2017 Bears position grades: Management

2017 Bears position grades: Management

2017 grade: D+

For these purposes, “management” encompasses the coaching staff and front office. We don’t need a lengthy re-litigation of the failures of the John Fox era, so briefly: The offense was unimaginative, predictable and unsuccessful; there were too many head-scratching coaching decisions, punctuated by that backfiring challenge flag against Green Bay; the defense was solid but not spectacular; special teams had plenty of highs (three touchdowns) and lows (Marcus Cooper’s gaffe against Pittsburgh, Connor Barth’s missed field goal against Detroit). Fox didn’t win enough games to justify a fourth year, even if he left the Bears in a better place than he found them back in 2015. But that 5-11 record drags the management grade down. 

But the larger thing we’re going to focus on here is the hits and misses for Ryan Pace in the 2017 league year. The hits: 

-- Drafting Mitchell Trubisky. Will this be a long-term success? That’s another question. But Pace hitched his future in Chicago to a quarterback last April. For a franchise that hasn’t had a “franchise” quarterback in ages, what more can you ask for? If Trubisky pans out, nobody should care that Pace traded up one spot -- effectively losing a third-round pick for his conviction in his guy -- to make the move. 

-- Moving quickly to hire Matt Nagy. As with Trubisky, Pace identified his guy and made sure he got him. The Bears hired Nagy just two days after the Kansas City Chiefs’ season ended with that playoff collapse against the Tennessee Titans, and with the Indianapolis Colts -- who eventually got burned by Josh McDaniels -- sniffing around Nagy, Pace made his move to hire a young, energetic, offensive-minded coach to pair with Trubisky. It’s tough to argue with any of the coaching hires made by Nagy, who had a head start on the competition: He retained defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and that entire defensive staff, kept Dave Ragone to be Trubisky’s quarterbacks coach and hired Mark Helfrich to bring some different concepts as offensive coordinator, and hired a special teams coach in Chris Tabor who must’ve been doing something right to survive seven years and a bunch of coaching changes in Cleveland. Like with Trubisky, it’s too early to say if Nagy will or won’t work out long-term, but it stands out that Pace had conviction in getting a franchise quarterback and a head coach who will make or break his tenure in Chicago. 

-- Drafting Tarik Cohen and Eddie Jackson in the fourth round. In Cohen, the Bears found an offensive spark (who was nonetheless under-utilized) who also was a key contributor on special teams. In Jackson, the Bears added a plug-and-play 16-game starter at safety who looks to have some upside after a solid rookie year. Both picks here were a triumph for the Bears’ amateur scouting department: Cohen wasn’t on everyone’s radar (special teams coach Chris Tabor, who previously was with the Browns, said Cohen’s name never came across his desk in Cleveland), while Jackson was coming off a broken leg that prematurely ended a solid career at Alabama. These were assuredly two hits. 

-- Signing Akiem Hicks to a four-year contract extension. The Bears rewarded Hicks a day before the season began; Hicks rewarded them with a Pro Bowl-caliber season (despite him only being a fourth alternate) and was the best player on the team in 2017. 

-- Signing Charles Leno to a four-year contract extension. Leno may not be an elite tackle, and still has some things to clean up in his game, but he’s 26 and his four-year, $37 million contract is the 14th-largest among left tackles (for what it’s worth, Bleacher Report ranked Leno as the 20th best left tackle in the NFL). The Bears believe Leno is still improving, and could turn that contract into a bargain in the future. But this is important to note, too: Players notice when a team rewards one of its own, especially when that guy is a well-respected former seventh-round draft pick. 

-- Signing Mark Sanchez to a one-year deal. This wasn’t a miss, certainly, and while it’s not much of a “hit,” Sanchez was exactly what the Bears wanted: A veteran mentor to Trubisky. While Sanchez was inactive for all 16 games, he and the No. 2 overall pick struck up a good relationship that makes him a candidate to return in 2018 as a true backup. 

