(CBS) History has proved that there's no such thing as a safe pick in the NFL Draft. Booms and busts happen in every round, and nearly one-third of the league's labor force is made up of undrafted players.
For years, Bears general manager Ryan Pace was a respected voice in the Saints' draft rooms, but a month from now will mark the first time in his career that he's calling the shots.
Pace has navigated free agency deftly, being prudent with the team's cap space and targeting first-time free agents who missed their first big NFL pay day on one-year deals. His stated goal was to utilize the free-agent period to free up the team to draft the best player available with the seventh overall selection.
The 2015 draft class features 10 premier prospects: quarterbacks Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota; edge rushers Dante Fowler Jr. and Vic Beasley; wide receivers Amari Cooper and Kevin White; defensive linemen Leonard Williams and Danny Shelton; offensive lineman Brandon Scherff; and cornerback Trae Waynes.
The Bears are positioned to land a difference-maker and may well be narrowing their focus to a pass rusher on defense or a potential centerpiece receiver for their passing attack.
It's a subjective exercise, but if Pace refers to the results from the top-15 players selected in each of the last five drafts, he may deem an edge rusher a safer selection than wide receiver.
The Bears will transition to a 3-4 front, thus outside linebackers/edge rushers are at a premium. Players who fit this mold -- like Von Miller, Aldon Smith, Bruce Irvin, Khalil Mack and Anthony Barr -- have made immediate impacts early in their careers after being drafted.
The Seahawks' Irvin and Vikings' Barr have been successful in 4-3 defenses but could easily play in a 30-front. Expanding that scope, 3-4 end JJ Watt of the Texans has blossomed into the league's best defensive player, and Jets end Sheldon Richardson is a force. 4-3 ends like Robert Quinn of the Rams and Jason Pierre-Paul of the Giants must be accounted for on every single snap.
On the flip side, players like the Browns' Barkevious Mingo and the Eagles' Brandon Graham haven't lived up to their draft status. Yet all in all, many top-15 ends selected in recent years have quickly become impact performers.
Three receivers drafted early in the 2014 draft -- the Bills' Sammy Watkins, the Bucs' Mike Evans and the Giants' Odell Beckham -- had immediate impacts, as did the stellar 2011 class featuring the A.J. Green of the Bengals and Julio Jones of the Falcons. However, players like the Rams' Tavon Austin, Jaguars' Justin Blackmon and Cardinals' Michael Floyd haven't developed as anticipated.
Pace will have to rely upon his scouting eye but also the input from his coaching staff, which is greatly improved from the previous two regimes. He's said the Bears' best path to sustained success is drafting well, so he's under a lot of pressure to live up to those words and make his first selection a player who be a difference-maker for years to come.
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