Bears

Bears notebook: Expect heavy tight-end usage; hiring process gave Nagy an edge

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UDA TODAY

Bears notebook: Expect heavy tight-end usage; hiring process gave Nagy an edge

Combing through the notebook after a very busy and formative Bears week...

One constant buzz this week is the sound of opinions of the new Bears head coach, which has now expanded to include takes on the budding staff that is tasked with making over a Bears offense that has regressed disturbingly over the past couple seasons. The thinking here is that this portends to be perhaps the most interesting change to a Bears offense in quite some time, more so even than the arrival of Marc Trestman in 2013.

That makeover crashed in flames the following year but not before putting up nearly 28 points per game with Jay Cutler and Josh McCown as its quarterbacks, a hint of what some imagination can do at the NFL level even with lesser lights under center.

That imagination came, ironically, in something from the past, specifically the West Coast offense. Trestman was a devotee of the scheme concepts that, among other things, made huge and creative use of the tight end – Martellus Bennett caught 65 and 90 passes under Trestman, Greg Olsen caught 54 and 60 under Ron Turner’s version of it, before Olsen was traded because Mike Martz didn’t much use tight ends as receivers.

The point obviously isn’t Trestman; it’s the West Coast system and what its principles as incorporated by Matt Nagy project to mean for an offense-starved organization.

Best guess is that the offense which once spawned Mike Ditka and the modern tight end will see a return to that concept under Nagy: Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce has been targeted an average of 107 times over the past four seasons and caught 67-72-85-83 passes over those seasons.

Nagy comes to Chicago as a disciple of Andy Reid, whose use of variations on that theme have been successful for him for going on 20 years, a superb resume that has been built while other systems have come and gone. The reason is in large part because of its adaptability, and because of the adaptability of the man (Reid) and others among its best practitioners.

Nagy said Tuesday that he would be calling plays for his offense, plays that undoubtedly will be part of game plans with extensive input from anticipated offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich. Nagy doesn’t hire Helfrich - offensive coordiantor and then head coach at Oregon through 2016 - unless there is a simpatico vision for play design, execution and all the rest. Helfrich ran an offense with spread principles and which made extensive use of no-huddle, a tactic favored by former Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota even now with the Tennessee Titans.

A notable specific: Over the past three years the Kansas City offense that Nagy worked in tied for fewest interceptions in 2015 with 7; tied for fifth with 8 in 2016; and tied for for second last season with 8. The fixation on ball security that was drilled into Mitch Trubisky (2.1 INT percentage) will serve him well in the Nagy/Helfrich offense.

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The advantages of Ryan Pace and Bears management figures of Chairman George McCaskey and President Ted Phillips inverting the hiring process and getting executive buy-in on prospective candidates at the outset of each candidate review likely did not end with landing Matt Nagy on the day of his first and only day of meetings with the Bears.

Nagy’s hiring immediately commenced recruiting of assistant coaches while the Arizona Cardinals, Detroit Lions, Indianapolis Colts and New York Giants are still in the process of putting new head coaches in place. Pace was behind the hurry-up rush of head-coaching candidates because of the highly competitive climate he saw, and that extended to the coordinator and assistants openings. Nagy already has secured four key staffers – coordinators for offense and special teams plus position coaches for offensive line and running back – and was able to pursue defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, all while his potential rivals were still going through their hiring interviews.

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The Oregon thread running through the Bears offense is suddenly worth a bit of a look. Ryan Pace investigated trading up from No. 7 to No. 2 in 2015 with the idea of drafting Marcus Mariota out of Oregon (Tennessee wanted too much in draft capital and didn’t want Jay Cutler). Mariota’s offensive coordinator was Mark Helfrich.

Helfrich’s offensive line included Kyle Long (six starts) and Hroniss Grasu, who has been unable to get career traction in three injury-impeded Bears years under two different coordinators but who warrants watching with the arrival of his former Oregon coordinator.

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One meaningless look back: Dowell Loggains has moved on to become offensive coordinator for Adam Gase and the Miami Dolphins, and Loggains’ brief tenure as Bears OC won’t make anyone forget Mike Tice or Aaron Kromer anytime soon. But a nagging unknown is what might have been for Loggains if he’d had even half a deck to play with.

Besides starting the year with Mike Glennon at quarterback, the Bears opened the second half of their 2017 season starting exactly zero of the receivers and tight ends they opened the season with as their preferred “12” personnel (one back, two tight ends) package. Opening day: wide receivers Deonte Thompson and Kevin White; tight ends Zach Miller and Dion Sims at tight end. None were active to open the second half of the 2017 season and only Sims (inactive, illness) was even still on the roster by season’s end.

