Bears

Bears In-foe: Bay window to .500?

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Bears In-foe: Bay window to .500?

Five starters. Less than three years. 

Through injury, free agency, disciplinary issues and retirements, that's all that's left from the opening lineup the 49ers trotted out to begin Super Bowl XLVII against the Baltimore Ravens (who are encountering issues of their own).

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That doesn't even account for the coaching staff. Jim Harbaugh's shelf life ran out with management and many players. Rather than bring in a fresh face like Adam Gase or elevate their impactful defensive coordinator Vic Fangio (whom Harbaugh brought with him from Stanford), they went with the solid, dutiful, yet non-charismatic eight-year defensive line coach, Jim Tomsula, who seemed in over his head from the opening press conference. As the Bears take their second swing in three weeks at getting back to .500 at Soldier Field, they get a squad that's gone 0-5 on the road, but has a win versus Atlanta and two gritty losses to Seattle and Arizona the past two weeks. 

Offense

San Francisco was one of the pit stops on the Gase Head Coach Interview Tour, but as ex-play-caller Greg Roman departed for Buffalo, Tomsula was promoted from within.

Geep Chryst, the former director of research and quality control with the Bears under Mike Ditka and Dave Wannstedt (via UW-Platteville) got his first NFL O.C. gig since 2000 (for the 1-15 San Diego Chargers) with the Niners this year. Previously the quarterbacks coach that couldn't raise Colin Kaepernick's game, Chryst's unit ranks last in points per game and total offense and 30th in passing. But since Kaepernick's season-ending torn labrum a couple of weeks ago, Blaine Gabbert's been better than the former franchise QB. The ex-10th overall pick who washed out in Jacksonville has completed 65 percent of his passes with a 91 rating. He tossed for over 300 yards in Sunday's 19-13 loss to the Cardinals.

Both of Gabbert's touchdown passes in the two losses he's started have gone to tight end Vance McDonald, who has 10 receptions for 136 yards in those games after escaping the shadow of the traded Vernon Davis. Garrett Celek was also being utilized until his ankle injury Sunday, but their third tight end, former Oklahoma quarterback Blake Bell, slid in to grab three passes for 67 yards.

Outside of that group, Gabbert's been targeting brief 2014 Bear Shaun Draughn and Canton contender Anquan Boldin. Draughn's caught 17 passes and run for 146 yards (3.4 ypc) after Carlos Hyde (stress foot fracture), Reggie Bush (knee, IR) and Mike Davis (hand) hit the trainer's room. The 35-year-old Boldin (44-558, two TD's) continues carrying the wide receiver load. Gabbert found him eight times for 93 yards against the Cards, moving him into 13th on the all-time receptions list (past Randy Moss) and within 125 yards of Steve Largent for 17th on the NFL's  career receiving yards list.

Letting road-grater guard Mike Iupati depart in free agency (to division-rival Arizona) and the apparently temporary retirement of tackle Anthony Davis has weakened the offense's front. Four-time Pro Bowl tackle Joe Staley and guard Alex Boone (two of the five Super Bowl starters referenced above) remain, but center-to-right tackle has experienced either growing pains or mediocrity. The Niners have allowed 32 sacks (seventh-most in the league).

Defense

Justin Smith. Aldon Smith. Patrick Willis. Chris Borland. Chris Culliver. Perish Cox. Oh, and Ray McDonald. Those were seven key pieces Fangio had to play with that are now gone, part of a unit that had Top 5 finishes during his four years there with Harbaugh. They come to town ranked 29th in total defense, but had to be doing something good to hold Arizona to just two touchdowns Sunday.

