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5 paths Bears can take with the No. 9 pick in the 2024 NFL draft

5 paths Bears can take with the No. 9 pick in the 2024 NFL draft originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

The NFL draft is just over three weeks away and the team’s decision with the No. 1 overall pick seems like a foregone conclusion already. That’s not the case with the team’s No. 9 pick, however. The Bears have several paths they can take with their second first-round pick– and they might not know which way they’re going until they’re back on the clock.

Everything points to a drama-free selection at No. 1: Caleb Williams’ tape, the team’s rave reviews from their meeting in Los Angeles, the Justin Fields trade, the not so subtle hints from the Bears and Williams alike. Figuring out the QB question was the biggest priority for the Bears in 2024. Now we have an answer. But the team still has several holes to fill on their roster and will use that No. 9 pick to add another high-impact player.

With the QB evaluation all but wrapped up (Williams is still slated to visit Halas Hall for a top-30 visit) the Bears will start to focus their attention on that No. 9 pick. They’ll break into groups to identify the top players at various positions and how those players will help the team the most both in the short term and the long term. Depending on how those debates go, there appears to be five roads the Bears can travel with No. 9 pick.

ROAD 1: DRAFT A WIDE RECEIVER

DJ Moore proved to be the dominant WR1 the Bears have needed since Allen Robinson’s dropoff in 2021. He’s an incredibly reliable target who thrives by racking up yards after the catch and can work effectively in every part of the field. But the best offenses have more than one great wide receiver, so GM Ryan Poles acquired Keenan Allen from the Chargers. Like Moore, Allen is an excellent route runner and can create separation seemingly at will. The duo are a dream team for a rookie quarterback looking to transition into the NFL.

But Allen will turn 32 next month and shouldn’t be considered a long term option at the position. He likely still has several seasons of productive football ahead, but obviously can’t be counted on to be a Bear for a decade to catch passes from Williams if all goes according to plan.

Further, neither Moore nor Allen are burners who can challenge defenses vertically with pure speed. The Bears have looked for a deep threat like that for several years with picks like Velus Jones Jr. and Tyler Scott, but neither pick has panned out in an admittedly small sample size. There’s certainly still time for them to improve and fill the void, but the Bears probably want to add competition for the WR3 job.

Right now, there’s a consensus “big three” at wide receiver in this year’s class: Marvin Harrison Jr., Malik Nabers and Rome Odunze. Harrison Jr. is all but assured to be off the board before the Bears No. 9 pick comes up. There’s a chance Nabers and Odunze are gone too. But if any of them fall to the Bears, they will have to seriously consider adding them to give Williams one of the best pass-catching units in the NFL for years to come.

ROAD 2: DRAFT AN OFFENSIVE TACKLE

Everything is about setting up Williams for success in 2024 and beyond. One of the best ways to do that is to ensure he’s well protected up front. We know the Bears value building out the trenches given Poles’ and assistant GM Ian Cunningham’s OL pedigrees, so it shouldn’t be a huge surprise if the team opts to bolster the unit.

The Bears have two young tackles in place right now with third-year player Braxton Jones and sophomore Darnell Wright. Last season, Wright showed all the makings of a right tackle who could hold the position down for years. Jones continued to improve after a rocky rookie season and if his development continues on the same positive trajectory he could turn out to be one of Poles’ best picks.

Behind Jones and Wright, the Bears don’t have the depth required in case of injury. Larry Borom fell out of favor with the team’s new regime when Poles took over for Ryan Pace. He lost his starting job in 2022 and struggled when called upon as a reserve in 2023. The team has added more competition for backup snaps with free agency signings like Matt Pryor, but they could still stand to add to the group.

If a player like Joe Alt– whose exceptional athleticism fits what the Bears want in offensive linemen perfectly– is available can the Bears resist? Adding Alt would both help the Bears keep Williams upright and ensure the Bears have reliable options to plug into the lineup when injuries inevitably hit.

ROAD 3: DRAFT A PASS RUSHER

If setting up excellent quarterback play is the most important thing a football team can do in today’s game, then hampering an opponent’s quarterback play is the second most important thing. The best way to do that is with a fearsome pass rush.

