Bears

Where do the Bears stand at wide receiver heading into the second half of 2017?

Where do the Bears stand at wide receiver heading into the second half of 2017?

This will come as no surprise: The Bears are last in the NFL with 1,404 passing yards, and are second-to-last with 13 passing plays of 20 or more yards (only the Baltimore Ravens, with 10, have a lower total). 

Of the seven Bears players with double-digit targets, one is on injured reserve (Zach Miller, 35), one is on the Buffalo Bills (Deonte Thompson, 18) and one hasn’t been targeted since the last time the Bears played the Green Bay Packers (Josh Bellamy, 17). Two are running backs (Tarik Cohen, 39; Jordan Howard, 21), and then there’s one consistently-used receiver in that group (Kendall Wright, 34). 

So change is coming to this group of pass-catchers. And with it is a sort of budding confidence that the group hope pays off on Sunday against the Green Bay Packers. 

“It’s the most full-strength (group) that we’ve had so far,” wide receiver Tre McBride said. “And outside of Kevin (White) and Cam (Meredith) returning, this is as healthy as it’s going to get right here. So that’s good. That’s all we need. Obviously we love our boys and our teammates, but we’re confident that we can get it done with our group that’s playing right now.” 

A look at where these receivers stand heading into the second half of the season:

Dontrelle Inman

The 6-foot-3 Inman brings a size component to the Bears’ offense it hasn’t had since Meredith (6-foot-3) and White (also 6-foot-3) suffered season-ending injuries. Coaches have raved about Inman’s work ethic since arriving at Halas Hall two weeks ago — “he's the guy who is in my office at 6:30 in the morning and wanting to go through plays,” offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said — and he’s lined up to make his Bears debut Sunday against the Green Bay Packers. 

Inman averaged about six targets and 3 1/2 catches per game last year; those numbers will probably be lower in these final eight games of 2017 given the Bears probably won’t throw as much as the Chargers did. But if Inman quickly develops a chemistry with Mitchell Trubisky, he’ll be part of the mix to make an impact starting Sunday. 

Markus Wheaton

Wheaton was a full participant in practice on Thursday and looks set to play for the first time since he suffered a groin injury in practice in mid-October. 

“We’re trying to figure out still where exactly he is, what exactly he’s good at,” Loggains said. “We have to rely a lot on the 2015 tape when you evaluate him because he missed some time in 2016.”

Wheaton has the speed to be a deep play threat, but until he and Trubisky can link up for some big chunks of yardage, defenses may not respect what he can do. And Wheaton knows for Loggains to call for some of those deep shots, he needs to prove he can execute those plays. 

“We gotta keep attacking,” Wheaton said. “We gotta build confidence in them (coaches) upstairs to continue to attack. And that comes here, on the practice field every day, in the meeting room, watching film, we just gotta continue to grow as individuals and that’ll continue to carry over.” 

If Wheaton (or Inman, or anyone else) can execute some downfield plays, it will greatly help alleviate the pressure at the line of scrimmage faced by Howard, and in turn should lead to a decrease in negative runs for the Bears' offense. 

Tre McBride

McBride is coming off the best game of his career (three catches, 92 yards) and succeeded when he was schemed into open space via stack/bunch formations. He’s a player the Bears liked when they claimed him off waivers after cut-down day in early September but took a little while to assimilate into the offense. He and Trubisky had a good rapport against New Orleans, and McBride said he’s confident that chemistry will continue to grow going forward. 

“It’s reps — not even scripted practice reps, but real, live game reps where you got people flying at you trying to hurt you,” McBride said. “That is what’s going to bring the passing game together as a whole. A lot of it’s going to be done on the fly, and that’s just how it is, the profession that they pay us to do.” 

Kendall Wright

Wright is not only the most established receiver in this group, but he could stand to benefit the most from the addition of Inman, the return of Wheaton and the progress of McBride. It was tough for the Bears to get Wright — who is viewed primarily as a slot receiver — into games without a pair of reliable outside receivers, but if two of the Inman/Wheaton/McBride trio play well, it could lead to Wright being on the field more. That’d be good news for Trubisky, especially on third down, when Wright’s savvy ability to get open past the chains can come in handy. 

Josh Bellamy

Despite not being targeted in over a month, Bellamy plays a key role on special teams and is likely to be active on Sunday and beyond because of it. 

Tanner Gentry

Gentry may be the odd man out and wind up inactive against Green Bay assuming Inman and Wheaton are active. He’s played no fewer than 86 percent of the Bears’ offensive snaps in the three games he was active in October, but only has one catch on three targets in those games. 

As for the non-receivers in the Bears' passing game:

Dion Sims

Sims has missed back-to-back practices this week with an illness, which could put his status for Sunday in jeopardy. He hasn’t been much of a factor in the passing game this year, but did catch a touchdown against Baltimore and might be in line for an uptick in targets without Miller. Sims’ potential absence, though, will be felt mostly in the run game, to the point where coach John Fox floated the possibility an offensive lineman could line up at tight end some on Sunday. 

Daniel Brown

Brown may see the biggest increase in snaps with Miller out, given he best fits the injured tight end’s pass-catching mold. The Bears liked Brown’s pass-catching ability when they added him from the Ravens last year, and he caught 16 passes for 124 yards in six games in 2016. 

Adam Shaheen

While Shaheen hasn’t lived up to the second-round expectations placed on him this year, he can expect to play more than 50 percent of the Bears’ offensive snaps for the first time this year, especially if Sims is inactive Sunday. Even if Brown gets some more targets, Shaheen should too. 

Ben Braunecker

Braunecker contributed on special teams last year and should be in the mix to fill Brown’s role there after being promoted from the practice squad on Tuesday. 

Tarik Cohen

Cohen’s pass game usage declined from September (29 targets, 24 catches, 150 yards, 1 TD) to October (10 targets, four receptions, 89 yards), but the rookie said he doesn’t feel like he’s hit a wall. 

“I feel like I’m good,” Cohen said. “I’m refreshed. The bye week came at a perfect time. But even before the bye week I didn’t necessarily feel like I was getting sluggish or running into any type of wall.”

Opposing defensive coordinators quickly schemed to mute Cohen’s production after his explosive debut, but the Bears still can find ways to get the ball in his hands — like on his 70-yard reception against the Carolina Panthers. 

Jordan Howard

While Howard’s catch percentage is up from last year (58 percent in 2016, 67 percent in 2017), he’s dropped two likely touchdowns against Atlanta in Week 1 and New Orleans in Week 8. The next time one of those throws goes Howard’s way, they’ll need their best offensive player to catch the ball. 

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.