Thursday of next week is arguably the biggest day of the year for the Chicago Bears. At 7 p.m. CT, the 2015 NFL Draft will begin in earnest and within the first hour, hopefully, the Bears will have selected their first-round draft pick.
Between Thursday and Saturday, through six rounds of the draft, new Bears GM Ryan Pace will put the final touches on a roster he’s turned over significantly during his first offseason.
The fresh blood in this year’s class will be the foundation upon which the future of the organization will be built. Considering the recent string of frustrating seasons – the Bears have made the playoffs just once the past eight years – this draft will be absolutely crucial in turning around a franchise that has fallen on hard times.
Defensively, holes must be filled at nearly every position. Yet a consistent pass rush makes everyone’s job easier and can often mask other defensive deficiencies.
The Bears have a number of options for coordinator Vic Fangio’s 3-4 outside linebacker spots, yet none are without question marks. Ideally, the club will find a young, long-term edge rusher early in the draft, yet there are bargains to be had in the middle and late rounds as well.
Let’s break down six of the best edge-rush options that should be available between the fourth and sixth rounds.
Fua is a very interesting prospect, as he was deployed at multiple positions for the Cougars. He’s a speed rusher with very good explosion off the ball but he’s also very quick and was often asked to cover receivers in the slot.
Fua lacks ideal size and is a bit of a tweener, yet a creative coordinator like Fangio could find multiple ways of utilizing his skill set. He’s going to struggle setting the edge against the run but he’ll bring versatility and edge speed on passing downs.
Projected: Rounds 4-5
Kyle Emanuel, North Dakota State (6-3, 255)
Emanuel was an absolute beast in 2014, racking up 19.5 sacks and earning first-team FCS All-American honors, as well as the Missouri Valley Defensive Player of the Year award. In eight games against Top 25 opponents, he logged 16.5 tackles for loss and 10.0 sacks.
Emanuel is very quick with active hands and a full pass-rush arsenal. He plays with a low center of gravity, good pad level and solid technique, with speed to play sideline to sideline. He doesn’t have ideal burst off the ball and has very short arms (31 inches) but his instincts and relentless motor may allow him to develop into a part-time edge rusher and full-time special teams player.
Projected: Round 5
Obum Gwacham, Oregon State (6-5, 246)
Gwacham transitioned from wide receiver to defensive end in 2014, so there’s obviously a huge learning curve for him. He’s a project who will need time to develop yet there are reasons to believe he can be molded into an NFL starter.
Gwacham has ideal length and explosiveness off the snap. He reached 7-1 as a high jumper and was a triple jumper for the Oregon State track team. His 10-1 broad jump at the combine was one of the best at his position. He’s a high-character player who has shown the desire to learn and excel at his new position. Gwacham may not be able to produce right away at the NFL level but a patient coaching staff could build a monster.
Projected: Round 5
Zack Hodges, Harvard (6-2, 250)
Hodges led Harvard last season with 10 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks. He’s quick off the snap and can bend and turn the corner with ease. He has a very dangerous spin move as well, giving him good inside-outside pass-rush potential.
Hodges has a limited skill set, as he lacks great awareness and toughness at the point of attack. During Senior Bowl practices, he struggled in space as a 3-4 OLB. But as a pure pass rusher, Hodges has upside. He must add more strength and power. If he does, he could earn a rotational role in a year or two.
Projected: Rounds 5-6
Max Valles, Virginia (6-5, 251)
Valles is a redshirt sophomore who played just two seasons for the Cavaliers. He started 12 games in 2014 and led the team with 9.0 sacks. He’s long and strong and physically dominated ACC opponents. He can bend and turn as a pass rusher and possesses the toughness to set the edge against the run. He also has good timing and awareness deflecting passes at the line of scrimmage, having batted down 13 balls in two seasons.
Athletically, Valles is top-tier. He has ideal NFL size and a ton of upside, yet he’s also extremely raw. He lacks instincts and feel and will need plenty of coaching at the next level. Yet in the middle rounds, Valles’ ceiling may be too high to pass up.
Projected: Rounds 5-6
Shaquille Riddick, West Virginia (6-6, 242)
Riddick transferred to West Virginia from Gardner-Webb in 2014. The Mountaineers lined him up at 5-technique but he’s best suited at outside linebacker, where his thin frame won’t hurt as much against the run.
Riddick is a pure one-dimensional speed rusher with great burst. He stays skinny through gaps and has great closing speed. He performed very well at his recent pro day, posting a 4.65 40-yard dash, which has him climbing up draft boards.
He’s still a project with limited upside but as a potential nickel rusher, the Bears could do a lot worse in the late rounds.
Projected: Round 6
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fifth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter.