Bears

Now that he has some weapons, Mitch-a-palooza can really start

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USA TODAY

Now that he has some weapons, Mitch-a-palooza can really start

Assessing or “grading” any team’s work in free agency is something of a cousin to doing that sort of critiquing of a draft class; opinions are easy but real substance only comes beginning sometime in September.

The reason is fairly obvious, not unlike the SEC’s required caution to investors, that “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.” Decisions are based on performance but after that… .

So any meaningful answer as to whether the Bears are a better team by virtue of their moves in free agency lies some months off.

And there’s one other really, really big “if” in all this – the one that matters more than any free-agency or draft pickup:

Mitch Trubisky.

The standard line through this offseason, going back to and including the arrivals of coach Matt Nagy and OC Mark Helfrich on top of retaining QB coach Dave Ragone, has been that a key component in the 2018 Bears mission statement has been to secure more of a supporting cast for Trubisky. That’s backwards.

The only way Trubisky was worth his GM trading up to ensure getting him with the No. 2 pick is if he makes THEM better, not vice versa.

These incoming players are basically upgrades of a woeful offensive unit and would’ve been made whether Trubisky, Jay Cutler or Mike Glennon were the starting Bears quarterback for 2018.

The point is Trubisky himself. GM Ryan Pace envisions greatness for Trubisky, meaning the kind of quarterback like a Brady, Brees, Favre, Rodgers, the kind of quarterback who turns average into good and good in great.

Allen Robinson may be the delayed fill for Alshon Jeffery, and Trey Burton may replace what the offense lost when Zach Miller went down. But those things only happen if Trubisky plays to his seed, becomes what Donovan McNabb did for the Eagles or what the four in the previous paragraph did for their franchises. Weapons don’t make the quarterback; the quarterback “makes” the weapons. That’s why they get $25 million a season and the weapons don’t.

The Bears are putting $14 million a year for three seasons into Allen Robinson on the strength of the wide receiver’s 2015 and 2016 seasons with a combined 153 receptions, 2,283 yards and 20 TD’s. The Jacksonville Jaguars were 3-13 and 5-11 in those two seasons. Jacksonville reached the AFC Championship in 2017 with quarterback Blake Bortles putting up career-bests in completion percentage, QBR and interception percentage. And a defense that was No. 1 in the AFC in points, yards and passer-rating allowed. And without Robinson for 15-1/2 games.

How much better in fact IS the Chicago offense with Burton, Robinson and slot receiver Taylor Gabriel?

Burton: As he did with Glennon, Akiem Hicks, Pernell McPhee, Markus Wheaton and others, Pace is going for “upside,” what that player could be that he hasn’t been before. Sometimes it works (Hicks); sometimes it doesn’t (Glennon, etal.).

Burton was never the No. 1 tight end with Philadelphia and played less than 30 percent of the offensive snaps over his last two and most productive Eagles years. Pace had to shore up the “move” tight end position and receiving capabilities at the TE spot with the loss of Miller and pedestrian production of Dion Sims. Burton was behind two very good Philadelphia tight ends in Brent Celek and Zach Ertz, and he wasn’t going to supplant Ertz or replace the just-released Celek, a physical blocker with 40 pounds on Burton.

What the Bears need is for Burton to follow the performance curve of Martellus Bennett, who, personality issues aside, became a force when he got out from behind Jason Witten in Dallas.

Right now, this is an upgrade from where the Bears were over the final eight games of 2017. But Miller caught 20 passes (not including the mistaken overturn of that final pass in New Orleans) in eight games. Burton caught 23 in 15 games last year. Miller averaged 11.5 yards per Bears catch; Burton averaged 9.6 over his last two Philadelphia seasons.

The Bears are counting on “upside” for their $32 million over four Burton years.

Gabriel: Gabriel is joining his third team in the last four years, being cut after his first two years in Cleveland by a Browns team coming off a 3-13 year in 2015 and was going to go 1-15. Playing for the NFL’s 2016 MVP in Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, Gabriel caught 35 passes and scored 6 of his 8 career touchdowns. Whether the Bears were outbid by the Miami Dolphins for former Kansas City slot receiver Albert Wilson or in fact wanted Gabriel more doesn’t matter in the rearview mirror. But Gabriel is presumed to add more explosiveness with the football than Wilson or Kendall Wright.

That explosiveness is what the Bears are investing considerably more than the $2 million they paid Wright in 2017. What they are banking on, again, is upside. Gabriel has averaged 33 catches over his four NFL seasons and 13.8 yards per catch. Wright caught 59 for the Bears last year but only one for a TD and his career average of 11.4 ypc isn’t likely going up at age 29.

