Bears

Bears defense settling in with impact plays early

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Bears defense settling in with impact plays early

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. – Saturday’s beginning of practices with pads will bring on pass-rush drills and more hitting in run sessions. But the still-forming new 3-4 scheme turned in more than a few impact plays on day two of Training Camp ’15:

Defensive line

Jarvis Jenkins was something of a practice newsmaker with his dust-ups with Jordan Mills and Kyle Long but others made impact plays even without pads and the option of following through on hits. David Bass, a surprise pickup last offseason, would have been registered a sack with a speed move to get around right tackle Michael Ola… . Will Sutton wasn’t sure through the offseason whether he’d be staying at nose tackle or just what, and coaches are getting him out of the middle and into areas where his quickness can come into play...

Jeremiah Ratliff is showing why he was a Pro Bowl’er at nose tackle, getting across the offensive line to stuff a Matt Forte run… . Cornelius Washington, one of the ’14 defensive ends expected to be part of the linebacker mix, has been solid playing one of the end positions, strong against the run and delivering a second simulated sack in two days.

Linebacker

Pernell McPhee continued to stand out, beating right tackle Jordan Mills with a combination pass-rush move with a mix of speed and power. McPhee was in Jay Cutler’s face with a later rush, forcing Cutler to throw off his back foot, which Cutler did with a flair, completing a throw to Alshon Jeffery...

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Lamarr Houston, still coming back from his torn ACL of last season, was able to take some snaps in 7-on-7… . Mason Foster, competing for one of the inside-linebacker spots, flashed through a gap to blow up a running play and earn a high-bump from Will Sutton, who was strong at the point of attack. Foster also was credited with a difficult pass breakup on a Jimmy Clausen throw toward Mark Mariani.

Secondary

Cornerback Alan Ball went head-to-head repeatedly with Alshon Jeffery, winning a couple and forcing Jeffery to make a superb one-handed grab for a completion from Jay Cutler… . Sherrick McManis, making a serious challenge for the starting cornerback spot opposite Kyle Fuller, got a strong break on a Jay Cutler pass but was a split-second late and Martellus Bennett was able to make the catch for a 22-yard gain...

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Tim Jennings was back at practice and getting work in a number of spots. His best opportunity may lie as the No. 3 corner, working in nickel packages, but he’s not sure he likes the job description “nickel back.” “You can call me a ‘cornerback,’” Jennings said, smiling. “With the defense we’ll be running now, it fits well to what I’m trying to do, what they’ll want me to do. Have guys on the outside that contribute well, get the right guys in place. I played a little bit [of nickel] last year, but I’m looking forward to playing more this year.”

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.