Bears In-Foe: Blake Bortles, 'Allen Brothers' trying to help Jaguars gain traction

Bears In-Foe: Blake Bortles, 'Allen Brothers' trying to help Jaguars gain traction

Patience has been at a premium for head coach Gus Bradley with Jaguars owner Shad Khan, and the former Seahawks defensive coordinator should count himself a lucky man, considering a 12-36 record in his first three seasons. But that pressure for better results figures to be ramped up this season with a bumper crop of talent on both sides of the ball for the University of Illinois-schooled owner who made his fortune supplying auto manufacturers with...yes, bumpers.

Last year, Jacksonville was hanging in there at 4-6 before dropping five of its last six contests. They proceeded to drop their first three this season before beating the Colts, which the Bears just lost to, two Sundays ago in London. But despite Bradley's expertise, it was the offense that showed significant growth a year ago, jumping from 31st overall in 2014 to 18th under the direction of former Bears quarterbacks coach (2003) Greg Olson.

After a carousel of nine starting quarterbacks in ten years, 2014 third overall pick Blake Bortles settled in in his sophomore season to throw for over 4,400 yards, and 35 touchdowns opposite 18 interceptions. That sparked the scoring offense to spike by eight points per game, and the aerial attack to leap from 31st to 10th. Through the first four games this season, though, Bortles has plateaued. While his completion percentage has risen slightly to 61.4, his quarterback rating has slipped by nine points, with seven TDs and six picks. While the 6-foot-5, 240-pounder out of Central Florida had a league-leading 72 completions of 20-plus yards a year ago, there have been just seven games in his career he hasn't turned the ball over (most recently against the Colts).

A huge reason for his success? The "Allen Brothers" (duh...not related) - Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns. Both are 6-foot-3. Both arrived, like Bortles, in 2014; Robinson a second-round pick out of Penn State, Hurns an undrafted free agent out of Miami (Fla). Last season, the two combined for 144 receptions for 2,431 yards and 24 touchdowns. Wow. Of Robinson's 80 catches, 31 went for 20 or more yards. So far, a quarter of the way through this season, each is at roughly the same pace as a year ago (Robinson: 21-238, 3 TDs; Hurns: 15-226, 1 TD), meaning the Bears' cornerbacks had better be ready Sunday on the lakefront. Overshadowed is the other wideout the Jags invested a 2014 second-round pick in, injury-probe Marquise Lee. Former Broncos tight end Julius Thomas got a rich deal two offseasons ago, but settled for 46 receptions last year, with 11 this so far this year, but he's never played a full season. He thinks he'll be ready for the Bears after sitting out the game in London with an elbow injury. The first-round pick from ten years ago, Marcedes Lewis, starts as well in two-tight end sets.

[RELATED: Bears In-Foe: Jags 'D' making small steps after big paydays]

2015 second-rounder T.J. Yeldon had groin and foot injuries his rookie year (740 yards rushing, 36 receptions) and is averaging only 3.2 yards a carry in a rushing offense averaging just 55 yards a game until he gained 97 yards on 18 carries against Indianapolis. Amidst all the Jags' defensive free agent investments, they also signed Pro Bowler and last year's sixth-leading rusher, Chris Ivory, away from a Jets team that had its eyes on Matt Forte. But Ivory was hospitalized suddenly the morning of the season opener, and the reason has been kept under wraps. That sidelined him the first two games, and as he's tried to get back to full strength, he's carried just 20 times for only 43 yards.

That's behind a rather ordinary offensive line that invested 2014 and 2015 third-round picks on the interior (center Brandon Lindner and guard A.J. Cann). But 2013 second overall pick Luke Joeckel had been a disappointment, being moved from tackle to guard. And after not being offered a fifth-year tender, sustained a season-ending left knee injury in London involving two ligaments and a meniscus. Former Bear Patrick Omameh could slide into that position. The tackles are offseason free agent signees the last two years: Kelvin Beachum (Steelers) and Jeremy Parnell (Cowboys). As a unit, the line has allowed 61 and 51 sacks the last two years, respectively, with a dozen so far this season.

