Bears' pass rush needs Pernell McPhee, but when will he return?

Bears' pass rush needs Pernell McPhee, but when will he return?

Pernell McPhee was effectively the jumping-off point for the Ryan Pace/John Fox regime, the foundation pass rusher in the tradition of Julius Peppers and Von Miller, the first-year building blocks that Fox was provided in Carolina and Denver, respectively. McPhee’s left knee gradually brought him down as last season went along, eventually requiring surgery from which McPhee has yet to return.

McPhee is eligible to be moved from the physically unable to perform designation to the active roster as early as Thursday for the Bears' game against Green Bay. With virtually no practice (Tuesday’s was an extended walk-through only), McPhee is not expected to be available for Green Bay, a disappointment because McPhee delivered 13 combined tackles in the two games against the Packers last season.

For his part, McPhee is at least maintaining the front that he could play.

“How (do) I feel? Physically?” he said on Tuesday. “I feel like I’ve been blessed to wake up and see another day. I’ve got all my health. I’m breathing good. I’m feeling great.”

Not exactly an “I’ll be ready” statement. But if the flesh is still mending, the spirit is there: “Just nasty, hard-nosed, going crazy on the field type guy. Just physical, man. I’m just going to bring a physical impact, man.”

That would be an upgrade, even if McPhee is limited and possibly used only in obvious passing situations where he would not be tasked with holding the point against the run and offensive linemen.

That is unlikely.

“This (Packers) team does no-huddle a lot,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “And you have seen from watching them play over the years what they try to do when you substitute at the wrong time. He’s got to be able to fill in and play just like everybody else.”

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The Bears' pass rush for too much of the season — certainly for the past two games — has consisted of Willie Young and ... well just Willie Young. Akiem Hicks had a sack of Andrew Luck. So did Jonathan Bullard. Other than that? Crickets.

It should not be the least bit surprising.

The situation: The defense has averaged a little more than two sacks per game, 13 total, right on the league average of 12.7.

But the bigger view is alarming, given that while stopping the run is paramount, if a defense cannot then endanger the quarterback with any degree of consistency, the ultimate outcome is predictable.

The Bears have just 24 total quarterback pressures. That includes their sacks. Meaning the Bears have pressured quarterbacks just 11 other times, based on their own accounting.

The reality: The defense played the past two games without three of its four projected top pass rushers. Lamarr Houston is done for the year with a knee injury. McPhee hasn’t played yet because of his knee injury. Leonard Floyd was inactive with a calf strain and has faded after starting the first four games, albeit with diminishing participation (80, 71, 60 and 30 percent of the snaps) before going inactive for Indianapolis and Jacksonville.

“We have this whole cottage industry in the offseason about the draft and free agency,” Fangio said. “And (when) you get a good player and then he’s no longer there. It has an effect on you.”

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.