-- Releasing Josh Sitton when he did. Whether or not the Bears offensive line is better off in 2018 is a different question, but file cutting Sitton on Feb. 20 -- when the team had until mid-March to make a decision on him -- as one of those things that gets noticed by players around the league. 

-- Announcing the expansion to Halas Hall. The plan has Pace’s fingerprints on it, and should help make the Bears a more attractive destination to free agents in 2018 and beyond. 

And now, for the misses:

-- Signing Mike Glennon. That completely bombed out. While the Bears weren’t hurting for cap space a year ago, and Glennon’s contract essentially was a one-year prove-it deal, his play was so poor that he was benched after only four games -- when the initial plan was for him to start the entire season to give Trubisky time to develop. The wheels came off for Glennon on his seventh pass in Week 2, when after completing his first six he threw the ball right to Tampa Bay’s Kwon Alexander for an interception from which he never seemed to recover. He’ll be cut sometime soon. 

-- Signing Markus Wheaton. After signing a two-year, $11 million deal in the spring, Wheaton struggled to stay healthy, with an appendectomy and finger injury limiting him in training camp and the early part of the season, and then a groin injury knocking out a few weeks in the middle of the season. When Wheaton was healthy, he was ineffective, catching only three of his 17 targets. That places him with eight other players since 1992 who’ve been targeted at least 15 times and and caught fewer than 20 percent of their targets. He’s another one of Pace’s 2017 free agent signings who’s likely to be cut. 

-- Signing Marcus Cooper. The Bears thought they were signing an ascending player who picked off four passes in 2016 and would be a better scheme fit in Chicago than he was in Arizona. Instead, Cooper was a liability when he was on the field and didn’t live up to his three-year, $16 million contract (with $8 million guaranteed). Dropping the ball before he got in the end zone Week 3 against Pittsburgh was a lowlight. The Bears can net $4.5 million in cap savings if he’s cut, per Spotrac. 

-- Signing Dion Sims. Sims isn’t as likely to be cut as Glennon and Wheaton, and even Cooper, but his poor production in the passing game (15 catches, 29 targets, 180 yards, one touchdown) puts a spotlight on how the Bears evaluate how he was as a run blocker in 2017. If that grade was high, the Bears could justify keeping him and not garnering a little more than $5.5 million in cap savings. If it was low, and the Bears are confident in Adam Shaheen’s ability to improve, then Sims could be cut as well. 

-- Signing Quintin Demps. The loss here was mitigated by the strong play of Adrian Amos, but Demps didn’t make much of an impact on the field before his Week 3 injury besides getting plowed over by Falcons tight end Austin Hooper in Week 1. He’d be a decent guy to have back as a reserve given his veteran leadership -- he was a captain in 2017 -- but given how well Amos and Eddie Jackson worked together last year, he’s unlikely to get his starting spot back in 2018. 

-- The wide receiver position as a whole. Kendall Wright led the Bears in receptions and yards, but his numbers would’ve looked a lot better had he been surrounded by better players. The cupboard was bare at this position, and after the worst-case scenario happened -- Cameron Meredith tearing his ACL in August, and Kevin White breaking his collarbone in Week 1 -- the Bears were left with an overmatched and underperforming group of receivers. For Trubisky’s sake, Pace has to work to make sure 2018 isn’t a repeat of 2017. 

-- The kicker position as a whole. Since we’re focusing solely on Pace’s 2017 moves, the decision to release Robbie Gould and replace him with Connor Barth doesn’t fall into this grade. But Barth had struggled with consistency prior to this season, and Roberto Aguayo didn’t provide much competition in his short-lived stint in training camp. The Bears eventually released Barth after he missed a game-tying kick against Detroit in November, then replaced him with a guy in Cairo Santos who was coming off an injury and, as it turned out, wasn’t completely healthy yet. So the Bears then had to move on from Santos and sign Mike Nugent to get them through the rest of the season. Better consistency from this position will be important to find in 2018. 

