The time has finally come. Beginning at 7 p.m. CT this evening, the 2013 NFL Draft will officially kick off. Roughly two hours after the sound of the starting gun, the Chicago Bears will be on the clock with the 20th overall selection.
The first day of every draft is arguably the single most important day of the calendar year for NFL franchises. The first round is where the starters, the Pro Bowlers, the Hall of Famers are typically found. By hitting homeruns in the first round, teams propel themselves into the championship conversation. While on the flipside, swinging and missing more often than not in the first can set an organization back for years, if not decades.
Longevity in the free-agency era comes only through the draft, where you are guaranteed your quality selection for at least four years. Only the teams that consistently replenish the talent pipeline can be contenders year in and year out. Those that throw away first-round picks on marginal talent will struggle to be more than marginal on the field.
There are many other important dates on the 2013 NFL calendar but today tops them all. If the Bears can add a top-tier talent, one who can contribute from Day 1 at a position of need, it could be the move that sends a 10-6 team deep into the playoffs.
With that in mind, let's look at this year's first round from every angle, outlining potential scenarios, possible picks and much more. At the end, we'll reveal the player we believe GM Phil Emery will select at around 9 p.m. tonight.
POSITIONS OF NEED
Bear Report has ranked the club's top positions of need heading into the draft:
1) Guard: Emery upgraded the tackle position by adding two-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jermon Bushrod in free agency. He also added veteran guard Matt Slauson, yet he's signed for only one season. At voluntary minicamp, James Brown, a UFA last season, was starting at left guard, which is far from ideal. The Bears desperately need a reliable presence along the interior of the offensive line.
2) Linebacker – Three of the club's top four linebackers (Brian Urlacher, Nick Roach and Geno Hayes) are gone, leaving just Lance Briggs and two one-year rentals. Fortunately for the Bears, James Anderson and D.J. Williams are solid players, so for at least 2013 the linebacker corps is stable, which is what makes guard a slightly higher priority. But make no mistake, Chicago must soon find some long-term options at linebacker to avoid a total collapse on defense once the aging stars move on.
3) Defensive Tackle – Sure the Bears have a Pro Bowler in Henry Melton and an emerging nose tackle in Stephen Paea, but beyond that, the cupboard is empty. On top of that, Melton is signed only through 2013 and there's no guarantee he'll be back next season. If he leaves Chicago, a large void would open up in the middle of the defensive line. The Bears must prepare for that possibility, while also adding depth at a thin position.
4) Wide Receiver – With Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, the offense has two quality wideouts. Yet Marc Trestman needs an upgrade in the slot. Devin Hester is no longer a receiver, Johnny Knox is out of football and Earl Bennett is an annual underachiever. The offense needs speed out of the slot to complement the two big guys outside, as well as Martellus Bennett down the seams.
5) Cornerback – The Bears have two All Pro starting corners, Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings, but neither is a spring chicken and both are in the final years of their contracts. On top of that, the club will once again rely on Kelvin Hayden as the starting nickelback, another less-than-ideal option. Chicago must get younger at the cornerback position.
Bonus Positions of Need
While not as obvious as the top five, here are three positions the Bears may be looking to address at some point in the draft.
1) Tight End – Despite signing Martellus Bennett in free agency, Emery is still actively searching for another pass-catching tight end. In the first two rounds, don't be surprised if he snatches another TE in an attempt to mimic what the New England Patriots have done with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
2) Running Back – The Bears have a powerful two-headed rushing attack with Matt Forte and Michael Bush, yet the team is still in the market for another ball carrier. Considering Bush's price tag ($3.5 million per season), Emery may be looking for a younger, cheaper, more-diverse change-of-pace back.
3) Quarterback – Jay Cutler is in the final year of his contract and will be looking to be paid like a franchise quarterback next offseason. Unfortunately, he has yet to perform as a franchise QB in Chicago, and Emery knows it. Considering Trestman's reputation in developing signal callers, don't be surprised if Chicago snags a passer that might be able to replace Cutler if he walks following the season.
