Bears-Dolphins preseason preview: Who’s 'special?'


Bears-Dolphins preseason preview: Who’s 'special?' takes a look at three preview points going into the Bears first preseason game.

The Bears, once a perennial special-teams power, slid down to No. 26 last year (from ninth in 2013) based on the ranking system developed by Dallas Morning News football guru Rick Gosselin. They were solid defending kickoff returns but were the league’s worst at returning punts as the unit under coordinator Joe DeCamillis struggled with patchwork personnel on almost a weekly basis.

[PRESEASON PREVIEW: Is Adam Gase as good as his word?]

This year, starters have been turning up on coverage units in particular as a change in staff is being reflected in what appears to be a commitment to the too-often-overlooked phase of the game.

“I was at a place where we went through three specials teams coaches in five years,” said Bears head coach John Fox. “And when we picked our squad, I don’t know that that was an emphasis.

“Sometimes you don’t pick the fourth best wideout or the fourth best back. It might be the best guy on fourth down [special teams]. Because the special teams coach needs players just like offense and defense does. We keep it fairly simple, very technique oriented. And then make sure we keep guys who are capable of performing the skill set it takes in each phase.”

[PRESEASON PREVIEW: How stout will defensive front be?]

Play on special teams is a tipping point on roster decisions. But it is more than that. New England, Baltimore, Cincinnati and Indianapolis all finished in the Top 7 of the Gosselin rankings.

And in the playoffs.

The switch to a 3-4 means that the final roster will have more linebackers beyond the typical six that the 4-3 Bears kept. That theoretically gives the Bears as many as four backup linebackers available for special teams, for instance.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

The Bears were the league’s worst returning punts last season and have had as many as six players fielding punts and kickoffs during training camp. In-season addition Marc Mariani gave the Bears some burst in kickoff returns (25.5 yd. avg.) but the two return jobs are available for the winning.

“We’re going to scheme our return stuff based on whatever the player does well,” said special-teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers. “That’s still yet to be determined.”

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. 

Bears cut ties with linebacker Jerrell Freeman

Bears cut ties with linebacker Jerrell Freeman

The Bears began their slew of offseason moves by releasing inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.

Freeman, 31, signed a three-year, $12 million deal with the Bears in 2016.

In his first year in Chicago he amassed 110 tackles in 12 games but was suspended four games for PED use. He played in just one game lsat season before suffering a pectoral injury that placed him on IR. He then tested positive again for a performance-enhancing drug, resulting in a 10-game suspension that bleeds over into 2018 for two more games, wherever he winds up.