Bears

After early hold-backs, Bears strike for two cornerbacks in makeover of secondary

After early hold-backs, Bears strike for two cornerbacks in makeover of secondary

The Bears pulled out of huge-ticket bidding for A.J. Bouye and Stephon Gilmore on day one of free agency in their quest for a starter-grade cornerback, or two. But they didn’t back out too far, coming back to wrap up contracts with a pair of 27-year-old cornerbacks on Saturday: a one-year contract with former New York Giants No. 1 pick Prince Amukamara and following that with a three-year deal for Marcus Cooper, who started 13 games last season for Arizona and led the Cardinals in interceptions last season.

The Bears have now signed six unrestricted free agents from other teams within the last 48 hours: corners Amukamara and Cooper, safety Quintin Demps, quarterback Mike Glennon, tight end Dion Sims and receiver Markus Wheaton. Amukamara and Cooper are both 27 and give the Bears, who have Tracy Porter turning 31 this August, potential longer-term solutions at a position that has been wanting outside of Porter.

With the signing of Demps on Friday, the Bears have done a near full makeover of a secondary that produced historic-low takeaways the past two seasons. The Bears still hold the No. 3 pick of the draft, with elite talent available at both cornerback and safety and the Bears positioning themselves closer to the ideal of being able to secure max-impact, best-available players rather than draft to fill position needs.

The cornerback market exploded early, with Bouye and Gilmore netting five-year packages in excess of $65 million. But the Bears struck back with $7 million guaranteed for 2017 on Amukamara’s deal, and invested on a three-year pact with Cooper, who has had looks at safety as recently as last season.

[RELATED: Bears officially sign Prince Amukamara, re-sign Christian Jones, Johnthan Banks]

Where the Bears did not want to get into the financial blizzard around the early signings, they lured Amukamara with a deal that may have been short term but was at the right level for one season, giving the former No. 1 pick a chance to take his career to the level he’d hoped coming into the NFL as the 19th overall pick of his draft.

“Not a lot of people were agreeing with me,” Amukamara said, laughing, “which is what free agency is all about. It was down to the wire and I was considering a long-term deal with another team but the Bears just made it worth my while.”

Amukamara played with Demps as a member of the Giants’ secondary in 2014, Demps leading the Giants with 4 interceptions. “He knows how to get the ball,” Amukamara said. 

Cooper, 27 and a Pro Bowl alternate last year, was a seventh-round pick by the San Francisco 49ers in 2013 but was cut before the regular season. He went to Kansas City (2013-15) before being traded to Arizona prior to last season. He has played in 56 games, starting 24 after not sticking with the defense under then-coordinator Vic Fangio in San Francisco his first time around.

“I’m a very big fan of Vic. I was with him in San Francisco and also with [Bears secondary coach] Ed Donatell,” Cooper said. “These guys are two geniuses of the game, been around a long time, seen a lot of things and have great defensive schemes. I’m looking for this time to be very productive. We’ve already had familiarity with each other, know how one another thinks, and I’m looking to come in with him and get things done.”

Cornerback and safety have been tough fills in free agency for the Bears at too many times. When free agency in its current form began a quarter-century ago, the Bears marked the moment by signing former San Diego Charger Anthony Blaylock. Blaylock’s career ended after that season due to injuries. Since then, cornerbacks have not typically been hits for the Bears in free agency.

Blaylock. Tom Carter (’97-98). Thomas Smith (’00). Dismal results. Draft hits on Charles Tillman and Nathan Vasher afforded the Bears the luxury of staying out of the market at the pricey position but eventually Vasher faded. The Bears scored with Tim Jennings (’10-14) and Tracy Porter (’15-16).

But Porter turns 31 in August, Kyle Fuller has not developed to the level of his first-round selection, Alan Ball was a failed fix, and lower-tier additions (Bryce Callahan, Jacoby Glenn, Demontre Hurst, Deiondre’ Hall) have not established themselves as starter-grade answers.

Safety has seen myriad failed, one-year tries with Adam Archuleta, Chris Hudson, Ryan Mundy (injured) and most recently Antrel Rolle.

As the Bears begin to form an identity, special teams need to catch up

As the Bears begin to form an identity, special teams need to catch up

If you squint, you can start to see the Bears forming an identity. The offense, at its best, will control the game with Jordan Howard and an offensive line that’s improving with cohesion over the last few weeks. The defense will stop the run, rarely blow assignments and — at least last week — force a few turnovers. 

Those can be the makings of a team that's at least competitive on a week-to-week basis. But they also leave out a critical segment of this group: Special teams. And that unit is obscuring whatever vision of an identity that may be coming into focus. 

Jeff Rodgers’ special teams unit ranks 29th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings, and is below average in all five categories the advanced statistics site tracks: field goals/extra points, kickoffs, kickoff returns, punts and punt returns. 

Had the Bears’ just merely "fine," for lack of a better term, on special teams Sunday, they would’ve controlled a win over the Baltimore Ravens from start to finish. But a 96-yard kickoff return (after the Bears went up 17-3) and a 77-yard punt return (which, after a two-point conversion, tied the game in the fourth quarter) were the Ravens’ only touchdowns of the game; they otherwise managed three field goals. 

