The Bears did nothing to improve the offensive line that has failed the past two seasons to protect quarterback Jay Cutler.
However, new general manager Phil Emery, in his first time running a draft, addressed the lack of pass-rush pressure by taking Shea McClellin in the first round. While the 6-3 1/2, 260-pound McClellin may be a bit of a tweener, he has a track record for getting after the quarterback. Round 2 brought another weapon for Cutler in big receiver Alshon Jeffery, who could be special; and in Round 4 Emery gambled on character concern tight end Evan Rodriguez, who is undersized but a talented pass catcher. For the eighth straight year the Bears drafted a safety, but 6-3, 220-pound Brandon Hardin must be converted from cornerback.
Wider receiver Alshon Jeffery. The big knock on the big pass catcher was that Jeffery couldn't run a lick. But the Bears clocked him at 4.47 at his Pro Day, and they believe he possesses almost every other trait needed to become an impact player, especially in the red zone.
Safety Brandon Hardin. At 6-3 and 220 pounds, he had the athleticism to play cornerback at Oregon State, but he projects to strong safety and has the toughness, size and tackling ability to thrive there. Had he not missed the entire 2011 season with a fractured shoulder, Hardin would have been a much hotter prospect, and the Bears are assured that he is 100 percent healthy.
But the Bears thought enough of the versatile, high-motor pass rusher to make him the 19th overall pick, confident that he had the ability to immediately upgrade their pass rush, which was 29th last season.
McClellin is a bit undersized at 6-3 1/2 and 260 pounds, but he gets high marks for athleticism, and he had 16.5 sacks over the past two seasons and 26 tackles for loss. The Bears chose him over Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus, who led the nation in 2011 with 16 sacks, and ahead of offensive linemen Riley Reiff of Iowa and David DeCastro of Stanford. Reiff went 23rd to the Lions, DeCastro 24th to the Steelers and Mercilus 26th to the Texans.
"We were looking for a guy who could contribute right away," said Phil Emery, of his first-ever draft pick as the Bears' general manager. "He fills a need as a pass rusher, but he has all-down ability. He finds the ball quickly and gets through blockers.
"We considered almost every position, but we felt he was one of the better pass rushers (in the draft)."
Many draft experts considered McClellin a reach in the first round, although his popularity skyrocketed as Draft Day approached. Pro Football Weekly's Draft Preview projected him as a third- or fourth-round pick, but in the week before the draft he was mentioned more and more frequently as a first-round pick because of his pass-rush ability.
"I think that's why they picked me up," McClellin said. "I think I'll be able to get after the quarterback."
The Bears hope so, considering they finished 29th in sack percentage last season.
The three-year starter at Boise State benched 225 pounds just 19 times at the Combine, but he got positive marks for character, work habits, smarts and a high-revving motor.
Emery praised McClellin for his instincts and leverage and said he has the ability to set the edge as a left end vs. the run.
"He's a small-town guy with great character," Emery said. "He has a relentless motor. He's an excellent pick for us."
To earn the starting job at left end, opposite Pro Bowl right end Julius Peppers, McClellin will have to beat out incumbent Israel Idonije, who at 6-6 and 275 pounds is adept at stopping the run. But Idonije had just 5.0 sacks last season, and McClellin possesses the potential to at least contribute as a situational pass rusher as a rookie. But the Bears feel there's a lot more to his game.
"This is an all-downs football player, including special teams," Emery said. "Our special teams coaches gave him a blue level (highest) grade as a special teams player. We are excited about him for several reasons: He's got really quick feet and hands as a pass rusher, he has natural hips as a pass rusher. In his role, his normal starting role at Boise, was as a (middle) linebacker and he would come down and rush on third down or in sub-package situations so there's a lot of versatility to this player." Teams that play a 3-4 defense looked at McClellin as a linebacker, but Emery said he will play left end for the Bears, although he has the versatility to play either end spot or linebacker, which he did at Boise State.
"I don't have a preference," McClellin said. "I can be a threat from both (end and linebacker). Wherever the Bears want me to play, I'm happy to do it. I think my versatility definitely helped me out – being able to play multiple positions and play them well."
The 22-year-old McClellin grew up on a farm in Caldwell, Idaho. At Marsing High School as a baseball player he hit .453, and he averaged 16.7 points and 11.6 rebounds in basketball.
He was asked if chasing chickens on the farm compares to chasing NFL quarterbacks.
"Well, you have to have agility to chase chickens," he said, "so I guess it's similar."
Say this for general manager Martin Mayhew: He's unconventional.
Riley Reiff, considered by most the second best offensive line prospect in the draft, fell into his lap at 23. But that was the last pick that didn't cause some head-scratching.
In Round 2, he bypassed a much-needed cornerback to take a receiver – Oklahoma's Ryan Broyles, who had ACL surgery on Nov. 21 and may not be ready for training camp.
