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Bears switch to 3-4 means changing faces, roles on DL

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Bears switch to 3-4 means changing faces, roles on DL

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Who’s in: Ego Ferguson, Jarvis Jenkins, Ray McDonald, Jeremiah Ratliff

Where do they fit: Will Sutton

The Bears invested two of their top three 2014 draft choices in defensive linemen. One – Ego Ferguson, second round – already has been projected at nose tackle, rotating with veteran Jeremiah Ratliff, to the point where the Bears do not have that position as a major need.

The other – Will Sutton, third round – is less secure and will be squeezed in the new defense. He was drafted for his pass-rush ability, a gap-shooting tackle, and is not naturally a big, physical presence on the scale of the other linemen in the competition mix to be part of the “3” in 3-4. Head coach John Fox has noted that the current nature of the game dictates extensive use of nickel personnel, and Sutton’s niche may lie in a rush alternative to Jenkins and McDonald, who have not been sack threats.

[MORE BEARS: Bears inside linebacker jobs in short supply]

Sutton started five games as a rookie but failed to dominate. He is stretching to be 6-feet, Jenkins is 6-4 and McDonald 6-3, and GM Ryan Pace stressed “length” in his bill of particulars for front seven.

“One of the most important traits is length,” Pace said. “Pernell [McPhee] has got incredible length. A lot of these guys got length. That aids you in your pass rush, it aids you in shedding blocks and gaining separation, so that’s something with pass rushers, defensive linemen and also corners, length is something we really pay attention to.”

The Bears targeted Jenkins and McDonald to muscle up the outside areas of their 3-4, getting players possessed of the size and experience to operate in a two-gap system based heavily on linebacker movement. Sutton has played as big as 320 pounds in college but was ineffective.

And while the NFL may be a passing league, it really only becomes that against defenses who can stop the run, regardless of alignment.

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“A lot of times, you know, people you take that maybe aren’t the big splash when you take them become the big splash when you start playing,” Fox said.

“It’s hard [to project] because the Chicago Bears defense was a 4-3 defense a year ago. Watched these guys, every play they played on tape and now trying to project them into a 3-4 not having ever coached them on the field before…it’s really a lot of wait-and-see. There are guys we saw, they have strengths and weaknesses in our book but until you are in those meeting rooms with them eight hours a day and watching them perform either in the weight room or on the grass.

“I think the good news is sometimes when you come in new there is new light. So guys don’t have preconceived ideas on them. You start from scratch and that is the exciting thing about coming in new somewhere both as players and as coaches.”

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.