Bears

Bears In-Foe: Tampa (Year) 2 for Lovie Smith

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Bears In-Foe: Tampa (Year) 2 for Lovie Smith

The Bears had visions of crashing the NFC playoff party three weeks ago after their upset win in Green Bay on Thanksgiving brought them to 5-6, with a couple of winnable home games on the docket. 

The Buccaneers had won three of four themselves and had to be thinking the same thing, sitting at 6-6 with a couple of sub-.500 foes next - the Saints at home and the Rams on the road.

Both teams have come up empty since. Both John Fox and Lovie Smith have a lot of young guys who've learned the difficult way that nothing's given, and square off Sunday trying to regain their balance after some rude body blows that punched them out of the post-season. Lovie's roster-gutting and makeover (after his 2-14 debut season by the Bay) is currently a step ahead of Fox's job.

OFFENSE

Jameis Winston spent Wednesday's conference calls with Chicago reporters saying the same things about Smith that his Bears players heaped upon him during his nine seasons here: He wouldn't be where he is now without Lovie's guidance and leadership.

Based on his distraction-, red flag-filled, spectacular career at Florida State, there was the concern in some corners that despite his impressive skill set, Winston just might become Ryan Leaf II to Marcus Mariota's Peyton Manning, circa 1998.  Both have been outstanding, but it's Winston who needs only 317 yards passing to match Manning's rookie passing yards total (which is third all-time, behind Andrew Luck and Cam Newton, his 2012 and 2011 predecessors as the top overall pick). His 363 yards a week ago in St. Louis set a career-high, and after a sluggish first half he put the team on his back and rallied them back in it versus a pretty talented defense, before falling 31-23.

The league's fourth-ranked rushing attack is the perfect complement for Winston. Doug Martin's 1,305 yards is only nine behind Adrian Peterson for the league's top mark and will provide and interesting storyline the final two weeks over who'll win the title. If the Bears did anything last week, it was help Martin's cause by limiting Peterson to 63 yards, though mainly because Teddy Bridgewater was almost perfect. But Charles Sims has come in and provided nearly 900 scrimmage yards, split almost evenly between rushing and receiving.

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They run behind an offensive line that GM Jason Licht needed to rebuild, and invested a pair of second-round picks in immediate starters Donovan Smith (LT) and (RG) Ali Marpet from Division III Hobart. Former Patriots guard Logan Mankins (knee) did not practice Wednesday, so that may be something to watch. Eight-year veteran Gosder Cherilus has anchored the right side on a line that's allowed just 24 sacks, well below the 52 it gave up last season, with help from Winston's legs.

6-foot-5 second-year tight end Austin Sefarian-Jenkins remains erratic (16 catches, 230 yards, 3 touchdowns) and is often bumped from the starting lineup by blocker Luke Stocker.

Another second-year target is doing much better. Mike Evans has already eclipsed 1,000 yards with five 100-yard games (9-157 vs. St. Louis). He and Vincent Jackson (who didn't practice Wednesday due to a knee injury that kept him out of the Rams game) rank fourth and second, respectively, this season in first-down catch percentage. Not good for a Bears team that's allowed opponents to convert 58 percent of third-down chances during this losing streak. Adam Humphries is an undrafted rookie free agent and is starting to evolve as a threat in the slot after six catches for 60 yards last Thursday (26-250 for the season).

DEFENSE

Word is Lovie (and defensive coordinator Les Frazier) are being more aggressive than your normal "Cover 2" because they lack all the necessary pieces to run it. Their 21 takeaways are tied for 13th in the league (-1 turnover ratio). But they certainly have a couple of studs, with the potential for more.

Despite last November's Bears win at Soldier Field, Gerald McCoy absolutely dominated, which isn't unusual. He revealed this week he's been playing with a torn rotator cuff since Week 2, then has also fought through a surgically-repaired broken hand suffered November 29. But his 7.5 sacks is still fourth among defensive tackles this season, and he was just sent to another Pro Bowl. Former Illini Akeem Spence and ex-Bear Henry Melton are in the interior rotation, combining for three sacks. Jacquies Smith is starting to emerge in his second season and third team after being picked up off the waiver wire in September 2014. He's second on the team with seven sacks.

Lavonte David remains a tackling machine at weakside linebacker, with 126 stops. Since entering the league four years ago, he's second in tackles, tackles for loss, and interceptions among linebackers. Rookie fourth-rounder Kwon Alexander started in the middle from Week 1 and was actually keeping up pretty well with David in the tackles tally, until being suspended for PED use a couple of weeks ago. In his absence, veteran ex-Cowboy Bruce Carter (who was the projected starter after signing a four-year free agent deal) moves in, with Danny Lansanah on the strong side.

Smith hasn't been afraid to replace seemingly-established veterans and that's what he's done at cornerback. Alterraun Verner and Johnthan Banks have taken a seat behind Sterling Moore, who couldn't convince cornerback-strapped Dallas to keep him, and undrafted rookie Jude Adjei-Barimah.

It seemed only a matter of time that every Bears fan's favorite whipping boy the last two years, Chris Conte, landed back in Lovieville. He did. He's been the strong-side starter. He's third on the team in tackles, with a pair of interceptions and a pair of forced fumbles, but was limited in Wednesday's practice with a knee injury in St. Louis that looked a whole lot worse than what it turned out to be. His former partner in crime here, Major Wright, backs up at free safety behind Bradley McDougald.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Kevin O'Dea assisted Dave Toub during a stretch in Lovie's Bears tenure and is his man in charge in Tampa. Their punt and kickoff return units rank fifth and 17th with Bobby Rainey having yet to return one all the way. Connor Barth replaced Kyle Brindza a month into the season and has connected on 22 of 26 field goal attempts (3 of 6 from 40 to 49 yards, 3 of 4 from 50-plus yards).

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.