Chicago Bears: Whitney Mercilus
The No. 1 reason the Bears hired general manager Phil Emery was to fix the team's approach to the draft after the final years of Angelo's watch produced far too many misses.
Rodriguez was the fourth-round pick in Emery's first draft class. To admit defeat this early on a relatively high draft choice would be crushing, even if Rodriguez has done little to justify his spot on the team, outside of his draft status.
Rodriguez's final numbers his rookie year: four catches for 21 yards in 12 games.
To be fair, the Bears' offense last year was dysfunctional, and Rodriguez was never given the opportunity to stretch the field in the passing game -- the role Emery envisioned -- so it was easy to wipe the slate clean and expect Rodriguez to have a larger impact in the new Marc Trestman offense.
Illinois junior defensive end Whitney Mercilus and senior wide receiver A.J. Jenkins were selected in the first round of the NFL draft on Thursday.
Mercilus was drafted by the Houston Texas as the No. 26 pick. Jenkins was taken by the San Francisco 49ers with the 30th pick.
Mercilus entered the draft following a breakout junior season during which he led the nation with 16 sacks, 1.23 sacks per game and nine forced fumbles. He also had 57 tackles, 22.5 tackles for loss, six quarterback hurries, one pass break-up and one fumble recovery. He was given the Ted Hendricks Award for the best defensive end in the country.
Jenkins caught 90 passes for 1,276 yards and eight touchdowns last season. He led the Big Ten and was 16th in the nation with 6.9 receptions per game. He had 12 receptions for 268 yards in a win over Northwestern last season. He finished his Illini career ranked third in receptions (167), receiving yards (2,432) and receiving touchdowns (19).
“My agent told me I was going to be pretty much in late first, early second round,” Jenkins said by teleconference. “It just caught me off guard because I was in the bathroom. My cousin ran to the door with the phone in his hand. I was like, ‘Wow.’ It was just crazy.”
Mercilus and Jenkins are the fourth and fifth Illinois players to be drafted in the first round in the last five years. They join defensive tackle Corey Liuget (San Diego Chargers, 2011), cornerback Vontae Davis (Miami Dolphins, 2009) and Rashard Mendenhall (Pittsburgh Steelers, 2008) as recent first-round picks.
Illinois had three players drafted in the first three rounds last year.
The club’s responses to the deficiency have become monotonous.
“Do we need to do a better job with it? Yes,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said. “I think those guys would say that. We’re saying that because we’re capable of doing more.”
The difference now, though, is the Bears seem to have intensified their search to add a capable pass rusher opposite Julius Peppers, and it appears the club could target a defensive end with the 19th pick in the NFL draft. The Bears’ pre-draft activities seem to indicate as much.
Of the top 20 players at the position, the Bears have either worked out or hosted at least five of the prospects including South Carolina’s Melvin Ingram, Illinois’ Whitney Mercilus, and Southern Cal’s Nick Perry, in addition to West Virginia’s Bruce Irvin, and Tim Fugger of Vanderbilt.
The extensive work done on the prospects surely stems from the team’s production in 2011. The Bears tied for 19th in sacks last season, with 17 of their 33 sacks coming from the defensive end position. The club brought back veteran Israel Idonije (five sacks in 2011) for another season, but it’s likely the Bears would use him as a rotational player if it can land a starter in the draft to play opposite Peppers.
“Julius Peppers is arguably the best player in the NFL. That’s what I think,” Smith said. “He will very seldom lead the league in sacks because he gets respect; always double-teamed, triple-teamed.”
That’s exactly why it’s imperative the Bears land another pass rusher at some point in the draft, especially in a division with so many talented quarterbacks such as Aaron Rodgers of Green Bay and Detroit’s Matthew Stafford.
The next 10:11. Trevor Guyton, California, 6-3, 285; 12. Cam Johnson, Virginia, 6-4, 268; 13. Malik Jackson, Tennessee, 6-5, 284; 14. Jake Bequette, Arkansas, 6-5, 274; 15. Jack Crawford, Penn State, 6-5, 274; 16. Jacquies Smith, Missouri, 6-3, 253; 17. Justin Francis, Rutgers, 6-2, 268; 18. Tim Fugger, Vanderbilt, 6-3, 248; 19. Kourtnei Brown, Clemson, 6-5, 256; 20. Frank Alexander, Oklahoma, 6-4, 270.
Position grade: B.
Analysis:The Bears have scoured this year’s class extensively to find what they believe could be a fit opposite Peppers. They shouldn’t experience too many problems finding it because of the sheer depth of this class, headlined by Melvin Ingram and Quentin Coples. The Bears have either worked out or hosted at least five of the top 20 players at the position. That’s a strong indication that at some point, the team will draft a defensive end.
ESPN NFL Draft Analyst Mel Kiper Jr.'s latest mock draft has the Bears selecting Mercilus in the first round at No. 19.
"The persona I got from Lovie was a guy who was all about business, but he's really chilled and laid back," Mercilus told ESPNChicago.com on Friday. "He seems to be a players' coach, really cool and easy to talk to. But I also get the persona that he's a guy who is passionate about this game. He definitely has kept a close eye on everything that has happened in the draft and is (focused) on who to draft and who fits in their system. A guy who loves to handle business also, and wants to win.
"Working with (Marinelli), he's definitely everything that I expected out of a defensive line coach, to push me hard. He's easy to talk to and is somebody who is going to help you improve in this game."
After two relatively quiet years for the Illini, Mercilus exploded last season when he led the nation in sacks (16) and forced fumbles (9). The 6-4, 261-pound pass rusher also registered 22.5 tackles for a loss in his third and final season at Illinois. A consensus All-American selection, Mercilus was the recipient of the 2011 Ted Hendricks Award, handed out annually to the best defensive end in the country.
Smith made no secret of his desire to upgrade the Bears' pass rush in the offseason. Perennial Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers led the team with 11 sacks in 2011, but was the only member of the unit to reach double-figures in the category. Fellow starting defensive end Israel Idonije, who the team recently re-signed to a one-year contract, tallied five sacks. The other defensive ends currently on the roster are 2010 fourth-round draft choice Corey Wootton, veteran Chauncey Davis and Thaddeus Gibson.
"That would be awesome (to play on the Bears veteran defense)," Mercilus said. "That's a seasoned defense with elite guys, veterans. Definitely there would be high expectations for me to come into that program. I would love to try and live up to those expectations and prove myself to them."
Mercilus has made official visits to several teams, including the Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions.