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Third-Year Charmers: Ryan Pace's 2018 Draft Class Poised to Make Huge Mark

The Bears have only one starter from the 2015, 2016 and 2019 draft classes but the 2018 class Ryan Pace brought in looks to have spectacular possibilities

Nose tackle Eddie Goldman is the only Chicago Bears starter drafted by general manager Ryan Pace from his first class in 2015.

Guard Cody Whitehair is the only Bears starter remaining from the 2016 draft class.

If Mitchell Trubisky loses to Nick Foles in their quarterback battle at training camp, the only starter remaining from the 2017 class will be Eddie Jackson.

David Montgomery is the only starter from the 2019 class.

None of this speaks well obviously for Pace's drafting but the 2018 class is hitting Year 3 this season, the critical point when players are supposed to be key contributors or starters. It looks much different for this class.

The Bears have so much riding on several players from Pace's 2018 class, and in each case trends indicate possible big years for each of these players.

So often the term "breakout" player gets tossed around and in most of these players' cases they've already done enough to have crossed this proverbial threshold. 

Now it's possible they could take it a step beyond.

Inside Linebacker Roquan Smith

Their first-round pick in 2018 led the team in tackles with 101 last year and with 121 in 2018. Still, it seemed he was capable of so much more. He made a pair of interceptions as well as an interception in the 2018 playoff loss to Philadelphia.

In 2018 Smith started late because of month-long camp holdout, then last year twice had his momentum stopped. The first was when he missed a game against Minnesota for "personal reasons," which neither he nor the team explained. The other was when it stopped permanently with almost four full games remaining to be played because of a torn pectoral muscle.

The injury is expected to be fully healed by training camp and the Bears anticipate he'll take up some of the pass coverage slack caused by the loss of outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, who it seems was better as a standard linebacker who covers passes and stops the run than he was as a 3-4 edge.

According to statistics from Sportradar, official stat partner of the NFL, Smith drastically dropped his passer rating against when targeted from 95.9 in 2018 to 75.9 last year. There's little concern about his tackling ability, after he missed on only 3.8% of his tackles in 2019.

If Smith can avoid the momentum killers, the injuries and other distractions, rapid growth to big-play linebacker seems the next step.

"When he was healthy last year and playing right, you saw the player that we drafted and why we took him so high," Pace said. "Our outlook on him is very optimistic."

Wide Receiver Anthony Miller

Like Smith, only circumstance and injuries seem to have held back Miller.

The shoulder injury he suffered near the end of 2018 and the one he suffered while returning a kick with Cordarrelle Patterson out of the season-finale due to injury have been problems because they kept Miller from getting stronger in the offseason. He spent it rehabbing each time.

Nevertheless, 33 catches for 423 yards as a rookie with a team-high seven touchdown receptions, and 52 receptions for 656 yards and two TDs last year supply more than proof of what he's capable of coming out of the slot if he can ever remain healthy.

D.J. Moore (142), Calvin Ridley (127), Courtland Sutton (114), Christian Kirk (111), Michael Gallup (99) and DJ Chark (87) are the only receivers from the 2018 draft class with more catches than Miller and all have started more than Miller.

At first Miller's lack of maturity and lack of knowledge about the offense hurt him. He became more serious about learning all aspects of the receiver positions.

"We got to make sure we keep him mentally in it," coach Matt Nagy said. "Then when we get back to training camp, we pick up from there.

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"I'm really proud of the way I think he grew. He needs to continue to keep maturing on the field with some of the stuff, post-catch type (taunting) deals. He's been better at that. I think his talent is there. I love his energy. But we want him to just keep growing as a player especially on the field being smart with that. He's done that."

Guard/Center James Daniels

The only question about Daniels is how good he can become if they ever settle on his position. He started at left guard, moved to center last year, then back to left guard and all along he's maintained solid blocking technique.

Pro Football Focus gave Daniels the highest score of all Bears offensive linemen last year, a 70.3. This was for a 22-year-old blocker who didn't get into the lineup until seven games into his rookie season.

Daniels hadn't taken a snap at guard since his freshman year of college but started their to begin with, then didn't play as well as expected last year at center when given line call responsibilities. So he moved back.

"I think when you look at James he's still one of the youngest players on our team," Pace said. "You know he's still developing, I think he got as lot better as the season went on but as far as where we're going to put him next year that's still an evaluation."

Defensive End Bilal Nichols

The surprise player of the 2018 draft class, their fifth-rounder made 27 tackles last year, one less than in 2018. It was largely due to the broken hand he suffered. Playing through the injury set him back. He missed three games last year with the injury, played hurt in several with the injury and it limited the big plays he could make. 

In 2018 he arrived on the scene with five tackles for loss and three sacks, including one of Tom Brady.

He was good enough to take the starting defensive end spot away from Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris as a rookie and kept it with 12 starts last year.

If healthy, the Bears anticipate big plays again. With Robert Quinn playing that side of the line along side, it could free Nichols up to wreak even more havoc.

Wide Receiver Javon Wims

The seventh-round pick is the only player drafted by Pace in either the sixth or seventh rounds to start a game. Wims had to start six times last year due to an injury to Taylor Gabriel. He made 22 receptions for 218 yards in his two seasons, and got into the end zone for the first time last season. The only way his role will expand is if he does a btter job with his chances than last year, when he caught only 46.2% of the passes thrown his way.

Bottom Line

Toss kicker Eddy Pineiro into the mix. Though not a Bears draft pick, he is nonetheless a third-year player to whom much time was devoted to finding, and from whom much is expected after he closed 2019 with 11 straight field goals made.

Pineiro's 82.1% in his first year as a starting NFL kicker was better than the efforts of Robbie Gould (77.8), Adam Vinatieri (77.1) and Stephen Gostkowski (76.9) in their rookie years. 

Pineiro sat out his first year on injured reserve in Oakland.

"The goal the whole time was to hit on a young kicker that we can grow," Pace said. "We feel like we've done that with Eddy."

If all six of these players make the potential strides indicated as possible by their past success, Pace will have a draft class to remember.

It might be exactly what he needs considering all the other classes he had with only one starter remaining in Chicago.

Twitter: BearDigest@BearsOnMaven 

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