Bears' offseason rivalry report: Detroit Lions

Bears' offseason rivalry report: Detroit Lions

Now that we're three weeks removed from the NFL draft, and the main moves in free agency are in the books, it's perhaps time to take a step back and check out some of the additions and subtractions from the last time the Bears met the Lions and Packers and Vikings. 

There are numerous sites and odds and articles that say while the Bears will be improved from their 6-10 finish last season, it may not translate into an improved position in the 2016 NFC North standings. At best, they could leap the Lions, but they still aren't on the level of the Packers and Vikings.

What we do know is John Fox and his staff have plenty of new parts to work with, especially on defense, where it's been primarily an offseason of addition, not subtraction. Akeem Hicks and Jonathan Bullard could be new bookends for Eddie Goldman in the base 3-4. There's little argument that Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman will be an upgrade at inside linebacker from last season's carousel of inexperience. They added speed off the edge in top draft pick Leonard Floyd. And while there weren't any splash additions in the secondary via free agency, they've added depth, athleticism (but yes, nothing more than potential) to compete with the incumbent defensive backs that position coach Ed Donatell will try to mold into quick-impact assets, as he did with Vic Fangio in San Francisco.

The questions on offense are a little deeper: Coordinator Adam Gase is gone. So are playmakers Matt Forte and Martellus Bennett. Hopefully part of that will be offset by Kevin White. But can Jeremy Langford and Jordan Howard combine (behind what they hope is an improved offensive line) to provide what Forte did so well for eight seasons? If Zach Miller can remain healthy, that's one less concern. But history shows that's a big "if."

We'll start our three-part series in Motown, where Jim Caldwell was left twisting in the wind as head coach until Bob Quinn was finally named general manager and settled on another chance for Caldwell and his staff.

Detroit Lions

Additions of note: WR Marvin Jones, WR Jeremy Kerley, RB Stevan Ridley, T Taylor Decker (2016 first-round pick, No. 16 overall), C Graham Glasgow (2016 third-round pick, No. 95 overall), G Geoff Schwartz (2016 seventh-round pick, No. 241 overall), DE A'Shawn Robinson (2016 second-round pick, No. 46 overall), DE Wallace Gilberry,  LB Jon Bostic, S Miles Killebrew (2016 fourth-round pick, No. 111 overall)

Subtractions of note: WR Calvin Johnson, RB Joique Bell, G Manny Ramirez, DE Jason Jones, CB Rashean Mathis, S James Ihedigbo, S Isa Abdul-Quddus

Another expected subtraction, though not yet official, is that of their leading tackler, Stephen Tulloch. They've kept him on the roster long enough to give him his bonus, but contractual issues have led him to be a no-show, with his camp saying his days in Detroit are over, and coaches and management mum on the issue.

They will get stud linebacker DeAndre Levy back from injury, and Ihedigbo lost his starting safety spot opposite Glover Quin late last season to Abdul-Quddus, a special teams standout who gave the position an upgrade when he was promoted. Ihedigbo remains a free agent.  Kinnebrew's a hard-hitter and is expected to be given more than an opportunity to win the job versus two free agent backups who were brought in, Rafael Bush and Tavon Wilson.

But this is Ziggy Ansah's defense now, and if Robinson rotates in on the line regularly, with or in place of Haloti Ngata, it may be an interesting watch the next several years since the Bears traded down from a pick they could have used on the Alabama star. Another second-round trade down later, they picked guard Cody Whitehair.

It seems a long shot that Bostic can force out Tahir Whitehead and Josh Bynes to play with Levy at linebacker.

Offensively, Ridley replaces Bell to mix in with sophomore Ameer Abdullah in the Lions' never-ending attempt to establish a running game (ranked an average of 25th the past four seasons). But no one replaces Megatron. It's easily the biggest impact loss within the division (though Bennett and Forte fans might make a 2-for-1 argument). 

