Bears Coaching Confidential: Steve Wilks

Bears Coaching Confidential: Steve Wilks

With the Bears' beginning their head coaching search this week, NBC Sports Chicago Bears Insider JJ Stankevitz and producer Paul Aspan will examine 10 coaching candidates who could be considered by Ryan Pace and team ownership. We've covered Josh McDaniels and John DeFilippo, but turn our attention to a candidate on the defensive side of the ball today. 

JJ: The Bears’ next head coach doesn’t *have* to be an offensive mind, as John “Moon” Mullin and I covered on the Under Center Podcast last month. Steve Wilks has an intriguing resume from the defensive side of the ball: He was Lovie Smith’s defensive backs coach from 2006-2008 and was part of that staff that made Super Bowl XLI, and while he’s only been the Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator for one year, he’s been an assistant to Ron Rivera since his D-coordinator days in San Diego. He’s also held the title of assistant head coach since 2015. Paul, thoughts?

Paul: Wilks is my favorite candidate from the defensive side of the ball. That assistant head coaching experience you just touched on could be invaluable in those crucial game situations in which John do I put this…*struggled* repeatedly. He’s grown with Rivera over the last 10-plus years from that Bears team, to San Diego and now in Carolina, working his way up each step of the way. But let me ask you, JJ, do you think his previous Bears / Lovie ties potentially help him or hurt him as a candidate? Does Ryan Pace want to avoid any link to a former -- and not so far removed -- regime?

JJ: That’s an interesting question. I don’t think Pace would rule a guy out because he has ties to the Lovie Smith/Jerry Angelo era -- if he’s the right candidate, he’ll be considered for the job (and you wouldn't figure Ted Phillips or George McCaskey would get in the way of a former Bears assistant, right?). Which brings me to this tangent: Kansas City Chiefs special teams coordinator Dave Toub absolutely could (or should) be considered for the Bears; opening. Toub, of course, was the Bears’ special teams coordinator from 2004-2012 under Smith and is widely respected around the league. The Bears interviewed Toub for their head coaching job after firing Smith and instead went with Marc Trestman, and Toub interviewed for the Miami Dolphins’ head coaching job in 2011 (which went to Joe Philbin). 

The Chiefs finished the 2017 season ranked 4th in Football Outsiders special teams DVOA; they were No. 1 in 2016, No. 9 in 2015, No. 3 in 2014 and No. 1 in 2013. Toub is a fantastic coach, and that should out-weigh special teams coaches rarely making the leap to becoming head coaches.

For what it’s worth, Bovada’s odds on the Bears’ next head coach don’t have Wilks, but they do include Toub:
Pat Shurmur                  3/1
Josh McDaniels            9/2
John DeFilippo             9/2
Todd Haley                   6/1
Frank Reich                   6/1
Jim Bob Cooter             9/1
Matt LaFleur                  9/1
Matt Nagy                     9/1
Dave Toub                    9/1

Anyways, now that I’ve successfully hijacked this thing on Wilks, let’s get back to it. 

Paul: My other question to you that relates to Wilks and Rivera: No doubt the Jerry Richardson situation in Carolina has much more serious implications than just football, but that being said, Rivera has to have an out clause in his contract if there’s a change in ownership, right? If Ryan Pace is gonna wait out a potential Super Bowl run on one of these highly touted coordinators, shouldn’t he consider rolling the dice on Riverboat Ron? If he does a little back channel research and finds out Rivera might be interested, at least consider waiting to take a shot at Rivera until after the sale of the Panthers. Maybe he’s tired of good Cam/bad Cam and wants a fresh start with a fan base that would welcome him with open arms?

JJ: Man, that would be quite a turn if it were to become realistic. But it’s not. The Bears can’t afford to wait out a process that may not even result in Rivera considering leaving Carolina. 

We just keep getting off track for Wilks, don’t we? 

Paul: Back to Wilks, Lance Briggs and Alex Brown both were on that Bears Super Bowl team on which Wilks coached in 2006, and both vouched for him as a leader when I asked them about him. He definitely fits the style of a coach that would shape the Bears in that defense first mold that has served the franchise so well historically. Plus, Lance said he looks like Denzel Washington and could parlay that into roles on all the Chicago Fire, Med, Justice, PD, Coast Guard whatever shows. Consider me sold.

