Bears Issue No. 3: How quickly can the defense improve?


Bears Issue No. 3: How quickly can the defense improve?

A significant portion of the Bears’ offseason consisted of a makeover of the defensive coaching staff; a complete change of defensive scheme, and a virtual makeover of the depth chart staffing that defense.

In the flag-football portion of offseason practices – minicamps, OTA’s – the speed was slightly above “install” and was without the pressure of speed, pads and an offense itself looking to establish itself with a new coordinator of its own.

All of those will be part of dialing up the level of both performance and expectations that comes with the first training camp for a staff, scheme and players needing to come together with urgency in the form of games against the Green Bay Packers, Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks in the first three weeks of the season.

Schemes are like diets; if you follow/execute them precisely, they pretty much all work, more or less, some better than others. But the change from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 is less important than how well a vast array of new players come together with a new coaching staff and philosophy.

That is one of the guiding directives of Bears Training Camp 2015.

How fast is realistic?

During his first NFL owners meeting as Bears head coach, John Fox departed ever so slightly from his conservative “under-state and over-produce” mantra to venture an opinion that the Bears would turn around their defensive disasters of the past two seasons “sooner [rather] than later.”

After an offseason of orientation under coordinator Vic Fangio into the first 3-4 scheme run by the Bears, and involving as many as eight potential new starters on defense, the new pass-rush alignments, run fits, pass drops and all the rest now begin in pads and with hitting.

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What Fangio has installed, beyond scheme specifics, is a quality decidedly absent the past two years:

“Creative,” said linebacker Pernell McPhee. “He is very creative. It might not look like it sometimes from some of the schemes, but he’s very aggressive. Every time when I watch practice film, I see things and think, ‘Dang, this guy is really creative.’ Sometimes I’ll wonder why he had me doing something, and then I watch the practice film, and it all plays out.”

“Creative” is more easily said than achieved. Mel Tucker talked about being it last year and it never materialized. Now it’s being attempted with a mix of new players brought in and existing ones who’ve never played Fangio’s scheme.

Nothing is assured

Conclusions are difficult and little more than speculation at this point. It would actually be more difficult NOT to improve than to get better, given the historic low points hit in 2013-14 that saw the Bears reach franchise-worsts in multiple areas despite then-coordinator Mel Tucker opting to remain with a scheme familiar to veteran players schooled in the Lovie Smith system.

Staying with a 4-3 scheme, including GM Phil Emery drafting linemen, linebackers and defensive backs ostensibly for their fits into that scheme, the Bears finished 2014 ranked 31st in points allowed and 30th in yards given up per game. Amazingly perhaps, despite multiple free-agent signings to bolster the unit, those results were even worse than the numbers posted the year before by a defense riddled with injuries to key members (Lance Briggs, Henry Melton, Charles Tillman, D.J. Williams).

[BEARS ISSUE NO. 1: Re-shaping a losing culture]

Notably, Fangio does not foresee problems even with veteran players like Allen or Willie Young making changes, for example.

They’ll be doing things they’re used to doing as an end, except they’re going to be doing it standing up and at the end of the line,” Fangio said. “It’s called a 3-4 defense, but in some ways you can call it a 5-2. We like bigger guys out there. I don’t foresee it being a major problem, although there’s a lot of learning and growing that has to take place.”

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.