Bears

After frustrating 0-3 start, Bears searching for turnaround

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After frustrating 0-3 start, Bears searching for turnaround

For a time, an 0-4 start to a Bears season wasn’t all that noteworthy. One happened in 1997, another in 1998 and, after a recovery year under Dick Jauron in which Gary Crowton’s “razzle-dazzle offense (thank you, Gunther Cunningham) befuddled the Kansas City Chiefs before the Bears went back to losing five of their next seven, in 2000.

Moods of teams can be difficult to read and not always all that meaningful. Teams with good attitudes but no talent don’t necessarily win just because they don’t quit or try hard.

But while the 2015 Bears have fallen short to three 2014 playoff teams with a combined mark of 7-2 through three weeks, “I think there’s a whole lot of football left,” said tight end Martellus Bennett. “And it’s exciting every week to have another chance to get better, improve and see that improvement on tape.”

In coach John Fox’s mind, “I have to remind people that 1 ½ of those three [losses] that we were without our starting quarterback. That’s not an excuse. It’s just a reality. We’re missing some integral parts that hopefully, at some point, we get back. When that is, I don’t know. I don’t put time frames on it.

“But the good news is that we’ve got to look at some other people, some other guys and see how they react in those situations. And hopefully we’re learning some stuff that will help us moving forward… . There's no doubt that those teams [Green Bay, Arizona, Seattle] have beat some pretty good teams along the way and they are good football teams but this league's about winning no matter who you line up against, so we're still in that process."

[MORE: Cutler, Jeffery questionable against Raiders]

Somehow the prospect of the Bears losing their fourth straight in 2015, and ninth straight going back into last season, is spectacularly improbable given that teams with new coaches typically make some sort of first-year improvement. Not necessarily always a lot; there was, after all, a reason why a coaching change happened.

Fox was privately and publicly not viewing his team as a catastrophe-in-waiting when he took the job and even into training camp and the regular season before the problems started. The intriguing part of Sunday’s game with the Oakland Raiders is what plays out at quarterback if Jay Cutler is able to play.

“It's just like when you try to predict before the season, it's hard to do so you're right we've had three opportunities in the regular season and they haven't turned out like we expect,” Fox said. “I think all three of them take on a different personality. I think every opponent takes on its own personality, how you match up as an individual football team vs. your opponent. Obviously disappointed that we're 0-for-3 in those opportunities.

“I don't know that it's all been horrible. I know the result is horrible but hopefully we can grow and learn and get better from it moving forward.”

“Forward” is indeed the focus, vs. too many times in the recent past that “forward” was a source of dread. Not now.

“When you have all the guys on the field, the 53, we’re really going to be the team that we want to be,” Bennett said. “Guys are inching, inching, just not all the way there yet.”

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.