JJ: That’s an...interesting...selling point. 

I talked with AB about Wilks earlier this week and similarly received a good pitch. Carolina ranked 7th in defensive DVOA this year, and Wilks’ unit was so fearsome that a certain quarterback only threw seven passes against it in October. The Bears aren’t the only team interested in Wilks, too: The Indianapolis Colts, New York Giants and Detroit Lions are in on him. That speaks to him being well-regarded around the league.

I’ll finish here with this thought: Wilks runs a 4-3 defense, which would mean the Bears would likely switch schemes from Vic Fangio’s 3-4, which the team has been building the last few years with guys like Eddie Goldman, Akiem Hicks, Leonard Floyd, Danny Trevathan and Nick Kwiatkoski. But a scheme change shouldn’t necessarily be a deterrent to who the next head coach and/or defensive coordinator will be -- if the right guy runs a 4-3, he’s still the right guy. 

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Medium

Decisions to be made on: Mitch Unrein (free agent), John Jenkins (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: Jared Crick, Frostee Rucker, Dominique Easley

This unit was consistently the Bears’ best in 2017, with Akiem Hicks playing at a Pro Bowl level (don’t let his exclusion from the game fool you on that) and Eddie Goldman putting together a rock-solid, healthy year. 

Hicks signed a four-year contract extension just before the season began and rewarded the Bears with a dominant year, racking up 8 ½ sacks and 15 tackles for a loss. Goldman played in and started 15 games and was a key reason why the Bears limited opposing rushers to four yards per carry, tied for the 10th-best average in the league. 

But while the Bears’ defensive line was certainly good, it wasn’t as good as it could’ve been. These words from Vic Fangio ring true for Hicks and Goldman:

“I think they all have a lot more to give to us than we’ve seen,” Fangio said. “And it’s our job to get them to improve and become even better players. That will be more important to us than anybody we can acquire between now and whenever our first game is. So, and I know it’s always sexy to talk between now and the first game, you know, who are you going to draft, who’s in free agency, etc., but we’ve got to get our so-called good players playing even better. And that will be critical.”

Hicks will enter Year 3 in Fangio’s scheme, while 2018 will be Goldman’s fourth. It’ll also be a critical year for Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris, who’ve flashed potential at times but haven’t been able to turn that into consistent success on the field. 

And that’s where we begin to look ahead to free agency and the draft. Is the Bears’ evaluation of Bullard -- their 2016 third-round pick -- positive enough to hand him a bigger role in 2018? That’s question No. 1 to answer, with No. 2 then being if the team should try to re-sign Mitch Unrein. 

It may be a bit risky to move forward with Bullard, given how popular Unrein was among the Bears’ defensive coaching staff. 

“He’s one of the glue guys on the defense and the team,” Fangio said last November. “Every team needs a few of those guys who are going to do everything right, full speed, hard and tough all the time, and that’s Mitch.”

Defensive line coach Jay Rodgers offered this up about Unrein back in October: “He allows those guys to play fast,” with “those guys” being Hicks and Goldman. 

Statistically, the 30-year-old Unrein doesn’t  jump off the page, but he did record a career high 2 ½ sacks in 2017. Perhaps there would be some benefits to continuity in the Bears’ base 3-4 defensive line.

Worth noting too is this position isn’t a huge need, given Unrein usually played between 40 and 55 percent of the Bears’ defensive snaps on a per-game basis last year. Keeping Unrein for a relatively low cap hit would make some sense, as opposed to testing free agency to replace him.

Jared Crick is coming off back surgery and an ineffective 2016; Dominique Easley is coming off his third torn ACL this decade; Frostee Rucker is in his mid-30’s. The Bears could look to pick a 3-4 defensive end in April, but that would be a pretty quick re-draft of the position and would be an indication they don’t think much of Bullard. This seems like a position where keeping the status quo is likely, save maybe for replacing John Jenkins with a different backup behind Goldman. 

