- Michael C. Wright, ESPN Staff Writer
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ESPNChicago.com kicks off its countdown to the April 25-27 NFL draft with a look back at last year's draft class. Check back each day leading up to the draft for a positional preview of all the draft prospects.
The Chicago Bears muddied the draft picture for outsiders with the moves they made in free agency, but that certainly added flexibility for what the club can now do with the 20th overall pick.
So as we prepare to get into that subject in preparing to kick off coverage of the 2013 NFL draft, let's take a look at how the team fared in 2012 with its six draft picks. Often immediately after a selection is made, reporters -- having not seen any of the prospects play a single down in the NFL -- submit overly positive or negative grades.
Well, we've now had an entire season to make an evaluation, and here's what we think:
Shea McClellin, DE, Boise State
Round: 1 Pick: 19 (Overall: 19)
What we said after the draft: General manager Phil Emery raved about McClellin's natural instincts, and functional athleticism, which should translate well as an NFL pass rusher. His physical attributes don't necessarily jump off the charts, but he plays better than workout testing would indicate. Drafting McClellin over Whitney Mercilus and Chandler Jones says a lot Chicago's belief in his ability opposite Julius Peppers.
Initial grade: B+
What we say now: First, the bad. McClellin struggled early on at training camp, and never cracked the starting lineup as a rookie. Sure, he was a rookie. But shouldn't a team's first-round pick be an immediate starter and impact player? McClellin wasn't either of those, but that's not to say he didn't produce a solid rookie campaign. He played in 14 games with 2.5 sacks and seven tackles, and after the season, Emery discussed metrics that would indicate McClellin was an impact player. The problem was he didn't make enough of an impact. Right now, this looks like an Emery single. This team needs home runs with the first-round picks.
Current grade: C
Alshon Jeffery, WR, South Carolina
Round: 2 Pick: 13 (Overall: 45)
What we said after the draft: The Bears could have chosen LSU receiver Rueben Randle with this pick, but Jeffery -- even with concerns about his weight, and work ethic -- seems to project as the better prospect. Paired with Brandon Marshall, the Bears could start the season with the division's most physical duo of wideouts. At 6-foot-3, 216 pounds, Jeffery possesses impressive strength and explosion and provides Cutler a dangerous threat in the red zone. Could turn out to be a steal.
Initial grade: B+
What we say now: Certainly looked the part early on last season. Jeffery caught three passes for 80 yards and a touchdown in his NFL debut, and hauled in at least three passes in three of his first four games. Then a hand injury against the Jaguars on Oct. 7 pretty much ruined Jeffery's rookie season by putting him on the shelf for the next four games. Upon his return Nov. 19 against the San Francisco 49ers, Jeffery suffered a knee injury that put him out another two weeks. Over the next four games he caught a total of eight passes for one touchdown. Expect Jeffery to be an improved player in better physical condition in 2013.
Current grade: B+
Brandon Hardin, S, Oregon State
Round: 3 Pick: 16 (Overall: 79)
What we said after the draft: The issue with the Bears taking Hardin in the third round has little to do with ability, but everything to do with health. To be fair, Hardin is fully recovered from a shoulder fracture that caused him to miss the entire 2011 season. However, the Bears already had a couple of injury risks on the roster at safety. Major Wright has yet to prove he can stay on the field, while Chris Conte finished the year on injured reserve due to a foot injury. If Hardin can stay off the injury report, he projects to be a solid strong safety who can deliver hard hits. Odds are Hardin would have been able to improve on his 2010 numbers at Oregon State (63 tackles, three forced fumbles) if not for the shoulder problem last summer. But we'll never know, which is what makes the Hardin pick somewhat risky.
