Bears

Projecting what holes the Bears will have to fill on their 2018 depth chart

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USA Today

Projecting what holes the Bears will have to fill on their 2018 depth chart

On Wednesday’s edition of the Under Center Podcast, John “Moon” Mullin and I broke down the Bears’ current depth chart, and which players on it will and won’t be back in 2018. 

The genesis of the pod, which you can listen to below, was with this color-coded depth chart:

 

Instead of a deep dive into each of these units, as we did on the podcast, this will more be a look at who those players are who are locked into roster spots in 2018. This should begin to paint a picture of where the Bears’ positions of need are heading into the offseason. 

OFFENSE
 
QB: Mitchell Trubisky
RB: Jordan Howard, Tarik Cohen
FB: 
WR: Cameron Meredith, Kevin White
TE: Dion Sims, Adam Shaheen
LT: Charles Leno Jr.
LG: Josh Sitton, Eric Kush
C: Cody Whitehair
RG: Kyle Long, Eric Kush
RT: 

The first point to note with any of these projections is we don’t know what the Bears offense and defense will look like in 2018 with a potentially different coaching staff in place (i.e., if that coaching staff wants a fullback). 

The biggest need on this side of the ball, clearly, is wide receiver. Meredith and White are both coming off injuries (for White, three injuries in three years), and it’s fair to wonder if they can be as productive as the Bears expected them to be this season. 

The top five receivers currently scheduled to hit free agency are Davante Adams (744 yards, 7 TDs), Jarvis Landry (699 yards, 6 TDs), Marqise Lee (637, 3 TDs), Paul Richardson (592 yards, 5 TDs) and Sammy Watkins (528 yards, 6 TDs). Dontrelle Inman and Kendall Wright could play their way into contracts with the Bears in 2018 — both are due to hit free agency, too — with good play down the stretch. Inman, especially, has quickly developed chemistry with Trubisky since being acquired from the Los Angeles Chargers in October. 

The Bears could also potentially see an upgrade at right tackle, depending on how they’ve evaluated Bobby Massie’s season and his potential cap savings if he’s released ($5.6 million, according to Spotrac). There will be a need to add depth behind these starting linemen — though if Kush returns healthy from a training camp ACL injury, that would be a boost. 

Not all of these offensive players are "core" guys, but Trubisky, Howard, Cohen, Sitton, Whitehair and Long should fit that designation. 
 
DEFENSE

DE: Akiem Hicks, Jonathan Bullard
DT: Eddie Goldman
OLB: Leonard Floyd
ILB: Danny Trevathan, Nick Kwiatkoski
CB: 
S: Eddie Jackson, Adrian Amos

Whether the Bears’ 2018 defense is a 3-4 (as run by Vic Fangio) or a 4-3 (as run by a different defensive coordinator) remains to be seen, but these eight players would fit any scheme. 

The clear need is at cornerback, with Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara becoming free agents next year. Marcus Cooper hasn’t played up to his contract and would save the Bears $4.5 million in cap room if he were released (again, per Spotrac). Nickel corners Bryce Callahan (a restricted free agent) and Cre’von LeBlanc could be back, as could special teams ace Sherrick McManis (an unrestricted free agent). Finding an upgrade at this position is a definite “must-do” for the Bears’ offseason checklist.

But so is adding at least one go-to edge rusher, regardless of scheme fit. Pernell McPhee and Willie Young aren’t guaranteed to be back, given their relative lack of production (largely in McPhee’s case), their injury histories (in both players’ cases) or their age (in Young’s case). But if the Bears pencil in Hicks and Floyd as go-to pass-rushers in 2018, they still need a third. 

The good news is Jackson and Amos proved to be a solid safety duo in 2017, and that should carry over to 2018 (Quintin Demps could return, but perhaps as a backup). Goldman has been one of the Bears’ best defensive players this year and could be in line for a contract extension in the offseason. Trevathan is a rock on this defense, too, and is another player on whom a 2018 defense can be built. 

The "core" guys in this group: Hicks, Goldman, Trevathan and Floyd. 
 
SPECIAL TEAMS

PK: 
Punter: 
Long snapper: Andrew DePaola, Patrick Scales

Pat O’Donnell will be a free agent, while the Bears’ revolving door of kickers in 2017 isn’t likely to produce a long-term solution in 2018. 
 

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.