2017 Bears position grades: Offensive Line

2017 Bears position grades: Offensive Line

2017 grade: C+

Level of need: Medium

Decisions to be made on: Josh Sitton (contract), Eric Kush (contract), Hroniss Grasu (contract), Bobby Massie (contract), Tom Compton (free agent), Bradley Sowell (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: Andrew Norwell, D.J. Fluker, Justin Pugh, Josh Kline, Jonathan Cooper

How the Bears’ offensive line will shape up in 2018 begins with a decision on which the Bears are already on the clock. The team has until March 9 to pick up Josh Sitton’s 2018 option -- or, to put it another way, they have until March 9 to determine if Sitton was/is/will be good enough to justify keeping him and not netting about $8 million in cap savings, per Spotrac. 

For what it’s worth, Bleacher Report ranked Sitton as the league’s sixth-best guard in 2017. If the Bears’ grades of Sitton match those outside ones, then the team probably won’t cut him -- not destabilizing Mitchell Trubisky’s offensive line would be well worth the money in that case. While Sitton turns 32 in June, cutting him would put a lot of pressure on Kyle Long, who hasn’t been fully healthy since 2016. The Bears are hopeful that Long will be back to full strength after multiple offseason surgeries, but releasing Sitton and then signing/drafting his replacement would be a gamble on Long’s health. 

Sitton’s status is the first part of the Bears’ 2018 offensive line equation. There’s also a decision to be made on Bobby Massie, who Bleacher Report ranked as the NFL’s 14th-best right tackle last year but could be cut for about $5.5 million in cap savings, according to Spotrac. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Bears cut or kept both Sitton and Massie for now, then drafted an offensive lineman in the first round (like Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson or Texas tackle Connor Williams) and released one of them. Or they could keep both through the end of the 2018 season. All those options would make sense on some level.

What wouldn’t seem to make sense is the Bears cutting Sitton or Massie and replacing them with a free agent. This year’s offensive line free agent class, without adding any potential cap casualties to it, isn’t particularly strong. By Bleacher Report’s rankings, the best free agent right tackle is Houston’s Breno Giancomi, who’s 27th in that list -- 13 spots behind Massie. At left tackle, New England’s Nate Solder (No. 22) isn’t rated as highly as Charles Leno (No. 20), who we'll talk about in a bit here. 

The only potential upgrade available via free agency would be Carolina Panthers guard Andrew Norwell (No. 2 in B/R’s rankings), who’s 26 and is in line for a big payday this spring -- but that would seemingly be counter-intuitive to releasing Sitton and then potentially paying more money to a different guard, even if he’s younger and has more long-term upside. The Bears could opt for a cheaper guard in free agency who could have some potential working with respected O-line coach Harry Hiestand -- the Giants’ D.J. Fluker (57th in B/R’s rankings) or Justin Pugh (42nd) fit that mold, as would the Titans’ Josh Kline (37th) or Cowboys’ Jonathan Cooper (38th). Or the Bears could keep Sitton and still sign one of those guys as insurance in case Long and/or Eric Kush, who tore his ACL last training camp, isn’t ready to start the season. 

Tom Compton and Bradley Sowell proved to be serviceable backups last year and could be an option to return, even with a new coaching staff in place. The health of Kush, who was missed as a reliable backup in 2017, will be important in figuring out what the Bears' O-line depth looks like. Hroniss Grasu struggled when he was on the field and missed time due to a hand injury, and despite playing for offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich at Oregon could be on the chopping block before/during training camp. 

We’ll finish here with some thoughts on Leno and Cody Whitehair. Could the Bears upgrade at left tackle and displace Leno to the right side of the offensive line? Possibly, especially if Hiestand believes he can make that move work. But it’d be odd if the Bears shifted Leno off left tackle and then signed someone who’s older and, depending on the evaluator, not even as good as him. 

This is all probably a moot point, since the Bears’ internal evaluation of Leno is what matters here. Leno is 26 and the Bears believe he hasn’t reached his ceiling yet, so more than likely, he’s sticking where he is. At the very least, he’ll enter 2018 with a starting job on the Bears’ offensive line. 

One other offseason objective for Hiestand and the new coaching staff: Keeping Whitehair at the same position. Whitehair’s versatility felt like it worked against him at times last year, with the former regime opting to shift him between guard and center quite a bit from the start of training camp through the early part of the season. That instability seemed to affect Whitehair’s play, as he went through a bizarre patch of snapping issues after moving back to center and struggled to be as consistent as he was in 2016. But Whitehair finished 2017 strong, and keeping him at center for the entirety of 2018 could get him back on track to make his first Pro Bowl.