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By the end of the season, the Bears’ 2018 draft class had already produced three starters, in addition to the team’s leader in touchdown catches and the player who tied for the lead in special-teams tackles.
It was the third straight impact draft put together by general manager Ryan Pace and his scouting department. The 2016 class produced three starters -- OLB Leonard Floyd, C Cody Whitehair and RB Jordan Howard – and two backups, DE Jonathan Bullard and ILB Nick Kwiatkoski, who’s started 14 games.
The 2017 class brought QB Mitch Trubisky and a pair of 2018 All-Pros, both in the fourth round, S Eddie Jackson and RB Tarik Cohen, who was honored as a return specialist.
The most recent class included first-round ILB Roquan Smith, the eighth overall pick, who became the team’s leading tackler as a rookie. Smith was expected to be an instant impact player, and he didn’t disappoint. His 122 tackles as a rookie were second in franchise history to Brian Urlacher’s 124 stops in 2000.
Smith missed all of training camp is a contract dispute, and a tweaked hamstring kept him out of the preseason, but once he got comfortable in the defense, his week-to-week progress was palpable.
“He's not thinking as much; he's just playing with his instincts, and he's playing fast,” G.M. Ryan Pace said of the rookie’s late-season performances. “Those are his greatest strengths, his instincts and his speed. So the sky's the limit for him. It's just exciting to see him grow. And I think you saw a glimpse of what he's going to be, especially in the later part of the season.”
Smith was also third on the team with five sacks and tied for fourth with eight tackles for loss.
Second-round pick James Daniels (39th overall) started the last 10 games of the season at left guard and the playoff game vs. the Eagles. Mostly a center at Iowa, Daniels moved into the starting lineup shortly after his 21st birthday, and he has the versatility to move back into the middle if the Bears decide to go that route in the future.
WR Anthony Miller, the Bears’ second second-round pick (51st overall), had an up-and-down season but caught a team-best seven TD passes. Among rookies, only the Falcons’ Calvin Ridley, with 10, had more scores through the air. Fourth-round ILB Joel Iyiegbuniwe’s path onto the field on defense was blocked by Smith and veteran Danny Trevathan, but he tied for the team lead with six special-teams tackles.
Fifth-round pick Bilal Nichols could wind up being a steal. He worked his way into the starting lineup at right end by the final month of the season, starting five of the final six regular-season games. He will continue battling Roy Robertson-Harris and Jonathan Bullard for playing time in the future, but he has already shown that he can provide solid depth on the line and has the potential to lock down a starting job.
Seventh-round WR Javon Wims also found a crowded house at his position. But the big, rangy Georgia Bulldog finally got an opportunity in Week 17, when the Bears’ top three wide receivers were injured, and he flashed potential with four catches for 32 yards. Sixth-round OLB Kyle Fitts likewise found his path obstructed by veterans and played briefly in seven games, totaling just 58 snaps. But if UFA-to-be Aaron Lynch isn’t re-signed in the offseason, Fitts could get more opportunities going forward. He showed a knack for rushing the passer in the preseason, and no team ever has enough edge rushers.
All in all Nagy was more than pleased with the contributions of the 2018 rookies.
“You never know how many you're going to hit on,” Nagy said after the season. “I don't know if we even truly know right now. But from what we've seen, we feel really confident with that group; (we) see a lot of high ceilings with these guys. If we could go back and do (the draft) again, I'd do it again (the same way). It's just a credit to these guys, Ryan and his guys. They put in a lot of hard work and we collaborate together.”
Keeping up the pace they’ve set in the past three years will be nearly impossible this year, since the Bears are missing their first-round pick from the Khalil Mack deal and their second-rounder after trading up to get Miller last year. They’re also missing their sixth-round pick, also from the Mack trade, but they have an extra seventh, which they got when they traded DB Deiondre Hall to the Eagles last year.