A couple moves fall into the neither hits nor misses category:

-- Drafting Adam Shaheen. Tight ends rarely make a significant impact as rookies, but Shaheen was only targeted 14 times last year. He did catch three touchdowns and flash some good chemistry with Trubisky before suffering an injury against Cincinnati that wound up ending his season. The gains he makes with a year of experience under his belt and during his first full offseason as a pro will be critical in determining his success in Year 2, and whether or not taking him 45th overall was a hit or a miss. 

-- Signing Prince Amukamara. This was neither good nor bad, with Amukamara playing solidly in coverage but not making enough plays on the ball and committing a few too many penalties. 

Pace still has decisions to make on a few other potential cuts, including right tackle Bobby Massie ($5.584 million cap savings per Spotrac) and linebackers Willie Young ($4.5 million cap savings) and Pernell McPhee ($7.075 million cap savings). Whether or not to place the franchise tag on Kyle Fuller and potentially pay him $15 million in 2018 is another call Pace has to make before the official end of the 2017 league year. 

But for Pace, did the hits out-weigh the misses in 2017? The Glennon signing imploded, but Trubisky showed signs of promise during an average season for a rookie quarterback. Cooper was a bust, but Fuller emerged as a potential long-term option to cover for that. The most glaring misses, then, were at wide receiver and tight end where, after injuries sapped those units of Cameron Meredith and Zach Miller, there weren’t reliable targets for Trubisky. 

We’ll probably need more time to determine if Pace’s “hits” on Trubisky and Nagy truly are “hits.” But if they are, the misses of 2017 -- Glennon, Wheaton, Cooper, etc. -- will be nothing more than amusing footnotes to a successful era of Bears football.

Mock Draft: How last week's free agent frenzy affects the Bears at No. 8

Mock Draft: How last week's free agent frenzy affects the Bears at No. 8

Last week’s free agent frenzy brought plenty of things into focus as it relates to April’s NFL Draft. Kirk Cousins signing with the Minnesota Vikings left the Cleveland Browns, New York Jets and Denver Broncos all needing a long-term solution at quarterback, even with the Browns trading for Tyrod Taylor, the Jets signing Teddy Bridgewater and Josh McCown and the Broncos signing Case Keenum,

The Jets moved up from No. 6 to No. 3 over the weekend, and the Buffalo Bills are expected to make a push to move up from No. 12 to snag a quarterback. The Miami Dolphins and Arizona Cardinals could be sniffing around to trade into the top 10, too. 

All this movement has a significant impact on the Bears, who could have some options to trade down from No. 8. They could hold on to the pick, too, with the hope that someone like Bradley Chubb, Minkah Fitzpatrick or Quenton Nelson falls to them with quarterbacks flying off the board early. 

So with that in mind, here’s the latest mock drafts from JJ Stankevitz and John “Moon” Mullin:

1. Cleveland Browns

JJ: Sam Darnold, QB, USC

With the Jets trading up to the No. 3 pick and the Giants possibly looking at drafting a quarterback, too, Cleveland’s hand will be forced to take a quarterback with the No. 1 overall pick. Previously, the thought here was the Browns could wait until their No. 4 pick to take a quarterback. But if they have conviction on the guy they want, they’ll take him first overall. 

Moon: Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State

The far-and-away top rusher in this draft lit up the Scouting Combine and loosely rated the top single player in this draft. Even with Jets apparently trading up for QB, the cluster of QB prospects, none as high-rated as Barkley, still give the Browns options at No. 4.

2. New York Giants

JJ: Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming

There’s been some buzz that the Giants could snag Quenton Nelson here, but while pairing him with Nate Solder is enticing, using the second overall pick on a guard may be prohibitive. The same may go for Saquon Barkley, unless the Giants are absolutely sold him him being a mega-star in the league. For now, we’ll say the Giants stick with a quarterback, one who could refine his game behind the scenes for a year behind Eli Manning. Maybe the Giants consider trading down with the Buffalo Bills, if they aren't sold on anyone at No. 2. 