Exhibit A should be how much the Bears defense improved once Montez Sweat arrived. Before Sweat, the Bears defense had 10 sacks and six interceptions in eight games. After Sweat they had 20 sacks and 16 interceptions in nine games. That’s practically double the sack rate and nearly triple the interception rate!

You might ask what Sweat has to do with the Bears intercepting passes, and it’s a good question. He plays defensive end, so it’s not like he’s spending all his time covering receivers or hanging in pass lanes to undercut routes. But the way the Bears defense is set up, they want to generate pressure with just four players so that they can leave seven players in coverage. Before Sweat arrived they couldn’t do that. Eberflus needed to bring blitzers to assist with the pass rush, so that meant fewer players in the secondary to create takeaways.

Looking ahead, the Bears need to replace both Yannick Ngakoue and Justin Jones as starters on the defensive line. DeMarcus Walker played well both as a starter and reserve after the Sweat trade, and his versatility allowed the team to use him at DE and DT. Gervon Dexter improved throughout his rookie season and the team could view him as a starter this year. The Bears want multiple waves of rushers at the ready, however, so that players can stay fresh throughout the game. To keep that rotation operating at a high level they’ll need to add players to the mix before Week 1.

There’s expected to be a big run on offensive players at the top of the draft. With J.J. McCarthy climbing draft boards, the aforementioned “big three” wide receivers, pro-ready left tackle Alt and even dynamic tight end Brock Bowers in the mix there’s a real chance the Bears could have the opportunity to draft the first defensive player. If there’s one pass rusher they have circled as a force-multiplier who’s significantly better than the rest of the class they could use the opportunity to add him and keep the defense on its upward trajectory from last year.

ROAD 4: TRADE BACK

After trading for Allen and agreeing to a trade for Ryan Bates, the Bears are only slated to make four draft selections next month. There’s an argument to be made that one top-10 selection would help the team more than a top-20 pick and a top-75 pick, especially if one of their blue-chip players is still on the board. Hitting a top-75 pick typically means finding a good starter. Hitting a top-10 pick means finding a guy who can act as a franchise cornerstone.

Let’s say Harrison Jr., Odunze, Nabers and the team’s top pass rusher and offensive tackle are all gone, though. Then the Bears will look at their pods of players to see who remains in their top tier and how many are left in the tier below. If they believe the best of the best are all gone, and they can still grab a great player after moving back a few spots, a trade back in the draft comes into play.

There’s also an argument to be made that once the Bears have Williams in place, they’ll want to get as many pieces around him on a similar timeline. If they can improve their pass rush, add to their receiving core and bolster their depth on the offensive line all at once, their rebuild would essentially be over. From there the Bears could focus 100% of their attention to developing Williams and plugging the small remaining holes as needed. If the Bears want to go this route, a trade back once again comes into play.

ROAD 5: TRADE UP

This path admittedly feels far, far less likely than the others. As things stand, the team only has four picks in this year’s draft and if they moved up they’d either have to forfeit another pick this year to jump several spots, or potentially a pick next year for a smaller move. Further, the team’s next pick after No. 9 is the No. 75 pick. If a team is willing to trade back, there’s a good chance they’ll have multiple suitors for a potential deal, not just the Bears. Since the Bears only have the No. 75 pick in this year’s draft to sweeten a first-round pick swap, there’s a chance that a team hovering not too far behind the Bears could offer more and outbid them.

If the Bears do manage to pull off a move like this however, they will have done it to add a second blue chip player in addition to Williams. That player figures to be an offensive player to help Williams directly, given the expected run on offense at the top of the draft. Similar to how the Texans added C.J. Stroud then traded up for Will Anderson to jump start their rebuild last year, this could be the move the Bears make to put themselves over the top.

No matter which route the Bears end up choosing, they likely won’t know where they’re going until the picks start coming off the board for real. There are still so many scenarios that need to play out from pick Nos. 2-8 that it’s hard to predict exactly what will happen next month.

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