Tomorrow afternoon, Roger Goodell will stride purposefully towards the podium; crisp, white envelope firmly in his grasp -- inside it, a piece of paper upon which is scribbled the name of a brand new Chicago Bear. He'll reach his destination, stop, calmly glance towards the anxious cameras and crowds, fully aware of the devastation or joy his next words may bring to every conscious Chicago Bears fan on planet earth. These words always come sooner than you'd like -- you wish you had more time to prepare, more time to adequately ready yourself for such an unfairly terrifying do-or-die, the potential salvation or utter doom of your beloved team: "With the 14th pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, the Chicago Bears select..."
Should the next two words to escape Goodell's mouth happen to be anything other than "Rashard Mendenhall," you'll know why I jumped. This potentially jaw-dropping folly would have been one straw too many for this weary camel's back.
The NFL Draft is great, it really is. It's a year round affair, and that comment doesn't restrict itself to guys like Mel Kiper Jr. All throughout the college football season, stocks are skyrocketing and plummeting, slowly gaining steam and losing their luster; NFL fans everywhere salivate at the thought of nabbing one of these high-flyin', top-notch prospects come April. The NFL Draft is the distant light at the end of the tunnel for fans of putrid NFL teams; it's where players who've paid their college dues (much unlike most NBA Draft prospects) finally witness their dreams come to fruition; it's where teams can start over, begin anew.
In spite of all these happy and hopeful images, the Draft is also where professional football teams come to spend ungodly sums of money on unproven rookies, to be bamboozled by 40-yard dash times and bench press reps. It's where the mortifying fear your team has fallen victim, selecting this year's big bust, suffocates you until he proves his worthiness in training camp. It's where I've witnessed the selections of Curtis Enis, Cade McNown, Marc Colombo and Cedric Benson. It's where the Bears have been unable to find a halfway decent quarterback in their entire history. Most importantly, it's where the Bears can find a quick fix to a few of their current problems, provided they draft well; something I'm not so sure they are capable of accomplishing.
See, as laughable as most mock drafts prove to be, for the most part, they aren't so far from the reality. Nary a mock draft out there has the Bears taking anything other than an offensive lineman with the first of their 11 picks tomorrow afternoon. According to these draftniks, it's either Chris Williams of Vanderbilt, Ryan Clady of Boise State and Jeff Otah of Pittsburgh; see, it isn't impossible to know the names of three offensive linemen after all -- yet I also know these three behemoths, while highly rated, are miles from the talent level of Jake Long, who -- I can confidently say after following him closely at Michigan over the past few years -- is as sure a Pro-Bowler as a draft pick can possibly be. My knowledge doesn't cease there: while these three linemen have proven to be a smidge more talented than their fellow, lower-rated draftees, (as the mostly useless NFL Combine helped to determine) the drop-off in talent from a Chris Williams to a Anthony Collins of Kansas (projected to go in Round 2) is not nearly as significant as the drop-off from a Rashard Mendenhall to a 5th or 6th round running back. It's not even close.
So what am I saying? I'm saying draft Rashard Mendenhall, damn it!
Yes, the Bears need offensive linemen, and yes, drafting a running back with as miserable a line as the Bears currently boast makes about as much sense as buying car insurance without owning a car.. BUT, as I said earlier, the drop-off in talent from an early round lineman to a later round lineman is laughably miniscule, and especially so when comparing it to the drop-off from an early round back to a later round back. So the Bears pass on Williams/Clady/Otah, take Mendenhall at 14, and could pick up a lineman with each one of their remaining ten picks -- probably not the greatest idea, but you know what I mean -- and not miss a beat! In fact, if anything, they'd gain a beat. Not only would they have added a North-South power runner, someone to replace Cedric Benson once and for all, they've tacked on up to ten offensive linemen, each as capable as the next -- not to mention just as capable as Williams/Clady/Otah.
Conversely, should the Bears waste pick #14 on Williams/Clady/Otah and halfheartedly nab someone like Tulane's Matt Forte in the 7th round, they've gained an adequate blocker and nothing else, half-way solving one problem instead of two, as would be the case if Mendenhall had been selected.