Moon: Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA

Drills and interviews will strike teams differently but with Barkley gone and Eli’s time running out, Rosen rates as best of this year’s QB clump. Sam Darnold has been prominent but USC QB’s have a very suspect history (for every Carson Palmer, there are Matt Barkley, Matt Leinart, Mark Sanchez and even Todd Marinovich). Rosen could be the latest ‘SC guy to plummet on draft day. Of course, UCLA did produce Cade McNown, but Troy Aikman was also a Bruin.

3. New York Jets (via Colts)

JJ: Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma

The Jets didn’t invest so much draft capital to trade up three spots to not take a quarterback. With Darnold and Allen off the board, it'd either be Rosen or Mayfield here. 

Moon: Sam Darnold, QB, USC

Trading up from No. 6 says Jets, even with Teddy Bridgewater and Josh McCown signed, are targeting a QB and want to get ahead of at least one Browns pick. A surprise could be coming but teams don’t mortgage their draft typically for less than a QB and Colts likely don’t trade out of this slot without being pretty sure their top target will still be there in a couple picks. The guess is which QB the Jets want, but making a move points to being sure they get more than just a leftover.

4. Cleveland Browns (via Texans)

JJ: Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State

The Browns could be in the market to trade down, too, especially if they want to add more pieces instead of shooting for one more elite talent. If they stay here, the opportunity to pair Barkley with a quarterback may be too good to pass up. 

Moon: Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma

Measurables may not be ideal (6-foot-1) but they weren’t for Russell Wilson either. Mayfield made all the throws and has the benefit of coming from a big-time program.

5. Denver Broncos 

JJ: Quenton Nelson, G, Notre Dame

This is where things get interesting. If Darnold, Allen and Mayfield are off the board, do the Brocons feel good enough about Josh Rosen to use such a high draft pick on him? With Keenum signed, the Broncos don’t necessarily have to be in a rush to find their franchise quarterback unless they're 100 percent sold on their guy. Drafting Nelson would help solidify the team’s offensive line for when they do make a move to get that young quarterback. 

Moon: Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming

The epic QB run continues. Denver and John Elway have fouled up the QB spot since Peyton Manning retired and need a QB hit. Evaluations (theirs and those of teams right above them) will determine which one falls to Broncos after they lost out to Minnesota for Kirk Cousins.

6. Indianapolis Colts (via Jets)

JJ: Bradley Chubb, DE, N.C. State

The Colts’ atrocious pass rush needs an upgrade, and with them still picking ahead of the Bears, there’s little chance Chubb falls to them at No. 8. 

Moon: Bradley Chubb, DE, N.C. State

Trading down and still getting their guy is the early leader for ’18 draft move for Indy, where defense is such a priority for the Colts and its new coaching staff. Frank Reich likely can work Andrew Luck into something and a franchise pass rusher raises everything on that side of the football.

7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

JJ: Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, Alabama

Fitzpatrick is one of those elite athletes a coaching staff collectively salivates over, and even though the Bears have a solid safety pairing with Adrian Amos and Eddie Jackson, he’s too good a talent to pass up. Unfortunately, he doesn’t get to the Bears here, with only three quarterbacks going in the top eight, not four. 

Moon: Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, Alabama

This is the top DB in the draft, left there by QB-mania, and the Bucs want to build a defense.

8. Chicago Bears

JJ: Tremaine Edmunds, LB, Virginia Tech

This will be a fascinating pick for the Bears if the clear-cut top offensive guys (Barkley and Nelson) and defensive guys (Chubb and Fitzpatrick) are off the board. The Bears invested heavily in Kyle Fuller (four years, $56 million) and Prince Amukamara (three years, $27 million) at cornerback, leaving a clear need for improvement in the linebacker room. So here's the question: Do the Bears go for a more proven playmaker at a position they've already addressed and target Ohio State's Denzel Ward or Iowa's Josh Jackson, both cornerbacks? Do they go for a more pure inside linebacker like Georgia's Roquan Smith? Or do they go with a more raw, projectable guy who isn't 21 yet in Tremaine Edmunds? Or do they reach for a "need" and draft a pure edge rusher like Boston College's Harold Landry or UTSA's Marcus Davenport?

