Chicago Bears storylines: Bijan Robinson’s unexpected appeal, a big need at defensive tackle and the true cost of the Chase Claypool trade

The NFL draft is three weeks away, leaving the Chicago Bears in the homestretch of their evaluation process.

The Bears currently hold 10 selections in the April 27-29 draft, and general manager Ryan Poles is eager to attack that weekend with purpose, understanding how many holes he has to fill on his roster.

As Poles and the Bears cross the bridge from free agency to the draft, here’s the inside slant on three notable storylines.

The sure thing

Approach the evaluation with an open mind and you’ll see why many NFL talent evaluators can’t stop fixating on Texas running back Bijan Robinson.

Scan through Robinson’s junior season stats — 258 carries, 1,580 yards, 18 touchdowns — and it’s easy to acknowledge the elite production.

Check out his combine measurables too. The 37-inch vertical leap, the 10-foot, 4-inch broad jump, the 4.46-second time in the 40-yard dash. Yep, those pass muster as well.

Then turn on the game video where week after week, series after series last season, Robinson put on a clinic in how to dizzy and demoralize defenses.

He showed patience and power, speed and vision.

Robinson can go 78 yards untouched like he did to poor Texas-San Antonio in September. Or he can become a human pinball for an entire afternoon, as he was during a 243-yard, four-touchdown effort against Kansas in November.

At a stage in the pre-draft process when every prospect in this class has had his skill set heavily examined with even the smallest flaws detected and debated, few around the NFL can find much wrong with Robinson, who was a unanimous All-American and the winner of the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s top running back last season.

Jim Nagy, an NFL scout for 18 years who now is the executive director of the Senior Bowl, finished his Robinson report this week and left with his jaw dropped.

“(He) looks like the all-state kid pulled down to play JV games,” Nagy tweeted Wednesday. “This is an early congratulations to whichever team picks him.”

ESPN analyst Todd McShay ranks Robinson as the fourth-best prospect in the entire class, behind only Alabama quarterback Bryce Young, Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud and Alabama edge rusher Will Anderson.

McShay sees the chance for some lucky team to snag Robinson on April 27 and surf the wave of his production for the entirety of his rookie contract, noting that the Texas star is, in his estimation, a better talent than Saquon Barkley was coming out of Penn State five years ago. Barkley was drafted with the No. 2 pick by the New York Giants.

“To me,” McShay said, “if he’s got a similar if not slightly better skill set as Saquon Barkley, then he belongs in the top five or top 10.”

See where we’re headed here? To Lake Forest, of course, where the Bears own a top-10 pick and at the very least have to entertain a long and detailed discussion of whether they should consider drafting Robinson in three weeks.

There are 125 reasons the Bears shouldn’t use the No. 9 selection on Robinson, starting with the positional value in the NFL and moving quickly to Ryan Poles’ more pressing needs to stabilize his offensive and defensive lines.

Plus, the Bears already have Khalil Herbert as an established backfield contributor and added veterans D’Onta Foreman and Travis Homer to that room in free agency. At this point, adding another back to the mix would seem to be a luxury acquisition at a time when the Bears need to be addressing needs.

NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah also doesn’t find it worthwhile for a team that is miles from championship contention to use a first-round pick on a running back, even one as special as Robinson.

“I don’t want to waste carries on a crappy team,” Jeremiah said. “I want to have all his carries over that (first) five-year period count and help push toward a championship. To take a big-time running back like that when your team stinks, you’re going to waste his prime and it’s not going to do anything for you. That’s the conundrum with Bijan Robinson.”

Still, one of the most disconcerting issues the Bears have had over time has been whiffing badly on first-round picks. This is the franchise that brought you Michael Haynes and Chris Williams, Gabe Carimi, Shea McClellin and Kevin White. Local meteorologists are trying to determine whether the winds from those whiffs contributed to this week’s nasty storms.

Robinson, on the other hand, is lauded as having an extremely high NFL floor with very little risk attached.