So the Lions went out and paid a premium for the biggest free agent wideout in Jones (65 catches, four TD's in Cincinnati), while hoping Kerley can add depth opposite Golden Tate, and 2014 first-rounder Eric Ebron can make an even bigger jump from the step forward he took last year. 

And let's not dismiss Theo Riddick's effectiveness in the passing game (as the Bears can attest). Eighty receptions isn't shabby.

Of course this all revolves around how well Matthew Stafford can be protected, and if that line can help spring the running game. They've invested in LT Riley Reiff, RG Larry Warford, C Travis Swanson, and G Laken Tomlinson over the first three rounds in the past four drafts. 

Reiff's headed into a contract year following a pedestrian first four seasons, and Swanson's been a disappointment. Warford is Pro Bowl-caliber, and while there's still hope 2015 top pick Tomlinson can prove his status, he was bumped from the starting lineup during the season by current Bear Manny Ramirez. 

Thus, three of their top five picks last month were on O-Linemen (Decker, Glasgow, and fifth-round guard Joe Dahl).

Next: Green Bay

The Bears have options but no easy decisions on tagging Kyle Fuller

USA Today

The Bears have options but no easy decisions on tagging Kyle Fuller

The Bears need long-term solutions at cornerback, and have one of the NFL’s most reliable players at that position in 2017 about to hit free agency. But that doesn’t mean Ryan Pace has an easy decision on his hands when it comes to applying the franchise tag on Kyle Fuller. 

Fuller was one of four players with at least 20 passes defended (breakups plus interceptions) in 2017, and also played well in run support. For a guy who not only had his fifth-year option declined last April, but had to play his way onto the Bears’ 53-man roster in training camp, it was an impressive year that should set Fuller up for a sizable payday. 

“(I’m) very proud of Kyle Fuller,” Pace said last month. “He went through some adversity the last couple of years and how he responded this year, his ball production was outstanding. A lot of PBUs. His preparation was outstanding. I think you can tell when a corner is prepared to play. And he can anticipate routes and things of that nature. Just a very professional approach. Very even-keeled approach. I think it started really with the way he attacked the offseason. And he had a good season because of that.”

That adversity Pace alluded to is another factor in the Fuller decision — was he a one-year wonder in 2017, and will the injuries and inconsistencies that plagued him from 2014-2016 return? 

The injuries are harder to predict, though it’s worth noting Fuller re-gained the trust of defensive coordinator Vic Fangio in 2017 after sitting out the entire 2016 season due to a knee issue. The inconsistencies, logically, shouldn’t return as long as Fuller remains as dedicated to film study and preparation in 2018 and beyond.

“(It was) definitely a different kind of season,” Fuller said on locker cleanout day in January. “Definitely feel good about what I was able to do. You always feel like you could do better.”

Fangio, importantly, consistently praised Fuller's play last season — and Fangio rarely entertains empty platitudes in his media sessions. 

"I think he’s come back with purpose," Fangio said in December. "He’s been very mature the whole year with his work ethic and habits and I think he had a mindset to go out and play better than he had in ’15 because you can’t compare it to ’16 and I think he’s achieved that. I just think he’s in a better frame of mind, more competitive. He knows what he wants and he’s got it narrowed down.”

If Fuller’s ceiling is higher than what he did in 2017 — he dropped a handful of interceptions, which stands as an easily-identifiable area of improvement - then perhaps he’d be a bargain with whatever contract he gets. 

But for now, we’re going to focus on the franchise tag. The Bears have the following options:

Place the non-exclusive franchise tag on Fuller. This would allow other teams to sign an offer sheet with another team, but the Bears would have the ability match the offer. If they didn’t, they’d be entitled to receiving two first-round draft picks from the team that signed Fuller. 

Place the exclusive franchise tag on Fuller. This would prohibit Fuller’s representation from seeking offers from other teams, and lock Fuller in to playing for the Bears in 2018 unless the tag were rescinded for some unexpected reason. 

