Bears hoping to avoid familiar problem as Jay Cutler returns from thumb injury

Bears hoping to avoid familiar problem as Jay Cutler returns from thumb injury

While the trade that brought Jay Cutler from Denver to Chicago was widely celebrated — “Pro Bowl” is a voted-on award, not something won, but at least the Bears were getting a quarterback who’d been to one of those — the thinking inside the organization was guarded.

Cutler was not looked upon as a savior-type quarterback, a Tom Brady-Ben Roethlisberger-Aaron Rodgers type who could lift up a team and pass it to success, sources within personnel said then, and now. He was both a complimentary player and one who needed complimentary players for him and his team to be successful.

That evaluation has persisted, which could be considered concerning as Cutler returns from five games missed with a thumb injury, coming into a team that has lost one starting wideout (Kevin White), has its top nickel receiver down (Eddie Royal) and is unsure whether it will have either or both of its Pro Bowl guards (Kyle Long, Josh Sitton).

Offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains has described his philosophy of the quarterback position, that one of its chief tasks is to have the other 10 members of the huddle performing at their best. That’s difficult enough when Cutler is healthy, even more challenging when multiple other members of the huddle are unknown or missing altogether.

“We’ve got to make sure of the guys around him, who’s going to be playing and who’s not, and make sure that we put Jay in a good position,” Loggains said. “We’ve got to make sure that we protect him and allow him to do some of the things that he does well and I don’t think there are any limitations.

“He has a skill set that allows him to do pretty much whatever we need to do. If it’s move the pocket if it’s drop back, throw quick game, getting empty, whatever that is.”

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Cutler’s skill set has never been an issue, however. More often it was how he focused those skills. Monday night against a Minnesota Vikings defense among the NFL’s best, while Cutler is potentially without so many of those key complimentary players, will challenge his focus.

“Yeah,” he said with a small smile, “coulda picked a different game to come come back, huh?”

Cutler’s improved play of last season grew out of his elimination of errors rather than him suddenly playing spectacularly. In his seven quarters this season, however, the offense turned the football over four times vs. the defense managing just one takeaway.

Not all of the giveaways were Cutler’s doing. But using Loggains’ dictum, the need is for Cutler to enhance what everyone else is doing.

Loggains and then-coordinator Adam Gase went into Cutler’s history, to the point of reaching out to Cutler’s former (failed) coaches to find out any common thread to his mistakes.

“Even when we got here, we went through all his tape,” Loggains said. “We went back far. He and I sat down and watched all of his touchdown passes, all the interceptions, all the fumbles. There were a couple fundamental things we were able to fix.

“When it comes to turnovers, when you tell a guy who is about to go sink a putt, ‘Hey, don’t leave it short’ what’s he going to do? He’s going to leave it short. So we don’t really talk about turnovers. We talk about the fundamentals, making sure that we’re good with our eyes, making sure we keep two hands on the ball in the pocket and work those drills to continue to improve those fundamentals.”

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive backs

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive backs

2017 grade: B-

Level of need: High

Decisions to be made on: Kyle Fuller (free agent), Prince Amukamara (free agent), Marcus Cooper (contract), Sherrick McManis (free agent), Bryce Callahan (restricted free agent), Quintin Demps (contract)

Possible free agent targets: Trumaine Johnson, Malcolm Butler, Bashaud Breeland, E.J. Gaines, Rashaad Melvin, Robert McClain, Darrelle Revis

There’s a wide spectrum of scenarios for the Bears at cornerback, ranging from keeping the status quo to blowing the whole thing up, and everything in between. Safety is far more stable, with Adrian Amos and Eddie Jackson proving to be a reliable pairing, so that’s set for 2018.

Let’s start with one end of that cornerback spectrum: The Bears keep the top of this unit intact. That means, No. 1, retaining Kyle Fuller via the franchise tag and/or a long-term contract. No. 2, it means bringing back Prince Amukamara, who didn’t record an interception and committed a few too many penalties, but otherwise was a fine enough cover corner. No. 3, it means keeping restricted free agent Bryce Callahan as the team’s No. 1 slot corner.

On paper, this doesn’t seem like an altogether bad option. The Bears weren’t spectacular at cornerback in 2017, but the position was a little better than average, which isn’t the worst place to be for a single unit. Couple with solid play from the safeties and the Bears’ defensive backs were overall a decent enough group. Outside of Marcus Cooper -- who is a candidate to be cut for cap savings -- the Bears may not need to make wholesale changes to this group.

That, though, is a rosier look at this unit. The Bears can certainly improve the personnel in it with a healthy amount of cap space and a strong crop of free agent cornerbacks about to hit the market. Keeping Fuller and then signing a top-tier player like Trumaine Johnson or Malcolm Butler would upgrade this group, as would bringing back Fuller and Amukamara but then using a high draft pick on a player like Ohio State’s Denzel Ward.

Unless the Bears sign two big-time cornerbacks -- i.e. Fuller and Johnson, or even a guy like Brashaud Breeland or E.J. Gaines -- it would seem reasonable for them to use a first or second-round pick on a cornerback in an effort to find a longer-term solution at the position. That doesn’t mean the Bears would absolutely have to go that route, especially with other needs at wide receiver, guard and outside linebacker.

But here’s another thought: It’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Bears are able to sign a combination of two top cornerbacks in free agency. With plenty of cap space top-end free agents lacking at wide receiver and outside linebacker/edge rusher, could Pace allocate a good chunk of that money to, say, tagging Fuller and making runs at Johnson, Butler and/or Breeland? 2018 looks to be a good year to be aggressive in the free agent cornerback market, and that could play into the Bears’ strategy well.

Before we finish, we should carve out some space for Amos and Jackson. Pro Football Focus isn’t the only outlet that’s given Amos high marks -- Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 ranked him as the No. 1 free safety in the league, too. Jackson came in at No. 19 in B/R’s strong safety rankings, which is pretty solid for a fourth-round rookie.

But the larger point here isn’t exactly where Amos and Jackson are in outside evaluations -- it’s that, tangibly, the pair played well off each other on a consistent basis last year. Seeing as Amos didn’t enter the Bears’ starting lineup until Week 4 -- after Quintin Demps suffered a season-ending broken forearm against Pittsburgh -- how quickly and successfully he and Jackson meshed was one of the more impressive developments for the Bears’ 2017 defense. Amos needs to make more plays on the ball and Jackson has some things to clean up, but the Bears enter the 2018 league year not needing to address their safety position. That’s a good place to be for a team with other significant needs.

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.