Bears

Bears catching Packers at best schedule point

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Bears catching Packers at best schedule point

The Green Bay Packers crushed (12-4) most NFL teams they faced in 2014. Notable perhaps – and it is only a soft “perhaps” – is the fact that all four of their defeats came on the road, as did their playoff loss.

Again perhaps notable, the Packers have lost their last three season openers, which (again, “perhaps”) suggests that the best time and place to catch Aaron Rodgers and his Packers is early and away from Lambeau Field.

The Bears will have both of those criteria in their favor Sunday. How much else they have is a matter of conjecture, or as head coach John Fox says, why they play the game.

[MORE BEARS: Bears top three WRs listed as questionable heading into Week 1]

But the best time for a team with all-new schemes and coaches is probably Week 1, where the new guys have film on what they’ll face but the opponent hasn’t really seen the new schemes with new (Bears) personnel.

It’s a little different looking at them. it’s not really the same personnel," Rodgers said. "If you go down the list, there’s not really the guys you’ve played against, with the recent departure of [Tim] Jennings, peanut [Charles Tillman] being gone, and obviously [Brian] Urlacher and [Lance] Briggs. We have [Julius] Peppers now. So there’s really not a whole lot of guys who played over the years. it’s a different staff — coach fox and coach [Vic] Fangio, very well-respected and good football coaches. It will be a different adjustment period, as there was some adjustment when Lovie [Smith] was gone and they brought in Mel [Tucker].

Actually what the Bears do have is defensive coordinator Fangio, who was in that job with the San Francisco when the 49ers put Week 1 losses on the Packers to start 2012 and 2013. What the Bears don’t have, however, are the player components that Fangio had in San Francisco and what the Seattle Seahawks had last year when smacking down the Packers in Seattle in Week 1.

[MORE BEARS: Young Bears plan to 'shock the world' vs. Packers]

“Well, it’s a challenge,” Fangio said. “Obviously they’ve been pretty bad here for two straight years defensively. You know, we’ve made some changes, but that’s an on-going process. It’s not an overnight thing. You just have to keep building week-to-week. You know, not look at the season as whole, but look at it one game at a time, one series at a time, one play at a time and make your strides as you go.

“We’re a new group with a new system, so we’re limited that way. I may have coached against [Rodgers] in those games, but none of these [Bears] players did within this system. So we’re back to ground zero on that.”

“Ground zero” may be an upgrade from the Bears’ general starting point when facing the Packers. It is certainly better than the crater in which the Bears routinely found themselves after Green Bay debacles.

“Every single year is different,” said tight end Martellus Bennett. “Their team is different from what it was. Our team is different from what it was last year. Each matchup, you've got to take it with that year's matchup.

“It's not about who did what the year before or the year before because every single year everyone's getting better or guys are changing -- a different team every single year. So this is our first time going out with this team this year. Any game, this team is totally different. Even though we have some of the same people the team is totally different than what it was.”

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

And the winner is...

Until the Bears establish that they in fact can stay on the field with the Packers, it is impossible to pick the Bears straight-up. Until Jay Cutler establishes that he can both not lose a game and also actually win a game against an elite team, he can’t. There’s a reason (lots of them, actually) why he is a career 1-10 vs. the Packers and has the second-lowest passer rating (67.1) against Green Bay of any team he has faced more than once.

How good the 2015 Bears defense is will be some weeks or months to play out. It cannot be worse than what the Bears put on the field against Green Bay (twice) last year. Only two players (Jared Allen, Shea McClellin) who started for the Bears’ defense the first time the two teams met in 2014 are starting this game, and neither of those is in the same position. That is arguably a positive.

All of which means only what it means on Sunday. The Bears are catching Rodgers early before the Packers have film on them, but film only gets you so far.

Packers 27,  Bears 21

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.