Progress? John Fox argues it's there, even if the Bears' record doesn't show it

USA Today

Progress? John Fox argues it's there, even if the Bears' record doesn't show it

The operative word for 2017, as Bears chairman George McCaskey explained in March, was “progress.” There wasn't a set win total John Fox had to reach to keep his job, but this year's Bears, record-wise, won't be better than any of the previous three iterations of one of the NFL's charter franchises. 

Fox has been the coach for two of those years, and has a chance to equal his 2015 win total if the Bears were to upset the NFC North champion Minnesota Vikings on Sunday in Minneapolis. But six wins doesn’t scream “progress," does it?

Fox, though, disputed that notion on Friday, which may have been his final press conference at Halas Hall. 

“I think I definitely feel like we’re better than we were three years ago,” Fox said. 

In a few senses, that’s true. The Bears’ defense was a disaster when Fox and Vic Fangio arrived in Lake Forest; they’ve taken it from being one of the league’s worst units (28th in DVOA in 2014, 31st in DVOA in 2015) to solidifying it (14th in DVOA this year), despite the absence of a Pro Bowler on the roster (though Akiem Hicks certainly deserved better than being a fourth alternate to this year’s Pro Bowl). The culture at Halas Hall is more harmonious than it was after the 2014 season, though that’s only led to some close losses, not more wins. 

The Marc Trestman-Phil Emery era left the cupboard pretty bare, too, with only four draft picks from that short-lived regime playing significant roles on the 2017 team (offensive linemen Charles Leno and Kyle Long, cornerback Kyle Fuller and punter Pat O'Donnell). 

“We’ve basically retooled the whole roster,” Fox said. “I think a lot of the heavy lifting has been done. … I think we’re kind of at ground zero, level field, however you want to do it, right at water line. And making that transition and change at the quarterback position this year bodes well for the future.”

From a more macro sense, Fox does have a point regarding the progress of the team. Individually, there are plenty of players with arrows pointing up, from quarterback Mitchell Trubisky to running back Tarik Cohen to defensive tackle Eddie Goldman to safety Eddie Jackson, among others. 

But “progress” hasn’t been easily identifiable in terms of the results that’ve transpired in 2017. The Nov. 12 loss to the Aaron Rodgers-less Green Bay Packers was brutal; getting beat by Robbie Gould and the 1-10 San Francisco 49ers on Dec. 3 was embarrassing. The response to the team’s best win of the year — a 33-7 drubbing of the Cincinnati Bengals — was a turgid 20-10 loss to the Detroit Lions. Every time the Bears got close to true “progress,” there was a regression. 

“We’re growing as a team,” linebacker Danny Trevathan said. “It don’t look like it on paper and our record don’t indicate that, but the way we’re playing and the way our team is bonding, I think we’re growing in the right direction. I think we have the right people up top and they’re bringing in the right people. We keep building on this foundation and culture, I think we’ll be all right.”

Trevathan is one of the best players on this team who will be back in 2018. It seems likely whatever building that continues will be done under a new head coach. 

And Fox’s 14-33 record heading into 2017’s season finale is the biggest point of evidence toward that lack of progress. 

“When I look back I don’t think that we were anywhere in the midst of being picked to win the Super Bowl or anything of that nature,” Fox said, when asked if he’d second-guess anything about the 2017 season. “Again, our expectations are higher than what our record is. I think that’s probably true every year I’ve ever coached.”

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.