McShay has been through all the video and been enamored by all the defenders Robinson made miss on his way to an FBS-best 91 forced missed tackles in 2022.

“And he does it with a combination of power and elusiveness for a big back at 215 pounds,” McShay said.

On top of Robinson’s talents as a runner, he has proved reliable in pass protection, has great hands as a receiver and checks all the boxes as a driven leader, selfless teammate and enthusiastic tone-setter.

“His character, the energy he brings, his love for the game, he’s the kind of guy you want in your building,” McShay said. “It’s hard to find many weaknesses in his game. That’s why I think he is going to be so special at the next level.”

Through that lens, would there really be an avalanche of anger from the fan base if the Bears went the “best player available” route at No. 9 and took a player almost unanimously considered to be a sure thing as an impact playmaker?

Put it this way: If — or more likely when — Robinson becomes the highest-drafted running back since Barkley, no one in the league will laugh. Collectively, GMs across the NFL will nod in agreement that Robinson is on a fast track to becoming a significant difference maker as a rookie.

As Nagy said, this is an early congratulations to whichever team picks him.

In a pivotal evaluation year for Bears quarterback Justin Fields, isn’t it at least a little bit intriguing to think about giving him another barrel of dynamite to work with in the offense? And isn’t Robinson’s talent and potential worth betting on, even if it might require a trade back from No. 9 into the mid-teens?

“He is elite,” Jeremiah said. “There is no doubt about it to me. He is one of the premiere, premiere players in the draft.”

Added ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper: “He’s just a natural born runner. That’s what he does. He’s very instinctive. … You grade on ability. You don’t grade on philosophy.”

The Bears likely won’t — and maybe shouldn’t — seriously entertain the idea of selecting Robinson at No. 9. But if you address the evaluation with an open mind …

At a minimum, this should be a fun exercise for Poles and his crew to complete.

If at first …

The NFL’s free-agency negotiation window had been open for barely 90 minutes last month when Javon Hargrave got the offer he couldn’t refuse.

Four years and $84 million? With $40 million guaranteed? To play on a nasty San Francisco 49ers defense that fell one victory short of the Super Bowl?

Hargrave couldn’t have jumped quicker, calling it “the perfect situation.”

“Sometimes when you are trying to go get the money, you have to go to a team that’s in a rebuild mode,” he told reporters in the Bay Area last month. “But when you can go to a team that was just in the NFC championship (game), that’s kind of an easy choice for me.”

The Bears, who vowed to take multiple big swings at adding to their defensive front through free agency, had reached out to Hargrave’s camp in hopes they could be the ones making the big splash and landing arguably the top player in this year’s free-agent class. But they weren’t able to beat the 49ers’ massive offer, instead staying disciplined and holding true to the value they had set for the 30-year-old standout defensive tackle.

Many times that’s just the way the free-agency cookie crumbles. Still, inside Halas Hall, Hargrave’s union with the 49ers felt a bit deflating.

Over the next eight hours, the Bears remained in the mix for Dre’Mont Jones and extended offers. But again the market for Jones surpassed the value range the Bears had set. So general manager Ryan Poles stepped away from that auction and watched Jones land a three-year, $51.3 million deal from the Seattle Seahawks with $30 million guaranteed.

Value is value, Poles reasoned. And the Bears are not at a stage in their building efforts to believe they are one piece from becoming a champion and therefore can dismiss the need for discipline.

According to league sources, the Bears also put lines in the water last month for defensive tackles Dalvin Tomlinson and David Onyemata. But again their bobber never sunk, with Tomlinson instead hooked by a four-year, $57 million contract from the Cleveland Browns and Onyemata signing with the Atlanta Falcons for three years and $35 million.

It likely will take a year or two to fully process whether the Bears’ disciplined approach to shopping off the top shelf for defensive tackles this spring was perfectly prudent or overly cautious. But as free agency progressed, Poles reassured himself that his philosophies were sound even if the disappointment he felt was occasionally sharp.

