Bears

Bears NFL Draft preview: Linebacker core set, but edge rushers always in demand

Bears NFL Draft preview: Linebacker core set, but edge rushers always in demand

CSNChicago.com Bears Insider John "Moon" Mullin goes position-by-position as the Bears approach the 2017 Draft, taking a look at what the Bears have, what they might need and what draft day and after could have in store. Second in a series.

Bears pre-draft situation

From his arrival in Chicago, general manager Ryan Pace has placed a premium on staffing the 3-4 defensive scheme of coach John Fox and coordinator Vic Fangio with impact linebackers. It began with the signing of rush linebacker Pernell McPhee and carried through the 2016 offseason with the signings of inside linebackers Jerrell Freeman and Danny Trevathan, then augmented by a trade up in the 2016 draft for edge rusher Leonard Floyd and the fourth-round pick of Nick Kwiatkoski.

The result has been a steadily upgrading defensive core. But none of the Bears' top five true linebackers (Willie Young's request to be dubbed a defensive end is here honored) was on the field for 16 games last season. McPhee started and finished the season sidelined with injuries (knee, then labrum), Trevathan was lost to knee surgery, Freeman was suspended four games, Floyd lost time to a calf injury and to concussions, and Kwiatkoski missed the preseason and the first two regular-season games with a hamstring pull early in training camp.

Trevathan tore his right patellar tendon against Tennessee on Nov. 27, and his recovery in time for training camp is problematic. Kwiatkoski, who performed well in place of both Freeman and Trevathan, figures prominently in the overall.

A core ostensibly is in place, though the stated operating premise is that pass rushers always will be added if possible. And the organization is expecting a next-level move by Floyd after seven sacks as a rookie.

"Obviously he's naturally going to continue to get stronger, and more durability I think will come with added strength," Pace said of Floryd. "I think he's going to continue to refine his pass-rush technique. Right now that first year is just kinda raw speed and raw talent. I think as he gets better with his pass-rush moves, using his hands and developing counters, I think the sky's the limit, because he's got everything you need physically and he's got the work ethic to learn all that. So I think dialing in some of his pass-rush traits are going to help a lot."

Rush linebacker Lamarr Houston is under contract and was the Bears' sack leader with eight in 2015. But he spent the 2014 and 2016 seasons on injured reserve with knee injuries, has a starting base-plus-workout price of $6 million for 2017 and turns 30 in June, making him a longshot to be on the roster come opening day.

Projected pre-draft starters

OLB: Pernell McPhee
OLB: Leonard Floyd
ILB: Jerrell Freeman
ILB: Danny Trevathan/Nick Kwiatkoski

Reserves: Sam Acho, Lamarr Houston, Christian Jones, Willie Young

Bears draft priority: Low/moderate

The Bears will always look to grab a pass-rush threat, and various scenarios could somehow conspire to leave Texas A&M's Myles Garrett, until now the consensus No. 1-overall pick, on the board at No. 3. The Bears have arranged a private get-together with Garrett, cast either as a 4-3 defensive end or a 3-4 linebacker, and also had a private meeting with Alabama inside linebacker Reuben Foster. Trevathan's injury history — including during his time in Denver — has to be a concern, and Freeman turns 31 on May 1, making a selection of an elite inside linebacker a distinct possibility if the draft unfolds to leave one on the board for them, though not until Days 2 or 3.

Because of teams scheming to keep the Bears in nickel more than half the time, a hybrid edge rusher in the Floyd/McPhee mold will always be a priority.

Keep an eye on ...

Dylan Donahue, OLB/DE, West Georgia. At 6-foot-3, 248 pounds, he's an impact mid-round prospect with special-teams potential. He got a post-combine invitation to meet with Fox: "At the formal meetings they don't really tell you a lot because they want you to feel awkward and uncomfortable," Donahue told the Billings (MT) Gazette. "The meeting with the Bears was really cool."

Reuben Foster, ILB, Alabama. He was sent home from the Combine after a spat with staff but was Butkus Award winner in 2016. He had rotator cuff surgery that has dropped him on some boards, as have some character concerns.

Myles Garrett, DE/OLB, Texas A&M. With 31 sacks over three college seasons, Garrett is a 3-4 outside fit who would factor into rush packages immediately. The Bears would need the Browns and the 49ers to think quarterback at Nos. 1 and 2. Fox grabbed Von Miller at No. 2 in his first draft as the Broncos' head coach in 2011, so he knows what A&M rushers can do. "(Miller) probably has a little bit more skill than me," Garrett said during the Combine. "He's been doing it for a little bit longer. But I feel like I'm a little bit bigger, little bit stronger, and I'll catch up in that regard to skill."