This past offseason marked the second straight year the Niners lost both starting cornerbacks in free agency. Tramaine Brock dropped an easy end zone interception Sunday that would've been his fourth. Opposite corner Kenneth Acker also has three, but was benched for a while versus Arizona. Veteran safety Antoine Bethea is done for the season due to injury, but former Northern Illinois star Jimmie Ward remains the nickel back with the solid Eric Reid remaining a fixture at strong safety while second-round rookie Jaquiski Tartt has moved in for Bethea.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

NoVorro Bowman is as good as ever and a Comeback Player of the Year candidate following his gruesome knee injury two Januarys ago in the NFC title game. His 105 tackles ranks second in the league, while Ahmad Brooks has four sacks and 92 tackles while stepping outside the shadows of his role in the McDonald sexual assault fiasco. And while Willis and Borland retired, the linebacking corps has rebounded courtesy of 2014 fifth rounder Aaron Lynch (6'6, 270) who has 6.5 sacks in following up his six as a rookie. And Michael Wilhoite, an undrafted free agent five years ago from the Division II Washburn Ichabods, is just outside the NFL's Top 10 in tackles.

There's opportunity for the Bears' ground game to get untracked because new coordinator Eric Mangini's front no longer has Justin Smith, or McDonald and now Glenn Dorsey, who tore his ACL on the openings series two weeks ago. That leaves nose tackle Ian Williams working with third-year man Quinton Dial. But highly-touted 17th overall pick Arik Armstead had only seen spot duty before Dorsey's injury.

Special teams

Bruce Ellington is the kickoff and punt returner on units that rank 20th and 17th, respectively. 40-year-old Phil Dawson is still kicking younger than his age, hitting all 18 field goal attempts since his first of the season was blocked. The Niners invested a fifth-round pick in punter Bradley Pinion, but he and his coverage unit rank just 25th in gross average, 20th in net after trading three-time Pro Bowler Andy Lee.

Report: Bears could be a potential landing spot for Dolphins WR Jarvis Landry

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USA TODAY

Report: Bears could be a potential landing spot for Dolphins WR Jarvis Landry

The Bears are looking for an upgrade at wide receiver this offseason, and there may be one available.

The Dolphins used the franchise tag on wide receiver Jarvis Landry on Tuesday, in a move that many believe signals the team's desire to deal him instead of losing him in free agency for nothing.

Landry put up excellent numbers last season, catching 112 passes for 987 yards and nine touchdowns. He led the league in catches and was fourth in touchdown receptions but was just 17th in yards. His yards per reception ranked 108th of 139 qualifying players.

Still, it's no secret he'd be an upgrade for the Bears at wide receiver. Though they'll get Cam Meredith and Kevin White back from injury, the corps largely struggled and didn't give rookie quarterback Mitch Trubisky much help.

Luckily, they may be interested in Landry, per NFL.com's Ian Rapoport.

"There are a couple teams that we should keep an eye on as far as a potential Jarvis Landry landing spot......the Chicago Bears are looking for receviers," he said.

Rapoport also mentioned the Titans, Panthers and Saints as options for Landry. The franchise tag will pay Landry about $16 million before he becomes a free agent in 2019 (or has the franchise tag used on him again).

 

2017 Bears position grades: Management

2017 Bears position grades: Management

2017 grade: D+

For these purposes, “management” encompasses the coaching staff and front office. We don’t need a lengthy re-litigation of the failures of the John Fox era, so briefly: The offense was unimaginative, predictable and unsuccessful; there were too many head-scratching coaching decisions, punctuated by that backfiring challenge flag against Green Bay; the defense was solid but not spectacular; special teams had plenty of highs (three touchdowns) and lows (Marcus Cooper’s gaffe against Pittsburgh, Connor Barth’s missed field goal against Detroit). Fox didn’t win enough games to justify a fourth year, even if he left the Bears in a better place than he found them back in 2015. But that 5-11 record drags the management grade down. 

But the larger thing we’re going to focus on here is the hits and misses for Ryan Pace in the 2017 league year. The hits: 

-- Drafting Mitchell Trubisky. Will this be a long-term success? That’s another question. But Pace hitched his future in Chicago to a quarterback last April. For a franchise that hasn’t had a “franchise” quarterback in ages, what more can you ask for? If Trubisky pans out, nobody should care that Pace traded up one spot -- effectively losing a third-round pick for his conviction in his guy -- to make the move. 

