Bears-Texans: And the winner is...

Bears-Texans: And the winner is...

HOUSTON – The Bears, particularly the new ones coming from winning programs, have goals that transcend win totals or statistics. And if the money brought them to Chicago, it was about instilling an attitude of wanting more.

“The attitude has got to spread like wildfire,” said linebacker Danny Trevathan, from Super Bowl champion Denver and voted by teammates as one of the two defensive co-captains with Pernell McPhee.

“These guys have got to be hungry, like I said, they are. I feel like we’ve got a great group of guys. We’ve just got to keep pushing it and keep having great days.”

The first of those days needs to be Sunday in Houston. And realistically, it will be up to Trevathan and the defense to put that “hungry” into meaningful action.

The last time the Bears saw Brock Osweiler they put him on the ground more times (five) than any quarterback they faced in 2015, and had his Denver Broncos reeling through the fourth quarter of a two-point loss to the eventual Super Bowl champions.

Osweiler doesn’t have a Super Bowl offense in front of him now, after signing a $72 million contract this offseason to take him away from Denver. But whether the Bears can get to Osweiler the way they did last time they faced each other is a franchise-grade question.

The reason is that the Bears since the close of 2015 invested nearly $50 million in free agents, a contract extension for Willie Young, their top pass rusher over the past two seasons, and a pair of high draft choices. The clear mission statement was upgrading a defense that now is tasked with being the strength of a team building toward what it envisions to be a perennial championship contender.

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“Ya’ know, I think we upgraded our talent and I think it’s a big part,” said coach John Fox. “I’m excited. I think you’ll see improvement from our defensive side of the ball.”

The surprise, inside and outside the organization, will be if the Bears don’t see a massive improvement. Fox philosophically favors a dominant defense getting the football for a run-based offense, a formula that gave Lovie Smith a very respectable 81-63 Chicago record.

The offense may struggle as it settles in behind new coordinator Dowell Loggains and without Martellus Bennett, Matt Forte and a made-over offensive line. But defense typically travels well, and with their offense opening the season on the road against a top-10 defense, the challenge to the Bears’ defense is obvious and immediate.

And for all of the upgrades, there are still questions in the position groups most responsible for dealing with wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins (111 catches) and rookie speed receiver Will Fuller, a first-round pick this year out of Notre Dame.

“We’re basically a very similar group on the back end [secondary] right now,” said coordinator Vic Fangio. “That hasn’t changed a whole lot. I think we’ve gotten better in spots but it still has to be a better all 11.

The standard way to enhance a secondary is to put the quarterback in distress, something the Bears did too infrequently last season (35 total sacks) and did not often enough deliver the kind of assault they mounted against Osweiler last November. While upgrades at linebacker were a priority, the pass rush was the overriding offseason focus.

“We've got a lot of different types of rushers going forward with the power rushers and speed rushers and if we can get some push inside with those big D-lineman,” said GM Ryan Pace, “so that's going to be good to see.”

The Bears don’t have rush-linebacker Pernell McPhee, on the PUP list as he tries to come back from offseason knee surgery. And cornerback Kyle Fuller isn’t expected to be back from knee surgery yet.

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But adding Leonard Floyd and Jonathan Bullard were part of the front-seven buildup that is now expected to harass Osweiler enough to disrupt his rhythm and that of an offense that struggled last year under current Bear Brian Hoyer.

And in the process, form into something with an identity that has been missing for too much of the past several years, aided by veterans with a mission.

“You can definitely have that chemistry a lot quicker because when you have veteran guys who've played the game, you know what to expect.,” said cornerback Tracy Porter. “The transition is a little bit smoother but you still need that experience of playing together.”

Which begins in earnest Sunday afternoon.

And the winner is...

The Bears will be better than popular consensus. Which means they will win some games they’re not expected to, games like Sunday’s vs. the Texans.

But football is a game of matchups, and the strengths of the Texans, specifically the elite front seven based around J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus, are precisely what a still-forming offense of Jay Cutler and his receivers and the Bears’ post-Forte running game do not need for game one.

The Bears’ defense will not be trampled by the Houston offense. The Bears’ offense just won’t be able to do enough yet in what is a winnable game to open 2016. I predicted this game as an “L” back when the schedule came out and still do.

Prediction: Texans 17, Bears 14

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.