Bears faced with stopping Raiders WR Amari Cooper…the one that got away?


Bears faced with stopping Raiders WR Amari Cooper…the one that got away?

As the first round of this year’s draft began, the Bears had a deck of seven players they’d established as being worth the No. 7 pick of the draft. Two of them were wide receivers and the Bears would have been happy with either Amari Cooper from Alabama or West Virginia’s Kevin White.

Whether the Bears would’ve chosen Cooper over White was a moot point. The decision was made for them when the Oakland Raiders grabbed Cooper, the 2014 Fred Biletnikoff winner as the top collegiate receiver, with the fourth-overall pick. The Bears, who also had Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes still on their list, opted for White.

At least for 2015, fate was not kind to the Bears, who lost White, possibly for the season, to a stress fracture. In the meantime, Cooper became a near-instant centerpiece of the Oakland offense with 20 catches through three games, good enough for 15th in the NFL, and his 290 receiving yards rank eighth in the NFL.

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Cooper is the only rookie ranked among the top 50 for catches and receiving yards.

But in an NFL that has seen increasing numbers of wide receivers making huge impacts as rookies, Cooper’s success was close to predictable. He was considered the most NFL-ready receiver in this year’s draft and has played up to his seed.

“He comes from a college program that runs similar to a pro offense so that obviously helps him,” said Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. “I think he's got good football instincts and football savvy, so he knows how to play the game and adjust to things well and he's got good, size, strength, speed and quickness, and you put that all together you've got a great player.”

The Raiders selecting Cooper, the 2014 Biletnikoff winner, in the same year as they were signing Michael Crabtree, the 2008 and 2009 Biletnikoff winner, lined up an element of serendipity: The Oakland wide receivers coach is, naturally, Raiders legend Fred Biletnikoff.

The situation was not lost on the rookie.

“It means a lot to just be in the NFL,” Cooper said. “To play for the team that Fred Biletnikoff played for is just a great feeling to try to continue the legacy.”

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Cooper and Crabtree (No. 10 overall, 2009) give the Raiders two wideouts from top-10’s of their drafts. Crabtree, chosen initially by the San Francisco 49ers, evolved slowly, from 48 catches as a rookie to 55, 72 and a career-best 85 in 2012.

Cooper’s ascent has been faster, with production through three games that projects to 107 for the year. That would break the mark of 101 set by Anquan Boldin with Arizona in 2003.

It would not totally surprise the Raiders.

“A lot of work went into the draft and he was a guy where the tape was good, the production was good, the work ethic was good, the character was good,” said coach Jack Del Rio. “We expected him to be a good football player and he’s had a good start… .

“He had a lot of production in college and when you go to Alabama, you’re exposed to some professional principles in terms of the route tree and all those things. It’s closer to an NFL-looking offense in the things that they do and what’s he’s been exposed to. From that standpoint he was a lot better prepared than a lot of the players who come out.”

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.