Bears

The Bears' pitch to prospective coaches will be enticing, but not perfect

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USA TODAY

The Bears' pitch to prospective coaches will be enticing, but not perfect

MINNEAPOLIS — The John Fox Era came to a close Monday morning, less than 24 hours after the 2017 season ended with a 23-10 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. 

As the Bears begin the search for their third head coach since firing Lovie Smith after the 2012 season, keep this in mind: It won’t be as simple as the Bears identifying their guy and hiring him. With plenty of franchises expected to also have head-coaching vacancies — including sides with established quarterbacks like the Indianapolis Colts and Detroit Lions — the Bears will have to pitch themselves, too.

New Year’s Eve wasn’t exactly a great pitch for the Bears, with Michael Burton the team’s leading rusher at halftime with one carry for zero yards (Jordan Howard carried five times for minus-one yard). Mitchell Trubisky made a rookie mistake when he flipped the ball to no one in the end zone for an intentional grounding-caused safety, and the offense didn’t cross midfield until early in the first quarter. The Bears committed 10 penalties; they finish the 2017 season having committed at least eight penalties in nine games.

But looking at the larger scope of the Bears, there are three clear ways Ryan Pace, Ted Phillips and George McCaskey can sell the Bears to prospective coaching candidates:

1. Mitchell Trubisky

While Trubisky’s final 2017 numbers might not look too impressive (seven touchdowns, seven interceptions), those are in line with what plenty of rookie quarterbacks have done in recent history. The No. 2 overall pick has shown flashes of brilliance this year and has the athleticism and intangibles to be molded into a much better player. His leadership qualities shined even as the Bears again slipped to the bottom of the NFC North: The best anecdotal evidence of that is multiple veteran offensive linemen saying Trubisky would tell them to “shut the f*** up” if they were goofing off in the huddle.

There’s no better way for a head coach to obtain job security than by developing and tying himself to a franchise quarterback. Trubisky’s already worked through a lot of the growing pains of being a rookie, and the Bears should be able to entice some of the league’s best coaching candidates with an improving, highly touted quarterback.

2. The rest of the core

In addition to Trubisky, a good number of the Bears’ best players are in Years 1 or 2 of their NFL careers: Jordan Howard, Tarik Cohen, Cody Whitehair, Leonard Floyd, Nick Kwiatkoski and Eddie Jackson fit that bill. Eddie Goldman and Adrian Amos just finished their respective third years in the league. Adam Shaheen flashed his potential a few times between when the coaching staff played him more (following Zach Miller’s injury) and a chest injury that wound up ending his season (after the Cincinnati game). Akiem Hicks was a home run free-agent signing, Danny Trevathan a rock-solid anchor of the defense and a healthy Kyle Long is a key building block.

There’s still a lot of building that has to happen to fill out this roster, with wide receiver, edge rusher and cornerback red-line needs. The Bears could look to upgrade at tackle, too. The free agency whiffs since Pace became the team’s general manager in 2015 — most recently and notably, Markus Wheaton and Marcus Cooper at those red-line positions — have made those needs even more pressing. The Bears won’t be able to address all of them through the draft; Pace will need to hit on a free agent signing or a trade if all of them will be filled.

But there’s enough of a core here — it’s certainly better than things were after the end of the Marc Trestman/Phil Emery Era — that the next coach won’t have to do as much “erasing” as Fox did when he took over in 2015.

3. Updated facilities

The Bears picked an odd time — 4:30 p.m. on a Friday — to announce plans to significantly expand and renovate Halas Hall back in November. But the renovations are designed to add plenty of space and resources for the team’s players and coaches, and could be a selling point for not only the next coach, but future free agents. The renovations are expected to be completed in time for the 2019 season and include:

— A 13,000-square-foot indoor turf space with a 133’x26’ video projection wall and an adjacent virtual reality room.

— The weight room being expanded by 2,000 square feet.

— The sports medicine space being four times larger than the current space; there will also be an equipment room, recovery space and a nutrition and fuel station that are double the current size at Halas Hall.

— Coaches offices increasing by 50 percent, and position meeting rooms doubling in capacity.

— The locker room being expanded by 1,700 square feet, and a 3,250 players’ lounge will be added.

— The cafeteria being expanded by 4,300 square feet.

— Two additional practice fields that are already under construction, doubling the team’s outdoor practice field capacity.

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Low

Decisions to be made on: Christian Jones (free agent), John Timu (free agent), Jonathan Anderson (free agent); Jerrell Freeman has reportedly been cut

Possible free agent targets: Demario Davis, Preston Brown, Anthony Hitchens, Avery Williamson, Navorro Bowman, Derrick Johnson

How the Bears rate Nick Kwiatkoski will be the key to figuring out what this unit will look like in 2018. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio thought Kwiatkoski finished last season strong, but strong enough to rely on him in 2018 as the starter next to Danny Trevathan?

