Bears

Bears still facing three major, difficult roster decisions

martellusbennettgoodbye.png

Bears still facing three major, difficult roster decisions

The Bears’ release of Jermon Bushrod had been expected ever since Charles Leno Jr. stepped in Week 3 against Seattle and performed passably at left tackle. The decision was anything but easy — Bushrod is a consummate pro and outstanding teammate — but the Bears made the call with at least the knowledge that they had a viable starter option in place.

Even the stepping away from Matt Forte was done at least with a promising understudy — Jeremy Langford — waiting in the wings.

Whether to pursue re-signing defensive lineman Jarvis Jenkins, linebacker Shea McClellin and cornerback Tracy Porter are issues. Those are impending free agents. The Bears also have several players under contract, however, that involve precipitous decisions because the roster does not have anyone capable of filling the potential voids that could result from those calls:

Martellus Bennett

Bennett followed his 90-catch Pro Bowl 2014 season with an offseason stay-away from Halas Hall, perceived unhappiness with his contract even in-season and then missing more games in one season (five) than in his previous seven seasons combined (four). Bennett has one year remaining on the four-year, $20.4 million contract he signed in 2013.

[MORE BEARS: Bears, Alshon Jeffery on the clock as franchise-tag period opens Tuesday]

Bennett will be one of the most motivated players on the roster in 2016, with a chance at one more big contract there in free agency after this year. But a malcontent is rarely a positive in a locker room or huddle, and coaches and organizations seldom want an uncommitted player around.

The problem is that the Bears have zero real options after Bennett. Zach Miller had a breakout season with five touchdown catches, but he is a free agent hoping for a payday, and has never played 16 games in a season, making it for 15 weeks in 2015 but missing Week 16 in Tampa Bay with a toe injury.

So if not Bennett… ?

Lamarr Houston

The hybrid DE/LB rebounded from season-ending knee injury in 2014 to collect eight sacks and 10 tackles for loss last season. Significantly, seven of the sacks and nine of the TFL’s came over the final nine games as his playing time steadily increased, a strong indicator that Houston was well over his knee problem.

Houston will cost the Bears $6 million for 2016. For a productive pass rusher projecting to double-digit sacks, the money is manageable. Rush linebacker Pernell McPhee is on the books for $7.2 million.

Houston and DE/LB Willie Young were the Bears’ best pass rushers for the second half of 2015. Whether the Bears conclude that Houston is the right counterpoint opposite McPhee is one call.

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The other is money, and the Bears may want Houston to take a pay cut or renegotiation. The problem: You don’t seriously propose a pay cut unless you’re willing to cut the player, and Houston could well refuse and take his case to the open market.

The Bears hold the 11th pick of the draft and edge-rusher options will be there. But with needs elsewhere, having Houston in place increases options.

So if not Houston… ?

Antrel Rolle

Safety has been a perennial trouble spot for the Bears, who thought they’d shored up the position last year with the drafting of Adrian Amos and signing Rolle for three years and $11.2 million. But Rolle, a solid influence on young players like cornerback Kyle Fuller, had performance breakdowns on the field and two concerning injuries (ankle, knee) that landed him on IR and limited him to only seven games after his missing just one game total over the previous nine seasons.

Rolle is due to cost the Bears $2.7 million for 2016, not a prohibitive salary alongside Amos’ rookie contract. The broader question for the Bears, however, is whether Rolle is an answer or a question at age 33. If Rolle is not an answer, neither Harold Jones-Quartey nor Chris Prosinski appeared to be either.

So if not Rolle… ?

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.