Rodgers didn’t find much fault with the way the Bears covered Bobby Rainey’s kickoff return — he would’ve been down at the 23-yard line had the officiating crew ruled that Josh Bellamy got a hand on him as he was tumbling over. But the Bears players on the field (and, it should be said, a number of Ravens) stopped after Rainey hit the turf; he got up and dashed into the end zone for a momentum-shifting score. 

“A lot of our players stopped, all their players stopped,” Rodgers said. “There were players from both teams who came on to the field from the sideline. So there’s a lot of people on that particular play who thought the play was over.”

That return touchdown could be chalked up to an officiating-aided fluke, but Michael Campanaro’s punt return score was inexcusable given the situation of the game (up eight with just under two minutes left). The Bears checked into a max protect formation, and no players were able to wriggle free and get downfield toward Campanaro (Cre’von LeBlanc, who replaced an injured Sherrick McManis, was knocked to the turf). Rodgers said O’Donnell’s booming punt wasn’t the issue — it didn’t need to be directed out of bounds, he said — and instead pointed to a lack of execution by the other 10 players on the field. And not having McManis isn’t an excuse here. 

“We expect everybody to play at the standard at which that position plays,” Rodgers said. “I don’t put that touchdown on one guy getting hurt, but you’d always like to have your best players on the field.”

In isolation, the special teams mistakes the Bears have made this year can be explained — beyond these two returns, Marcus Cooper slowing up before the end zone was baffling, yet sort of fluky. But while the Bears’ arrow is pointing up on defense and, at the least, isn’t pointing down on offense, these special teams mistakes collective form a bad narrative. 

“We take those players, we practice it, and like all mistakes, you admit them and then you fix them,” coach John Fox said, “and then hope to God you don’t do it again.”

Even in a controlled gameplan, Mitchell Trubisky's playmaking ability shines through

Even in a controlled gameplan, Mitchell Trubisky's playmaking ability shines through

While the Bears praised Mitchell Trubisky’s operation of a controlled gameplan in his second NFL start, they’re not losing sight of the special kind of athleticism and playmaking ability the rookie quarterback possesses. Two plays in particular stand out — plays that led to anywhere from a five-to-10 point swing in the game. 

Trubisky’s 18-yard third down completion to Kendall Wright in overtime seems to looks better every time you watch it on film. Trubisky was pressured by two Baltimore Ravens pass rushers, but managed to wriggle free and slide to his right, only to find linebacker C.J. Mosley waiting in front of him. The blend of athleticism and aggressiveness Trubisky displayed in firing high over the middle toward Wright — who made a specular play of his own — is one of the many reasons why the Bears are so excited about him. 

“To be able to throw that ball with both hands in the air and changing your arm angle – that’s why you draft a kid second,” offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said. “Because of things like that.”

But there was another instinctual, athletic play Trubisky made that was just as impressive, and just as important. Cody Whitehair’s snapping issues cropped up at the Bears’ 13-yard line, with the center sailing a snap over Trubisky’s head and toward the end zone. 

If Baltimore recovered that ball, it would’ve tied the game; had Trubisky simply fell on the ball, it very well could’ve led to a safety that would’ve brought the Ravens within five points about a minute after the Bears took a 17-3 lead. Instead, Trubisky picked up the ball, scrambled to his right and threw the ball away — one of six throwaways he had on Sunday. 

“(That) was a critical, critical play at that time,” Loggains said. 

This isn't to say that two plays — only one of which gained yards — are enough to say the Bears' offense is in a good place. It's still a group that necessitates a controlled gameplan, similar to the one they used with Mike Glennon. But the difference: Trubisky can make plays. 

Briefly, on Whitehair

Since we’re on the subject of another poor snap by Whitehair, here’s what Loggains had to say on that topic: 

“He’s gotten better. We still had one too many. The thing and point I want to make with Cody Whitehair is, obviously wants to talk about the snap, but you’re talking about two weeks in a row of completely dominating. We’re an outside zone team that ran 25 snaps of inside zone because of what they were playing. It changed our game plan and Cody’s a big part of that. The last two weeks we’ve been able to move those guys inside. He’s a really good football player. 

“We’re going to battle through these snap issues. We’re cutting them down. He’s more accurate. He did have the one that obviously is unacceptable and no one owns that more than Cody Whitehair does. But he is a really good football player and let’s not lose sight of the 79 snaps where he really helped the team run the football and you can’t do that without a Cody Whitehair at center.”

Loggains has a point here — if Whitehair were struggling in the run game, against the defensive looks the Ravens were showing, the Bears wouldn’t have been able to run the ball 50 times with the kind of success they had. But the poor snaps nonetheless are ugly and have to be eliminated — imagine the uproar over them if Trubisky didn’t make that play in Baltimore. The Bears' offense won't always be good enough to overcome those kind of self-inflicted mistakes. 

Loggains and coach John Fox have praised Whitehair’s attention to the problem, and as long as Hroniss Grasu is still limited with a hand injury, Whitehair will have some time to work through these issues. One final thought: Who would’ve expected, back in May, that Whitehair would have the problems with snaps, and not Trubisky?