Initial grade: C
What we say now: Hardin essentially confirmed the injury concerns about him coming into the NFL during the team's Aug. 18 preseason win over the Washington Redskins with a textbook example of how not to tackle. Hardin suffered a season-ending neck injury when he lowered his head in an attempt to tackle Redskins tight end Logan Paulsen. While the injury ended Hardin's season, it really wasn't that significant as he was cleared to return in October. But the Bears designated him for season-ending injured reserve, which is why he never returned. There's a reason the Bears did that, and it wasn't concern over the injury. It was the simple fact that prior to the injury, Hardin simply wasn't playing well. Sure, he possesses significant size, speed and physicality. But nobody saw enough of that during Hardin's rookie campaign to think he might become an impact player.
Current grade: D
Evan Rodriguez, TE, Temple
Round: 4 Pick: 16 (Overall: 111)
What we said after the draft: From an ability perspective, Rodriguez grades out much higher. The "F" tight end role is the same position that Greg Olsen played in Chicago, and while Olsen entered the league with the reputation as a more polished receiver, Rodriguez can be counted on to block and contribute on special teams, in addition to stretching the field as a vertical threat. If Rodriguez is even close to Olsen in terms on production, the Bears got themselves a steal in the fourth round. However, all the off-the-field issues makes it impossible to give this pick a higher grade. Rodriguez must prove he's matured and moved beyond all the problems he encountered at West Virginia and Temple.
Initial grade: C
What we say now: Played the first three games, but missed the next four recovering from a sprained knee. Rodriguez didn't register a reception until Nov. 25, and finished the season with just four catches for 21 yards; so much for the threat of Rodriguez stretching the field. The new coaching staff likes Rodriguez's ability, and wants to give him the opportunity to play a more significant role, as he wasn't given many opportunities as a rookie. Off-the-field issues crept up once again for Rodriguez this offseason when he was arrested in March for resisting arrest. The team also signed free agent Martellus Bennett to come in as the starter. So it appears Rodriguez could encounter difficulty finding a role in 2013.
Current grade: D
Isaiah Frey, CB, Nevada
Round: 6 Pick: 14 (Overall: 184)
What we said after the draft: Emery talked about using picks from the fifth round on down to secure height-weight-speed guys who can eventually develop into contributors. Frey certainly fits that mold; at least in the weight and speed departments. At Nevada, Frey displayed strong cover skills in picking off five passes and breaking up 21 passes as a senior. But he doesn't appear to be very physical, which doesn't translate well in Chicago's scheme. More concerning is the fact physicality can't be coached into a player, which might be key for Frey since the Bears envision competing on special teams as a potential gunner.
Initial grade: D
What we say now: He showed some promise in training camp, and even picked off a pass in the third preseason game against the New York Giants. Coming out of the draft, Frey projected as a sub defender and special-teams contributor, but was never to able to earn those roles. The Bears waived Frey on Aug. 31, and later brought him back to the practice squad. With the team in need of young corners, Frey will be given plenty of opportunities to earn a role. But he'll need to make a significant jump from Year 1 to Year 2 for that to happen.
Current grade: D
Greg McCoy, CB, Texas Christian
Round: 7 Pick: 13 (Overall: 220)
What we said after the draft: The Bears can never have too many quality return men. McCoy was the Mountain West Special Teams Player of the Year last season after he returned two kickoffs for touchdowns. He did start for two years at cornerback for TCU, but his best shot to make the team is on special teams. Even if McCoy fails to make the final 53-man roster, it's tough to fault the Bears for taking a potential playmaker in the final round. But given the extreme importance placed on special teams this offseason, it would be a mistake to assume McCoy has no shot to make the team.
Initial grade: B
What we say now: Despite his pedigree as a return man coming out of college, McCoy finished the preseason with the lowest average (21.5 yards per return) among the club's returners on kickoffs. On defense, McCoy flashed potential at times at cornerback, and even returned an interception for a touchdown in the preseason finale at Cleveland. Still the club waived McCoy on Aug. 31, and he signed in September to the practice squad of the Arizona Cardinals. McCoy is now on the roster of the Minnesota Vikings. So the Bears didn't receive much for their investment. But at the same time, the club used a seventh-round pick, which wasn't much. Although McCoy isn't with the team anymore, what we liked about the pick was the fact the Bears took a chance on a playmaker. We can't knock that.
Current grade: C-