Robinson: Potentially huge upgrade over everything the Bears tried at wide receiver in 2017. The qualifier: Robinson’s comeback from season-ending ACL surgery. That projects to roughly a 50-50 proposition, based on research of colleague JJ Stankevitz on wide receivers pre- and post-ACL injuries.

A second qualifier: The Bears never had a winning season over Jeffery’s final and best four Chicago seasons, in which he averaged 70 catches per season. Robinson averaged 67 receptions over his three good Jacksonville seasons. The Jaguars didn’t win then, either, because neither the Bears nor Jags got the quarterback situation where it needed to be.

***

Sometimes the free-agency marketplace imposes some quirky realities on the Bears and everyone else.

The Bears solidified their cornerback situation with the transition-tag’ing of Kyle Fuller and re-signing Prince Amukamara for $27 million over three years. But it means that the Bears approach 2018 with the same No. 1 corner pairing that they had for 2017, just with a combined price of $21 million vs. last year’s $10 million for the same players.

Whether they are the better with Amukamara at $9 million-per vs. Trumaine Johnson at a reported $15 million-per or Malcolm Butler at $12 million-per will play out in the fall.

Will Devin Hester wind up being the last great kick returner in football history?

Will Devin Hester wind up being the last great kick returner in football history?

Devin Hester announced his retirement from the NFL last fall, and on Monday, signed a ceremonial one-day contract to officially retire as a member of the Chicago Bears. This was not an easy decision for the 35-year-old, who had to fight back tears while talking about saying no to football Monday at Halas Hall — Hester said the Philadelphia Eagles reached out to him after Darren Sproles suffered a season-ending injury last September.

But Hester firmly remained retired, opting to spend more time with his family in Orlando. And with Hester officially out of the game, it raises this question: Does he retire as the last great return man in NFL history?

“He changed the game,” said former teammate Matt Forte, who also signed a ceremonial one-day contract to retire with the Bears on Monday. “I mean, literally, changed the game. If you can affect the game like that, he’s gotta be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. The definition of a Hall of Famer is somebody who changed the game — like defenses and coaches had to carve out certain time to assess that particular guy. There’s not going to be another Devin Hester ever, I don’t believe.”

Hester himself was a special player, returning an NFL record 20 punts, kicks and missed field goals for touchdowns. Forte may be right in that there will never be another player like him, even if the NFL stays the way it is now.

But no player may ever get the opportunity to be the next Devin Hester as the sport continues to evaluate the serious issue of head trauma. Kickoffs, in particular, are among the most dangerous plays for player safety, and the sport has continued to work on finding ways to increase touchbacks and decrease returns since moving kickoffs from the 30 to 35-yard line prior to the 2011 season.

The Ivy League, for example, saw a significant decline in concussions on kickoffs when it moved the kicking spot from the 35 to 40-yard line. But increasing touchbacks is an imperfect solution, as many around the league have pointed out, as some players may run at half-speed thinking there will be a touchback while others are still going full speed in case there isn’t.

While the NFL hasn’t considered banning kickoffs yet, it’s entirely fair to wonder if they’ll still be part of the sport’s highest level in the next five years. And that doesn’t sit well with Hester.

“It’s one of the key aspects to this ballgame, man,” Hester said. “This is football. You gotta let these guys play football and that, at the end of the day, brings a lot of excitement to a lot of fans out there.

“… This is a position. It’s how a lot of kids make a living, and at the end of the day it’s football, man. They’re trying to find ways to eliminate injuries but the moment you step on the field, you’re bound to get hurt somewhere. You can’t avoid injuries. That’s just the nature of the beast. And I think taking that out of the game, it’s big. I (wouldn’t) like to see it happen.”

For everyone invested in the sport, it’s a difficult topic: On one hand, a kick return touchdown is one of the more exciting things that can happen in a game (and it certainly was the highlight of the Bears’ last Super Bowl appearance). On the other, concussions are a serious threat to the game, and the NFL continues to try to create and enforce rules that are designed to limit them.

So Hester may wind up being the last great kick returner in NFL history, maybe football history. That should — emphasis on should, not will — be enough to get him inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, right?

“Sometimes you gotta put guys in the Hall of Fame for being the most dangerous person on the field,” Hester said.

And he could be the last person to be, as a kick returner, the most dangerous person on the field.

