In order to properly judge any given draft class, you absolutely need at least three years of production … but I’m impatient.
We’re only halfway through the first year of the 2018 draft classes’ careers, but with four of the six draft picks seeing meaningful playing time, we can still get a good indication of how Ryan Pace performed in his fourth draft as general manager.
So let’s take a look at how each player is doing so far.
First Round, 8th overall: LB Roquan Smith
Roquan Smith’s holdout in the preseason seems so long ago. His long absence affected his playing time and performance early on, but he has been every bit as advertised in the last few weeks.
He currently has 64 tackles (second on the team), three sacks and a forced fumble despite only playing in 78 percent of the team’s defensive snaps. Over a full season, that translates to 112 tackles, five sacks and two forced fumbles.
With his playing time increasing, I would expect his final numbers to be even better.
His speed and ability to diagnose plays is evident and has improved each week. He has a two-game streak of double-digit tackles, and I would expect that to continue as he has been all over the field.
The one area where Smith can improve is in his tackling. He already has eight missed tackles this season. But the biggest knock on Smith so far is something that is completely out of his control.
Darius Leonard (Colts second-round pick) and Leighton Vander Esch ( the Cowboys 19th overall pick) have been studs for their defenses and have frankly played better than Smith early on.
Don’t worry – Smith is starting to catch up.
Now that Smith has had some time to adjust, he has shown improvements in recent weeks with 45 tackles over his last five games, including 22 over the last two. In that span, he has only one missed tackle as he seems to have put that issue behind him.
With his best game as a pro coming this last week against the Lions, Smith’s arrow is pointing up and the sky’s the limit for the athletic linebacker.
Second Round, 39th overall: G James Daniels
James Daniels was the sixth interior offensive lineman taken in the 2018 draft. He did not play right away, making his first appearance in Week 4 against the Buccaneers. He rotated with Eric Kush before making his first start in Week 8 against the Jets.
He’s played fairly well and is third amongst rookie offensive guards who have played at least 100 snaps in pressure rate allowed. He is also the only one of those players to not allow a sack so far this season.
So far he’s been as advertised. Daniels is a highly athletic offensive lineman who’s able to step in right away and hold his own. For a player who is making a position switch in the NFL, he’s played about as well as you can expect.
Continuity along the offensive line is huge, and as Daniels has more time to work within the system and with the same offensive line mates, he should only continue to get better.
Second Round, 51st overall: WR Anthony Miller
It’s difficult to call a second-round pick for whom the team had to trade a future second rounder to acquire the steal of the draft but that might be the case with Anthony Miller.
Miller has been fantastic for the Bears since stepping on the field in training camp.
On the season, he has 24 receptions for 332 yards and four touchdowns. His 13.8 yards per reception leads the team and his four touchdowns are second among all rookie receivers.
But his stats don’t tell the whole story of just how good he’s been.
Miller has been able to get open and beat man coverage consistently this season. He is averaging three yards of separation per route run, which is tied with Odell Beckham Jr., Adam Thielen, Golden Tate and Davante Adams. This past week that number was as high as 4.7, second best in the NFL.
Mitch Trubisky and Miller were not always on the same page early in the season, but he has 10 receptions on only 12 targets for 171 yards over the last two weeks. The chemistry between the two is starting to grow and that is a bad sign for opposing defensive coordinators.
Miller’s advanced route running is what really stands out so far. He was billed as a great route runner at Memphis and he has done nothing to discredit that thus far.
Fourth Round, 115th overall: LB Joel Iyiegbuniwe
Not much was expected out of Joel Iyiegbuniwe this season. He has not seen the field much on defense but has contributed on special teams.
He has been active in every game this season and has contributed two special teams tackles.
He has seen only 11 snaps on defense but in that time he has two tackles, a tackle for loss, and a quarterback pressure.
It is still far too early to form any meaningful opinion on him but considering some fourth-round picks have already been cut and others are on practice squads, this is an encouraging sign.
Fifth Round, 145th overall: DL Bilal Nichols
If Miller isn’t the steal of the draft, then Bilal Nichols has a claim to the title.
There was plenty of talk in the preseason about who would start at defensive end opposite Akiem Hicks: Jonathan Bullard or Roy Robertson-Harris. But it’s been Nichols who has been the best of the bunch.
He played sparingly before getting his first real chance in garbage time against the Buccaneers. He responded with three tackles and a sack and has been a big part of the defensive line rotation ever since.
Despite being the 20th defensive linemen taken in the draft, he is currently fourth in run stop percentage and the second highest graded rookie defensive linemen according to Pro Football Focus.
Nichols has a penchant for the big play, as he has two forced fumbles and seven defensive stops in limited playing time.
At the very least it looks like Pace found a rotational defensive linemen on Day 3 of the draft, and at best, we are looking at an impact starter down the road.
Sixth Round, 181st overall: OLB Kylie Fitts
When Fitts was drafted, it was thought that he might see some good playing time at the weakest position for the Bears. Then the Khalil Mack trade happened. Since then he has been relegated to backup duty.
He hasn’t done much when he has seen the field with zero stats in 43 snaps, but Fitts was injured a lot during his time in college and an adjustment period was always expected. Next season will be big for him as Aaron Lynch will be a free agent and will likely need to be replaced.
Seventh Round, 224th overall: WR Javon Wims
Not many seventh-round picks make NFL rosters. But Wims did just that with a strong preseason performance.
He has only been active in three games and has one target and no receptions.
The jury is still out on Wims but the fact that he is even on the roster is an encouraging sign.
With the Khalil Mack trade (thanks again, Jon Gruden), the Bears do not own a first-round pick in either of the next two drafts. This draft class could be the last infusion of top-tier, young talent this team sees for a few years.
Which makes it all the more important that these picks hit.
So far it looks like Pace hit a home run, but it is still too early to say for sure. Anything can happen over the next few years but things are certainly trending in the right direction.
It will be fun to watch these players grow and improve in a Bears uniform over the next four years.