Place the transition tag on Fuller. This would allow the Bears to match any offer sheet signed by Fuller, but they wouldn’t be entitled to compensation if they don’t match it. 

Decline to tag Fuller. This would mean he’d hit the open market once the league’s legal tampering period begins March 12 and free agency officially opens March 14. 

Let’s evaluate these options:

Non-exclusive franchise tag

The dance here would be if Fuller would quickly sign the one-year tag and begin negotiating a long-term deal — the two parties would have until July 16 to do so — or if he’d wait things out until the spring or summer to sign it. The Bears are in a healthy position salary cap-wise, so Fuller wouldn’t necessarily gain leverage by signing the one-year tender to guarantee him somewhere around $15 million (the NFL hasn’t released its official franchise tag figures yet, and won’t do so until sometime in early-to-mid-March. The Bears could afford to pay Fuller that one-year salary and still seek another top-level free agent, as well as other signings. 

It’s unlikely any team would be willing to part with a pair of first-round picks for Fuller, so effectively, this would be an exclusive tag. 

The calculation for Pace is this: Is Fuller really worth somewhere in the range of $15 million? That salary would make him the highest-paid player on the Bears, on an annual average salary basis, ahead of Akiem Hicks ($12 million annually), Kyle Long ($10 million), Charles Leno ($9.25 million), Pernell McPhee ($7.75 million, though he could be cut) and Mitchell Trubisky ($7.258 million — and this doesn’t include Mike Glennon, who all but certainly will be cut). 

In a multi-year deal, Fuller wouldn’t get an average annual value of $15 million — not when A.J. Bouye ($13.5 million) and Stephon Gilmore ($13 million) got less in free agency last year. Spotrac provided the following “market value” estimates for fellow 2018 free agent cornerbacks: $13 million annually for Malcolm Butler, $11 million for Trumaine Johnson, $9.3 million for E.J. Gaines and $6.9 million for Bashaud Breeland. How accurate those numbers are depends on your evaluation of each player — but for what it’s worth, Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 rankings have Fuller (No. 10 corner) as the highest-rated player of that bunch. 

If the Bears couldn’t work out a long-term deal with Fuller, he’d play out 2018 on the franchise tag, leading to Pace facing the same decision — albeit at a higher salary — at this time in 2019. 

Exclusive franchise tag

Fuller may be a good player, but he’s not *so* good that the Bears would want to place the exclusive tag on him. Some team may be willing to give up two first-round picks to sign Le’Veon Bell, but almost certainly not Fuller. 

Transition tag

If the Bears were to place this on Fuller, it would cost them less money in 2018 (it pays the average of the top 10 salaries at a position, instead of top five for the franchise tag) but wouldn’t entitle the Bears to compensation if they declined to match an offer sheet for Fuller. It seems unlikely the Bears would use this, given the defensive coaching staff and front office remain in place and have a strong and thorough evaluation of Fuller. Essentially: The Bears should know by March 6 at the latest if they're in or out on Fuller. If the Bears are going to risk losing Fuller to get him at a lower price, they’ll more likely…

Decline to place the tag

This would mean Fuller would be risked losing to the open market. Butler, Johnson, Gaines and Breeland comprise a solid crop of free agent corners, but that may not prevent Fuller from landing one of the three biggest contracts at his position. If the Bears went this route, they’d likely still try to re-sign Fuller while also putting forth competitive offers (as they did last year for Bouye and Gilmore) for Butler and/or Johnson. 

Letting Fuller hit unfettered free agency could mean the Bears are confident in their ability to sign at least one top cornerback, though that’s a dangerous game to play after Bouye turned down more money from them to sign with the Jacksonville Jaguars a year ago. But perhaps Pace feels more confident this year in his team’s ability to lure top free agents, thanks to consistency in a well-respected defensive staff, a young and energetic head coach, a hopeful franchise quarterback in place and significant improvements to Halas Hall in the works. 