“It’s a big part of football, it’s one of the most exciting plays when you’re playing this game of football,” Hester said. “At the end of the day, if I’m the last, if I’m the one to be the best at the return game, it’s an honor. But at the same time, I want to continue to see it play out.”

Ranking the Bears' draft needs, from No. 13 to No. 1

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Ranking the Bears' draft needs, from No. 13 to No. 1

For all the positive vibes around Halas Hall during the dawn of the Matt Nagy era, the Bears still have plenty of needs as Ryan Pace enters his fourth draft as the team's general manager. And those needs provide a rough outline of what Pace's draft strategy from round one through round seven this week. 

Just because a position is a need doesn't mean Pace will use a high draft pick on it, given his larger strategy of taking the best player available. But the top needs on this list should be addressed by the time the draft wraps up on Saturday. 

13. Placekicker

Current depth: Cody Parkey

The Bears guaranteed $9 million to Parkey in his four-year, $15 million contract and don’t realistically have an out for him until 2020, according to Spotrac. He’s their kicker, and we won’t see any realistic competition for him come training camp. 

12. Tight end

Current depth: Trey Burton, Adam Shaheen, Dion Sims, Daniel Brown, Ben Braunecker, Colin Thompson

Given the investment in this position — a second-round pick in Shaheen and about $12 million against the cap for Burton and Sims — there’s not much room for another tight end near the top of the depth chart. The Bears value Brown and Braunecker’s contributions on special teams, too, so this depth chart looks relatively set in stone. 

11. Running back

Current depth: Jordan Howard, Tarik Cohen, Benny Cunningham, Taquan Mizzell, Michael Burton

The big question here is what the Bears would do if Saquon Barkley were still on the board at No. 8. But no team is spending less money on running backs than the Bears are in 2018 ($1.96 million), and that’s with a 1,000-yard rusher in Howard and an explosive weapon in Cohen on the depth chart. Cunningham’s leadership and special teams skills are valued by those in the organization, from the front office to the locker room. 

To tie it back to Barkley: While Howard may not be a “complete” running back in the way Barkley could be, he has plenty of NFL tape and should benefit from running the ball in a less predictable offense this year. The guess is the Bears are fine with their running back depth chart, and would pass on Barkley unless there’s a consensus in their draft room that he’s a Hall of Famer. 

10. Quarterback

Current depth: Mitch Trubisky, Chase Daniel, Tyler Bray

Nagy likes having Daniel and Bray in place to work with Trubisky, given both those backups know the intricacies and language of his offense well from their time in Kansas City. The Bears could opt to draft a developmental quarterback with one of their final picks, or could target an undrafted free agent. Either way, the Bears will probably look to bring in at least one more quarterback, though we’re talking about a battle to be a third-stringer/practice squad guy at this point. 

9. Punter

Current depth: Pat O’Donnell

The Bears re-signed O’Donnell to a one-year deal with only $500,000 guaranteed, so they could look to bring in a punter — either via the draft or the undrafted free agent pool — to compete with him over the next few months. 

8. Defensive line

Current depth: Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, Jonathan Bullard, Roy Robertson-Harris, John Jenkins, Nick Williams

Bullard is entering his third year in Vic Fangio’s defense, and showed flashes in 2017 of growing into the player the Bears hoped he’d be when they invested a third-round pick into him in 2016. Not re-signing Mitch Unrein — who was highly valued by Fangio and defensive line coach Jay Rodgers — could be taken as a sign that the Bears are ready to give Bullard a bigger role. But even if that’s the case, Bullard will have to earn it, and drafting some competition for him (and Robertson-Harris) could be part of the Bears’ draft plans. 

7. Cornerback

Current depth: Kyle Fuller, Prince Amukamara, Bryce Callahan, Marcus Cooper, Cre’von LeBlanc, Jonathan Mincy, Sherrick McManis, Doran Grant

The Bears invested quite a bit of money into keeping Fuller and Amukamara, and given the structures of their contracts are all but locked into that pairing until at least 2020, per Spotrac. Unless the Bears absolutely love someone like Ohio State’s Denzel Ward or Iowa’s Josh Jackson, the No. 8 pick won’t be used on a cornerback. But while there are plenty of bodies at this position, the Bears could use better depth here and could find that in the middle-to-late rounds of the draft. 

