Bears

Bears Camping Out 2016: After Matt Forte, Jay Cutler, Bears 'O' need a security blanket

Bears Camping Out 2016: After Matt Forte, Jay Cutler, Bears 'O' need a security blanket

When John Fox was turning the Carolina Panthers into a Super Bowl team and respectable annual contender in the NFC South, he did it not only with a committee approach to his running backs, but also significantly changing them on a near-yearly basis. In his first four Carolina seasons, Fox had four different leading rushers, only one gaining more than 900 yards, for teams that reached a Super Bowl and NFC Championship game over those four years.

The Bears made annual pilgrimages into free agency and the draft looking for Matt Forte understudies, with only marginal success. Forte got his 1,000-or-so yards and the Bears missed the playoffs seven of his eight seasons.

The organization used fourth-round picks in 2014 (Ka’Deem Carey) and 2015 (Jeremy Langford) not only to staff the No. 2 position, but also in hopes of staffing for the future. The 2015 season was perhaps a preview, with Langford rushing for 537 yards and Carey 159, with the two combining for 10 touchdowns rushing and receiving. The Bears ran the ball on nearly 46 percent of their snaps and want to push that rate closer to 50-50 under coordinator Dowell Loggains.

If there is a concern, it is that Carey and Langford averaged just 3.6 yards per carry. The only teams reaching the 2015 playoffs with their top rushers averaging less than 4 yards per carry were Houston and Washington – both blown out at home by wild-card teams.

Offseason adjustments

The Bears stepped away from Forte, making no contract offer to a player who would have been asked to go from a featured back to being one of a committee. Forte said all the right things about not needing to play every play but accepting a reduced role is only occasionally a workable scenario for a running back at age 30 who has played in the range of 90 percent of snaps his entire career.

Accordingly, the organization continued to invest in running backs, investing a fifth-round pick this year in Jordan Howard out of Indiana, a 230-pound power back with some speed (4.59 in the 40) and about 20 pounds more mass than either Carey or Langford.

For his part, Langford made his pass-catching a focus this offseason after some extremely costly drops last year.

The Bears also re-signed diminutive Jacquizz Rodgers, who was lost to IR with an elbow injury in game five but provides an all-around back with roles on special teams.

Without depth at tight end, the offense may move toward a traditional fullback, with veteran Paul Lasike signed to a futures contract this offseason.

Depth-charting

RB   Jeremy Langford/Ka’Deem Carey

The Mix

Jordan Howard

Paul Lasike (FB)

Senories Perry

Jacquizz Rodgers

3 questions camp will begin to answer…

…Do the Bears have a quality third-down back?

Howard gives the offense a short-yardage/goal-line hammer, but none of their current backs have distinguished themselves as a receiver, which was a given with Forte and axiomatic to a successful offense. Langford’s hands were shaky last year and having Jay Cutler’s confidence is critical.

…How safe is Jay Cutler against blitzes?

Carey has worked since his first training camp on pass protection, and Langford did not distinguish himself with consistency, which coaches are demanding in blitz pickup, particularly for whoever aspires to be the third-down back.

…Will the offense tilt back toward a fullback paired with a tailback?

Fullbacks provide a blocking force for tailbacks and allies for offensive linemen. Forte found his escort hammer in Tyler Clutts, now in Dallas and who has made a career of taking care of his ballcarriers. The Bears may want a more physical running game but fullback has been a declining position in the NFL and they are not especially easy to find.

Unfinished Bears job a 'bitter pill' for John Fox, but the legacy lies beyond just the W-L record

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USA TODAY

Unfinished Bears job a 'bitter pill' for John Fox, but the legacy lies beyond just the W-L record

When John Fox succeeded Marc Trestman in 2015, neither he nor the Bears were looking at the situation and Fox as any sort of “bridge” hire – a de facto interim coach tasked with winning, but just as importantly, developing and getting a team turned around and headed in a right direction.

The heart of the matter is always winning, but in the overall, the mission statement also includes leaving the place better than you found it. Fox did that, which is very clearly the sentiment upstairs at Halas Hall as the Bears move on from Fox to Matt Nagy.

“It would’ve been nice to see it through,” Fox said to NBC Sports Chicago. “That’s kind of a bitter pill but you sort things out and move forward.

“I do think it’s closer than people think. We inherited a mess... but I felt we were on the brink at the end. I think that [Halas Hall] building is definitely different; they feel it. I do think that it was a positive.”

(Fox is probably not done coaching at some point, but that’s for another time, another story, and anyway, it’s his tale to tell when he feels like it. Or doesn’t.)

One measure of the Bears change effected: Virtually the entire Trestman staff, with the exceptions of receivers coach Mike Groh and linebackers coach Clint Hurtt, was jettisoned along with Trestman. By contrast, Nagy has retained not only virtually the entire Fox defensive staff under coordinator Vic Fangio, but also arguably the single most important non-coordinator offensive coach by virtue of position responsibility – Dave Ragone, the hands-on mentor of quarterback Mitch Trubisky.

