Bears

Adam Gase, not Jimmy Clausen, key to Bears offense vs. Seahawks

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Adam Gase, not Jimmy Clausen, key to Bears offense vs. Seahawks

The intriguing figure in the Bears offense Sunday in Seattle won’t be Jimmy Clausen. It won’t be Kyle Long.

It will be offensive coordinator Adam Gase.

Forget Clausen and the Bears quarterback situation for a moment. The Bears offensive coordinator was given the No. 7 pick of the 2015 NFL Draft (wide receiver Kevin White) to work with, in addition to Jeffery, fifth in the NFL in receiving yards since 2012, and 16th all-time in Bears franchise history for receiving yards and receptions.

Except that White is out indefinitely with a stress fracture and Jeffery didn’t play last week and won't play this week because of a hamstring strain.

[MORE BEARS: Jay Cutler, Alshon Jeffery ruled out vs. Seahawks]

Gase, at the outset of training camp, had four of the five 16-game starting offensive linemen from 2013 back together. Except that the week before the start of the regular season Gase’s two-time Pro Bowl right guard (Long) was moved to right tackle.

And then there is the little matter of Gase preparing for the two-time NFC Champion Seahawks with a backup quarterback.

OK, play those cards. Let’s see whatcha' got.

The preparation for this week arguably has been going on for months, having nothing to do with Clausen. The offensive coordinator spent significant time and effort this offseason tailoring his scheme and plan to what Jay Cutler does — and doesn’t — do well. Gase didn’t shrink his playbook so much as structure his program around simplifying Cutler’s decision-making, never Cutler’s strength — playing to what Cutler does well and playing down what the veteran quarterback doesn’t.

Now Gase is tasked with taking Clausen from one start over the past four-plus seasons into an NFL quarterback capable of going eyeball-to-eyeball with the defense of the Seahawks and not blinking.

[MORE BEARS: Bears fortify DL, sign former Bronco Mitch Unrein]

The plan, as it was with Cutler, is to simplify, since things tend to move faster and more efficiently if excess thinking is kept to a minimum.

“Obviously I can’t make too many plays if I have the ball in my hands,” Clausen said, “so I’ve got to distribute it to the running backs, tight ends, receivers, and just get those guys the ball in space and let them make plays.”

Gase’s plan for Cutler was showing every sign of working, the interceptions against the Green Bay Packers and Arizona Cardinals notwithstanding. Before the pick-six against the Cardinals, Cutler had completed eight straight passes for 120 yards and directed efficient scoring drives of 89 and 80 yards on consecutive possessions.

Over his final five-and-a-half games of 2014, Cutler had a total of one drive as long as 80 yards.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Bears fans!]

Gase didn’t throw or catch any of those eight Cutler passes but he called those plays and developed the game plan that had the Bears with touchdowns on two of their first three possessions — same as Carson Palmer and Arizona.

Without getting into specifics, Gase pointed the thumb rather than the finger as the reason for the failure of the Bears to convert two second-quarter takeaways into more than just two field goals.

“I was more disappointed in the play calling,” Gase said on Thursday. “I thought I did a poor job of putting those guys in a good position. After going back and watching the tape and evaluating that I feel like I could have put Jimmy in some better spots and so that was my biggest criticism was I should have done a better job as far as putting our players in a better position.”

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.