Bears

Bears open 2015 with three straight teams from ’14 playoffs

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Bears open 2015 with three straight teams from ’14 playoffs

The Bears will find out very, very early in their 2015 schedule whether or not they are ready to be included in any discussion of the top teams in the NFL.

The NFL has been good enough to allow its charter franchise to open with two games at home. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the games will be two of the seven the Bears have against 2014 playoff teams: Green Bay, then Arizona. The very bad news is that Week 3 sends the Bears to Seattle for a get-together with the Super Bowl-runner-up Seahawks.

[MORE: Bears' 2015 regular season schedule released]

Meaning: The Bears’ first three opponents had a combined 35-13 record for 2014.

At the end of the schedule, games that the Bears hope will still matter, the Bears have to go on the road for games 14 and 15. Bad news. But at least the games are against two teams with losing 2014 records: Minnesota and Tampa Bay. The ideal would be some momentum-building leading into Game 16 at home against the Detroit Lions.

In between the Bears will be part of history, going to Green Bay for a Thanksgiving Day game that will feature the ceremony marking the retirement of Brett Favre’s uniform No. 4. Going to Green Bay is bad enough, let alone to play a Packers team with a lofty element to the game.

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Of course, the very good news is that the Bears will be there to make absolutely certain that the No. 4 that defeated them 23 of the 36 times they saw it, between Green Bay and Minnesota versions, will finally be in their past.

Duly noted

Pending flex-time changes, which can involve all but two of Bears’ final 12 games, the Bears’ dismal 5-11 finish last year took them largely out of prime time. Last year the Bears were initially ticketed for five prime-time games, not including Thanksgiving at Detroit.

This year the Bears have only Game 3 in Seattle (3:25 p.m.) and their only Monday night game, in San Diego, that are prime time. They again play on Thanksgiving, but this likely has less to do with the Bears than with the Packers and the Favre jersey ceremony.

The prediction problem

The trouble with assessing an NFL team’s schedule is that there is not just one variable — in this case, the Bears — but 14 of them: the Bears and the 13 opponents on the schedule. Even before the upcoming draft, the Bears didn’t stand still this offseason and neither did just about all of their scheduled opponents.

But here’s the one big problem: The Bears have nine of 16 games against teams that had winning records in 2014. The Bears may have been the most under-achieving team in the NFL last year but nine games against good teams make “achieving,” even for a proven turnaround architect like Fox, something of a challenge.

[RELATED: Gruden: Bears should get Cutler replacement in the pipeline]

And of the other seven games, three are against teams that made head-coaching changes, but only one (Oakland, Jack Del Rio) made the change because of true on-field problems. Denver replaced Fox and San Francisco said good-bye to Jim Harbaugh, but neither team was close to doormat status to begin with and have some core talent in place.

The Bears will play three of the only six teams with fewer 2014 victories than their own total of five: Tampa Bay (two), Oakland (three) and Washington (four). They also will play just seven games against teams in the 2014 playoffs: Detroit and Green Bay twice each; Arizona, Denver and Seattle. Four of those seven games (Arizona, Denver, Detroit, Green Bay) will be at home.

With game times after Week 4 subject to flex scheduling:

1. Green Bay Packers (12-4) Sun., Sept. 13, noon

Until the Packers run out of Hall of Fame quarterbacks, beating the NFC North Big Dog remains problematic. Some pieces change — LB A.J. Hawk is gone but WR Randall Cobb is back, along with OT Bryan Bulaga — but not the centerpiece, and Aaron Rodgers is an MVP candidate anytime he puts on a helmet.

Moon’s call: W                                           

2. Arizona Cardinals (11-5) Sun., Sept. 20, noon

The gaffe of failing to secure Bruce Arians is old Bears news, except that Arians brings the Cardinals to Soldier Field off a playoff season and going 21-11 in a very good division. Larry Fitzgerald was deemed still enough at WR to be worth a two-year extension for an Arians offense that restored Carson Palmer’s career but proved it can win almost regardless of quarterback (Palmer, Drew Stanton, Ryan Lindley) short of the playoffs.