While Fuller and Amukamara comprise a solid cornerback duo, both have missed time due to injuries recently (Fuller the entire 2016 season, Amukamara two games in each of the last two seasons) and combined for only two interceptions last year (both of which were Fuller's, and came in December). Does that change the calculation here for the Bears to go after Ward, who had two interceptions last year but has playmaking upside? Or Jackson, who had eight interceptions last year?

Reaching for an edge rusher seems unlikely, given Ryan Pace's adherence to drafting by best available instead of by need (three of his first four draft picks last year came on the heels of signing a player in free agency who played that position, and the other was a running back after Jordan Howard rushed for over 1,000 yards as a rookie). Smith is an athletic freak who was productive at Georgia, but probably is an inside linebacker only. Edmunds has the potential to be an edge rusher, but could also be a long-term solution at inside linebacker if that doesn't work out. So while he's not the finished product that Ward/Jackson/Smith are, his potential is through the roof and could fill a red-line need for Vic Fangio's defense. 

Moon: Tremaine Edmunds, LB, Virginia Tech

Suddenly an extremely interesting spot after the QB craze. A handful of their targeted players will still be on the board, making a trade down very attractive. Their ratings are key; GM Ryan Pace won’t and shouldn’t go all-in based solely on need. Retaining Prince Amukamara and Kyle Fuller for big $$ takes CB need way down, and someone may be hungry to trade up for Ohio State CB Denzel Ward. If there’s a trade-down scenario for G Quenton Nelson, Bears would seriously consider help for a questionable interior O-lineman to protect QB Mitch Trubisky. If one of the QB’s is still on the board, the Buffalo Bills have already jumped up to No. 12 and might pick up the phone to come a little further.

But the dire Bears need, after releasing Pernell McPhee and Willie Young and even after signing ex-49er Aaron Lynch, is for rush-LB and those are too rare and too expensive in free agency. Edmunds has length for 3-4 OLB or possible ILB when Bears go nickel. The decision will be between Edmunds, with length, and Roquan Smith, with better production (6.5 sacks, 14 TFL in ’17).

The Bears’ decision will turn on their (secret) evaluations and two questions: whether Edmunds carries the requisite grade to go this high, and how driven Pace is to give his new (offensive) coach even more firepower to ensure success.

9. San Francisco 49ers

JJ: Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia

Smith is more of a finished product than Edmunds, so for a team that’s looking to contend in the uber-competitive NFC West this year, San Francisco is happy to go with him to anchor their defense. 

Moon: Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia

Assuming Bears don’t grab Smith, he is a hedge against Reuben Foster's injuries and deepening character issues. Calvin Ridley may be too good to pass up as complement to QB Jimmy Garoppolo.

10. Oakland Raiders

JJ: Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State

The Raiders didn't get anything out of an injured Gareon Conley in 2017, but go for another Ohio State cornerback with a first-round pick this year. 

Moon: Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State

Ward was a backfield mate of Marshon Lattimore and consistently solid. Jon Gruden will want help on offense for Derek Carr, and Alabama’s Calvin Ridley will be tempting, but Ward projects as day-one starter.

JJ’s mock for the rest of the draft:

11. Miami Dolphins: Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA
12. Buffalo Bills (via Bengals): Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville
13. Washington Redskins: Vita Vea, DT, Washington
14. Green Bay Packers: Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama
15. Arizona Cardinals: Derwin James, S, Florida State

Notes: The Bills, Dolphins and Cardinals could be jockeying to move up, with the Bills' need certainly the most pressing. If Miami is sending signals it may take a quarterback, that could not only jump-start Buffalo's efforts to trade into the top five, but perhaps it presents the possibility Arizona would want to move up ahead of Miami -- possibly with the Bears at No. 8 as a trade option. 

