Bears general manager Phil Emery surprised everybody when he selected Boise State defensive end Shea McClellin with the 19th pick of the first round in the NFL draft last year. And that’s just the way he wanted it.
While mock drafts had the Bears taking a range of players from defensive end Whitney Mercilus to offensive tackle Jonathan Martin to cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick to wide receiver Michael Floyd last year, not one had the Bears taking McClellin, who was seen by even NFL teams as a 3-4 outside linebacker.
So while various mock drafts have the Bears selecting Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o (NFL Network’s Mike Mayock and ESPN’s Mel Kiper), Georgia linebacker Alec Ogletree (ESPN’s Todd McShay), Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert (Sports Illustrated’s Peter King) or Alabama offensive tackle D.J. Fluker (Yahoo! Sports’ Greg Cosell) among others, the secrecy and unpredictability of the Bears under Emery always leaves plenty of suspense.
While all NFL general managers guard their draft information like state secrets, some are more protective than others. Emery will not comment on almsot any aspect of any player for fear of giving something away.
He would barely even acknowledge that the team interviewed Te’o prior to the draft.
‘‘Did we meet him? I’m not aware of that,’’ Emery said half-jokingly when asked about it last week. ‘‘Yeah, I guess we did meet with him. But we’re not going to share that kind of information.’’
There is very little information Emery is willing to share when it comes to draft prospects. Asked about Ogletree’s off-the-field issue’s including arrests for DUI and theft and multiple suspensions, Emery revealed virtually nothing.
‘‘I won’t get into specifics in terms of issues with players,’’ he said. ‘‘But I’ll tell you this — we do our homework.’’
Emery’s quest for secrecy is similar to the great Jim Finks, who built the Vikings, Bears and Saints into contenders with successful drafts. In 1975, when the Bears had a gaping hole at running back, Finks had local reporters expecting the Bears to draft Texas A&I’s Don Hardeman with the fourth overall pick. They ened up taking Jackson State’s Walter Payton. One Bears insider who participated in that draft said Finks liked Payton so much he would have taken him with the first overall pick if he had it.
The following year Finks allowed that the Bears’ priorities were the secondary and linebacker and took Wisconsin offensive tackle Dennis Lick in the first round. The next year the priority was tight end and Finks took Cal offensive tackle Ted Albrecht. By 1979 he had everybody guessing all over the board when the Bears took Arkansas defensive end Dan Hampton fourth overall.
That’s Emery’s preferred tack when it comes to the draft — keep everybody guessing. Even when he explained why he prefers so much secrecy, he wouldn’t give much detail.
‘‘I won’t give you a specific year. But I have been in a draft room where way too much information was given out and we were jumped on a player we liked and we had planned on drafting,’’ Emery said. ‘‘That player was drafted in front of us based on information that … there was just too much information that that was our player. So that was an uncomfortable feeling.
‘‘So we don’t want to give out information so that we create [a situation where], ‘Hey, everybody knows that that’s Chicago’s right tackle. That’s the guy they want.’ So I’m on one of those other 31 teams, and I need a right tackle, I’ve got to get in front of Chicago.’’
But he tries to strike a delicate balance between his desire for secrecy and Bears fans’ insatiable appetite for information on free agency and the draft.
‘‘I want them to know about the process,’’ Emery said. ‘‘I think that’s important that they understand the process that we go through. There’s going to be certain information that we’re not going to divulge because it’s a very competitive business.
‘‘I think it’s the most competitive business in the world, the NFL. So there’s going to be certain things we’re not going to talk about in terms of how we rank players, both our team, the [free agent] market and the college players. [I’ll] be glad to talk about the content and the quality of the overall class. But how we rank them, how we see them — that’s going to remain in-house for those competitive reasons.’’