Eventually the Bears found an appealing bargain in eighth-year defensive tackle Andrew Billings, who comes to Halas Hall on a one-year, $2.75 million deal. But to use Poles’ vernacular, that addition won’t “move the needle” significantly.

Poles has plenty of work to do to fortify that position and will get his next big crack when the draft begins in three weeks. If Georgia All-American Jalen Carter is available when the Bears pick at No. 9, Poles will face a huge decision that may tell us a lot about his risk-reward calculus. But even if the Bears pass on Carter or he is taken before they select, there will be plenty of intriguing options through the early parts of Round 4 for the Bears to find a promising young defensive tackle.

Keep guys such as Wisconsin’s Keeanu Benton, Baylor’s Siaki Ika, Texas’ Moro Ojomo and South Carolina’s Zacch Pickens in mind as potential targets on Day 2 or 3. But also understand that Poles has numerous holes to plug all over his depth chart and has been emphatic in noting that he won’t fill them all during this one opportunity-filled offseason.

It won’t be for a lack of trying. Sometimes, though, the ideal scenario just doesn’t become reality.

Return on investment

The simmer had become a rolling boil. Chase Claypool was tired of it. All of it.

In the eight weeks since he had been traded to the Chicago Bears last fall, most of what Claypool had experienced was frustration. The Bears hadn’t won a game since his arrival. His transition to a new team, city and offense had been bumpy. He had battled a knee injury for a chunk of December and missed two games. And his quarterback, Justin Fields, also missed a Week 12 start against the New York Jets with a separated shoulder.

Now here it was New Year’s Day in Detroit, and the Bears were not only sputtering, they were getting their doors blown off by an average division opponent. Even worse for Claypool, no one was showing much outward concern about it.

After scoring a touchdown on their opening series that afternoon, the Bears managed just three points, 160 yards and six first downs in their final 11 possessions. Against a Lions defense that finished the season last in the NFL in total yards allowed and 30th against the pass, the Bears netted only 30 passing yards. Claypool touched the football only once and was unable to secure a downfield completion over the middle from Fields on the Bears’ 48th offensive play.

It was in the second half of that spiral that the 24-year-old receiver let loose on the sideline. Call it an outburst, a tantrum, a venting session, whatever. Claypool felt the need to express his disapproval and did so in a loud and animated fashion.

Fields calmed him down, saying after the game, “It’s good to have emotion in a game, but you just have to know how to control it.”

The following week, however, Claypool told his side of the story, clarifying his intentions.

“We have to have a little bit more pride,” he said, “a little bit more heart.”

Claypool was bothered by the Bears’ lack of urgency and further agitated that so many of his teammates seemed mentally worn out, shrugging past every missed block, incompletion or three-and-out.

“We have to realize when it’s not OK to go three-and-out. We have to act that way,” Claypool said. “If we go three-and-out, it can’t just be OK. And it isn’t. But we have to really have that fire and energy and realize that, yo, it’s time to go.”

At face value, it all made perfect sense. All the losing the Bears did last season throughout a failure-filled funk, which many fans celebrated as the express shuttle to the No. 1 pick, felt awful to so many players. Other than trying to hack away at a shortcut out of the NFL wilderness with elevated draft status, what exactly were the Bears establishing or accomplishing in 2022?

Their passing offense was one of the worst the NFL had seen this century. Their defense was bottom-tier, giving up an average of 33.1 yards and 408 points during the 10-game skid. And the seemingly comforting idea that, hey, at least the Bears were in a bunch of close games was dulled by the reality that they lost six games by at least 15 points.

Still, that brief Claypool episode at Ford Field illuminated questions that felt increasingly significant inside Halas Hall.

Had a newcomer who had been in the building for barely two months really earned the right to seize the megaphone and rant so demonstratively? Was Claypool’s limited production as a Bear — 14 catches and 140 yards over seven games — reflective of his true potential?

Most significantly, is there a composure issue the Bears will have to continue working on with Claypool, helping him strengthen his emotional equilibrium in a way that will help him and the team navigate the many bumpy patches within a season?