Obvious but extremely difficult decisions are coming, as to shedding personnel and contracts – Josh Sitton, Pernell McPhee, Willie Young being among the most difficult because of tangible intangibles that no organization wants to lose.

“Bridge” results

Fox was never intended as a bridge coach but the results point to that function having been served. To exactly what end remains to play out under Nagy and the quarterback whom Ragone and Fox’s handling began developing.

Rick Renteria was one of those “bridge” guys for the Cubs, intended to be part of pulling out of or at least arresting the slide into the Mike Quade-Dale Sveum abyss, and leaving something for Joe Maddon. The late Vince Lombardi effectively served as that, at age 56 and for an unforeseen one-year for a Washington Redskins organization that’d gone 13 years without a winning season before Lombardi’s 1969 and needed a radical reversal. The culture change was realized over the next decade under George Allen and Jack Pardee, much of the success coming with the same players with whom Washington had languished before the culture change.

The Bears were in that state after the two years of Trestman and the three years of GM Phil Emery, certain of whose character-lite veteran player acquisitions (Martellus Bennett, Brandon Marshall) and high-character launchings (Brian Urlacher) had left a palpable pall over Halas Hall. A Fox goal was to eradicate that, which insiders in Lake Forest say privately was accomplished even amid the catastrophic crush of three straight seasons of 10 or more losses, and with injuries at historic levels.

What happens next is in the hands of Nagy and GM Ryan Pace, after a third John Fox franchise turnaround failed to materialize. Or did it? Because much of the core, from Trubisky through the defensive makeover, came on Fox’s watch, like him or not.

“You wish some things would’ve happened differently obviously,” Fox said, “but there was a lot positive that happened.”

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Medium

Decisions to be made on: Mitch Unrein (free agent), John Jenkins (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: Jared Crick, Frostee Rucker, Dominique Easley

This unit was consistently the Bears’ best in 2017, with Akiem Hicks playing at a Pro Bowl level (don’t let his exclusion from the game fool you on that) and Eddie Goldman putting together a rock-solid, healthy year. 

Hicks signed a four-year contract extension just before the season began and rewarded the Bears with a dominant year, racking up 8 ½ sacks and 15 tackles for a loss. Goldman played in and started 15 games and was a key reason why the Bears limited opposing rushers to four yards per carry, tied for the 10th-best average in the league. 

But while the Bears’ defensive line was certainly good, it wasn’t as good as it could’ve been. These words from Vic Fangio ring true for Hicks and Goldman:

“I think they all have a lot more to give to us than we’ve seen,” Fangio said. “And it’s our job to get them to improve and become even better players. That will be more important to us than anybody we can acquire between now and whenever our first game is. So, and I know it’s always sexy to talk between now and the first game, you know, who are you going to draft, who’s in free agency, etc., but we’ve got to get our so-called good players playing even better. And that will be critical.”

Hicks will enter Year 3 in Fangio’s scheme, while 2018 will be Goldman’s fourth. It’ll also be a critical year for Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris, who’ve flashed potential at times but haven’t been able to turn that into consistent success on the field. 

And that’s where we begin to look ahead to free agency and the draft. Is the Bears’ evaluation of Bullard -- their 2016 third-round pick -- positive enough to hand him a bigger role in 2018? That’s question No. 1 to answer, with No. 2 then being if the team should try to re-sign Mitch Unrein. 

It may be a bit risky to move forward with Bullard, given how popular Unrein was among the Bears’ defensive coaching staff. 

“He’s one of the glue guys on the defense and the team,” Fangio said last November. “Every team needs a few of those guys who are going to do everything right, full speed, hard and tough all the time, and that’s Mitch.”

Defensive line coach Jay Rodgers offered this up about Unrein back in October: “He allows those guys to play fast,” with “those guys” being Hicks and Goldman. 

Statistically, the 30-year-old Unrein doesn’t  jump off the page, but he did record a career high 2 ½ sacks in 2017. Perhaps there would be some benefits to continuity in the Bears’ base 3-4 defensive line.

Worth noting too is this position isn’t a huge need, given Unrein usually played between 40 and 55 percent of the Bears’ defensive snaps on a per-game basis last year. Keeping Unrein for a relatively low cap hit would make some sense, as opposed to testing free agency to replace him.

Jared Crick is coming off back surgery and an ineffective 2016; Dominique Easley is coming off his third torn ACL this decade; Frostee Rucker is in his mid-30’s. The Bears could look to pick a 3-4 defensive end in April, but that would be a pretty quick re-draft of the position and would be an indication they don’t think much of Bullard. This seems like a position where keeping the status quo is likely, save maybe for replacing John Jenkins with a different backup behind Goldman.