Bears

Bears forced to find alternatives with Jeremiah Ratliff suspension

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Bears forced to find alternatives with Jeremiah Ratliff suspension

The Bears used their 2015 second-round draft choice on Florida State’s Eddie Goldman with the plan for him to be the nose tackle in their new 3-4 scheme eventually and for a long time. They spent their No. 2 pick in 2014 on a nose tackle, Ego Ferguson, albeit for a 4-3 scheme.

Their roles and that of possibly 2014 third-round selection Will Sutton project to expand – right now – in the wake of the three-game suspension handed down to veteran defensive lineman Jeremiah Ratliff on Monday for a violation of the NFL’s substance-abuse policy.

The suspension, which had been expected by both Ratliff and the team, takes the Bears’ acknowledged best defensive line out of games against Green Bay, Arizona and Seattle. Ratliff started at nose tackle the first two preseason games, but as important perhaps, was a fixture in passing situations as the Bears’ top pass-rushing down lineman.

The situation creates a need situation against three of the top teams both on the Bears’ schedule and in the entire NFC. It projects to have a domino effect.

[MORE BEARS: Jeremiah Ratliff suspended three games for violating NFL's drug policy]

“[The suspension] was just a matter of time and just like anyone else, it’ll be next man up,” said Bears head coach John Fox. “We’ll always be looking to improve the roster but for the short term I think we’ll do it from within.”

The “within” starts with Goldman, at 334 pounds, moving into potentially an even more prominent role going into the third preseason game, on the road against the Cincinnati Bengals on Saturday night, and beyond. Goldman played the second-most snaps among Bears defensive linemen in the win over the Indianapolis Colts and was a factor with push in the middle in addition to recovering a fumble caused on a sack by linebacker Sam Acho.

“I think [Goldman] has had a good camp,” Fox said. “He’s still learning, it’s a new level, like going from JV to varsity, kind of like that going from college ball to pro football. But I like what I’ve seen; he’s stout, he’s learning to transition faster, recognizing the run and pass, the difference. He’s a big body that pushes the pocket. I like where he’s headed.”

The Bears also used Ferguson and Sutton at nose tackle at different points this offseason. Ferguson has been a starter at one of the end-tackle positions but was drafted to be a 4-3 nose tackle last season. Sutton, who recorded a sack against the Colts, is considered a quicker option as a rush lineman.

[MORE BEARS: Jobs still at stake as Bears head to third preseason game]

Ratliff is suspended without pay through Week 3 against the Seattle Seahawks on Sept. 27. He is eligible to participate in preseason practices and games in the meantime but cannot be in the team’s building starting the week of the Packers game.

“Just move on,” Ratliff said of his reaction to the situation.

A suspension had been expected since the 10-year NFL veteran pleaded guilty in April to a DWI charge arising out of an accident in January 2013.

“There’s a lot of things I could be doing to help myself, help the team. That’s what I’m going to focus on. This was about what, two, three years ago. That’s all behind me. This is the result of it. Just moving forward from here.”

Ratliff said he would not appeal. Given the fate of appeals like the one by New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady to Commissioner Roger Goodell over the football-inflation matter, appeals currently may not be the best way to go anyway.

“Sometimes it doesn’t help the cause,” Fox said. “It was going to be kind of what it was and we’ll deal with it.”

[NBC SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

Added Ratliff: “We’ve been down this road with the NFL and they don’t care to hear it. So be it.”

Does he think the suspension is fair?

“Honestly, it doesn’t matter what I think, does it?” Ratliff said. “The results are the results. As I’ve said before, it’s all about getting better at this point and time. Keep working, keep being busy and keep staying focused. It’s not going to change anything for me."

Ratliff had been placed on probation in April after pleading guilty to a DWI charge in Texas stemming from a crash that occurred in January 2013.

Ratliff’s probation is for one year. According to the Dallas Morning News, he was arrested after his pickup truck collided with an 18-wheeler. Ratliff's reported blood alcohol level of .16 was twice the legal limit. He's already attended a DWI education class and performed 20 hours of community service.

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.