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Bears first-round picks need to start living up to expectations in 2018

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When evaluating Ryan Pace’s draft history, there is definitely a common theme over the last three seasons. Each first-round pick was targeted as a foundational piece for the Chicago Bears.

Leonard Floyd, Mitchell Trubisky and Roquan Smith were all selected to be the defining pieces of Pace’s team. You could argue that Kevin White was meant to be one of those guys too, but his injury history has him closer to being on the bubble than a cornerstone piece.

Each plays an impact position on the roster and should have a major role going forward. On paper, Floyd is the pass-rushing specialist, Trubisky is the franchise quarterback and Smith is the leader and catalyst of the defense.

That’s the best-case scenario, of course.

The book on their careers is far from being written, but the 2018 season needs to be the year it all starts to come together. No one says they need to be All-Pro caliber. However, they do need to show signs of why they were selected in the first round.

Leonard Floyd – The Pro Bowl Pass Rusher

Floyd was selected ninth overall in the 2016 NFL Draft. Despite his extremely slender frame coming out of Georgia, Pace saw someone who could rack up double-digit sacks using his speed and length. While there have been plenty of flashes in two seasons, no one can definitively say he’s capable of being an elite pass rusher.

Given his draft stock, he should be playing at that level, but Floyd only has 11.5 career sacks but has missed 10 games the last two seasons due to injury. While he only played 10 games last season, his 4.5 sacks and game-to-game inconsistency were disappointing. A guy who spends his career hovering around five sacks a season isn’t a cornerstone player and not worth the No. 9 overall selection.

However, there are some encouraging signs. Floyd has slowly been bulking up since last offseason. That beefier 250-pound frame could help him stave off some double teams and larger blockers.

He also has added a more refined swim move to his arsenal, which was on display a couple of times during the Bears preseason game against the Bengals Thursday. On Kyle Fuller’s interception return for a touchdown, Floyd used his swim move to beat the right tackle and force Andy Dalton to make a quick throw under duress.

The Bears need Floyd to play at a Pro Bowl level. That means he needs to start sacking the quarterback at a higher rate and creating consistent pressure off the edge. The latter would certainly help Vic Fangio’s defensive unit generate more turnovers, something it’s struggled to do the last three seasons.

Unless the Bears surprise everyone this preseason and acquire Khalil Mack or another top-tier pass rusher, Floyd is the best outside linebacker on the roster. While some of that speaks to the lack of options, it also speaks to his natural ability.

All the tools are there for Floyd to be a nightmare off the edge and rack up double-digit sacks. But this season must be the year everything starts to come into fruition.

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May 23, 2018; Lake Forest, Illinois, USA; Chicago Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky (10) warms up during organized team activities at Halas Hall. Mandatory Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Mitchell Trubisky – The Franchise QB

Pace’s pursuit of Trubisky last year was very telling. Even though the Bears held the third overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, he was willing to give up future draft equity to move up one spot and draft the North Carolina prospect second overall.

We’ll never know if San Francisco 49ers GM John Lynch played the Bears, but we do know that Pace was hellbent on Trubisky being his franchise quarterback. The bold move joins both guys at the hip. As Trubisky goes, so goes Pace.

It’s a risky proposition given how raw Trubisky is. We’ve read all the reports and quotes from teammates that talk up Trubiksy’s leadership skills. That’s certainly encouraging when talking about a potential franchise QB, but what about his tangibles?

Can he consistently make plays in the pocket? Does his accuracy hold up under duress? Can he process an NFL defense quick enough?

No one can definitively answer those questions. The sample size has been way too small to draw any conclusions as to whether he’s a bust or on the verge of Pro Bowl status.

The second-year quarterback started 13 games in his college career. As a rookie, former head coach John Fox and ex-offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains chose to handcuff Trubisky, and the surrounding cast of playmakers was severely limited.

To steal a line from Dave Wannstedt, “the pieces are in place” this season.

New head coach Matt Nagy is installing a system suited to Trubisky’s strengths. Pace made plenty of moves this offseason – including the additions of wide receivers Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Anthony Miller along with tight end Trey Burton – to help his young QB.

