Bears

Bears changes at NT involve more than drafting Eddie Goldman

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Bears changes at NT involve more than drafting Eddie Goldman

During this year’s Scouting Combine, Bears GM Ryan Pace said that his early assessment of the roster was that the Bears had two players capable of anchoring the middle of the coming 3-4 defense. Ego Ferguson was a stout first-year player, and Jeremiah Ratliff had earned trips to Pro Bowls as a nose tackle.

In keeping with the fluid nature of so many positions, particularly on defense, things have changed. And are changing. It has to do with considerably more than just what transpired in last weekend’s draft.

Most immediately, the Bears used a second-round pick (39th overall) to add Florida State’s Eddie Goldman, a prototypical nose tackle and the biggest player on the Bears’ roster at 335 pounds. Goldman will not be handed the starting job day one but the defensive surprise of the offseason will be if Goldman is not the Week 1 starter.

He fits precisely the template of coach John Fox for a nose tackle in base 3-4.

[MORE: Bears position battles forming along O-line]

“You’re good on defense when you’re good up the middle,” Fox said. “I think we’ve got some good candidates there… a block-eater inside that’s tough and doesn’t get knocked off the ball.”

More interesting, however, is what now becomes of Ferguson and Ratliff. Because neither quite fits the classic mold of 3-4 “block-eater,” for slightly different reasons.

Ratliff, who did not attend last week’s voluntary minicamp sessions, is not expected to wind up at nose tackle after all. He can play the position. But because of his age (34 in August), size (305) and standing as the best pass rusher among the current defensive linemen, Ratliff projects to be at end where his rush skills can be put to maximum use, rather than hunkering down inside with a primary assignment of run stuffing.

Meanwhile, Ferguson has gone from a 4-3 backup nose tackle in 2014 to a 3-4 nose this year, and also has turned up at defensive end as well in the “Where’s Waldo?” shuffling of nearly every defensive lineman into nearly every defensive position. End or tackle?

“Just call me a ‘D-lineman,” Ferguson said, laughing. “That’s the best way.”

[RELATED: Ryan Pace continues scouting department overhaul]

Last year’s Bears coaches told Ferguson before he was drafted that one plan was to use him in part as a “two-technique,” playing head up on a guard instead of shaded to a gap. Ferguson started no games in 2014 as Stephen Paea had a breakout year that earned him a multi-year deal with the Washington Redskins.

But Ferguson has been the object of in-depth discussions and scenarios this offseason.

“We’ve talked about [Ferguson] a lot,” Pace said after the draft. “We project him as really nose and end. He can be both for us. So we don’t have him set at one position right now. He can be a nose or an end. He has position flexibility there, too.”

What becomes significant with Ferguson is his weight loss, to the point of being sub-300 pounds — not the stuff of nose tackles. It is weight loss by design.

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“I feel like this fits me,” Ferguson said. “I lost about 15 pounds, to 298-299, just trying to get a little more pass rushing and being able to run around a little more. I think 295-300 will be about right.

“They want you to be strong and explosive, not just big.”

The combination of Goldman, flanked by Jarvis Jenkins and Ray McDonald in 3-4 base, with a lighter-quicker Ferguson jumping in with Ratliff on sub packages becomes an intriguing prospect in an overall scheme makeover.

“As far as body types, styles, all those things, everybody comes in different shapes and sizes,” Fox said. “And we’ll get a chance to evaluate it.”

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.