While the Chicago Bears did not enjoy quite as successful of a season as they had hoped for in 2016, one of the few bright spots on the team was its rookie class. Particularly, a “big three” of rookies stood out and became stars for the organization, and pieces that they can build around moving forward. The performance of those three players alone were enough for me to give the Bears’ draft class a high grade, and when you couple them with the contributions of other rookies who might stand out less, what you end up with is an incredibly successful draft for Chicago. Let’s take a deeper look at who stood out.
Jordan Howard, running back
Drafted: 5th round
Let’s start with the obvious player here – Howard emerged as not only a star in Chicago, but as a premier running back in the NFL. Howard did not take over as the starter until the fourth game of the season, and he was running behind an injured offensive line for the majority of the season. Pair these with the inadequate passing attack in Chicago, and you have a recipe for disaster for a running back.
Howard, however, took these challenges in stride, and finished with the second-most rushing yards in the league behind fellow rookie Ezekiel Elliot of the Dallas Cowboys. Not only this, but Howard also broke the Bears record for rushing yards by a rookie, passing the likes of Matt Forte and Walter Payton. He took the league by storm in his first year, and as the team grows and improves and (hopefully) stays healthy, his numbers will only get better.
After last year, Howard has proven that he is THE premier piece of the Bears’ offense and a player that Chicago can build around for many years to come.
Cody Whitehair, center/guard
Drafted: 2nd round
If it wasn’t for Howard’s emergence as a superstar, Whitehair very well could have been the Bears’ best rookie. He was not only the most consistent offensive lineman the Bears had, but he also stayed healthy and was a force to be reckoned with on the field.
Whitehair played both center and guard for the Bears, and shined in both roles. Having a player of his talent who is also that versatile allows the Bears to feel more comfortable with their lineups up front in the event that a player goes down with injury. It also allows them to move other players around, namely guard/tackle Kyle Long, another athletic, versatile young lineman that the Bears have already made a priority to build around.
With those two pieces in place and a star to run behind them, the Bears’ offense is trending in the right direction, requiring only a quarterback to guide them.
Leonard Floyd, outside linebacker
Drafted: 1st round
Floyd had his share of growing pains as a rookie, yet still registered seven sacks and emerged as a reliable pass rusher in Vic Fangio’s defense. If Floyd can pack on the weight that head coach John Fox said he wanted him to, it’s possible that with his speed, length, and athleticism that he can make the jump to elite status in year two.
Not only must Floyd add muscle to compete physically with NFL offensive linemen, but he must also work on his run defense and pass coverage if he is to be a solid all-around outside linebacker. I believe he can do this, and as long as he stays healthy, he should be a threat on this defense for years to come.
While the three players mentioned above were the standouts of the class, there were a couple players who also contributed nicely to the team, and should play key roles moving forward. Defensive end Jonathan Bullard, for example, saw time in the rotation and registered close to 20 tackles and recorded one sack in his rookie season. As he grows, he should be a valuable piece on the line alongside fellow defensive end and veteran Akiem Hicks, or perhaps even act as a replacement to Hicks as time goes on.
One rookie that was especially productive in his limited time was middle linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski. Kwiatkoski stepped in late in the season when the injury bug hit the linebacker position, and registered 44 tackles, one sack, two forced fumbles and two pass deflections. He was a key contributor in two of Chicago’s few wins last season, registering a career-high nine tackles and two pass deflections against the San Francisco 49ers and forcing two fumbles in a win over the Minnesota Vikings. Kwiatkoski has proven that he can take over the reigns at middle linebacker, and once one of the middle linebacker spots open up for good following the departure of either Jerrell Freeman or Danny Trevathan, we will most likely see Kwiatkoski step up and become a leader on this defense. Best case scenario: he becomes the next Brian Urlacher.
On one final note before I deliver my verdict, another rookie that I cannot factor into my grade but who’s performance also stood out was cornerback CreVon LeBlanc. Although the Bears did not draft him, they signed him as an undrafted free agent after he was let go by New England, and LeBlanc delivered a fine performance for an undrafted talent. Towards the end of the year, LeBlanc even found himself in a starting role for the Bears. He delivered one of the most consistent performances of any Bears corner in 2016, and he can only go up from here.
All-in-all, while their record did not reflect their draft success, the Bears found several future starts in the 2016 class. That is why I give the team a grade of an A-. Had they hit on one of the few safeties/corners they did draft, that grade might have been higher, however it is by no means a bad class. If the Bears repeat the success in the draft they had last year, this team could develop into true contenders very, very soon.
If you would like to receive an email each time a new Chicago Bears article is published, fill out our email notification form.