Here are the players who, if they fall to the 20th overall selection, the Bears won't be able to pass up.
G Jonathan Cooper, North Carolina
Cooper is the most athletic interior offensive lineman in this draft and would fit perfectly in the Bears' new zone-blocking system. He's one of the best players at Chicago's top position of need.
Here are the prospects expected to be available, and most likely to be selected, at 20th overall.
LB Manti Te'o, Notre Dame
LB Alec Ogletree, Georgia
Te'o and Ogletree are the two players most commonly projected to be Chicago's first pick. Both have the potential to be long-term replacements for Urlacher at middle linebacker. Te'o is smarter and bigger, while Ogletree is faster and more athletic. Both have off-field questions but from a pure football standpoint, it's hard to go wrong with either player.
TE Tyler Eifert, Notre Dame
Despite the presence of Bennett, we have heard the Bears are still interested in Eifert, the most athletic pass-catching tight end in this draft. With Eifert, Emery may be able to realize his vision of a Patriots offense in Chicago.
G Chance Warmack, Alabama
Warmack isn't as athletic as Cooper but he's stronger and can be a mauler in the run game. He's the 1B of guards in this class and would provide an instant upgrade for Chicago's offensive line.
DT Datone Jones, UCLA
Not enough folks are talking about Jones, but he's a potential star. He absolutely explodes off the ball and can play either defensive tackle or end. His skill set is similar to that of Israel Idonije, although with a higher ceiling.
WR Justin Hunter, Tennessee
Hunter has made a late surge up draft boards and now appears to be a lock for the first round. His combination of size (6-4, 196) and speed (4.36) has teams salivating. Don't be surprised if Trestman is one of those wiping spittle from his chin.
DE Bjoern Werner, Florida State
Werner was once considered a Top 10 pick but has fallen recently, as most teams see him as an unrefined athlete instead of a surefire first rounder. The Bears may not be able to pay Julius Peppers next year and Shea McClellin is still a question mark. If Werner drops, Emery may follow his best-player-available approach and draft a pass rusher with a very high ceiling.
Bears Last 10 First-Round Draft Picks
2012: DE Shea McClellin (19th overall)
2011: OL Gabe Carimi (29th overall)
2008: OL Chris Williams (14th overall)
2007: TE Greg Olsen (31st overall)
2005: RB Cedric Benson (4th overall)
2004: DT Tommie Harris (14th overall)
2003: DE Michael Haynes (14th overall)
2003: QB Rex Grossman (22nd overall)
2002: OL Marc Colombo (29th overall)
2001: WR David Terrell (8th overall)
Last 10 picks at 20th overall
2003 Denver Broncos – T George Foster, Georgia
2004 Minnesota Vikings – DE Kenechi Udeze, USC
2005 Dallas Cowboys – DE Marcus Spears, Louisiana State
2006 Kansas City Chiefs – DE Tamba Hali, Penn State
2007 New York Giants – CB Aaron Ross, Texas
2008 Tampa Bay Buccaneers – CB Aqib Talib, Kansas
2009 Detroit Lions – TE Brandon Pettigrew, Oklahoma State
2010 Houston Texans – CB Kareem Jackson, Alabama
2011 Tampa Bay Buccaneers – DE Adrian Clayborn, Iowa
2012 Tennessee Titans – WR Kendall Wright, Baylor
And the Bears will draft …
LB Alec Ogletree, Georgia
As we said above, if Cooper, Austin or Richardson fall, then Ogletree takes a backseat, but I firmly believe all three will be gone by 20. With Ogletree, the Bears get a hard-hitting, extremely athletic linebacker with sideline-to-sideline speed. He could play outside linebacker to start before moving inside. He does have some off-field issues but those types of red flags don't usually faze Emery.
Be sure to join Bear Report Publisher Jeremy Stoltz for a live interactive chat from Halas Hall throughout the entire three-day 2013 NFL Draft.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.