In more ways than one, Matt Nagy fits with what Ryan Pace and Bears are trying to do

In more ways than one, Matt Nagy fits with what Ryan Pace and Bears are trying to do

Getting the obvious question out of the way first: Is this Matt Nagy guy any good? This observer has no idea other than conclusions drawn from Nagy’s resume. As with a draft evaluation, let’s see in a couple years. Now, back to our regularly scheduled program.

Over the past nine months, ever since he traded up in the 2017 draft for quarterback Mitch Trubisky, Ryan Pace has left no doubt that he understood that he was now squarely on the franchise clock. The spotlight on him just turned up a whole lot of watts on Monday when he went all-in on Nagy as his choice to replace John Fox as head coach.

It is a move with myriad aspects and elements, beginning with the fact that Nagy has zero experience as a head coach at any level and just two years as an NFL offensive coordinator, and one of those (2016) as co-coordinator with Brad Childress. How much of Nagy’s success and that of quarterback Alex Smith were due to Childress and head coach Andy Reid vs. Nagy will play out in part over the next couple years.

But he also was an assistant with Reid in Philadelphia from 2008 to 2012 and was brought to Kansas City by Reid when Reid went to coach the Chiefs in 2013. That was the year that Reid and the Chiefs traded for Smith, beginning a five-year stretch in which Smith became a two-time Pro Bowl quarterback and had four of the best five seasons of his 12-year career.

That — and Nagy’s known belief that Trubisky will be something special — as much as anything vaulted Nagy to the top of Pace’s list, which wasn’t entirely composed of coaches from backgrounds on offense but pretty clearly was going to be a plus for those candidates.

In a serious hurry

Pace and the Bears were aggressive from the outset, second only to the Raiders' hiring of Jon Gruden. It was the fastest hire of a Bears head coach since Jack Pardee on New Year’s Day 1975, with Pace viewing the market for what he considered top head coaches to be extremely competitive with a half-dozen teams looking for new field bosses.

The Bears clearly wanted to fast-track the search process in a competitive market, part of why chairman George McCaskey and president Ted Phillips were uncharacteristically involved in the week-long road show of initial job interviews rather than waiting until Pace had arrived at his choice before beginning the next-level vetting. The organization’s withholding approval for defensive coordinator Vic Fangio to interview for coordinator jobs elsewhere pointed to the Bears wanting him as an option to head the defense under the incoming head coach.

With the Nagy hire, Pace coincidentally brings the Bears back to their “customary” approach of going with first-time coaches after failed efforts with Fox and CFL head coach Marc Trestman (Neill Armstrong also was a CFL head coach). Nagy, like Mike Ditka and Lovie Smith — and Abe Gibron and Dick Jauron and Jim Dooley and Dave Wannstedt — becomes an NFL head coach for the first time, and what success the Bears have had in the post-George Halas Era has come from first-timers, who commonly bring a fresh approach to the job they’ve dreamed about since going into coaching.

Forgetting any residual rancor or whatever other emotions that involved Fox, a guess here is that the Ryan Pace of this process is not the exact same Ryan Pace that went through the process that produced Fox as his head coach. Pace was obviously in on every single interaction and assessment of these candidates; last time, the organization had oddly chosen to start interviewing candidates before Pace was even hired.

For better or worse, assume that this Pace had a considerably deeper understanding of what he was after to run the Bears on the field.

The QB curriculum vitae

Nagy’s prime directive will be the development of Trubisky, along with bringing together an offense that has been nothing short of erratic under a stream of coaches and coordinators ever since Ron Turner left after the 2009 season. He will be responsible for the defense and special teams, but his foundation is offense. Period.

If nothing else, Nagy knows what a successful NFL quarterback should look and play like. He was a coaching intern and assistant when the Eagles had the likes of Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick under center, and he has spent the past five seasons as either a quarterbacks coach or offensive coordinator while Smith has flourished in Kansas City.

Interesting but of less-than-marginal significance, Nagy was a college quarterback, from the same University of Delaware that produced Joe Flacco for the Baltimore Ravens. And he played quarterback in the Arena Football League, like New Orleans Saints coach and mentor Sean Payton. Now if that wasn’t a selling point to former Saints personnel guy Pace, then ...

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.