Moon’s call: L

3. at Seattle Seahawks (12-4) Sun., Sept. 27, noon

Don’t look for coordinator Adam Gase to call a quick slant with the ball on the one and the game on the line. But the hard part will just be getting into that position against a team that has been to two straight Super Bowls and doesn’t beat itself. The ‘Hawks got RB Marshawn Lynch taken care of, and the trade for New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham takes a good offense up a notch.

Moon’s call: L

4. Oakland Raiders (3-13) Sun., Oct. 4, noon

Jack Del Rio goes from DC in Denver to Raiders head coach, tasked with rebuilding a team that was 32nd in points allowed and 31st in points scored. WR Michael Crabtree from San Francisco should help the latter, giving emerging QB Derek Carr a weapon on the outside.

Moon’s call: W

5. at Kansas City Chiefs (9-7) Sun., Oct. 11, noon

Andy Reid has produced winning seasons in his first two with the Chiefs (20-12 overall) and gotten Alex Smith to another level. Underachieving WR Dwayne Bowe is on to Cleveland, the OL improves with the trade for G Ben Grubbs, and the Chiefs were No. 2 in scoring “D” last season.

Moon’s call: L

6. at Detroit Lions (11-5) Sun., Oct. 18, noon

The Bears hope John Fox can do with their roster what Jim Caldwell did with the Lions’ last year. Caldwell will have some challenges. The Lions traded for Haloti Ngata, which anchors the defensive interior, but that doesn’t entirely make up for losing Ndamukong Suh to Miami and Nick Fairley to St. Louis.

Moon’s call: L

7. BYE WEEK

8. Minnesota Vikings (7-9) Sun., Nov. 1, noon

Adrian Peterson issues (knee, off-field) have loomed over the organization for the past several seasons. In the meantime, the Vikings upgraded at WR by replacing Greg Jennings with Mike Wallace from Miami, and newly acquired safety Taylor Mays played for coach Mike Zimmer in Cincinnati.

Moon’s call: W

9. at San Diego Chargers (9-7) Mon., Nov. 9, 7:30 p.m.

The last time the Bears saw the Chargers, they lost Jay Cutler to a broken wrist after an interception. John Fox should know something about defending the Chargers offense, with or without Philip Rivers, and Fox’s Broncos won six of the last seven vs. San Diego.

Moon’s call: L

10. at St. Louis Rams (6-10) Sun., Nov. 15, noon

Coach Jeff Fisher keeps stockpiling linemen for an already solid defense (Nick Fairley from Detroit), and the Rams become an intriguing team with Nick Foles taking over at quarterback for injury plagued Sam Bradford. The Rams have the No. 10 draft pick and St. Louis has had a run of landing impact players with their top picks (Robert Quinn, Aaron Donald, Tavon Austin, Michael Brockers).

Moon’s call: W

11. Denver Broncos (12-4) Sun., Nov. 22, noon

The Broncos had four playoff seasons under John Fox and turned to John Elway’s old backup, Gary Kubiak, to reach higher under Elway’s overall stewardship. But losing Fox and offensive coordinator Adam Gase to Chicago, OT Orlando Franklin to San Diego, TE Julius Thomas to Jacksonville and DT Terrance Knighton to Washington create first-level gaps.

Moon’s call: W

12. at Green Bay (12-4) Thurs., Nov. 26, Thanksgiving, 7:30 p.m.

Moon’s call: L

13. San Francisco 49ers (8-8) Sun., Dec. 6, noon

Few teams (other than the Bears) took more of a surprising tumble in ’14 than the 49ers and whether their turmoil is settled remains to be seen. New coach Jim Tomsula takes over after Adam Gase opted for Chicago over the Bay Area and Vic Fangio is heading up the Bears defense after a stretch of making the 49ers elite.

Moon’s call: W

14. Washington Redskins (4-12) Sun., Dec. 13, noon

The circus of the Mike Shanahan era ended with his firing after a 3-13 record in 2013 but was only slightly better under Jay Gruden, with the Robert Griffin III situation still not fully resolved, certainly not in approach to playing the QB position or possibly health, either. Washington has won more than six games just once in six years, Griffin’s rookie year (2012) and the only time the team has been in the top 20 in scoring over that period. Ex-Bear Stephen Paea and Terrance Knighton should help the D-line.