6. Safety

Current depth: Adrian Amos, Eddie Jackson, Deon Bush, DeAndre Houston-Carson, Deiondre' Hall

The solidity of the Amos-Jackson pairing means the Bears don’t have a pressing need at safety, but Amos is entering the final year of his rookie contract and is probably second in line behind Eddie Goldman to be signed to an extension, if he gets one at all. Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick and Florida State’s Derwin James both profile as big-time playmakers, which this defense still lacks. Pace has drafted a safety in the fourth round (Jackson, Bush) or fifth round (Amos) in every one of his drafts, and doing the same in 2018 would make some sense either to add depth or try to find an eventual replacement for Amos. 

5. Offensive tackle

Current depth: Charles Leno, Bobby Massie, Bradley Sowell, Brandon Greene, Travis Averill

Massie is entering the final year of his contract, and while he’s still on the roster now the Bears could still release him before, during or after training camp for a palatable cap hit of $1.5 million, per Spotrac. The No. 8 pick may be a little too rich for any of the tackles in this draft class, unless Harry Hiestand is pounding the table for Mike McGlinchey, his former Notre Dame left tackle. But a tackle could be in play in a trade-down scenario or as early as the second round to compete with Massie, who — it should be noted — was solid enough in 2017. 

4. Wide receiver

Current depth: Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, Kevin White, Josh Bellamy, Bennie Fowler, Tanner Gentry, Demarcus Ayers

Do the Bears need at least one more wide receiver? Absolutely. Is it the most pressing need on the team? No. Think of it this way: The Bears signed their Nos. 1 and 2 receivers in Robinson (X) and Gabriel (Zebra), and Burton will spend plenty of time lined up in the slot. If that’s how the Bears were thinking, it would fit with the decision to let Cameron Meredith sign for $9.6 million with the New Orleans Saints over medical concerns (in short: That might’ve been too much money to commit to a No. 3/No. 4 target with knee issues). Whether or not that’s the right thinking is another question, but it could be a signal that the Bears don’t view wide receiver as a desperate, significant need. 

That being said, the Bears have invested so much into building the best structure possible around Trubisky that finding a “Z” receiver who can play both in the slot and outside is important in the draft. A second-round pick isn’t out of the question if the Bears identify someone worthy of that pick (like, perhaps, Memphis’ Anthony Miller). 

3. Inside linebacker

Current depth: Danny Trevathan, Nick Kwiatkoski, John Timu, Jonathan Anderson

Fangio likes Kwiatkoski and Trevathan is one of the most important players on the Bears’ defense. But that pair combined to miss nine games in 2017, and with Christian Jones signing with the Detroit Lions there’s a baseline need for more depth at this position. But Georgia’s Roquan Smith and Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds both would represent upgrades here and could fit Pace’s best-player-available strategy. 

2. Interior offensive line

Current depth: Cody Whitehair, Kyle Long, Eric Kush, Earl Watford, Hroniss Grasu, Jordan Morgan, Cameron Lee

The Bears like Kush and Watford, but both players have spent their respective four seasons in the NFL largely as backups. They’re both good pieces to have, especially with Long missing 14 games in the last two years, but may be better served as backups. Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson would very much be in play if he’s on the board at No. 8, especially as the league may be moving away from devaluing interior positions in favor of valuing quality offensive line play no matter the position, which is becoming harder and harder to find. 

If not Nelson at No. 8, the pool of guards and centers who could still be available with the 38th pick is deep. The Bears unearthed Whitehair in the second round of the 2016 draft, and given the prominence in Nagy’s offense of inside zone runs — which go off the outside hip of a guard — could opt to use a top-40 pick to solidify the interior of their offensive line. 

1. Outside linebacker

Current depth: Leonard Floyd, Sam Acho, Aaron Lynch, Isaiah Irving, Howard Jones

As if the Bears needed a wakeup call here, Aaron Lynch’s ankle injury during Wednesday’s minicamp practice brought about this scenario: What if he and Floyd, who’ve combined to miss 28 games in the last two seasons, are out at the same time? Right now, that would put Acho and either Irving or Jones in starting roles, and it’s unlikely that pairing would result in much of a consistent pass rush. 

The gulf between the need for outside linebackers and interior offensive linemen is significant. This is a position that needs to be successfully addressed in the draft, otherwise there’s the potential that the Bears’ outside linebacker depth resembles last year’s wide receiver depth. 

Could Pace be aggressive for the third straight year and trade up to draft North Carolina State’s Bradley Chubb? Would Boston College’s Harold Landry or UTSA’s Marcus Davenport be “overdrafted” at No. 8? Could Edmunds actually be an outside linebacker? Those are all significant questions for the Bears in the first round, but identifying and drafting other edge rushers is a must throughout the rest of the draft.