The thing with the Bears’ inside linebackers, though: Trevathan makes whoever is playing next to him better. The problem is Trevathan hasn’t been able to stay on the field — he missed time in 2017 with a calf injury and a one-game suspension, and missed half of 2016 after rupturing his Achilles’. Trevathan hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2013, so durability is an issue for the soon-to-be 28-year-old.

So that leads to this question: Do the Bears need to find someone in free agency, regardless of how they value Kwiatkoski, who’s also missed time due to injuries in his first two years in the league?

Free agency could provide a few options. Demario Davis had a career high 97 tackles for the New York Jets last year and has never missed a game as a pro. Preston Brown had some decent production in Buffalo and also hasn’t missed a game since being drafted in 2014. Avery Williamson may not be a world-beater but has only missed one game in his four years in the NFL.

The Bears could also opt for someone who fits more of a rotational mold, like Dallas’ Anthony Hitchens, or try to lure a veteran linebacker like Navorro Bowman (who played for Vic Fangio in San Francisco) or Derrick Johnson (who Matt Nagy knows from his Kansas City days) to play next to Trevathan and/or Kwiatkoski.

The Bears could opt to keep the status quo and re-sign Christian Jones and John Timu for depth, and enter 2018 with Kwiatkoski and Trevathan as the team’s starters (Jerrell Freeman, who suffered a season-ending injury and then was hit with his second PED suspension in as many years, was cut on Tuesday). Signing a starting-caliber free agent isn’t out of the question, either, but there is a third option for the Bears if they appear to stand pat in free agency: Draft an inside linebacker in April. If that’s the route they go, Georgia’s Roquan Smith could be the guy. But again, those more pressing needs at other positions could mean the Bears don’t burn a first-round pick on an inside linebacker.

With Josh Sitton on his way out, what’s next for the Bears’ offensive line?

With Josh Sitton on his way out, what’s next for the Bears’ offensive line?

The first major move of Ryan Pace’s 2018 offseason hit on Tuesday, as NFL Network reported the Bears will not exercise Josh Sitton’s $8 million option for 2018. 

The move accomplishes two things for the Bears: 1) It frees up about $8 million in cap space and 2) Removes a veteran from the offensive line and creates a hole to fill, presumably by a younger free agent or draft pick. 

The 31-year-old Sitton signed a three-year deal with the Bears after Green Bay cut him just before the 2016 season, and was a Pro Bowler his first year in Chicago. Sitton played 26 of 32 games in two years with the Bears, but him being on the wrong side of 30 was likely the biggest factor here. If the Bears saw his skills eroding, releasing him now and netting the cap savings while going younger at the position does make sense. 

“Going younger” doesn’t guarantee the Bears will draft Notre Dame brawler Quenton Nelson, though that did become a greater possibility with Tuesday’s move. Nelson might be one of the two or three best offensive players in this year’s draft, and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand knows him well from the four years they spent together at Notre Dame. 

There’s a natural fit there, of course, but a few reasons to slow the Nelson-to-Chicago hype train: Would he even make it to No. 8? Or if he’s there, is taking a guard that high worth it when the Bears have needs at wide receiver, outside linebacker and cornerback? Still, the thought of Nelson — who absolutely dominated at Notre Dame — pairing with Hiestand again is tantalizing, and Nelson very well could step into any team’s starting lineup and be an immediate Pro Bowler as a rookie. 

If the Bears go younger in free agency, Matt Nagy knows 26-year-old guard Zach Fulton (No. 25 in Bleacher Report’s guard rankings) well from their time in Kansas City. Fulton — a Homewood-Flossmoor alum — has the flexibility to play both guard positions and center, which could open the door for Cody Whitehair to be moved to left guard, the position he was initially drafted to play (though the Bears do value him highly as a center, and keeping him at one position would benefit him as opposed to moving him around the line again). There are some other guys out there — like Tennessee’s Josh Kline or New York’s Justin Pugh — that could wind up costing more than Fulton in free agency. 

Or the Bears could look draft an offensive lineman after the first round, perhaps like Ohio State’s Billy Price, Georgia’s Isaiah Wynn or UTEP’s Will Hernandez. How the Bears evaluate guards at the NFL Combine next week will play an important role in how they go about replacing Sitton. 

The trickle-down effect of releasing Sitton will impact more than the offensive line, too. Freeing up his $8 million in cap space -- which wasn't a guarantee, unlike cutting Jerrell Freeman and, at some point, Mike Glennon -- could go toward paying Kyle Fuller, or another top cornerback, or a top wide receiver, or some combination of players at those positions (as well as outside linebacker). The Bears were already in a healthy place cap-wise; that just got healthier on Tuesday.