So far on third down, the Jaguars rank last in the league (28.3 percent).

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Medium

Decisions to be made on: Mitch Unrein (free agent), John Jenkins (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: Jared Crick, Frostee Rucker, Dominique Easley

This unit was consistently the Bears’ best in 2017, with Akiem Hicks playing at a Pro Bowl level (don’t let his exclusion from the game fool you on that) and Eddie Goldman putting together a rock-solid, healthy year. 

Hicks signed a four-year contract extension just before the season began and rewarded the Bears with a dominant year, racking up 8 ½ sacks and 15 tackles for a loss. Goldman played in and started 15 games and was a key reason why the Bears limited opposing rushers to four yards per carry, tied for the 10th-best average in the league. 

But while the Bears’ defensive line was certainly good, it wasn’t as good as it could’ve been. These words from Vic Fangio ring true for Hicks and Goldman:

“I think they all have a lot more to give to us than we’ve seen,” Fangio said. “And it’s our job to get them to improve and become even better players. That will be more important to us than anybody we can acquire between now and whenever our first game is. So, and I know it’s always sexy to talk between now and the first game, you know, who are you going to draft, who’s in free agency, etc., but we’ve got to get our so-called good players playing even better. And that will be critical.”

Hicks will enter Year 3 in Fangio’s scheme, while 2018 will be Goldman’s fourth. It’ll also be a critical year for Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris, who’ve flashed potential at times but haven’t been able to turn that into consistent success on the field. 

And that’s where we begin to look ahead to free agency and the draft. Is the Bears’ evaluation of Bullard -- their 2016 third-round pick -- positive enough to hand him a bigger role in 2018? That’s question No. 1 to answer, with No. 2 then being if the team should try to re-sign Mitch Unrein. 

It may be a bit risky to move forward with Bullard, given how popular Unrein was among the Bears’ defensive coaching staff. 

“He’s one of the glue guys on the defense and the team,” Fangio said last November. “Every team needs a few of those guys who are going to do everything right, full speed, hard and tough all the time, and that’s Mitch.”

Defensive line coach Jay Rodgers offered this up about Unrein back in October: “He allows those guys to play fast,” with “those guys” being Hicks and Goldman. 

Statistically, the 30-year-old Unrein doesn’t  jump off the page, but he did record a career high 2 ½ sacks in 2017. Perhaps there would be some benefits to continuity in the Bears’ base 3-4 defensive line.

Worth noting too is this position isn’t a huge need, given Unrein usually played between 40 and 55 percent of the Bears’ defensive snaps on a per-game basis last year. Keeping Unrein for a relatively low cap hit would make some sense, as opposed to testing free agency to replace him.

Jared Crick is coming off back surgery and an ineffective 2016; Dominique Easley is coming off his third torn ACL this decade; Frostee Rucker is in his mid-30’s. The Bears could look to pick a 3-4 defensive end in April, but that would be a pretty quick re-draft of the position and would be an indication they don’t think much of Bullard. This seems like a position where keeping the status quo is likely, save maybe for replacing John Jenkins with a different backup behind Goldman. 

2017 Bears position grades: Offensive Line

2017 Bears position grades: Offensive Line

2017 grade: C+

Level of need: Medium

Decisions to be made on: Josh Sitton (contract), Eric Kush (contract), Hroniss Grasu (contract), Bobby Massie (contract), Tom Compton (free agent), Bradley Sowell (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: Andrew Norwell, D.J. Fluker, Justin Pugh, Josh Kline, Jonathan Cooper

How the Bears’ offensive line will shape up in 2018 begins with a decision on which the Bears are already on the clock. The team has until March 9 to pick up Josh Sitton’s 2018 option -- or, to put it another way, they have until March 9 to determine if Sitton was/is/will be good enough to justify keeping him and not netting about $8 million in cap savings, per Spotrac. 

