Bears

After Bears release Antrel Rolle, Matt Slauson, question looms: Who else?

After Bears release Antrel Rolle, Matt Slauson, question looms: Who else?

Just as the draft selections of guard Cody Whitehair heralded the Chicago end for Matt Slauson, and safeties Deon Bush and DeAndre Houston-Carson brought in alternatives to Antrel Rolle – both vets let go sooner rather than later – an obvious question hanging fire right now in the wake of other draft picks and signings is, “Who else?”

One expectation this offseason is that the Bears would make a difficult decision on rush-linebacker Lamarr Houston, who’s due $6 million this year and next and $8 million for 2018. That situation won’t stand as-is.

The final year of Willie Young’s contract calls for $2.5 million this season. That’s only slightly less than the $2.9 million Slauson was due for 2016 and that was rendered expendable by the Whitehair draft selection and the signings of Ted Larsen and Manny Ramirez.

In the Houston-Young cases, the Bears used a No. 1 pick on Leonard Floyd, a Young-type edge rusher. They used a No. 3 pick on Jonathan Bullard, a 290-pound defensive end with size-rush blend that Young doesn’t have. The Bears re-signed Sam Acho, who doesn’t give the Bears what Houston does as an edge rusher, but Houston doesn’t do anything on special teams, the roster entrée for non-starters.

Then there is the matter of Eddie Royal, with an injury speckled 2015 injury resume’ that defines “vulnerable” for player at age 30 and carrying a $4.5 million salary for 2016. What little the Bears did draft-wise on offense included diminutive wideout Danny Braverman in the seventh round.

Teams don’t make roster decisions based on seventh-round picks before the first minicamp. But Braverman, who led all FBS schools in receptions last year, is 5-10, around 180 pounds.

Forget the knee-jerk comparisons to Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman and Wes Welker just because they’re little white guys (and why is it that people grab those instant so-called comparables based on skin color? For another time.)

But NFL slot receivers in the Braverman mold include Seattle’s undrafted Doug Baldwin (5-10, 189, also a Florida native like Braverman); Randall Cobb (5-10) up in Green Bay, a No. 3 slot guy his first three NFL seasons; Jamison Crowder, a true smurf at 5-8 who caught 59 passes for Washington as a rookie.

Braverman does not make Royal roster-surplus the way Whitehair did Slauson, or Bush did Rolle, or Floyd makes Houston or Young (whom the Bears reportedly tried to trade during the draft). And Royal was banged up in part because he was thrust into a starter role by the injuries to Alshon Jeffery and Kevin White.

But numbers on depth charts and salary cap balance sheets force decisions. And the surprise of the offseason would be if the Bears were done making theirs.

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.