Moon’s call: W

15. at Minnesota Vikings (7-9)

Moon’s call: W

16. at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-14)

Whom Lovie Smith elects to start at quarterback will be THE Bucs’ predominant story line, right on through at least the No. 1 overall pick of the draft. Smith rapidly reversed the Bears’ course after a down first season and he has a lot of work to do to fix a team that was among the worst on both offense and defense. The Bucs will win more than 2 games this season. Just not this one.

Moon’s call: W

17. Detroit Lions (11-5) Sun., Jan. 3, noon

Moon’s call: W

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Medium

Decisions to be made on: Mitch Unrein (free agent), John Jenkins (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: Jared Crick, Frostee Rucker, Dominique Easley

This unit was consistently the Bears’ best in 2017, with Akiem Hicks playing at a Pro Bowl level (don’t let his exclusion from the game fool you on that) and Eddie Goldman putting together a rock-solid, healthy year. 

Hicks signed a four-year contract extension just before the season began and rewarded the Bears with a dominant year, racking up 8 ½ sacks and 15 tackles for a loss. Goldman played in and started 15 games and was a key reason why the Bears limited opposing rushers to four yards per carry, tied for the 10th-best average in the league. 

But while the Bears’ defensive line was certainly good, it wasn’t as good as it could’ve been. These words from Vic Fangio ring true for Hicks and Goldman:

“I think they all have a lot more to give to us than we’ve seen,” Fangio said. “And it’s our job to get them to improve and become even better players. That will be more important to us than anybody we can acquire between now and whenever our first game is. So, and I know it’s always sexy to talk between now and the first game, you know, who are you going to draft, who’s in free agency, etc., but we’ve got to get our so-called good players playing even better. And that will be critical.”

Hicks will enter Year 3 in Fangio’s scheme, while 2018 will be Goldman’s fourth. It’ll also be a critical year for Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris, who’ve flashed potential at times but haven’t been able to turn that into consistent success on the field. 

And that’s where we begin to look ahead to free agency and the draft. Is the Bears’ evaluation of Bullard -- their 2016 third-round pick -- positive enough to hand him a bigger role in 2018? That’s question No. 1 to answer, with No. 2 then being if the team should try to re-sign Mitch Unrein. 

It may be a bit risky to move forward with Bullard, given how popular Unrein was among the Bears’ defensive coaching staff. 

“He’s one of the glue guys on the defense and the team,” Fangio said last November. “Every team needs a few of those guys who are going to do everything right, full speed, hard and tough all the time, and that’s Mitch.”

Defensive line coach Jay Rodgers offered this up about Unrein back in October: “He allows those guys to play fast,” with “those guys” being Hicks and Goldman. 

Statistically, the 30-year-old Unrein doesn’t  jump off the page, but he did record a career high 2 ½ sacks in 2017. Perhaps there would be some benefits to continuity in the Bears’ base 3-4 defensive line.

Worth noting too is this position isn’t a huge need, given Unrein usually played between 40 and 55 percent of the Bears’ defensive snaps on a per-game basis last year. Keeping Unrein for a relatively low cap hit would make some sense, as opposed to testing free agency to replace him.

Jared Crick is coming off back surgery and an ineffective 2016; Dominique Easley is coming off his third torn ACL this decade; Frostee Rucker is in his mid-30’s. The Bears could look to pick a 3-4 defensive end in April, but that would be a pretty quick re-draft of the position and would be an indication they don’t think much of Bullard. This seems like a position where keeping the status quo is likely, save maybe for replacing John Jenkins with a different backup behind Goldman. 
 

2017 Bears position grades: Offensive Line

2017 Bears position grades: Offensive Line

2017 grade: C+

Level of need: Medium

Decisions to be made on: Josh Sitton (contract), Eric Kush (contract), Hroniss Grasu (contract), Bobby Massie (contract), Tom Compton (free agent), Bradley Sowell (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: Andrew Norwell, D.J. Fluker, Justin Pugh, Josh Kline, Jonathan Cooper

How the Bears’ offensive line will shape up in 2018 begins with a decision on which the Bears are already on the clock. The team has until March 9 to pick up Josh Sitton’s 2018 option -- or, to put it another way, they have until March 9 to determine if Sitton was/is/will be good enough to justify keeping him and not netting about $8 million in cap savings, per Spotrac. 