For what it’s worth, Bleacher Report ranked Sitton as the league’s sixth-best guard in 2017. If the Bears’ grades of Sitton match those outside ones, then the team probably won’t cut him -- not destabilizing Mitchell Trubisky’s offensive line would be well worth the money in that case. While Sitton turns 32 in June, cutting him would put a lot of pressure on Kyle Long, who hasn’t been fully healthy since 2016. The Bears are hopeful that Long will be back to full strength after multiple offseason surgeries, but releasing Sitton and then signing/drafting his replacement would be a gamble on Long’s health. 

Sitton’s status is the first part of the Bears’ 2018 offensive line equation. There’s also a decision to be made on Bobby Massie, who Bleacher Report ranked as the NFL’s 14th-best right tackle last year but could be cut for about $5.5 million in cap savings, according to Spotrac. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Bears cut or kept both Sitton and Massie for now, then drafted an offensive lineman in the first round (like Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson or Texas tackle Connor Williams) and released one of them. Or they could keep both through the end of the 2018 season. All those options would make sense on some level.

What wouldn’t seem to make sense is the Bears cutting Sitton or Massie and replacing them with a free agent. This year’s offensive line free agent class, without adding any potential cap casualties to it, isn’t particularly strong. By Bleacher Report’s rankings, the best free agent right tackle is Houston’s Breno Giancomi, who’s 27th in that list -- 13 spots behind Massie. At left tackle, New England’s Nate Solder (No. 22) isn’t rated as highly as Charles Leno (No. 20), who we'll talk about in a bit here. 

The only potential upgrade available via free agency would be Carolina Panthers guard Andrew Norwell (No. 2 in B/R’s rankings), who’s 26 and is in line for a big payday this spring -- but that would seemingly be counter-intuitive to releasing Sitton and then potentially paying more money to a different guard, even if he’s younger and has more long-term upside. The Bears could opt for a cheaper guard in free agency who could have some potential working with respected O-line coach Harry Hiestand -- the Giants’ D.J. Fluker (57th in B/R’s rankings) or Justin Pugh (42nd) fit that mold, as would the Titans’ Josh Kline (37th) or Cowboys’ Jonathan Cooper (38th). Or the Bears could keep Sitton and still sign one of those guys as insurance in case Long and/or Eric Kush, who tore his ACL last training camp, isn’t ready to start the season. 

Tom Compton and Bradley Sowell proved to be serviceable backups last year and could be an option to return, even with a new coaching staff in place. The health of Kush, who was missed as a reliable backup in 2017, will be important in figuring out what the Bears' O-line depth looks like. Hroniss Grasu struggled when he was on the field and missed time due to a hand injury, and despite playing for offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich at Oregon could be on the chopping block before/during training camp. 

We’ll finish here with some thoughts on Leno and Cody Whitehair. Could the Bears upgrade at left tackle and displace Leno to the right side of the offensive line? Possibly, especially if Hiestand believes he can make that move work. But it’d be odd if the Bears shifted Leno off left tackle and then signed someone who’s older and, depending on the evaluator, not even as good as him. 

This is all probably a moot point, since the Bears’ internal evaluation of Leno is what matters here. Leno is 26 and the Bears believe he hasn’t reached his ceiling yet, so more than likely, he’s sticking where he is. At the very least, he’ll enter 2018 with a starting job on the Bears’ offensive line. 

One other offseason objective for Hiestand and the new coaching staff: Keeping Whitehair at the same position. Whitehair’s versatility felt like it worked against him at times last year, with the former regime opting to shift him between guard and center quite a bit from the start of training camp through the early part of the season. That instability seemed to affect Whitehair’s play, as he went through a bizarre patch of snapping issues after moving back to center and struggled to be as consistent as he was in 2016. But Whitehair finished 2017 strong, and keeping him at center for the entirety of 2018 could get him back on track to make his first Pro Bowl.