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Chicago Bears 2017 Draft Preview: Outside Linebacker (Rounds 1-3)

Detailed analysis of the top outside linebackers in the 2017 NFL Draft, with a focus on which players can fill the needs of the Chicago Bears.

The Chicago Bears traded up to select outside linebacker Leonard Floyd in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft.

Floyd had an up-and-down rookie campaign but showed promise, recording 7.0 sacks (third most among rookies), a forced fumble and a touchdown despite missing four games.

With the 24-year-old Floyd on the outside, Chicago has another young cornerstone piece for the defense. Yet beyond Floyd, the Bears are getting long in the tooth at outside linebacker, so don't be surprised if GM Ryan Pace makes a move in the draft to add another edge rusher.

Here are the candidates to be drafted on the first two days of April’s draft.

Haason Reddick, Temple (6-1, 237 pounds)

Reddick walked on to Temple as a safety but made the switch to linebacker for the Owls. He played both sides of the defensive line and linebacker in his four years, starting two seasons. While he doesn't have elite size or length, Reddick has great instincts and quickness, and produced as an edge rusher (10.5 sacks in 2016), although many believe he can play inside in a 3-4 as well. Expect Reddick to be selected in the middle of the first round, so he likely won’t be available when the Bears pick in the second round.

Projected: Top 20

Zach Cunningham, Vanderbilt (6-3, 234)

If the Bears are looking to add an instant playmaker at outside linebacker to pair with Floyd, Cunningham might be their guy. The Vanderbilt product plays at a fast pace and can shoot gaps to create havoc in opposing backfields. He finished with 16 tackles for loss in 2016, demonstrating his disruptive playmaking ability. He's a liability in coverage but Cunningham's downhill approach would give him value at either OLB or ILB for the Bears. Cunningham would be a nice fit in Chicago on day two of the draft, if he somehow falls out of the first round. 

Projected: 1st round

Takkarist McKinley, UCLA (6-2, 250)

McKinley had a big season for the Bruins in 2016. He finished the year with 18 tackles for loss, 10 sacks and 3 forced fumbles. Rushing from the edge is McKinley’s biggest strength, something that will surely intrigue the Bears. He has good burst off the line, with an all-day high motor that helped earn him first-team All-Pac-12 honors last season. If McKinley drops out of the first round, he could be a steal when the Bears pick on day two of the draft.

Projected: 1st-2nd round

T.J. Watt, Wisconsin (6-4, 252)

T.J. is the younger brother of NFL superstar J.J. Watt. If he’s anything like his brother on the next level, he will be one heck of an NFL player. He made the switch to defense in 2015 and started for the Badgers in 2016. Watt might be best fit for a 4-3 scheme, although he has the length to play on the outside in a 3-4. The knock against the younger Watt is the lack of explosion and inconsistency. He’s still learning the position, so Watt is a bit of a project, which may not fit the profile of a second-round impact option for the Bears. 

Projected: 2nd round

Tim Williams, Alabama (6-3, 244)

Williams is another Alabama defensive player that could hear his name called in the first round of the NFL draft. He’s an excellent pass rusher off the edge but doesn't offer much against the run. As a pure pass-rush prospect, Williams has a ton of upside, but he's not a well-rounded player by any means. In addition, he failed multiple drug test while at Alabama, although he was never suspended. His limited skill set and off-field concerns might make Williams too risky for the Bears in the second round. 

Projected: 2nd round

Tyus Bowser, Houston (6-3, 247)

A small-school prospect, Bowser is one of the most intriguing edge rushers in this year's class. A four-year contributor at Houston, Bowser is a Day 2 prospect with as much upside as any pass rusher in this draft. He is an explosive, quick-twitch defender who showed off his elite athleticism at the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine. One concern with Bowser is his lack of top-tier production, despite playing against "weaker" competition. A fist fight with a teammate forced him to miss a month of his senior year, so there are character concerns, yet he still led the team with 8.5 sacks. If Pace is feeling risky, he'll use a second-round pick to scoop up Bowser, a boom-or-bust player with an extremely high ceiling.

Projected: 2nd round

Duke Riley, LSU (6-0, 232)

Riley played four seasons with the Tigers but didn't start until his senior season (93 tackles, 9.0 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, 1 interception). Riley doesn’t have the ideal size to be a standout linebacker at the next level but his speed and quickness could make him a quality option at WILL for a 4-3 team. A limited interior linebacker, it's doubtful Riley is on Chicago's radar. 

Projected: Late 2nd round

Ryan Anderson, Alabama (6-2, 253)

The Alabama product has the size to play on the outside at the NFL level and showed great handwork while playing for the Crimson Tide. Anderson struggled in coverage and must refine his pass-rush arsenal, while learning to play with better pad level and leverage. Yet Anderson has the upside to be an impact pass rusher at the next level (19 TFL, 9.0 sacks in 2016). If Pace wants to take a chance on a mid-round edge rusher with upside, Anderson is probably the best option.

Projected: 3rd round

Alex Anzalone, Florida (6-3, 241)

While Anzalone has the size to play outside linebacker, he might be a risk for teams on Day 2. Anzalone didn’t rack up the stats on a Florida defense that was loaded with talent and he was hampered by injuries in his college career. He does have some versatility, having played all three linebacker positions. Anzalone will be a fringe third round pick but could fall to the third day. He’s athletic but can he stay healthy? 

Projected: 3rd-4th round

Bear Report Pick: Tyus Bowser

With Willie Young on the wrong side of 30, combined with the inability of both Pernell McPhee and Lamarr Houston to stay healthy, OLB is a legitimate first- or second-day need for the Bears in 2017 NFL Draft. 

An elite pass rusher impacts the entire defense and, right now, the Bears don't have an elite pass rusher. 

Enter Bowser, who has serious potential at the next level. His altercation with a teammate is concerning but even after missing a month of playing time, he still racked up 8.5 sacks in 2016. 

Bowser was a dominant force at Houston, which is what teams look for when investing a second-round pick on a small-school prospect, but there's not denying his over-the-top athleticism. 

If the Bears can harness that potential, Bowser could develop into a second-round steal. 

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