All of those questions carry renewed relevance this month as the NFL draft approaches and the chip the Bears sent to the Pittsburgh Steelers to acquire Claypool — the No. 32 pick — comes back under the spotlight.

The Bears will monitor what the Steelers do with that selection when Day 2 of the draft begins. And assuming the Bears keep the No. 9 pick in the first round, they also will have to play a patience-testing waiting game over 25 hours as they potentially watch 44 players come off the board between their top two selections.

At some point during that stretch, you can bet general manager Ryan Poles’ anxiety will spike.

Around the league, the Bears’ move last month to trade the No. 1 pick to the Carolina Panthers has been almost universally lauded. For a team with so much roster restocking ahead, the Bears not only gathered three additional Day 1 or 2 picks over the next three drafts, they also snagged a proven and productive receiver in DJ Moore, who has averaged 73 catches, 1,040 yards and four touchdowns per season over his first five years in the league.

Moore was the double exclamation point on that deal and gives Fields something he can really use, a consistent No. 1 receiver with impressive strength and a special ability to separate. Moore also draws praise for his toughness, both physically and mentally. And Poles sees promise in pairing Moore with Claypool and Darnell Money for a 1-2-3 receiver punch that offers a complementary blend of skills.

“We’ve got a guy (Claypool) who’s a big-body guy who can play inside and outside,” Poles said at the NFL meetings last week. “We have Mooney, who can separate and run vertically and make plays. Then DJ is just a strong, physical guy who can separate and make plays after the catch too. I like how everything’s set up.”

Still, as much as the acquisition of Moore plus valuable draft capital has received a standing ovation in league circles, the Claypool trade five months ago still draws head scratches.

Poles’ intentions made sense. Eager to grab another weapon for Fields and looking ahead to a 2023 free-agency class that was unimpressive at receiver, Poles made an aggressive gamble.

But the cost of the trade felt steep even then and will merit continued scrutiny for the foreseeable future.

The Bears, after all, couldn’t persuade the Steelers to take the second-round pick they acquired from the Baltimore Ravens in the Roquan Smith trade; that turned out to be No. 53. Instead, they had to give up what eventually slotted in as the No. 32 pick.

Plus, in the trade with Carolina last month, the second-round pick the Panthers were willing to give the Bears was the No. 61 selection they received from the San Francisco 49ers as part of November’s Christian McCaffrey trade and not their own Round 2 pick at No. 39.

Panthers GM Scott Fitterer has since explained his hard-line stance on that part of the deal, noting how fertile many NFL folks believe the draft will be in the Nos. 20-50 range.

At this stage, that’s just something Poles and the Bears will have to make the most of. But it doesn’t prohibit questions about whether trading for Moore would have been necessary had Claypool shown at least a few signs last season that he was the kind of consistent game-changing playmaker Poles believed him to be when he made that move.

The very early returns obviously registered as discouraging. In the five games Fields and Claypool played together, they connected only 10 times for 60 yards, leaving a lot of chemistry-building homework for this offseason.

The Bears will cling to the hope that Claypool’s 2023 emergence will occur once he has more time in the system and more opportunity to build trust with Fields and offensive coordinator Luke Getsy. But there are no guarantees everything will click.

Claypool is entering the final year of his rookie contract, and the Bears will have to see a whole lot more to keep him in their plans into 2024 and beyond. First and foremost, Claypool will need to show an ability to be more productive. (In 46 career games, he has topped 60 receiving yards 12 times.) He also has to prove he has the mental sturdiness to keep the collective anxiety low when the seas get choppy.

On the day Poles traded for Claypool in November, he spoke with confidence that the young receiver could spark the Bears offense and Fields’ development.

“You can never have enough weapons and guys who help your quarterback gain confidence,” Poles said.

Now, though, with organized team activities set to begin in a little more than month, suffice it to say that the Bears must push to accelerate Claypool’s emergence.

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