The draft class Chicago Bears GM Ryan Pace put together in April 2018 was considered a smashing success by pundits and analysts across the board. But if I had a dollar for every crop of prospects that was highly touted before ultimately flaming out, I’d be typing this sentence from a warm Caribbean island.
Being a widely acclaimed draft class is one thing and being successful on the field as rookies is another. But with that said, it was great to see the Bears’ rookies take care of business on the turf and be recognized for their excellence by on-lookers around the league.
ESPN’s NFL All-Rookie Team features Bears first-round linebacker Roquan Smith, second-round offensive lineman James Daniels, and fifth-round defensive lineman Bilal Nichols. The Pro Football Writers of America’s All-Rookie Team also has Smith as one of the league’s top first-year linebackers, while CBS Sports analyst Chris Trapasso’s All-Rookie team also includes Daniels on the offensive line. And in case you missed it earlier in January, Daniels also earned All-Rookie honors from Pro Football Focus.
There’s no doubt these spots were earned by Bears rookies, each of whom made significant leaps in their development from Week 1 to the playoff finale.
Smith didn’t even begin the season as a starter. But once he was inserted into the lineup and given a bigger role, he made the most of it with five sacks, eight tackles-for-loss, five quarterback hits, and a team-leading 121 tackles. It might be too early to dream on upside, but nothing is going to stop us from thinking of how Smith figures to get an additional boost from Chuck Pagano’s defense that showed a tendency in the past to be more aggressive with blitzing its linebackers.
Daniels joins Colts stud Quenton Nelson (remember him?) as the other all-rookie guard. Author Jeff Legwold described Daniels’ play as “top-notch” which is a remarkable compliment if you consider that he didn’t (1) get playing time until Week 4, (2) take a majority of the offensive snaps until Week 6, and (3) get a 100 percent snap share until Week 8. Remarkable growth was shown by the University of Iowa product who settled in at guard after spending a majority of his career with the Hawkeyes as a center.
Nichols is one of the great stories of the last draft class. Fifth-round picks from Delaware don’t often stand out, but Nichols isn’t a run-of-the-mill Blue Hen. This season, Nichols forced two fumbles, came away with three sacks, collected five tackles-for-loss, and roughed up opposing signal callers with seven QB Hits. He was a menace in the backfield creating pressures and disrupting ball-carries despite being limited to just 31.2 percent of the team’s defensive snaps. But still … the numbers are impressive in a small sample.
That’s plenty of praise for a rookie class, but what if I told you there was more? I hope you’re nodding with excitement because there is more. Bleacher Report’s Chris Roling gives the Bears an A+ on the re-grade of their 2018 draft. Between being well-represented on ESPN’s All-Rookie Team, having their first-round pick make it on PFWA’s top rookie squad, and having contributors elsewhere such as second-round receiver Anthony Miller (7 touchdowns) and fourth-round linebacker Joel Iyiegbuniwe grow into a special teams standout right away, there was plenty to like about the players drafted by Pace in 2018.
So much so, we’ll soon be itching to see what these guys have in store for their sophomore seasons in 2019.