-- Moving quickly to hire Matt Nagy. As with Trubisky, Pace identified his guy and made sure he got him. The Bears hired Nagy just two days after the Kansas City Chiefs’ season ended with that playoff collapse against the Tennessee Titans, and with the Indianapolis Colts -- who eventually got burned by Josh McDaniels -- sniffing around Nagy, Pace made his move to hire a young, energetic, offensive-minded coach to pair with Trubisky. It’s tough to argue with any of the coaching hires made by Nagy, who had a head start on the competition: He retained defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and that entire defensive staff, kept Dave Ragone to be Trubisky’s quarterbacks coach and hired Mark Helfrich to bring some different concepts as offensive coordinator, and hired a special teams coach in Chris Tabor who must’ve been doing something right to survive seven years and a bunch of coaching changes in Cleveland. Like with Trubisky, it’s too early to say if Nagy will or won’t work out long-term, but it stands out that Pace had conviction in getting a franchise quarterback and a head coach who will make or break his tenure in Chicago. 

-- Drafting Tarik Cohen and Eddie Jackson in the fourth round. In Cohen, the Bears found an offensive spark (who was nonetheless under-utilized) who also was a key contributor on special teams. In Jackson, the Bears added a plug-and-play 16-game starter at safety who looks to have some upside after a solid rookie year. Both picks here were a triumph for the Bears’ amateur scouting department: Cohen wasn’t on everyone’s radar (special teams coach Chris Tabor, who previously was with the Browns, said Cohen’s name never came across his desk in Cleveland), while Jackson was coming off a broken leg that prematurely ended a solid career at Alabama. These were assuredly two hits. 

-- Signing Akiem Hicks to a four-year contract extension. The Bears rewarded Hicks a day before the season began; Hicks rewarded them with a Pro Bowl-caliber season (despite him only being a fourth alternate) and was the best player on the team in 2017. 

-- Signing Charles Leno to a four-year contract extension. Leno may not be an elite tackle, and still has some things to clean up in his game, but he’s 26 and his four-year, $37 million contract is the 14th-largest among left tackles (for what it’s worth, Bleacher Report ranked Leno as the 20th best left tackle in the NFL). The Bears believe Leno is still improving, and could turn that contract into a bargain in the future. But this is important to note, too: Players notice when a team rewards one of its own, especially when that guy is a well-respected former seventh-round draft pick. 

-- Signing Mark Sanchez to a one-year deal. This wasn’t a miss, certainly, and while it’s not much of a “hit,” Sanchez was exactly what the Bears wanted: A veteran mentor to Trubisky. While Sanchez was inactive for all 16 games, he and the No. 2 overall pick struck up a good relationship that makes him a candidate to return in 2018 as a true backup. 

-- Releasing Josh Sitton when he did. Whether or not the Bears offensive line is better off in 2018 is a different question, but file cutting Sitton on Feb. 20 -- when the team had until mid-March to make a decision on him -- as one of those things that gets noticed by players around the league. 

-- Announcing the expansion to Halas Hall. The plan has Pace’s fingerprints on it, and should help make the Bears a more attractive destination to free agents in 2018 and beyond. 

And now, for the misses:

-- Signing Mike Glennon. That completely bombed out. While the Bears weren’t hurting for cap space a year ago, and Glennon’s contract essentially was a one-year prove-it deal, his play was so poor that he was benched after only four games -- when the initial plan was for him to start the entire season to give Trubisky time to develop. The wheels came off for Glennon on his seventh pass in Week 2, when after completing his first six he threw the ball right to Tampa Bay’s Kwon Alexander for an interception from which he never seemed to recover. He’ll be cut sometime soon. 

-- Signing Markus Wheaton. After signing a two-year, $11 million deal in the spring, Wheaton struggled to stay healthy, with an appendectomy and finger injury limiting him in training camp and the early part of the season, and then a groin injury knocking out a few weeks in the middle of the season. When Wheaton was healthy, he was ineffective, catching only three of his 17 targets. That places him with eight other players since 1992 who’ve been targeted at least 15 times and and caught fewer than 20 percent of their targets. He’s another one of Pace’s 2017 free agent signings who’s likely to be cut. 

