For the first time since the 1940s, the Chicago Bears control the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft — and the pressure is on.
The general manager and head coach just finished their first year with the team. The Bears’ longtime top executive is retiring and being replaced this spring by Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren. A plan to move from Chicago’s Soldier Field to a new stadium built in a custom-designed entertainment district in Arlington Heights is gathering steam, but not yet assured.
The Bears had the worst record in the league last year, and loyal fans are praying that its brain trust will transcend its own inexperience (and all the various distractions) to reach for greatness. The draft rolls around at the end of April, so there’s plenty of time for the Bears to be, well, the Bears.
A team that hasn’t won the Super Bowl since the 1980s could perpetuate mediocrity by trading down for lesser picks. It could trade away its most valuable player, quarterback Justin Fields, and gamble on a rookie QB who might have more success passing the football than running it, which has been Fields’ born-of-necessity specialty to date.
The Bears also could sit tight with Fields, and boost its defense, which has been uncharacteristically soft.
One of the top college football players just declared for the NFL draft after his team won the national championship. Defensive tackle Jalen Carter of the University of Georgia could anchor the Bears D-line. Mel Kiper, a draft expert, rates him as the best player available this year.
The Bears could simply go ahead and pick him, but there’s a wrinkle: Carter is being tarred with unspecified “character issues.” As Tribune sports columnist Brad Biggs reported this week — and at least one prominent analyst has stated publicly — Carter is said to be high risk because he’s supposedly not a “character guy.”
It seems very unfair to question something so fundamental as the character of a 21-year-old college student while citing no evidence. Carter has never had high-profile arrests or other disciplinary problems that have dogged some previous top-level college talents. For a guy who chases quarterbacks and stops running backs in their tracks, he’s come across as engaging and friendly.
Carter says he’s been “a really good teammate,” and his Georgia teammates responded to the slurs about his character by describing him as “a good guy” and “a joking and loving person.” He even took part in a summer football camp for his former high school.
We don’t know where the so-called character questions originate but we do know there’s a lot of money on the table. NFL paydays adhere to a steep sliding scale. Rookies make six figures at a minimum — good money, for sure. But the top rookies make a whole lot more. For a player and most likely his family, being picked No. 1 in the NFL draft is like winning the lottery.
Last year’s No. 1 draft pick, Travon Walker of Georgia, received a four-year contract reportedly worth $37.4 million. It was fully guaranteed, meaning the Jacksonville Jaguars were on the hook to pay it even if Walker turned out to be an instant bust (he didn’t).
The final pick in the first round of last year’s draft, Lewis Cine, also from Georgia, signed a contract with the Minnesota Vikings for a reported $11.5 million. That’s a ton of money for a young guy coming out of college, but less than a third of the haul pledged to Walker, the player who was picked 31 slots earlier at No. 1.
Sliding just 10 slots below the No. 1 pick equated to a difference in guaranteed pay last year of more than $17 million. Obviously, there’s a big financial incentive for agents, coaches and friends of players competing to be top draft picks to bad-mouth rivals.
The high stakes illustrate how college football does a terrible disservice to players such as Carter. Here’s a special talent who risked career-ending injuries while winning a national championship worth megabucks for his school. Top coaches make millions and college football TV revenues run into the billions. Like other elite Division I football players, Carter had to hope that nothing would go terribly wrong before he could finally cash in on the NFL draft.
We understand that college is for learning and the priority for most students is getting an education. But as this page has argued before, it is beyond time to pay the athletes who endure the arduous grind of practices, games and tournaments, and yield colossal profits.
Student-athletes deserve their fair share and, to our way of thinking, the character issues that most urgently need to be addressed belong to the leaders of college football who unfairly exploit them.
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