Bears

Bears may be able to buck NFLs TE trend

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Bears may be able to buck NFLs TE trend

The New England Patriots accomplishments with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. The New Orleans Saints and Jimmy Graham. What Green Bay has done with Jermichael Finley.

The NFL is replete with success stories built around high-achievement tight ends. The Bears saw their tight-end-as-a-receiving-threat structure broken apart under the Mike Martz regime that sent Greg Olsen to Carolina and brought Brandon Manumaleuna to Chicago, replaced by Matt Spaeth.

The result was a gaping void in the Chicago offense that leaves the Bears behind the NFL curve and in franchise difficulty at a time when myriad other needs require immediate attention.

In fact, the Bears may be in no trouble at all at the position once put on the NFL map by Mike Ditka, for a couple of reasons.

First, coach Lovie Smith has staunchly championed the upside of Kellen Davis (although Davis is an unrestricted free agent, so keeping him would seem an offseason priority) and the positives of Spaeth.

I think if you want to feature Kellen Davis, you can do that, Smith said last weekend at the NFL Scouting Combine. Great size, great in-line blocker, skilled enough of an athlete to be able to move outside and do some things. I really like him.

The eye-rolling that followed Smiths remarks about two tight ends with fewer career catches combined than either Graham or Gronkowski had last season alone is understandable.

But of the seven tight ends among the NFLs top 40 receivers based on catches in 2011 (Gronkowski, Graham, Hernandez, Jason Witten in Dallas, Tony Gonzalez with Atlanta, Dustin Keller with the Jets, Brett Celek in Philadelphia), only the teams of Graham, Gronkowski-Hernandez got further than the first round of the playoffs.

And the simple tight-end logic is that if you dont have a Graham or a Gronkowski, you find some other way to win.

The New York Giants did. Pretty well. Twice.

Over-hyped position?
The infatuation with tight ends may be misplaced or at least over-hyped. When something appears successful, the rush to emulate is usually a stampede, whether on the rosters or in the media.

The Giants won this Super Bowl with Jake Ballard as their lead tight end. The Packers won last years with Finley, but Finley was arguably a wide receiver. (He said so himself, insisting that if the Packers were going to slap a franchise tag on him, it should be the wide receiver one, not the far lower one for tight ends.)

The Saints got a combined 83 receptions out of Jeremy Shockey and David Thomas in their Super Bowl season. But like Finley, more than a little factor there was the nature of the offense as well as four significant wide receivers (Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem, Lance Moore).

The Pittsburgh Steelers got past Arizona in the 2008 Super Bowl with Heath Miller catching 48 on top of 17 byMatt Spaeth. The Steelers beat the Cardinals for that Lombardi Trophy with a tight end collection of Leonard Pope, Ben Patrick and Jerame Tuman, none of whom caught more than 11 passes.

Put another way: The NFC is the ascendant conference right now and you can win the NFC without a tight end stopping by on his way to Canton.
Bears perspective

Looking to the immediate future of the Chicago Bears offense under Mike Tice, there is not likely to be any panic shopping for a tight end. Nor should there be.

Phil Emery stuck gold in Kansas City when the Chiefs picked Tony Moeaki (out of Wheaton Warrenville South) in the third round of the 2010 draft. Moeaki caught 47 passes in 2010 before missing all last season with a torn ACL suffered in preseason. The Bears have two third-rounders this draft if Emery sees another Moeaki.

But Tice built his Minnesota Vikings offense with Scott Linehan (a West Coast descendant) and a tight end in Jim Kleinsasser who was a 272-pound hybrid. Sort of a Manumaleuna with talent.

Tices depth charts listed three tight ends but one was Kleinsasser and the other two were basically just guys. The Bears currently have a possible Kleinsasser in Tyler Clutts, a 260-pound former tight end who can catch and provide escort duty for Matt Forte.

Kleinsassers highest catch total was 46 on a team that was wideout-based with Cris Carter and Randy Moss. With Davis, Spaeth and Clutts, the Bears also have lower-tier options in Kris Adams coming off IR and Andre Smith returning from some time on practice squad.

A Graham or Gronkowski (even an Olsen) in Chicago would be an upgrade. But enough teams are winning without one that any over-reaction toward the position is questionable at best.

