Bears

Bears signing Brian Hoyer a statement bigger than just a backup QB

Bears signing Brian Hoyer a statement bigger than just a backup QB

The signing of Brian Hoyer was just another margin note to another NFL Draft weekend. But of all the moves made by the Bears this weekend, none might have made any clearer mission statement than the addition of this 30-year-old (31 in October) backup quarterback who is on his fifth team in the last six years and had winning records as a starter with his last two but might be remembered as the only quarterback to lose his job to Johnny Manziel.

For one thing, the last time the Bears signed a backup quarterback from Michigan State was in the late 1990s when they became the fifth team for Jim Miller, who sat behind Shane Matthews and Cade McNown before rescuing the 2001 season and taking the Bears to the playoffs.

And that in fact appears to be the plan with Hoyer, that if something befalls Jay Cutler, the Bears will not spiral down the way they did in 2011, when Caleb Hanie let a 7-3 start turn into an 8-8 playoff miss after a Cutler injury.

Because, whether skeptics agree or not, the Bears do in fact see the 2016 playoffs as very much within reach.

Privately the internal expectations for 2015 were exponentially higher than the way the season played out, vindicated in some measure by five losses by four or fewer points and one on an overtime touchdown with a roster that lost two of its three wide receivers (Alshon Jeffery, Eddie Royal) for seven games each, their projected No. 1 draft pick (Kevin White) for all 16, virtually all of their projected top defensive linemen and being physically without their No. 1 tight end (Martellus Bennett) for five games.

A team resigned to any sort of rebuilding mode typically does not take developmental time away from a quarterback prospect and put a veteran No. 2 in place ahead of him, not unless there are lofty expectations in the short term. And Hoyer was signed for one year while the Bears ignored the quarterback position in the draft.

This is in the vein of the Bears’ securing Brian Griese in 2006 to back up Rex Grossman despite the distinguished rookie season turned in by Kyle Orton that ended in the playoffs. It was there in acquiring Todd Collins as a veteran behind Cutler in 2010 despite some seeming promise in Hanie; in Josh McCown for the 2013 season; even in Fox and the organization choosing to re-sign Jimmy Clausen last offseason, a quarterback familiar to Fox and a former No. 2 draft choice. Those teams didn’t accomplish their goals, but the plan was there.

The 2012 Denver Broncos under Fox did bring in Hanie to back up Peyton Manning (who hadn’t missed a game in 13 years before his 2011 neck issues). But they also invested a No. 2 pick in Brock Osweiler, who was Manning’s backup through this season. The Bears don’t draft quarterbacks high, none higher than the fourth round since 2003, which does explain some things, but that’s a topic for another time.

Veteran journeymen don’t necessarily come even close to working out. But the intention is clear: Development is always good, but not at the expense of what is considered a promising present, particularly with a starting quarterback at his best at age 33, and not at the risk of precipitous backsliding if that backup is needed.

Hoyer does not pose a job challenge to Cutler; he wasn’t signed to push Cutler. And no member of the 2016 draft class was going to, either. Early last offseason, Fox and Ryan Pace pointedly withheld any “he’s our quarterback” sentiments. This offseason, both have been so clearly pleased with Cutler’s performance and personal makeup, it was amply apparent that Connor Cook, Kevin Hogan, Paxton Lynch or any other member of this draft class was a challenger. If the Bears weren’t pleased with their starting quarterback, they could have traded well back in Round 1 and taken Lynch long before the Broncos did.

Fox and Pace subscribe to under-predicting and over-producing. But their actions have the feel of a very strong expectation.

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. 

Bears cut ties with linebacker Jerrell Freeman

Bears cut ties with linebacker Jerrell Freeman

The Bears began their slew of offseason moves by releasing inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.

Freeman, 31, signed a three-year, $12 million deal with the Bears in 2016.

In his first year in Chicago he amassed 110 tackles in 12 games but was suspended four games for PED use. He played in just one game lsat season before suffering a pectoral injury that placed him on IR. He then tested positive again for a performance-enhancing drug, resulting in a 10-game suspension that bleeds over into 2018 for two more games, wherever he winds up.