Bears

Bears free-agency analysis: Better does not necessarily mean good

Bears free-agency analysis: Better does not necessarily mean good

This is the last in a series analyzing the Bears' decision-making during the 2017 free-agency period.

From 3/13: Bears free agency analysis: Alshon Jeffery non-deal left an understandable void

From 3/14: Bears free-agency analysis: Offseason OL pattern holds with Tom Compton

From 3/15: Bears free-agency analysis: Ryan Pace overhauls secondary

As the first and second waves of free agency recede, a handful of observations as to the effects the Bears' spate of signings will have on the bigger, 2017 picture, with the overall conclusion that the Bears are better than a year ago, although "better" does not equate to "good," which the Bears need more than a few signings to be.

It would be difficult for the Bears not to emerge from the signing period any worse off than they finished the 2016 season. And while the dozen signings did not carry the splash factor of a handful of others (cornerback Stephon Gilmore to the New England Patriots, defensive lineman Calais Campbell to the Jacksonville Jaguars, wide receiver Alshon Jeffery to the Philadelphia Eagles), at the very least the Bears upgraded themselves, if not as much as they or their fan base might've preferred.

But the reality is that at the positions of need, the Bears got incrementally better over where they were in 2016, like the additions or not.

Quarterback: Mike Glennon for Jay Cutler/Brian Hoyer? Cutler and Hoyer are career mid-level NFL quarterbacks at best. Until Glennon proves something, he's not there yet. The Bears are gambling that he has upside that none of their incumbent options had; until then...       +/-? Minus

Defensive line: The Bears defense suffered when nose tackle Eddie Goldman was down with an ankle injury. Opponents averaged 3.8 yards per carry in the six games Goldman played, 4.8 in the 10 he missed, replaced by chiefly by Will Sutton. Bears signed former New Orleans Saints/Seattle Seahawks nose tackle John Jenkins on Friday. Jenkins or Sutton? +/-? Plus

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Cornerback: Prince Amukamara and Marcus Cooper will not make Chicago forget Charles Tillman anytime soon. And they did not rate on a par with Gilmore, A.J. Bouye or Logan Ryan. But the Bears started Jacoby Glenn, Bryce Callahan, Cre'Von LeBlanc and Johnthan Banks at the corner opposite Tracy Porter. Callahan has upside but the signings are steps up from the 2016 collage. +/-? Plus

Safety: Quintin Demps at 32 is a de facto bridge rather than long-term solution. And with two picks in the first 36, the Bears will be in position to add a top-shelf safety via the draft. In the meantime, Demps or Harold Jones-Quartey? Or Adrian Amos? +/-? Plus

Receiver: Losing Jeffery created a void in the passing offense, taking away a wideout with 304 catches over the past five years. The Bears expect Cam Meredith and Kevin White to provide size on the outside, and went for speed in signings of Markus Wheaton and Kendall Wright, who combined for 387 catches over those same five years. +/-? Minus

Tight end: Zach Miller is the usual known unknown, coming back from IR. The Bears already re-signed Daniel Brown. Logan Paulsen among the NFL's most-penalized tight ends, with more infractions (6) than pass receptions (3), including none over the final eight games. Dion Sims graded out as a better blocker and had 26 receptions, including four games with as many or more as Paulsen had all season. +/-? Plus

Offensve line: The offense changed starting offensive lines five times last season, primarily because of injuries at guard (Kyle Long, Josh Sitton). Tackles Charles Leno and Bobby Massie accounted for a combined 31 of 32 starts, with Mike Adams stepping in at right tackle for one game (New York Gaints). Signing Tom Compton creates competition for Massie in particular, but also puts a proven swing tackle behind the starters. +/-? Plus

Under Center Podcast: What did win over Bengals mean for John Fox and Ryan Pace?

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AP

Under Center Podcast: What did win over Bengals mean for John Fox and Ryan Pace?

JJ Stankevitz and John “Moon” Mullin debate what the Bears’ blowout win in Cincinnati meant for John Fox and Ryan Pace. Plus, how can Mitchell Trubisky and Adam Shaheen grow from how well they played on Sunday?

Listen to the latest episode here:

What was it like to coach against Devin Hester? 'You hold your breath'

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AP

What was it like to coach against Devin Hester? 'You hold your breath'

Jeff Rodgers had to gameplan for Devin Hester twice in his career as a special teams coordinator under John Fox: First, in 2010 with the Carolina Panthers, and second, in 2011 with the Denver Broncos. 

“You're holding your breath,” Rodgers, who’s in his third year as the Bears’ special teams coordinator, said. “There's been nobody like him in my generation.”

Neither of those games were necessarily the most memorable performances by Hester, who set an NFL record with 19 special teams touchdowns (14 on punt returns, five on kickoff returns). But the fact that Rodgers — like every other special teams coordinator from 2006-2016 — had to gameplan for Hester was notable in and of itself. 

“He was really the first guy that you really game-planned for and you saw different people take different approaches,” Rodgers said. “You see people try to punt the ball out of bounds. Well, defenses can combat that with some of the rush scheme so you may have to change that. Saw people try to kick fair catch balls and short because the reality is, if you played Chicago when he was rolling and you came out of the game with a 35 or 36 punt, which isn't great, but against him, you're usually taking that every time. He's as good as it gets.”

In that first meeting, on Oct. 10, 2010 in Charlotte, Rodgers’ strategy was to punt out of bounds or away from Hester to prevent him from fielding anything. 

At first, it didn’t work: Hester ripped off a 50-yard return on the first punt he fielded.

“We tried to punt the ball out of bounds and our punter put the ball about four inches from the sideline,” Rodgers said. “He reached in and got it and shot straight up the sideline.” 

From there, punter Jason Baker largely succeeded in kicking away from Hester, with his next six punts not being fielded or being fair caught. But the downside to that strategy was the Bears frequently received good starting field position — though having drives begin between the 40s was preferable to Hester ripping off a big return to set up a drive beginning in the Panthers’ red zone. 

A year later, Rodgers again had to figure out how to mute Hester’s success with the Denver Broncos. He was more successful in this Dec. 11, 2011 meeting, with Hester returning one kickoff for 25 yards and gaining 36 yards on two punt returns. Hester fair caught four punts, and one went out of bounds.

But Hester still notched returns of 26 and 10 yards despite Denver’s strategy to kick the ball as high as possible. 

“In Denver, we tried to hang it up there,” Rodgers said. “Did a good job on the first couple. Actually the best ball that our punter hit that day, that was the 2011 game, the best ball our punter hit that day with hang time and distance, he kind of circled around, went backwards, sideline, all of a sudden he turned a corner and you're holding your breath. We were able to get him on the ground, but he's a game-changer.”

The game-changing success Hester found as a return specialist should get him into the Pro Football Hall of Fame someday, unless the rather strange stinginess on special teamers in Canton continues. But there’s no doubt in Rodgers’ mind when it comes to how great Hester was — and how maddening it was to scheme against him. 

“I'd say (he) changed the game on both kickoffs and punts,” Rodgers said. “He's the best that's ever done it.”