Bears

2015 Grades: Bears coaching staff walks the walk

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2015 Grades: Bears coaching staff walks the walk

The NFL doesn’t grade on a curve, only pass-fail, as in win-loss. The Bears won only one more game under John Fox than they did a year ago in Marc Trestman’s second year. But more than one game’s worth changed inside the Bears because of coaching in 2015.

The Bears offense went into its final game with six of its top seven receivers either on injured reserve or simply injured. And the defense came in with exactly one lineman who’d been on the roster in training camp. Injuries are part of every team’s season but that kind of sick list is something else entirely.

That the Bears won six games may be surprising that it was so few, or so many, given not only the catastrophic injury clusters at certain positions, but also that the coaching staff was doing what it had to do while installing new schemes on offense, defense and special teams. Reshaping the culture of the team was a primary goal and that was clearly accomplished regardless of the win total.

"I think the confidence [John Fox] brings, the excitement he brings, the accountability he brings, the discipline and all those things he started the moment he walked through the door really show up in the everyday work and on Sundays,” said wide receiver/returner Marc Mariani, one of the coaching victories, someone who’d caught five passes in three career seasons before 22 this year. “He's going to tell you, ‘We're going in the right direction. We're doing things right.’ It's exciting to be a part of it. We all see it and it's not just talk. It's what he brings. It won't be long. We're going to be playing a lot longer [than 16 regular-season games] in years to come."

The change effected in the game of quarterback Jay Cutler was the obvious major individual coaching achievement of coordinator Adam Gase. Cutler posted career-best’s in passer rating and other areas, even with three interceptions in the Detroit game.

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One overall in the philosophy of Fox’s was a strong running game, and coordinator Adam Gase put the plan into practice. The 2014 Bears ran the football 25 or more times just five times all season; the 2015 Bears had just two of 16 games in which they did NOT rush at least 25 times.

Gase surprised opponents at times with a two-back personnel grouping. Against Detroit, he unveiled a package with all three of Ka’Deem Carey, Matt Forte and Jeremy Langford on the field at the same time, Forte and Langford split out right as receivers and Carey the lone runner with Jay Cutler in the backfield. Carey popped the play for a 10-yard run. Given the shortage of proven wide receivers, the scheming was a reasonable gambit.

That Gase was able to develop more of Jay Cutler’s game despite the whirlwind of receivers and changing offensive line personnel was an accomplishment of near-epic proportions.

“I think we’ve handled it pretty good,” Gase said. “The hardest thing for us is just practice, trying to get that rhythm, more for down-the-field throws. “We’re close to hooking up on a lot of these but we just don’t quite have the timing we need and that comes through guys being in and out and just not being able to develop that kind of timing.”

The defense under Vic Fangio completed its makeover as a 3-4 despite having limited player resources specifically suited for the scheme as designed. Yet the defense improved from 30th to 14th in yardage allowed and from 31st in points allowed to 20th, even with three return touchdowns given up. The run defense allowed about 125 yards per game vs. the 113 per game last season some of that traces to a 2014 defensive line that underwent few changes due to injury.

“It’s improved,” Fangio said of his unit. “That’s for sure, and really improved from the start of the season throughout.”

Special teams had myriad breakdowns early in the season and too many inexcusable penalties for a group that needed to be more disciplined.

Bears coaching season grade: A

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.