He finally took a corner in the third round – Louisiana-Lafayette's Dwight Bentley – and wound up with three in all. He took Chris Greenwood from Division III Albion (Mich.) in the fifth round and Jonte Green from New Mexico State in the sixth.
Picks four through six were spent essentially on restocking the special teams. They took tweener defensive end Ronnell Lewis from Oklahoma in the fourth round, outside linebacker Tahir Whitehead from Temple in the fifth and Greenwood, who they termed a developmental cornerback, also in the fifth.
The last two picks were on Green and Oklahoma linebacker Travis Lewis, whose production (leading tackler for four seasons) was diminished by a poor showing at the combine, where his stock plummeted after he ran a 4.88.
"We stuck to our plan and we got some good players," coach Jim Schwartz said.
Tackle Riley Reiff: Reiff is as close to a sure thing as this draft class offers. It may take a year, but once he settles in, he will start for 10 years.
Cornerback Chris Greenwood: Greenwood is a physical marvel; a potential diamond in the rough. He's 6-2 and runs a sub-4.40. He also displayed a 43-inch vertical jump during his visit to the Lions.
Unable to trade up to pluck one of the two cornerbacks they coveted in the first round Thursday – South Carolina's Stephon Gilmore or Alabama's Dre Kirkpatrick – the Lions stayed at 23 and took the second best offensive lineman on their board, Iowa tackle Riley Reiff.
"It's not very often that the second offensive lineman on your board goes off at 23," coach Jim Schwartz said. "Historically, there's normally four offensive linemen off the board by that point. We were very fortunate to be sitting at 23 and able to get the best player on our board who plays a position we where we were looking to get some younger players into the pipeline."
Reiff, the first Big Ten player selected, is just under 6-6 and 313 pounds and has been compared to Titans Pro Bowl tackle Michael Roos. Only USC's Ryan Kalil, who went fourth to Minnesota, was rated higher on the Lions' board.
"We looked at all our options," said general manager Martin Mayhew. "We tried to go up and at one point we talked about moving back. We stayed put and were able to get a really good player."
While most draft experts debated whether Reiff was a better fit as a right tackle or left tackle, Schwartz was firm.
"He's a left tackle," he said. "He fits the criteria that you want at that position. He's big, tough, he's a former tight end and a three-time state wrestling champ (South Dakota). He comes from a great tradition of offensive linemen at Iowa. He's a good run blocker and a good pass protector.
"Even though he is young and will still improve in certain areas, we're not drafting a guy that's a developmental player."
So what does that mean for starting left tackle Jeff Backus, who will turn 35 in September and is coming off biceps surgery? Will he have to fight for his job? Will he be moved to guard?
"It's way too early to take that approach," Schwartz said. "We'll put them all out there and we'll play. Their play in training camp, in the OTAs and in the preseason, that will determine those things, not anything we are thinking right now."
Reiff is just glad for the chance to compete. Even though he was expected to go much higher than 23, he was not in New York Thursday. Instead, he was sitting in his barn at his home in Parkston, S.D., when he got the call.
"I wasn't watching TV," he said. "I just told myself, 'Whatever happens happens.' It didn't matter to me (where he was drafted). I'm just ready to play football and I am super excited to be a Detroit Lion."
As for competing for a starting job, Reiff was respectful but clearly up for the challenge.
"I will come in and compete and try to learn from the guys," he said. "We will see how it works out. I just know I am going to come in and work hard and make the best of it."
Reiff took over the left tackle spot at Iowa for All-American Bryan Bulaga (Packers). He started 37 of 39 games, 29 of those at left tackle. According to Iowa statistics, he had 38 touchdown-resulting blocks and 264 knock-down blocks in more than 2,500 plays.
"He's big, smart, tough and versatile," Mayhew said. "He was a three-year starter in a good program. We came into the draft thinking we needed to add some young players to that (offensive line) group and Riley fits the mold."
Green Bay Packers
General manager Ted Thompson's calling card in building a title contender the last few years has been stockpiling draft picks. Thompson broke from his April tradition this year and went on the offensive to bolster his dismal defense.
Thompson traded up three times and used the Packers' first six of eight selections on defensive players.
"We hope we helped all aspects of defense," Thompson said.
Green Bay had the league's worst-ranked defense in 2011 but still managed to go 15-1. A porous pass rush that contributed to the Packers' premature end to the season early in the playoffs after they won the Super Bowl the previous year took precedence in the draft room.
Thompson went for the "juice" of taking Southern Cal's Nick Perry in the first round to pair with Clay Matthews at outside linebacker. In turn, Thompson upgraded the defensive line and the Nick Collins-less secondary by moving up twice in the second round for Michigan State lineman Jerel Worthy and Vanderbilt cornerback Casey Hayward.