So far through training camp, he’s been inconsistent. Earlier practices featured a lot of mistimed throws and interceptions. However, the latest reports out of camp say that Trubisky is in a rhythm, hitting a lot intermediate and deep passes with ease. The growing pains are to be expected as Trubisky continues to learn a new offense.

Statistically, everyone would love to see him complete around 64 percent of his passes while throwing for around 3,500 yards and 24 touchdowns with fewer than 12 interceptions in year two. But stats won’t matter without seeing consistent growth.

Would you rather have Trubisky look uncomfortable and glom up stats in garbage-time blowouts or struggle out of the gate but hit his stride in the latter half of the year?

If his numbers improve in the second half of the season when the schedule gets harder, that means Trubisky is taking the next step and the offense is gelling.

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Apr 26, 2018; Arlington, TX, USA; Roquan Smith (Georgia) with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell after being selected as the number eight overall pick to the Chicago Bears in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Roquan Smith – The Leader of the Defense

As we just documented, Pace’s first-round picks prior to Smith were raw and unproven. You can even include White with that group. White had the speed and size coming out of West Virginia but played in a pass-happy college offense.

Smith is the only first-round selection who was viewed as a pro-ready player. That’s why many fans and experts deemed him a safe draft pick at No. 8 overall. Our Ryan Wooden summed it up best when Smith was drafted in April:

Nothing is guaranteed with Roquan Smith, but he’s a linebacker who survived the grind of the SEC, recorded 137 tackles and 6 sacks in 2017 and ran a 4.51-second 40-yard dash at 236 pounds. Those are all the markers you’re looking for in a linebacker in Vic Fangio’s defense.

His ceiling might not be as high as Tremaine Edmunds, but his floor is much higher. And that is a good sign for the Bears on a couple of levels.

That high floor is why Pace picked him. The Bears felt he was capable of starting at inside linebacker from day one and cementing his spot for years to come.

But as we dive deeper into preseason, he’s still nowhere to be found.

Smith’s holdout rages on, and the chances of him starting week one against the Green Bay Packers are getting slimmer with each passing week. No one is quite sure what the holdout is about.

Some reports claim that Smith’s representatives, CAA, want a clause in his contract ensuring the Bears won’t take guaranteed money because of on-field suspensions. This is in response to the NFL’s new helmet rule, which allows players to be ejected and suspended for initiating contact using the crown of the helmet.

However, other reports say that the Bears have already conceded to that request and that both sides are grappling over other language related to off-field suspensions.

It’s hard to say who is in the right or wrong in this situation. All we know is that Smith is missing valuable time and that makes it hard for him to live up to his potential. Similar to how CAA handled Joey Bosa’s rookie contract in 2016, there is likely a drop-dead date to get Smith’s contract done prior to the start of the regular season.

Instead of getting the reps in camp and game experience in the preseason, he could be forced to learn on the fly. Smith has the skill set and IQ to step into action quickly, but he probably won’t be in game shape. In that case, the Bears will have two ways to handle the rookie:

  • Play him – By forcing him into action right away, Smith gets the reps needed for his development. But if he’s not physically ready, he could struggle or risk the chance of injury.
  • Sit him – If the Bears decide to make Smith inactive or limit his reps earlier in the year, it could help him get into football shape but won’t get him the necessary experience.

Either is a lose-lose scenario. Instead of getting a chance to begin his professional development from the get-go, Smith likely won’t start showcasing his abilities until later in the season.

So what do we need to see from Smith before the 2018 season concludes? Command.

Smith needs to command the defensive huddle and emerge as a leader of the unit. He should begin to call plays and force opposing quarterbacks to make on-the-fly decisions. He not only has to be a sure tackler against the run, but he also has to be an above-average player in pass coverage.

Pace has done a decent job drafting gems outside the first round. Guys like Jordan Howard, Adrian Amos, Eddie Jackson, Cody Whitehair and Tarik Cohen all look like solid pieces going forward. But now is the time for the last three first-rounders to show their stuff.

Pace’s job not only hinges on their success, but the entire direction of the franchise also depends on it.

Matt graduated with a Bachelor's degree of journalism from DePaul University in 2011 and currently works in the digital marketing world as a content manager. He's been a Chicago sports fan and almanac since childhood, and he has explainable superstitions leading up to Bears games. Aside from sports, Matt also shares a deep love for family, friends, faith, theater and creative writing.