-- Signing Marcus Cooper. The Bears thought they were signing an ascending player who picked off four passes in 2016 and would be a better scheme fit in Chicago than he was in Arizona. Instead, Cooper was a liability when he was on the field and didn’t live up to his three-year, $16 million contract (with $8 million guaranteed). Dropping the ball before he got in the end zone Week 3 against Pittsburgh was a lowlight. The Bears can net $4.5 million in cap savings if he’s cut, per Spotrac. 

-- Signing Dion Sims. Sims isn’t as likely to be cut as Glennon and Wheaton, and even Cooper, but his poor production in the passing game (15 catches, 29 targets, 180 yards, one touchdown) puts a spotlight on how the Bears evaluate how he was as a run blocker in 2017. If that grade was high, the Bears could justify keeping him and not garnering a little more than $5.5 million in cap savings. If it was low, and the Bears are confident in Adam Shaheen’s ability to improve, then Sims could be cut as well. 

-- Signing Quintin Demps. The loss here was mitigated by the strong play of Adrian Amos, but Demps didn’t make much of an impact on the field before his Week 3 injury besides getting plowed over by Falcons tight end Austin Hooper in Week 1. He’d be a decent guy to have back as a reserve given his veteran leadership -- he was a captain in 2017 -- but given how well Amos and Eddie Jackson worked together last year, he’s unlikely to get his starting spot back in 2018. 

-- The wide receiver position as a whole. Kendall Wright led the Bears in receptions and yards, but his numbers would’ve looked a lot better had he been surrounded by better players. The cupboard was bare at this position, and after the worst-case scenario happened -- Cameron Meredith tearing his ACL in August, and Kevin White breaking his collarbone in Week 1 -- the Bears were left with an overmatched and underperforming group of receivers. For Trubisky’s sake, Pace has to work to make sure 2018 isn’t a repeat of 2017. 

-- The kicker position as a whole. Since we’re focusing solely on Pace’s 2017 moves, the decision to release Robbie Gould and replace him with Connor Barth doesn’t fall into this grade. But Barth had struggled with consistency prior to this season, and Roberto Aguayo didn’t provide much competition in his short-lived stint in training camp. The Bears eventually released Barth after he missed a game-tying kick against Detroit in November, then replaced him with a guy in Cairo Santos who was coming off an injury and, as it turned out, wasn’t completely healthy yet. So the Bears then had to move on from Santos and sign Mike Nugent to get them through the rest of the season. Better consistency from this position will be important to find in 2018. 

A couple moves fall into the neither hits nor misses category:

-- Drafting Adam Shaheen. Tight ends rarely make a significant impact as rookies, but Shaheen was only targeted 14 times last year. He did catch three touchdowns and flash some good chemistry with Trubisky before suffering an injury against Cincinnati that wound up ending his season. The gains he makes with a year of experience under his belt and during his first full offseason as a pro will be critical in determining his success in Year 2, and whether or not taking him 45th overall was a hit or a miss. 

-- Signing Prince Amukamara. This was neither good nor bad, with Amukamara playing solidly in coverage but not making enough plays on the ball and committing a few too many penalties. 

Pace still has decisions to make on a few other potential cuts, including right tackle Bobby Massie ($5.584 million cap savings per Spotrac) and linebackers Willie Young ($4.5 million cap savings) and Pernell McPhee ($7.075 million cap savings). Whether or not to place the franchise tag on Kyle Fuller and potentially pay him $15 million in 2018 is another call Pace has to make before the official end of the 2017 league year. 

But for Pace, did the hits out-weigh the misses in 2017? The Glennon signing imploded, but Trubisky showed signs of promise during an average season for a rookie quarterback. Cooper was a bust, but Fuller emerged as a potential long-term option to cover for that. The most glaring misses, then, were at wide receiver and tight end where, after injuries sapped those units of Cameron Meredith and Zach Miller, there weren’t reliable targets for Trubisky. 

We’ll probably need more time to determine if Pace’s “hits” on Trubisky and Nagy truly are “hits.” But if they are, the misses of 2017 -- Glennon, Wheaton, Cooper, etc. -- will be nothing more than amusing footnotes to a successful era of Bears football.