James Onwualu, OLB, Notre Dame. He's a later-round prospect with special-teams capabilities. He had an excellent bench press (24) and vertical (38) at Notre Dame's pro day, but he's not an every-down candidate at 230 pounds.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: How hot is John Fox's seat?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: How hot is John Fox's seat?

Seth Gruen (Bleacher Report/”Big Ten Unfiltered” podcast), Chris Emma (670TheScore.com) and Matt Zahn (CBS 2) join Kap on the panel. If the Bears lose badly to the Lions, should Sunday be John Fox’s last game? 

Plus Bulls Insider Vincent Goodwill joins the panel to talk Bulls as well as the Niko/Portis cold war.

Listen to the full SportsTalk Live Podcast right here:

Collecting some final thoughts on if Tarik Cohen isn't getting enough snaps for the Bears

Collecting some final thoughts on if Tarik Cohen isn't getting enough snaps for the Bears

John Fox on Friday sought to clarify some comments he made earlier in the week about Tarik Cohen that seemed to follow some spurious logic. Here’s what Fox said on Wednesday when asked if he’d like to see Cohen be more involved in the offensive game plan:

“You’re looking at one game,” Fox said, referencing Cohen only playing 13 of 60 snaps against the Green Bay Packers. “Sometimes the defense dictates who gets the ball. I think from a running standpoint it was a game where we didn’t run the ball very effectively. I think we only ran it 17 times. I believe Jordan Howard, being the fifth leading rusher in the league, probably commanded most of that. I think he had 15 carries. 

“It’s a situation where we’d like to get him more touches, but it just didn’t materialize that well on that day. But I’d remind people that he’s pretty high up there in both punt returns, he’s our leading receiver with 29 catches, so it’s not like we don’t know who he is.”

There were some clear holes to poke in that line of reasoning, since the question wasn’t about Cohen’s touches, but his snap count. Cohen creates matchup problems when he’s on the field for opposing defenses, who can be caught having to double-team him (thus leaving a player uncovered, i.e. Kendall Wright) or matching up a linebacker against him (a positive for the Bears). The ball doesn’t have to be thrown Cohen’s way for his impact to be made, especially if he’s on the field at the same time as Howard. 

“They don’t know who’s getting the ball, really, and they don’t know how to defend it properly,” Howard said. “… It definitely can dictate matchups.”

There are certain scenarios in which the Bears don’t feel comfortable having Cohen on the field, like in third-and-long and two-minute drills, where Benny Cunningham’s veteran experience and pass protection skills are valued. It may be harder to create a mismatch or draw a double team with Cohen against a nickel package. It's easier to justify leaving a 5-foot-6 running back on the sidelines in those situations. 

But if the Bears need Cohen to be their best playmaker, as offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said last month, they need to find a way for him to be on the field more than a shade over one in every five plays. As Fox explained it on Friday, though, it’s more about finding the right spots for Cohen, not allowing opposing defenses to dictate when he’s on the field. 

“We have Tarik Cohen out there, we're talking about touches, not play time, we're talking about touches so if they double or triple cover him odds are the ball is not going to him, in fact we'd probably prefer it didn’t,” Fox said. “So what I meant by dictating where the ball goes, that's more related to touches than it is play time. I just want to make sure I clarify that. So it's not so much that they dictate personnel to you. Now if it's in a nickel defense they have a certain package they run that may create a bad matchup for you, that might dictate what personnel group you have out there not just as it relates to Tarik Cohen but to your offense in general. You don't want to create a bad matchup for your own team. I hope that makes sense.”

There’s another wrinkle here, though, that should be addressed: Loggains said this week that defenses rarely stick to the tendencies they show on film when Cohen is on the field. That’s not only a problem for Cohen, but it’s a problem for Mitchell Trubisky, who hasn’t always had success against defensive looks he hasn’t seen on film before. And if the Bears are trying to minimize the curveballs Trubisky sees, not having Cohen on the field for a high volume of plays would be one way to solve that. 

This is also where the Bears’ lack of offensive weapons factors in. Darren Sproles, who Cohen will inexorably be linked to, didn’t play much as a rookie — but that was on a San Diego Chargers team that had LaDanian Tomlinson, Keenan McCardell and Antonio Gates putting up big numbers. There were other options on that team; the Bears have a productive Howard and a possibly-emerging Dontrelle Inman, but not much else. 

So as long as Cohen receives only a handful of snaps on a team with a paucity of playmakers, this will continue to be a topic of discussion. Though if you’re looking more at the future of the franchise instead of the short-term payoffs, that we’re having a discussion about a fourth-round pick not being used enough is a good thing.