Bears trade Martellus Bennett to resolve another 'fit' problem


Bears trade Martellus Bennett to resolve another 'fit' problem

When it was agreed early last season by both sides that defensive end Jared Allen was not working out in the Bears’ new 3-4 defensive scheme, the Bears worked with his agent to find an agreeable alternative, which turned out to be a trade to the Carolina Panthers for a sixth-round draft choice.

Last offseason the Bears were content to grant Brandon Marshall his ticket to New York and its NFL media opportunities, dealing the wide receiver and a seventh-round pick to the New York Jets for a fifth-round selection.

Now the Bears have granted another starter an exit visa, dealing unhappy 2014 Pro Bowl tight end Martellus Bennett along with a sixth-round pick (No. 204) to the New England Patriots in return for a fourth-round selection (No. 127) in the 2016 NFL Draft. The sixth-rounder is the one the Bears received from the Patriots in return for linebacker Jon Bostic last season.

“We will continue to pursue all avenues to make our team better as we prepare for the 2016 season,” General manager Ryan Pace said. “In a perfect world a trade is a win-win for both sides and we believe there is upside to all parties involved in this deal. We were able to acquire a higher pick to help us continue to build our team. We wish Martellus nothing but the best as he continues his career in New England.”

The trade nets the Bears a pick in the same round where they have selected players such as Alex Brown, Ka’Deem Carey, Jeremy Langford, Henry Melton, Kyle Orton and Nathan Vasher over the past 15 years. 

It also gives the Bears something for a player that Pace had given permission to seek a trade, a step that typically signals to the league that the player will be released if no deal is forthcoming. It also follows the Bears reaching an agreement with Zach Miller on a two-year deal that potentially addresses some of the pass-catching firepower at the position.

The problem is that Bennett, when motivated, was one of the better all-around tight ends in the NFL, with enough size and speed to be a three-down tight end and not merely restricted to situational use.

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Bennett, who caught 65 passes in 2013 and 90 in 2014 before missing four games and finishing with 53 last season, has had his scrapes during his Bears tenure. He was suspended for a week and fined in 2014 after throwing rookie cornerback Kyle Fuller to the ground using Fuller’s facemask during a fight in practice. He stayed away for the entire offseason program last year in an effort to get a contract renegotiation following his 90-catch 2014 despite having two years remaining on the four-year deal, $20 million deal he reached with the Bears in 2013.

Bennett, due to make $5.185 million in 2016, including a $100,000 workout bonus, was unhappy with the tilt of the offense in the red zone toward Miller as 2015 played out and became a distraction in practice prior to the Thanksgiving game against the Green Bay Packers. He was placed on the inactive list for that game, surprising for a player who hadn’t missed a game in more than three seasons and who was back on the field the following game against the San Francisco 49ers.

A rib injury landed Bennett on injured reserve for the final three games, the first time in his eight-year career that he’d missed more than two games in an entire season.

Despite the glitches, Bennett finished tied for ninth among tight ends with his 53 catches in 2015.

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.