Bears

Bears OL strong in first 2015 time in pads

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Bears OL strong in first 2015 time in pads

BOURBONNAIS – Saturday marked the first day the Bears donned pad in 2015 and the occasion belonged to the linemen, finally able to do some actual hitting of consequence.

Besides the usual one-on-one pass-protection drill, the John Fox group has installed a period of one-on-one run blocking, a session that demands strength in holding a point vs. a force determined to lock onto the defensive player.

Left tackle Jermon Bushrod was held out of practice, coaches’ decision, and right guard Kyle Long, who again produced some tense moments, was pulled from practice with a shoulder bruise. Charles Leno got extended work in Bushrod’s spot with the No. 1 offense, while Vladimir Ducasse filled in for Long, who rolled up to the dining hall for lunch riding a Big Wheel and wearing an ice bag on his shoulder.

“The effort was really good,” Fox said. “It's always sloppy the first day because they haven't done it for a whole year, but the effort was good, the intent was good, and we'll get a little bit better on the technique as we go.”

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The day saw the offensive commit its first turnover in the three camp practices and struggle at times running the football against a strong front-seven. But the offense had its moments:

Offensive line

Matt Slauson, who missed much of last season with a chest injury, was the dominant offensive lineman of the day. Just ask Jeremiah Ratliff. The veteran defensive tackle delivered a huge swinging right-arm club move on his first rep against Slauson. Ratliff might just as well have hit a building; Slauson did not move even a little and earned a well-done from Ratliff after the rep.

Coaches had the two go again. Not good for Ratliff, who came across Slauson’s front with a swim move and was promptly driven back on the defensive side of the football. Defensive end Ego Ferguson also was dominated by Slauson, consistently one of the Bears’ highest-graded offensive linemen before his ’14 chest injury.

Long, taking two snaps at right tackle in the drill, was matched up twice against outside rush linebacker Sam Acho. Not good for Acho, who took some verbal exception to Long’s sustained blocking after winning the rep, then Long followed that with bringing Acho to a complete stop on an outside rush. Acho was not alone having trouble with Long; defensive end Jarvis Jenkins was similarly stood up cold on a rush.

Rookie center Hroniss Grasu found that there are indeed levels of nose tackle at the NFL level. Grasu completely locked up fellow rookie Eddie Goldman on one pass-rush attempt, but a moment later barely made contact with Ratliff when the latter went by him with an NFL-grade swim counter move.

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Acho also was unable to use his speed with any effect against right tackle Jordan Mills. But Mills struggled on the edge against rush linebacker Pernell McPhee in two matchups. Leno also did not fare as well against McPhee, who bull-rushed Leno backwards several steps before losing his footing. Guard Ryan Groy gave a good accounting of himself, matching power with power against Goldman. Goldman also was on the losing end of a matchup against veteran center Will Montgomery.

Quarterback

Jay Cutler had a minor low point when he overthrew a streaking Alshon Jeffery, who was 20 yards behind the nearest defender after the play developed to perfection. “I told him it looked like I threw it,” Fox said, smiling. “And that's not a compliment." Cutler continued his turnover-free streak to three days. But other than the overthrow, Cutler’s connections with Jeffery have been smooth and recalling Cutler throws with Brandon Marshall.

Jimmy Clausen hooked up with Eddie Royal for a deep completion on a seam route after connecting with Josh Bellamy earlier for a highlight touchdown catch. Shane Carden is having the expected rookie struggles, not helped on Saturday by one bad drop and a receiver losing the football for the camp’s first turnover.

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Receivers

The streak had to end eventually and it fell to rookie wideout Ify Umodu from Northern Arizona to commit the first turnover. Umodu caught a Carden pass across the middle but was stripped of the ball by cornerback Terrance Mitchell and the defense recovered. Bellamy came down with the ball on a tumbling catch in the end zone off a Clausen pass against excellent coverage by rookie cornerback Qumain Black from East Central.

Jeffery is running precise routes and getting separation to go along with his size and strength advantages over most defensive backs. Jeffery has worked open in all areas of the secondary and his comfort level with Cutler is particularly evident.

Running backs

The defense bottled up the majority of rush attempts on the first day in full pads. Matt Forte struggled to find space and get turned downfield. Ka’Deem Carey flashed his best burst of camp so far, getting to and through the line for one first-down pickup.

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.