Bears

Bears' offense touts a new identity whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts

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USA TODAY

Bears' offense touts a new identity whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts

When the Bears hired Matt Nagy, they were getting a disciple of the West Coast offense as evolved under one of its foremost practitioners in Andy Reid. What they got when Nagy secured Mark Helfrich as his offensive coordinator was a proponent of the spread offense as practiced by the high-speed Oregon Ducks.

Now what they are developing, based on their respective ideas laid out this week, is an offense that may defy simple descriptors as it incorporates two different systems. But rather than appearing to lack a clear identity, the meshing of schemes projects to be something that is at the same time neither, and both. The result in fact projects to something new, and for a football team in need of some kind of breakthrough on offense and something to actually occasionally confound opposing defenses, that is a very, very good thing.

That was axiomatic in Helfrich’s appeal for Nagy, with both inclined to push stylistic envelopes. “As you could tell from some of the things we did in Kansas City offensively, we were trying to be a little bit out of the box and new wave type of stuff,” Nagy said.

Not that just throwing together ideas ensures anything, good or bad. But from a defensive dean who knows something about the difficulty of going against new concepts, the chances of creating a dangerous hybrid that gets a jump on and forces defensive adjustments are there.

Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio faced the Oregon offense while he was on the staff at Stanford. It was a problem for him. “They had an ‘X and O’ advantage but [also] a method advantage that people hadn’t caught up to yet at that point, and they had good players doing it,” Fangio said on Thursday. “Kind of like back in the ‘90s when we started the zone blitz, and we were ahead of the curve then and we had a lot of success beating teams that possibly had more talent than we did… . At that point the newness was still in their favor.”

That newness has multiple aspects, not all simple to judge at this point.

Under center or shotgun?

Young quarterback Mitch Trubisky is beginning work under his third different offensive staff in three seasons. That didn’t work to the benefit of Jay Cutler (although Cutler was in fact the reason some of those changes happened in the first place), but two things here:

One is that the Trubisky Nagy and Helfrich are inheriting is one with 12 NFL starts. The one that Dowell Loggains was handed came with 13 college starts, so Trubisky’s starting point is advanced from what it was last year.

And the other is Trubisky’s background is in the spread offense. The incoming offense won’t necessarily be that, but whatever form/forms it takes, Trubisky won’t be spending time just learning to take a direct snap.

Nagy/Helfrich also come into a quarterback imbued with the importance of ball security. Despite seeing NFL defenses for the first times, Trubisky’s INT rate of 2.1 percent was only a few ticks higher than that of his entire college career (1.7 percent). Helfrich said that one thing that jumped out about Trubisky “is his accuracy and taking care of the football.”

But Trubisky will again be tasked with learning something dramatically different from what he’d had the year before, being coached into him by three former quarterbacks. “Teaching” will involve a strategy as well as specific tactics: “You have to get in their corner at the beginning, challenge them like heck until that first snap,” Helfrich said, “and get them thinking about as little as possible at the snap.”

Personnel considerations

GM Ryan Pace didn’t plan on making a massive coaching makeover this time last year. But he could scarcely have drafted more accurately for what his team’s offense will be if he’d set out to staff it.

The West Coast and Oregon’s offense make extensive use of tight ends and running backs as receivers. Besides quarterback Trubisky, Pace’s second-round pick last draft was Adam Shaheen, a pass-catching tight end. His fifth-round pick was Tarik Cohen, whose 53 pass receptions ranked second on the Bears and tied for 11th among running backs. (Seven of the 10 ahead of him were components of playoff teams.)

Coincidentally, Pace invested a third-round pick in his first (2015) draft on Oregon center Hroniss Grasu, the starting center for Helfrich and Chip Kelly. Notably, of the 20 offensive linemen on Helfrich’s 2014 Oregon team, only one was listed at bigger than 300 pounds. Even guard Kyle Long the year before played at 300 pounds, going eventually up to 330 with the Bears.

All of which points to the Bears already having myriad pieces in place for what Nagy and Helfrich are designing. Reid himself was a tackle under LaVell Edwards at BYU, another of the crucibles where the West Coast principles were forged, and Nagy comes from the Reid school with an understanding of O-line physiology that works.

Same with Helfrich, who succeeded Chip Kelly as Oregon coach and watched with great interest what Kelly did in the NFL, what worked and what didn’t. Kelly’s Philadelphia Eagles put up consecutive 10-6 seasons before he flamed out and did it running plays at a pace considerably faster than the NFL norm. Not all of his concepts worked, however, and won’t be coming to Halas Hall with Helfrich.

“The biggest difference is literally size and plays,” Helfrich said. “Size of squad and plays in a game. College football, you can run however many plays you want almost – 80 or 90. At the NFL level, that’s not going to happen. You cannot practice like you do in college in the NFL. 53-man roster. Limitations. All those things… . There are a lot of things that we learned from that. And there are a lot of good things they did as well.”

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.