And unless Smith was lying about his Kellen Davis thoughts, the Bears dont sound like they consider themselves at the critical stage at tight end.

Bears cut ties with linebacker Jerrell Freeman

Bears cut ties with linebacker Jerrell Freeman

The Bears began their slew of offseason moves by releasing inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.

Freeman, 31, signed a three-year, $12 million deal with the Bears in 2016.

In his first year in Chicago he amassed 110 tackles in 12 games but was suspended four games for PED use. He played in just one game lsat season before suffering a pectoral injury that placed him on IR. He then tested positive again for a performance-enhancing drug, resulting in a 10-game suspension that bleeds over into 2018 for two more games, wherever he winds up.

2017 Bears position grades: Outside Linebacker

2017 Bears position grades: Outside Linebacker

OUTSIDE LINEBACKER

2017 grade: C-

Level of need: High

Decisions to be made on: Willie Young (contract), Pernell McPhee (contract), Sam Acho (free agent), Lamarr Houston (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: DeMarcus Lawrence, Ezekiel Ansah, Adrian Clayborn, Connor Barwin, Kony Ealy

 

Would you believe that no true outside linebacker in this year’s free agent class had more sacks than Lamarr Houston did last year? Houston and the Rams’ Connor Barwin each had five, underscoring how rare it is for an elite edge rusher to make it to free agency.

 

There are a few that, for now, are due to hit the open market. DeMarcus Lawrence racked up 14 ½ sacks with the Dallas Cowboys last year, but played as a defensive end in a 4-3 scheme. The same goes for the Detroit Lions’ Ezekiel Ansah, who had a dozen sacks in 2017. But if either reaches free agency, it’d be a surprise -- again, pass-rushers with that kind of production rarely escape the franchise tag.

 

If Lawrence or Ansah do become available, the Bears would likely be a part of the feeding frenzy to sign either player. Whether they could convince either player that 1) Chicago is a desirable destination and 2) that they’d be just as, if not more, productive in a 3-4 base instead of a 4-3 is a different question.

 

The same goes for Atlanta’s Adrian Clayborn, who had 9 ½ sacks last year (including a ridiculous six-sack game) but played in a 4-3 and may not be looking to leave Atlanta. The Falcons, though, could be in a tricky salary cap situation with defensive lineman Dontari Poe and longtime kicker Matt Bryant both due to hit free agency.

 

Fangio’s scheme is malleable, though, and any of these players would be a fit in it one way or another. Spotrac estimates Lawrence would command an average annual salary of $14 million per year, while Ansah would be slightly lower at $13.2 million. Either way, either of those guys could command the biggest contract Pace has given a defensive player (although the Bears were prepared to give cornerback A.J. Bouye more than the $13.5 million average annual salary that he’s receiving with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

 

Both Willie Young and Pernell McPhee could be released this off-season, too, to free up cap room. Cutting Young would net $4.5 million in cap savings, while a release of McPhee would free up a little over $7 million, according to Spotrac. Of the two, Young may be the more likely guy to stick around, despite coming off a season-ending triceps injury. While he’ll be 33 next September, Young has 9 ½ sacks in the last two year while McPhee has eight (while playing in more games than Young). This may not be an either-or situation, though -- the Bears could very well cut both.

 

Houston is an interesting option to retain after he racked up four sacks in five games after returning to the Bears last December. He’s struggled to stay healthy in his career, though, and the Bears probably wouldn’t re-sign him and count on the 30-year-old to be a starter in 2018, especially considering the uncertain recovery status of Leonard Floyd. Sam Acho could be brought back as a solid depth option, too.

 

The success of this unit, though, will hinge more on Floyd than whatever the Bears are able to do in free agency or the draft. The Bears need their 2016 first-round pick to A) stay healthy and B) improve as an edge rusher after injuries have limited him to 22 games and 11 ½ sacks in his first two seasons. If every team needs three reliable pass-rushers, the Bears will need to pencil in Floyd next to Akiem Hicks (who, for what it’s worth, is more of a run-stuffer, but did total 8 ½ sacks in 2017) and then either a free agent or a draft pick.

 

The most likely route to land that third pass rusher, though, is probably through the draft unless a top talent like Lawrence, Ansah or Clayborn hits free agency -- and then matches with the Bears.