Bears In-Foe: Rams' Gurley & burly


Bears In-Foe: Rams' Gurley & burly

The Bears will face their second potential relocator to Los Angeles in six days. This test will be tougher than Monday night in San Diego.

Out from the shadow of waiting and hoping for their injury-prone, top overall draft pick and franchise quarterback to get on the field, the Rams didn't have Sam Bradford to kick around any more. But the big trade that stole headlines on the opening day of free agency last March has raised questions whether they're much better off with Nick Foles. Jeff Fisher's first three seasons as head coach in  St. Louis started 3-5 and never finished above .500. They're a game better than that at this season's halfway point, but as inconsistent as ever.

An emotional season-opening overtime win over the Seahawks (whom we've since learned aren't as mighty as they've been the past three years) was followed by a loss in Washington. Handing Arizona its first loss of the season in the desert has been followed by sub-par performances at Green Bay and Minnesota sandwiched around easy home wins over lowly Cleveland and San Francisco. The legitimate defense they built via the 2011 through 2014 drafts was supposed to be assisted by the bold gamble they took in selecting Todd Gurley tenth overall last April.  Gurley's paid off, but the Rams are still just 3-3 since his Week Three debut.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!


Sunday marks the exact one-year anniversary of Gurley tearing his left ACL, and his remarkably effective Adrian Peterson-like return included a four-game stretch in which he ran 88 times for 566 yards before Peterson's teammates stacked the box and held him to 89 yards on 24 carries Sunday in Minnesota.

The problem has been Foles and his receiving corps keeping defenses honest enough. The Vikings showed how frightened they were by deciding to take the wind after winning the overtime coin toss. Foles threw for 297 yards in that opening win against the Seahawks, but has yet to surpass 200 yards in a game since. Lightning-quick Tavon Austin is finally being used as, and being, a multi-faceted threat (25 rushes for 207 yards, three touchdowns, and 28 receptions for 300 yards and four scores, plus a punt return TD). Kenny Britt is second in the NFL in  yards per catch (20.7) but has only  15 of them (one touchdown).  Foles is 12-of-31 (448 yards) on throws of 20 or more yards.

This offense is 30th in points, 31st in yards, and 32nd in passing yards and third down percentage (23.8). They've converted just four of their last 37 third-down chances.  Enter Wes Welker, signed Monday after the multi-concussed slot specialist begged and pleaded for some NFL team to keep him from retirement. A roster spot opened for him when Stedman Bailey was caught violating the league's substance abuse policy.

[MORE: Bears see MNF win as 'starting point' for playoff run]

Tight end Jared Cook has never lived up to a better contract than what Martellus Bennett signed with the Bears.  Bennett has 77 more catches since 2013 and is a better blocker.  That's Lance Kendricks' specialty for the Rams, but has been keeping opposing defenses a little more honest the past season and a half.

As general manager Les Snead invested heavily on the defensive line the previous four drafts, he spent his first seven picks this past spring on the offensive side, from Gurley to second- and third-round offensive linemen Rob Havenstein and Jamon Brown (both starting) to go along with slow-developing left tackle Greg Robinson, the second overall pick in 2014.



Aaron Donald last year. Alec Ogletree in 2013. Michael Brockers three years ago. And Robert Quinn in 2011. Throw in eight-year vet Chris Long and ex-Lion Nick Fairley. Those five defensive linemen and linebacker are former first-round picks that are starters or current regulars on the Rams defense. Throw in four second- or third-round defensive backs selected between 2012 and 2014, and you have the meat of a St. Louis defense that is second in sacks (27), sixth in points per game (18.3), fourth against the pass, and fifth in yards and third-down defense in 2015. And oh, yes: they lead the NFL in red zone touchdown defense (35.3 percent). Since the 34-31 opener against Seattle, they've allowed just one touchdown and 24 total points in three games at the Edward Jones Dome. 

Quinn (five sacks) missed Sunday's game with a sore knee, while Long, the starting end on the opposite side who should be facing brother Kyle one-on-one, has missed the past three games, also with a knee problem. Donald, last year's Defensive Rookie of the Year, is exactly halfway to his total from his debut season (nine).

[ALSO: Check out Moon's midseason Bears grades]

James Laurinaitis leads the team with 60 tackles after fellow linebacker Ogletree paced the defense in that category the past two years. Akeem Ayers came over in free agency on the other side after winning a Super Bowl with the Patriots.

After going through three defensive coordinators in three years, Gregg Williams is in his second season in St. Louis after serving his Bounty-Gate suspension, revisited after nickel back LaMarcus Joyner's controversial hit on Teddy Bridgewater. 6'2 corner Trumaine Johnson has half of the defense's six interceptions and will be asked to slow down Alshon Jeffery, while gambler Janoris Jenkins has a pair of picks on the other side. Thumper T.J. McDonald (also sidelined against the Vikes) was Pro Football Focus' top-rated safety in the second half of last season. Rodney McLeod plays Free, while Williams often uses Mark Barron as a blitzer in the sub-package.



After outplaying poor Chargers return and coverage units Monday night, the Bears' punt coverage must be wary of Austin, who took one to the house in the opener. Benny Cunningham and the kick return team actually rank lower (23rd) than Marc Mariani and the Bears. Former high school quarterback Johnny Hekker's pulled off fake punts, so beware. Greg Zuerlein is just 13-of-20 on field goals this season, but nailed a career-high 61-yarder with an assist from the wind last week.

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.

Under Center Podcast: What should the Bears do at guard and cornerback?


Under Center Podcast: What should the Bears do at guard and cornerback?

With the Bears releasing Josh Sitton and having the option to franchise Kyle Fuller, JJ Stankevitz and John “Moon” Mullin look at two of the first big decisions for Ryan Pace’s offseason plan.

Listen to the full episode at this link (iOS users can go here) or in the embedded player below. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.