Ideally Mark Helfrich has a little better roster luck.

Do the math: Ryan Pace's draft 'cloud' allows for a tantalizing trade-down possibility

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Do the math: Ryan Pace's draft 'cloud' allows for a tantalizing trade-down possibility

Ryan Pace had his annual strategically-cagey press conference on Tuesday, with the Bears’ general manager not wanting to reveal anything about his plans 48 hours before the NFL Draft begins. 

But there was at least one morsel of information dropped by Pace that could be useful in looking ahead to Thursday. 

Pace said the Bears have eight players in their “cloud” who they’d be comfortable taking with the eighth overall pick. None of those players are quarterbacks, of course, but there will be no fewer than two quarterbacks taken in the first seven picks (by the Cleveland Browns at No. 1/No. 4 and New York Jets at No. 3). And there’s a strong possibility three quarterbacks will be off the board in the first seven picks, too, either by virtue of the New York Giants or Denver Broncos taking one or because a team (like the Buffalo Bills or Arizona Cardinals) traded up to take their guy. 

So here’s a scenario: The Browns, Jets and Broncos all draft quarterbacks, leaving one of the consensus top four players at that position (Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Josh Rosen, Baker Mayfield) on the board when the Bears’ pick comes around at No. 8. If three quarterbacks are off the board, then most likely four of the eight players in Pace’s cloud are also taken after seven picks. 

The Bills didn't trade their left tackle to the Cincinnati Bengals to move up from pick No. 21 to No. 12 to not draft a quarterback, not after dealing away Tyrod Taylor and signing A.J. McCarron a year after making the playoffs for the first time since 1999. In short: It would be a failure for the Bills’ front office if they didn’t draft a quarterback in the first round. 

So if we get to the Bears’ pick at No. 8, and the Bills haven’t moved up and drafted a quarterback yet, here’s where the trade-down possibility comes into play for Pace. If he were to move down to the No. 12 pick, and the Bills took a quarterback at No. 8, that would mean at least four quarterbacks would be off the board by the time the Bears would pick at No. 12. 

And that would mean that at least one of those eight players who Pace would be comfortable selecting with the eighth overall pick would be available at No. 12. Maybe the Miami Dolphins take a quarterback, too — Lamar Jackson would presumably be their guy — with the No. 11 pick, meaning two of those eight are on the board. 

“I think, especially with the quarterback situation this year, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is some movement because of the quarterbacks in the draft,” Pace said. “I think there’s more trading that’s going on now. I don’t know if it’s a new wave. Sometimes with these trades and you have relationships with these other GMs, there can be win-win scenarios. There’s always this fear that someone is going to get the short end of the stick. Well, if you’re thorough with your research, and they are too, there can be win-win scenarios in these trades.”

A lot would have to break right for this scenario to play out, of course. The Bills could opt to trade up with the Browns (No. 4), Broncos (No. 5), Indianapolis Colts (No. 6) or Tampa Bay Buccaneers (No. 7) to limit their risk in getting burned in finding their quarterback of the future. 

There could be four quarterbacks taken in the first four picks, too, which would limit the Bears’ trade-down opportunities but ensure half of Pace’s draft “cloud” is still there when he goes on the clock. The Bears could see that situation as an opportunity to draft one of the top four players on their draft board despite having the No. 8 pick. 

“If four quarterbacks go in front of us, I’m all for it,” Pace said at the league meetings last month. “I think you see the value of that position right now when you see people posturing to get up in the draft and get a quarterback. It’s critical. … So us personally right now, we’re all for as many quarterbacks going.”

Pace has traded up in the first round in each of his last two drafts to pick a guy on which there was conviction and a consensus (Leonard Floyd, Mitch Trubisky). But the math makes sense for him to trade down, if the possibility is there, and still draft a guy he likes while adding picks for Friday and/or Saturday. 

Speaking of players’ draft traits, what about those of Ryan Pace?

Speaking of players’ draft traits, what about those of Ryan Pace?

The days/weeks/months leading up to the NFL draft are all about players’ traits – size, speed, arm length, arm strength/throwing, arm strength/lifting and so on. Those ultimately determine whom is drafted where and by whom.

 

But what about the “traits” of the selectors, one selector in particular: Bears GM Ryan Pace?