The running game is the Bears most pressing need right now. It's not quarterback, it's not safety, and it's not punter -- definitely not punter. With a strong running game, the Bears slay two birds with one stone: first, defenses will not be able to key in solely on Grossman, (who, like it or not, will be the starting quarterback come fall, and, believe it or not, is on par with other top-flight QB's in the league when given enough time), as the running game will keep them honest; second, a strong running game is something the Bears have lacked since shipping Thomas Jones to New York after the Super Bowl run. It's not a coincidence the Bears flopped miserably last season without a ground game; in fact, it's pretty much the main reason behind it. No, seriously.
As if you weren't yet sold: Mendenhall is really good, and if the Bears don't pick him, the division rival Lions will. Actually, I take that back -- sorry, for a second there I forgot Matt Millen is still running things with the Lions. He'll probably botch this gimme-putt as well. (But let's just say he doesn't, and Mendenhall ends up running circles around his hometown team, the one that passed on him to take a freakin' offensive lineman, for years to come. What a pleasant thought. Excuse me while I go vomit. Be back in a sec).
He's a Chicago kid, he's said he'd love to play for the Bears, he'd be an instant fan-favorite considering the unbelievable amounts of Illini fans saturating Chicago...am I missing something? What's not to like? He's everything the Bears need! EVERYTHING!
He plows through defenses; he ran rip-shod over an unbelievably talented USC defense in the Rose Bowl this year; he's demonstrated his breakaway speed and lightning fast acceleration (4.37 40 at the combine), he's got good size and a big, bruising body (5-10, 225), has the necessary strength (26 reps of 225 lbs on the bench), has fantastic hands (second on Illinois this past year in receptions with 34 for 318), was a unanimous all Big Ten 1st team selection, and did I mention he's from Chicago? I did? Good.
Although I've done my best to convince you of Mendenhall's worthiness, perhaps it'd be best to simply imagine the scenarios and the manners in which they would play out:
Scenario 1: The Bears pass on Mendenhall, and select Boise State's Ryan Clady. The Lions snap up Mendenhall shortly thereafter. Clady earns rave reviews from Lovie and Turner in camp; he's doing it all, they say. He's exactly what they expected upon drafting him, they say. It's smooth sailing, we say.
Then comes the regular season. Clady blocks, oh boy does he block. But for who, my darlings?
Clady and the revamped offensive line provide decent protection for Grossman, yet he, through no fault of his own, has been left with a motley -- nay, horrifyingly abysmal -- crew of recievers, who fail to instill what anyone would exactly call "fear" into opposing secondaries. A helpless Grossman falls into his old habits, he launches ill-advised heaves off his back foot, interceptions ensue: the Bears passing game -- not to mention Grossman -- suffers.
The running game, with Cedric Benson "leading the way," fail to produce, despite the significantly "better" blockers making up the line this year as compared to last. Yet Clady blocks, oh boy does he block.
Mendenhall and the Lions come to town. They stomp the Bears. Mendenhall scores twice, rushes for 150 yards, and the Trib and Sun-Times simply cannot have enough of his hometown stories and the fact that he is, truly, from Chicago. A few radio hosts and columnists make a point of, "Hey, we could've had that guy!" but it mostly goes unnoticed.
Mendenhall wins offensive rookie of the year, and the Lions reach the playoffs as a wild card in a subpar NFC. Yet Clady blocks, oh boy does he block.
Scenario two: Across the front page of the Sunday Morning Tribune sports is a teary Mendenhall, a blue Bears cap squarely upon his head. He and the rest of the draft picks -- a group of talented, later-round offensive linemen, and a few wide recievers and perhaps a safety or two -- are mentioned in the article as well. Chicago and Illini Nation rejoice.
The regular season rolls around. It's a miracle: the hilarious joke that was the Bears offense last year has evaporated, the punchline never having been told. Grossman has time a-plenty -- his offensive line consisting of rooks and veteran hold-overs doing just enough to keep defenses out of the pocket -- and eliminates "Bad Rex" from his repetoire, throwing dart passes to a more in-tune Devin Hester, Mark Bradley and Marty Booker. Mendenhall flies through the gaping holes, breaks tackles and creates in the open field. He makes bad plays look like good plays; he bails out his line's occasional missed assignment with a fantastic change-of-direction move. Chicago falls in love with its greatest running back since Sweetness.
Mendenhall wins offensive rookie of the year, and the Chicago Bears reach the playoffs as a wild card in a subpar NFC. Yet Clady blocks, oh boy does he block -- that is, for the Detroit Lions.
It's up to Angelo. Make it happen, Jer. We'd like a back please, and make it a Mendenhall.
If not, well, you'll know why I jumped.