Bears QB coach Dave Ragone sees simple base for Jay Cutler’s next step

Bears QB coach Dave Ragone sees simple base for Jay Cutler’s next step

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. – The NFL is a small place, and there are few secrets. So when Dave Ragone arrived last January as Bears quarterbacks coach, he had some sense of Jay Cutler, albeit from other teams’ sidelines and from word of mouth.

What Ragone has learned about Cutler up close, however, was more important than distant perceptions.

“Here’s what I’ll say about him, more than anything else,” Ragone said. “Jay is a big-time competitor. Very bright. And football is VERY important to him.

“To a coach, those three things… .” He paused: “I’m not sure I could ask for three better qualities in this deal.”

If those attributes seem routine, they are not. Not in all players, and not in all quarterbacks, by any means. Ragone, himself a former NFL quarterback, has specifics to work on with Cutler, but the one big specific is one neither Ragone nor anyone else can install.

“With me and all those quarterbacks, it stops with one word: ‘Compete,’” Ragone said. “Obviously everything takes care of itself from there. I’m blessed with the room I have. Being around quarterbacks my whole life, I think I’ve got a really competitive room, and Jay comes out and brings it every day. So does Brian [Hoyer].

“And the young guys are seeing that. So for me, no matter how you set it up, competing is the most important thing.”

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

The Bears’ staff adjustment of elevating Dowell Loggains from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator was not the only offseason move with nothing less than franchise-level implications because of the relationship with Cutler.

Ragone, a third-round pick in the 2003 draft who spent three years with the Houston Texans, was brought in to fill the Loggains vacancy. Ragone was a member of the Tennessee Titans staff in 2011-13 under Loggains.

Cutler produced the best season of his NFL career in 2015 under the coaching tandem of Adam Gase as coordinator and Loggains as Cutler’s position coach.

Attention has rightly focused primarily on Loggains and his succession plan and fit with Cutler after Gase. Right behind that, however, is how the relationship between Cutler and Ragone, who at age 36 is just three years older than Cutler – and one year older than Loggains.

Small thing: Cutler refers to Ragone as “Rags.” Good sign, a nickname.

What made Gase and Loggains successful last year was Cutler’s buy-in to an absolute focus on eliminating turnovers, a simple, seemingly obvious dictum but one that had appeared to rarely resonate with Cutler and his skilled right arm.

Now the task is to reinforce that philosophical slant and connect ideologically with a veteran quarterback who was willing to adjust last season, his ninth in the NFL. Veterans can be resistant to change, and Cutler’s chemistry with coaches has been shaky in times past.

“I’ve been down that ‘veteran’ road a little bit,” said Ragone, who coached Ryan Fitzpatrick while with Tennessee. “But with Jay – I respect Jay’s knowledge. He’s been around a long time.

“First and foremost is earning his trust. Earning his trust means helping him out there as much as I can in terms of me mechanics things, or things he’s seeing out there on the field, being another set of eyes for him.

“That relationship is dependent on communication. It is a respect factor of his knowledge, competitiveness. So for me, it’s a working relationship.”

Players have reached the NFL level with techniques and approaches that obviously have worked. They know things that work.

But players are most apt to follow the advice and instruction if they believe a coach’s mission is to help them get better, rather than simply shove a system or technique on them. Ragone’s goal is not to reshape Cutler – some critical parts of that were done last year – but to give him things to go beyond even the ’15 level of performance.

“He’s been successful in this league and done things a certain way that’s helped him,” Ragone said. “It’s my job to understand him mechanically, to understand him mentally, and then play off that to be the best quarterback he can be.”

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.