyclopedically run through every running back there ever was, but it certainly seemed like they did. With the huge hole they had in their backfield while in the midst of a Super Bowl window, they couldn’t afford to not check every box. They cross all their t’s and dot all their i’s to find the answer.
The answer comes in the form of former Iowa State Cyclone, David Montgomery: One of the most productive backs in college football over the last two seasons. Montgomery has versatile skill-set as a patient runner and experienced receiver out of the backfield, and his fit with Chicago and head coach Matt Nagy’s offense should be seen as one of the best in the draft.
I’m aware “perfect fit” is thrown around far too much in football jargon during draft season, but Montgomery fits the Bears like a glove. From the get-go, he should get off the ground running in an offense that’s almost positively going to be centered around his abilities. There will come a time where the Bears’ process in trading up for any running back will have to be reasonably picked apart. A pick-strapped team like the Bears can’t afford to give up any selections for arguably the most replaceable position, regardless of where they sit in their championship window.
But for now, at least on paper, the contender Bears have no major weaknesses on offense thanks to Montgomery’s addition.
No. 126 overall, fourth round: Riley Ridley, WR
The first thought that comes to mind with Ridley’s addition to the Bears receiving corps is luxury. Chicago already has a bevy of playmakers in the slot and out on the outside with Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, and Anthony Miller. They didn’t technically need another weapon in the short-term, even if I’m sure that Mitchell Trubisky appreciates any time the Bears do invest in another toy for him. Ridley is a cherry on top of their offensive cupcake.
Making a move for the former Georgia Bulldog in the fourth round means the Bears are already preparing for life after some of their active receivers. Like his older brother Calvin, now in Atlanta, Ridley was one of the most polished route-runners in the 2019 class, but needs patience to refine the other aspects of his game before he can thrive as a professional. In an ideal world for the Bears, he’s prepared to contribute by the time contracts of guys like Gabriel and Robinson soon have minimal dead salary cap remaining.
In the near future, the Bears are going to have a litany of difficult decisions with several core players such as Trubisky and Eddie Jackson needing extensions. One of the places they’ll readily cut back to afford their stars is at receiver: Currently one of their priciest overall position groups. That doesn’t spell out a great outlook for Chicago’s veteran playmakers to carve out a long term career barring an explosive next couple of seasons.
By then, fortunately, the Bears should expect the physical and smart Ridley to be ready to step into whatever role they give him. He’ll have no other choice but to be ready.
No. 205 overall, sixth round: Duke Shelley, CB
Off of most reputed draft analysts’ radars both due to a toe injury that limited his time at the Scouting Combine, and because he played at Kansas State, Shelley is this year’s underrated Bears draft steal.
No pressure on another draft cliche.
The diminutive and generously listed 5-foot-9, 181 pound Shelley is the prototypical grinder. While primarily featuring on the boundary for the Wildcats, the Bears would be doing a disservice to their defense if they didn’t move Shelley over to the slot: Something that may already be evident in their plans.
Shelley is a smart and patient player who doesn’t overexert himself despite his size. He knows how to play the long game in the context of a three-hour battle. He understands when it’s time to attack based on coverage, and when it’s time to sit back and let plays develop: Both for his own well-being and for the integrity of the defense. There’s a lot instinctive playmaking ability prominent in Shelley’s makeup that he’ll get a chance to fully unlock with the Bears.
If all goes swimmingly, the main question with Shelley is when he eventually supplants veteran Buster Skrine at nickel cornerback. The ability is there, as is the untapped potential. The only notable difference between the two is experience with Shelley being a rookie and Skrine entering his ninth professional season with his third team. It’s a fascinating competition to watch in the upcoming summer that may get reasonable heat faster than you think.
At worst, the Bears have depth at nickel cornerback now, which is something they didn’t possess entering this year’s draft. While he might be 180 pounds soaking wet, Shelley has the moxie to make it in the league, and he’ll be someone to keep a close eye on in the coming months.
No. 222 overall, seventh round: Kerrith Whyte, Jr., RB
Last season, while dominating on defense and just getting by on offense, the Bears had one of the NFL’s very worst special teams units. It’s easy to focus on the walking kicking parody that was Cody Parkey, but Chicago’s coverage teams on punts and kicks left a lot to be desired. And outside of the occasional electric Tarik Cohen punt return, so did most of the Bears’ return game.
In 2019, the Bears no longer want to be handicapped in the latter realm. They wouldn’t have signed a predominant special teamer such as Cordarrelle Patterson – one of football’s best kick returners – if they were satisfied with their return efforts. They would’t have then have followed that up with some hopeful competition and extra speed on special teams in the form of the former Florida Atlantic blazer in Whyte, Jr.
Whyte Jr. is a big play waiting to happen any time he touches on the ball. He could play a factor on offense, but more realistically, special teams is where he’ll make his hay for Chicago. Over the course of three years as the Owls’ main kick returner, Whyte Jr. averaged 26.1 yards per kick return and scored two touchdowns. In 2016, he gained over 1,000 yards on kick returns on a mere 39 attempts. Talk about making the most of your opportunities. But as his role in Florida Atlantic’s offense grew, Whyte Jr.’s place on special teams was scaled back.
To start his career in Chicago, there shouldn’t be such an issue for Whyte Jr. He’s not going to supplant any of Montgomery, Cohen, or highly-paid free agent Mike Davis at running back. So he can focus his energy on making special teams coordinator Chris Tabor’s coverage teams look silly, er … making them better. The definition of a chunk play, Whyte Jr. adds to a missing return element the Bears will only have to worry about in the event of disaster.
No. 238, seventh round: Stephen Denmark, CB
Coming out of an obvious football school gold mine such as Valdosta State, it would’ve been reasonable if you were wracking your brain as to who exactly Denmark was when the Bears made the decision to draft him late.
Here’s what you should know about Denmark: He’s tall. He’s fast. He’s long. Most importantly, he’s raw.
A former receiver for three years in college, standing at 6-foot-3, 212 pounds with 33-inch arms, Denmark is more built like a small linebacker than any typical wiry cornerback. If he dedicates himself to make sure his natural physical assets become something to be feared, not just a novelty to gawk over, then Denmark has a bright NFL future. As a seventh-round pick, however, his leash to do is shorter than most. He’ll have to make his mark, and an impression on the Bears’ coaching staff, far sooner rather than later.
Most teams aren’t stashing seventh-round picks and giving them chance after chance to develop, year after year. Denmark will assuredly be no different, and the clock is already ticking.
Robert is an editor, writer, and producer. Follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.