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In his first four drafts, GM Ryan Pace has unearthed on Day 3 a trio of All-Rookie performers in Adrian Amos, Jordan Howard and Bilal Nichols. Ironically, the lone year without that distinction — 2017 — could go down as a historically strong haul for the franchise, already yielding two sophomore All Pros in Eddie Jackson and Tarik Cohen and a Pro Bowl alternate in Mitch Trubisky.
But you already knew that Pace is a boss when it comes to drafting in the later rounds. What might help us for this exercise is a brief look at the circumstances that led to the Bears recent Day 3 rookies standing out and a bit of digging on what must happen if opportunity again is to knock this season.
Although Howard might’ve faced slightly longer odds to gaining rookie relevance than Amos (150th and 142nd overall picks, respectively), any Bears fan knows about the Mariana Trench-sized gulf that existed between their team's recent track records at the RB and S positions.
As soon as Amos proved he could be trusted to be in the right place at the right time more often than not and be a consistent tackler, the starting strong safety job was his. Howard needed to overcome a balky hamstring early in his first offseason, not to mention John Fox’s reluctance to put his best players on the field irrespective of NFL hierarchy, before he was the clear-cut lead dog.
Jackson needed time to rehab and regain his footing following the broken leg that ended his Alabama career, but his instincts stood out from early on and made it clear he belonged in the Week 1 lineup. Similar to Jackson, Cohen’s unique playmaking prowess was quickly evident. But similar to the case of Howard, Cohen wasn’t always utilized optimally by Fox’s staff. Still, on units devoid of dynamic talents, even Fox recognized both needed to be on the field.
Finally, in the case of the overachieving Nichols, he needed a bit of time—the first few weeks of the season—to usurp underachieving Jonathan Bullard, the higher-pedigreed player. But Nichols' explosiveness was always apparent, and as soon as he showed the jump from Delaware to the NFL wouldn't be too big, he had the right coaches in Vic Fangio and Jay Rodgers to recognize and unleash him as a talented complement on the league's best 'D.'
Which brings us to the current crop of Riley Ridley, Duke Shelley, Kerrith Whyte and Stephen Denmark, whose odds of busting out this season, we suspect, correlate directly with the order in which they were selected.
Ridley is a pro-ready pass catcher with the skill set to contribute right away in specific areas — the money downs and in the red zone — because of his size and separation ability. Paired with the fact that Anthony Miller is coming off shoulder surgery and was rarely healthy as a rookie, and our belief that there’s some redundancy between their skill sets, Ridley should immediately be the "next man up" in Chicago’s 3-WR sets, if not someone who takes away from Miller's and/or Taylor Gabriel's playtime, depending on personnel groupings.
One of new nickel CB Buster Skrine’s more attractive attributes as the replacement for Bryce Callahan is his durability: He’s missed only five games over eight seasons — albeit all of them since 2016 — compared to Callahan’s 20 injury absences in four pro campaigns. Shelley possesses several intriguing, potentially translatable skills for a slot corner, but it’s a position he’s never played and likely won’t be pressed into because of Skrine's presence and experience.
One other factor to keep in mind with Shelley: The roster status of backup nickel Sherrick McManis. We assume the Bears’ longest-tenured player is back for an eighth season in Chicago, but it’s clearly a transitional phase for Chris Tabor’s special teams and the Bears would save north of $1.6 million in cap space this season in the (presumably unlikely) event McManis is released. If that were to happen, Shelley's rookie outlook could change in a hurry.
Whyte’s speed might make counting him out of the Bears “Run-DMC” backfield this season a tricky bet. But Mike Davis was guaranteed $2 million, and triple threat Cordarrelle Patterson $5 million, prior to the Bears spending a bunch of draft capital to trade up for third-rounder David Montgomery. Moreover, our lasting impression from Matt Nagy’s January news conference after Tarik Cohen received only four touches from scrimmage in the playoff loss is that he’ll never be underused again. We envision some creative designs by Nagy to incorporate Whyte on offense, but not a heavy volume.
We all know about Denmark’s “ridiculous measurables” and recent move from receiver to corner by now. Yet it shouldn't be stunning if he’s the last to find out about some mysterious injury he suffers this summer that lands him safely on injured reserve and off the poachable practice squad. With his size and speed combination, we suppose there could be an avenue to the 53 and a meaningful special teams role for Denmark this season. However, we’d be more surprised by him contributing much on defense than that phantom injury scenario unfolding.