For what it’s worth, Bleacher Report ranked Sitton as the league’s sixth-best guard in 2017. If the Bears’ grades of Sitton match those outside ones, then the team probably won’t cut him -- not destabilizing Mitchell Trubisky’s offensive line would be well worth the money in that case. While Sitton turns 32 in June, cutting him would put a lot of pressure on Kyle Long, who hasn’t been fully healthy since 2016. The Bears are hopeful that Long will be back to full strength after multiple offseason surgeries, but releasing Sitton and then signing/drafting his replacement would be a gamble on Long’s health. 

Sitton’s status is the first part of the Bears’ 2018 offensive line equation. There’s also a decision to be made on Bobby Massie, who Bleacher Report ranked as the NFL’s 14th-best right tackle last year but could be cut for about $5.5 million in cap savings, according to Spotrac. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Bears cut or kept both Sitton and Massie for now, then drafted an offensive lineman in the first round (like Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson or Texas tackle Connor Williams) and released one of them. Or they could keep both through the end of the 2018 season. All those options would make sense on some level.

What wouldn’t seem to make sense is the Bears cutting Sitton or Massie and replacing them with a free agent. This year’s offensive line free agent class, without adding any potential cap casualties to it, isn’t particularly strong. By Bleacher Report’s rankings, the best free agent right tackle is Houston’s Breno Giancomi, who’s 27th in that list -- 13 spots behind Massie. At left tackle, New England’s Nate Solder (No. 22) isn’t rated as highly as Charles Leno (No. 20), who we'll talk about in a bit here. 

The only potential upgrade available via free agency would be Carolina Panthers guard Andrew Norwell (No. 2 in B/R’s rankings), who’s 26 and is in line for a big payday this spring -- but that would seemingly be counter-intuitive to releasing Sitton and then potentially paying more money to a different guard, even if he’s younger and has more long-term upside. The Bears could opt for a cheaper guard in free agency who could have some potential working with respected O-line coach Harry Hiestand -- the Giants’ D.J. Fluker (57th in B/R’s rankings) or Justin Pugh (42nd) fit that mold, as would the Titans’ Josh Kline (37th) or Cowboys’ Jonathan Cooper (38th). Or the Bears could keep Sitton and still sign one of those guys as insurance in case Long and/or Eric Kush, who tore his ACL last training camp, isn’t ready to start the season. 

Tom Compton and Bradley Sowell proved to be serviceable backups last year and could be an option to return, even with a new coaching staff in place. The health of Kush, who was missed as a reliable backup in 2017, will be important in figuring out what the Bears' O-line depth looks like. Hroniss Grasu struggled when he was on the field and missed time due to a hand injury, and despite playing for offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich at Oregon could be on the chopping block before/during training camp. 

We’ll finish here with some thoughts on Leno and Cody Whitehair. Could the Bears upgrade at left tackle and displace Leno to the right side of the offensive line? Possibly, especially if Hiestand believes he can make that move work. But it’d be odd if the Bears shifted Leno off left tackle and then signed someone who’s older and, depending on the evaluator, not even as good as him. 

This is all probably a moot point, since the Bears’ internal evaluation of Leno is what matters here. Leno is 26 and the Bears believe he hasn’t reached his ceiling yet, so more than likely, he’s sticking where he is. At the very least, he’ll enter 2018 with a starting job on the Bears’ offensive line. 

One other offseason objective for Hiestand and the new coaching staff: Keeping Whitehair at the same position. Whitehair’s versatility felt like it worked against him at times last year, with the former regime opting to shift him between guard and center quite a bit from the start of training camp through the early part of the season. That instability seemed to affect Whitehair’s play, as he went through a bizarre patch of snapping issues after moving back to center and struggled to be as consistent as he was in 2016. But Whitehair finished 2017 strong, and keeping him at center for the entirety of 2018 could get him back on track to make his first Pro Bowl.