Pace has two weeks to make his call; expect him to use up most of that time to calculate the decision on Fuller. The Bears could opt to go a route that keeps Fuller in Chicago, then re-sign Prince Amukamara (who’s an unrestricted free agent) and Bryce Callahan (who’s a restricted free agent) and keep the top of their cornerback depth chart steady, and then draft a cornerback — either a top one, like Ohio State’s Denzel Ward, or a more developmental one in the middle rounds. Or the Bears could blow up the depth chart, letting Fuller and Amukamara walk and looking to sign and draft players to fill out the position. 

But the decision on Fuller is the first step. What it is will start to bring the Bears’ offseason into focus. 

Unfinished Bears job a 'bitter pill' for John Fox, but the legacy lies beyond just the W-L record


Unfinished Bears job a 'bitter pill' for John Fox, but the legacy lies beyond just the W-L record

When John Fox succeeded Marc Trestman in 2015, neither he nor the Bears were looking at the situation and Fox as any sort of “bridge” hire – a de facto interim coach tasked with winning, but just as importantly, developing and getting a team turned around and headed in a right direction.

The heart of the matter is always winning, but in the overall, the mission statement also includes leaving the place better than you found it. Fox did that, which is very clearly the sentiment upstairs at Halas Hall as the Bears move on from Fox to Matt Nagy.

“It would’ve been nice to see it through,” Fox said to NBC Sports Chicago. “That’s kind of a bitter pill but you sort things out and move forward.

“I do think it’s closer than people think. We inherited a mess... but I felt we were on the brink at the end. I think that [Halas Hall] building is definitely different; they feel it. I do think that it was a positive.”

(Fox is probably not done coaching at some point, but that’s for another time, another story, and anyway, it’s his tale to tell when he feels like it. Or doesn’t.)

One measure of the Bears change effected: Virtually the entire Trestman staff, with the exceptions of receivers coach Mike Groh and linebackers coach Clint Hurtt, was jettisoned along with Trestman. By contrast, Nagy has retained not only virtually the entire Fox defensive staff under coordinator Vic Fangio, but also arguably the single most important non-coordinator offensive coach by virtue of position responsibility – Dave Ragone, the hands-on mentor of quarterback Mitch Trubisky.

Obvious but extremely difficult decisions are coming, as to shedding personnel and contracts – Josh Sitton, Pernell McPhee, Willie Young being among the most difficult because of tangible intangibles that no organization wants to lose.

“Bridge” results

Fox was never intended as a bridge coach but the results point to that function having been served. To exactly what end remains to play out under Nagy and the quarterback whom Ragone and Fox’s handling began developing.

Rick Renteria was one of those “bridge” guys for the Cubs, intended to be part of pulling out of or at least arresting the slide into the Mike Quade-Dale Sveum abyss, and leaving something for Joe Maddon. The late Vince Lombardi effectively served as that, at age 56 and for an unforeseen one-year for a Washington Redskins organization that’d gone 13 years without a winning season before Lombardi’s 1969 and needed a radical reversal. The culture change was realized over the next decade under George Allen and Jack Pardee, much of the success coming with the same players with whom Washington had languished before the culture change.

The Bears were in that state after the two years of Trestman and the three years of GM Phil Emery, certain of whose character-lite veteran player acquisitions (Martellus Bennett, Brandon Marshall) and high-character launchings (Brian Urlacher) had left a palpable pall over Halas Hall. A Fox goal was to eradicate that, which insiders in Lake Forest say privately was accomplished even amid the catastrophic crush of three straight seasons of 10 or more losses, and with injuries at historic levels.

What happens next is in the hands of Nagy and GM Ryan Pace, after a third John Fox franchise turnaround failed to materialize. Or did it? Because much of the core, from Trubisky through the defensive makeover, came on Fox’s watch, like him or not.

“You wish some things would’ve happened differently obviously,” Fox said, “but there was a lot positive that happened.”