16. Baltimore Ravens: Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M
17. Los Angeles Chargers: Mike McGlinchey, OT, Notre Dame
18. Seattle Seahawks: Marcus Davenport, EDGE, UTSA
19. Dallas Cowboys: Da’Ron Payne, DT, Alabama
20. Detroit Lions: Derrius Guice, RB, LSU

Notes: Perhaps the Chargers want to find Philip Rivers' long-term replacement, making them a trade option with the Bears, too. Moving down to No. 17 would present the Bears with better options at edge rusher, like Davenport or Boston College's Harold Landry.

21. Cincinnati Bengals: Josh Jackson, CB, Iowa
22. Buffalo Bills: Connor Williams, OT, Texas
23. Los Angeles Rams: Harold Landry, EDGE, Boston College
24. Carolina Panthers: Will Hernandez, OG, UTEP
25. Tennessee Titans: Sam Hubbard, EDGE, Ohio State

26. Atlanta Falcons: Hayden Hurst, TE, South Carolina
27. New Orleans Saints: Mike Daniels, C, Iowa
28. Pittsburgh Steelers: Rashaan Evans, LB, Alabama
29. Jacksonville Jaguars: Tyrell Crosby, OT, Oregon
30. Minnesota Vikings: Isaiah Wynn, OG, Georgia
31. New England Patriots: Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Boise State
32. Philadelphia Eagles: Courtland Sutton, WR, SMU

Notes: The Saints and Steelers need to start thinking about long-term replacements for Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger, respectively, but windows to win Super Bowls are short and both teams may be better off trying to add impact talent rather than trading up for someone who won't start until 2019 at the earliest. 

Bears' roster moves create a looming roster hurdle for Kevin White


Bears' roster moves create a looming roster hurdle for Kevin White

Questions have been hanging over Kevin White ever since GM Ryan Pace opted to invest the No. 7 pick of the 2015 draft on a wide receiver with one outstanding college season on his resume. Given Pace’s strike for a quarterback with a roughly similar body of work last draft, this may qualify as a Pace “strategy,” but that’s for another discussion closer to the draft.

But in the wake of signings at wide receiver by Pace and the Bears over the start-up days of free agency, a new and perhaps darker cloud is forming over White. This is beyond the obvious ones visited on the young man by his succession of three season-ending injuries, and by a nagging belief in some quarters that White is a bust irrespective of the injuries.

The point is not that White will never amount to anything in the NFL. Marc Colombo came back from a pair of horrendous leg injuries to have a career as a solid NFL tackle, albeit with the Dallas Cowboys, not the Bears.

The problem facing White now, assuming he comes back able to stay healthy in a competition with Cameron Meredith for the spot opposite Allen Robinson, is whether there is reasonably going to be a roster spot the Bears can use for him.

This would be on top of whether Pace and the organization could bring themselves to cut ties with a quality individual in a move that would amount to admitting a failure in what was supposed to be a defining initial top-10 pick by a regime committed to building through the draft.

White is still under his rookie contract with its $2.7 million guaranteed for this season, so there is little reason to simply give up on him, even assuming an offset if White then signs on somewhere else.

But Robinson and slot receiver Taylor Gabriel account for two of the starting three wideout spots. For the other wide receiver job, Meredith, also coming off season-ending knee surgery, rates an early edge on White based on Meredith’s 66-catch 2016 season.

If White does not start, he then becomes a backup, and backups are expected to contribute on special teams. It’s what has kept Josh Bellamy in the NFL, and what new Bears tight end Trey Burton points to as his ticket to making it through his first years with Philadelphia.

White doesn’t cover kicks, doesn’t return them, doesn’t block them. The Bears have typically expected special-teams participation from their No. 4-5 receivers, although the fact that Meredith and Robinson are coming off knee injuries, and chances that the Bears will keep six wide receivers in the West Coast offense of Matt Nagy, all could tilt a decision in favor of White simply as insurance/depth, even with his own injury history.

It is difficult not to have a spot of rooting-interest in White, a young guy trying so hard to get a career dream off the ground. It’s just also difficult to see a clear fit in the new Bears world that began forming in earnest in the past several days.