 

Borrowing James Bond’s standard of measure – “Once is chance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action” – the fact that Pace has now directed three drafts allows viewing him through the Bond prism.

 

And three particular Ryan “traits” begin to come into sharper focus when the camera is pulled back to look at the bigger Pace picture.

 

 

Subterfuge

 

Last year Pace didn’t even tell his head coach that the Bears were going to get Mitch Trubisky with their No. 1 pick. The plan was always to land a quarterback; Pace’s decision on which one surprised more than a few people even at Halas Hall.

 

But Pace isn’t exactly an anomaly. Over the years, NFL teams have become increasingly secretive in its handling of draft information. Pre-draft get-togethers typically produced any number of “We really like….” declarations regarding particular players. Those statements found their ways into the informational mainstream, which produced situations where opposing teams used that information to jump ahead of the Bears to snag a player targeted by the Bears.

 

So “this time of year I think it’s OK to be a little boring in these moments,” Pace said, laughing.

 

 

A “ceiling” guy

 

NFL personnel execs loosely fall along two general lines: the ones who gamble on a player’s upside (his “ceiling”) and those who factor in a bigger safety component in evaluating a prospect (his “floor”). And obviously there are similar elements in most execs.

 

Jerry Angelo was a “floor guy,” wanting to minimize the risk in a No. 1 pick even if it meant doing without a little upside. Pace is more “ceiling guy,” inclined to gamble more on projection, what a player could become. That was apparent even in some of his free-agent signings. Quarterback Mike Glennon was signed for his upside. So was tight end Trey Burton this year.

 

Now consider his high draft picks:

 

Wide receiver Kevin White, one huge (109 rec., 10 TD’s) college season, taken No. 7 overall.

 

Edge rusher Leonard Floyd –  productive all-around player at Georgia but a too-light 231 pounds. Trade up from 11th to 9th.

 

Trubisky – one good college season, 13 starts, 68% completions, 30 TD/6 INT. Trade up from 3rd to 2nd to select.

 

Tight end Adam Shaheen – small-college product, never faced top competition, taken 2nd round.

 

“You see a lot of physical traits and talent, and you're projecting how much better they can get,” said Pace, who characterized himself as both a ceiling and floor guy. “That's part of the art of doing this. I think a lot of that goes into the work by all of us — by our scouts and our coaches — and also knowing the football makeup they have. We talk about the desire to get better, their passion and their love for the game.

 

“If they have all the physical traits but they don't have that desire, then it might not work. But if they do have that desire, they do have that passion, those are the kinds of players we want because we have more faith they'll improve.”

 

 

Creative flex

 

The Bears have bordered on stodgy too many drafts. Contrasted to that, Pace’s draft aggressiveness has been amply chronicled. Pace has made seven draft day trades, four in 2016 and three last season. Pace’s four trades during the 2016 draft were the most by the team since 2000.

 

Pace traded up in each of the last two drafts to select clearly targeted players. The Bears hadn’t made a deal involving their first-round picks since giving away two of them in a trade for Jay Cutler in 2009. More noteworthy, the Bears before Pace had rarely made a move UP in a first round and in fact were far more inclined to trade out of their No. 1 slots.

 

Not necessarily to be viewed as organizational timidity, but besides the Cutler trade, they’d given Buffalo their No. 1 in 2006, going all the way out of the first round. They’d traded out of No. 4-overall in 2003, down to 14 and 22. They gave away their 1997 No. 1 in a trade for Rick Mirer.

 

Pace doesn’t shrink from the moment. "When we identify a guy that we like, and there's a unified vision in the building on a player that we want,” he said, “I don't think we're ever afraid to go up and get that guy."

 

But he also traded down in second rounds of each of the last two drafts. He in fact traded down twice in the 2016 second round, adding picks each time and still winding up with rookie O-line starter Cody Whitehair. Pace's second-round picks (Whitehair, nose tackle Eddie Goldman) have been better than his No. 1’s.

 

“In this [GM] chair, you're taking a lot of information,” Pace said. “We can have 10 to 12 reports on one player. You're taking all that information in. I have a really good feel now for, like, ‘OK, this coach or this scout's kind of a high grader; this guy's a low grader,’ taking it all in.

 

“Being aggressive when you need to be aggressive. Make a move if you need to make a move. And that can go the other way, too. The last two years, we've traded back in the second round and accumulated some more picks. That helped us a lot last year getting some good players. So, I think not being afraid to move around in the draft and use that to your advantage.”