Linebacker Nick Perry: The Packers were desperate to take pressure off Matthews, who was held to a career-low six sacks last season. Perry will be counted on to start and deliver right away.
Cornerback Casey Hayward: Thompson compensated for the medical-prompted release of Pro Bowl safety Collins before the draft by making a play for the skilled Hayward. He will stay at corner, but winning a starting job would provide intriguing options for the Packers to replace Collins.
Three years after Ted Thompson thought so highly of Matthews to make a rare trade up to get him late in the first round, the Packers general manager held Perry in similar high regard.
"(A) tremendous physical specimen," Thompson said late Thursday night.
With that, a reunion of Matthews and Perry gives Green Bay the pass-rushing bookends it desperately needs in an attempt to resuscitate a defense left for dead last season.
"I played with Clay my freshman year, and since then we've been boys," Perry said. "I'll be glad to be across from him, just to create problems like he (has) and just to be a force on the other side of the ball."
Perry didn't make his mark as a tenacious and productive defensive end for USC until after Matthews graduated to the NFL. The Trojans redshirted Perry as a true freshman in 2008, Matthews' final college season.
As Matthews exploded onto the pro scene with 10 sacks as a rookie with the Packers in 2009, Perry led USC with eight sacks in a reserve role. Perry then started at defensive end as a sophomore and a junior, leading the Pac-12 with 9.5 sacks in the 2011 season before declaring as an early entrant in this year's draft.
Not long after Green Bay took Perry with the 28th pick in the first round Thursday, Thompson and defensive coordinator Dom Capers left no doubt the newest Packer is ticketed for a new position. The 6-foot-3, 271-pound Perry will line up at right outside linebacker – opposite Matthews' position – in Capers' established 3-4 scheme when players come in for the rookie orientation camp May 11-13.
"At the end of the day, we thought he'd make a really good addition to our outside linebacker group," Thompson said. "He's played with his hand on the ground, but we're convinced that he's athletic enough to play standing up and do some of the things that we do. A very physical guy, can set the edge, can rush the passer. We feel good about him."
Thompson wasn't fooling anyone when he declared after the addition of Perry that "it wasn't a need pick so much."
The release of Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins the day before the draft and no solid replacement in place notwithstanding, addressing the anemic pass rush had to take precedence going into the three-day proceedings.
"We were able to get more pressure," Capers said simply, when he looked back to the Super Bowl-winning 2010 season, in which the Packers had the league's fifth-rated defense, buoyed by 47 sacks.
Green Bay mustered just 29 sacks last season, when its unstoppable offense covered up for so many flaws by the league's worst-ranked defense as the Packers won 15 of 16 games before their quick flameout in the playoffs. The defense allowed an NFL-record 4,988 passing yards in the regular season.
"The pressure helps the coverage, and the coverage helps the pressure," Capers said. "Last year, we weren't pleased, really, with either area. What we're looking to do is go back to work and find a way to get back to pressuring that quarterback like we did a couple years ago and cover a lot better."
Thompson is banking on the athletically imposing Perry to fill a huge void. The absence of a playmaker on the right side negatively impacted Matthews, whose sacks dipped appreciably from 13.5 in 2010 to six, which equaled the paltry production by the rest of the team's outside linebackers in the regular season.
"The basis of our defense starts with being able to threaten offenses from both sides," Capers said.
For the Matthews-Perry marriage to be as fruitful as his new employers envision is going to require some tough love the next few months.
Perry let it be known in the weeks leading up to the draft he preferred to stay at defensive end. He took the high road after the Packers selected him with the intention to turn him into a linebacker.
"It's here. I can't control it," Perry said. "This is something I love doing; I love playing football. I'm here to do whatever it takes to compete. Whatever I can do to help the team, I'm here for that."
Perry doesn't feel he will need to shed any weight in making the transition to a stand-up position that will showcase his explosive pass-rushing abilities but also will have him backpedaling into coverage on occasion.
Capers is optimistic about pulling off the conversion with this blue-chip player, but Thompson tempered the expectations.
"I think he'll be fine," Thompson said. "He'll need some coaching, just like we do with all of our players as they come in."
What's next for Thompson to accomplish as the draft winds into Day 2 is to get a potential heir to Collins at free safety, possibly a long-term successor to the departed Scott Wells at center and perhaps add another young player to a promising, but inexperienced group of running backs. The Packers have one pick each in rounds 2 and 3 on Friday night, then stand to be extremely busy Saturday with nine selections.
The first-round grab of Perry comes in a week that started with the release of two prominent players – 12-year left tackle Chad Clifton and Collins, the latter of whom the club wasn't willing to put back on the field after he underwent neck surgery last September. Clifton, who was coming off back surgery after last season, failed his physical.