Bears

Bears Week 11 in-foe: Foxholes, new and old

11-16-john-fox-bears.png

Bears Week 11 in-foe: Foxholes, new and old

John Elway decided John Fox just wasn't going to get it done after losing a division round playoff game at home for the second time in three years. Despite a sure-fire Hall of Fame quarterback. But could Elway help 39-year-old Peyton Manning outrace Father Time under Elway's former backup and roommate for nine seasons, including the back-to-back Super Bowls Elway finally won in the late 90's in the twilight of his own Canton-bound career? The surrounding weapons seemed enough, and the defense was more than good enough for ex-Ravens play-caller Gary Kubiak, who initially turned down an interview request for the Bears job Fox eventually got. While Fox won a division and made the playoffs with Tim Tebow at quarterback prior to Manning's arrival four years ago, Elway may need to face a similar task with Brock Osweiler behind center. Kubiak announced Monday Osweiler will get his first NFL start Sunday in what was planned as Manning's local farewell, even though he won his lone Super Bowl at the Bears' expense. A partially-torn plantar fascia and rib problems would seem to leave an open timetable for his return. Lucky for the 7-2 Broncos, they still own a three-game division lead, even after losing their second straight to the Chiefs, and leading to the revelations over Peyton's pain. Ex-Northwestern signal-caller Trevor Siemian will back up Osweiler, with Manning's status not being reviewed until next Monday.

No matter what Fox says over what he's already been asked about the Denver Divorce, it's hard to believe he, Adam Gase, and six other assistants who came over with him from the Broncs wouldn't especially love to win a third straight, and reach .500, at the expense of the man who doled out the pink slips, due to a "better" alternative.

OFFENSE

Manning heads to the sidelines leading the league in interceptions, ninth in touchdown passes, 16th in passing yards, 24th in completion percentage and 31st in passer rating. Maybe it'd be better if the Bears faced him. But enter impending free agent Osweiler, with the future of Denver's quarterback position in question. The 6-foot-7 second-round draft pick out of Arizona State had just 30 pass attempts subbing for Manning his first three seasons. Upon entering midway through Sunday's third quarter, he started 5-of-11 for 56 yards and an interception his first two possessions. He was 9-of-13 for 90 yards and a touchdown thereafter. He's generally thought of as a better fit for Kubiak's blueprint for play-action behind center and run-heavy zone blocking, and rollouts. But safe to say, after working with him his first three years, Fox and Gase have a pretty good idea about him.

Dave Magazu was no stranger to banged-up offensive lines with Fox in Denver, and while that's continued here, it also has in his former place. Five-time Pro Bowl tackle Ryan Clady blew out his knee in OTA's. Rookie second-rounder Ty Sambrailo slid in, but recently landed on Injured Reserve himself. Notre Damer Ryan Harris then shifted from right to left tackle, replaced by Michael Schofield of Orland Park (Sandburg H.S. and 2014 third-round draftee out of Michigan). The interior of the line has been more stable after signing ex-Eagle Evan Mathis, last year's sixth-rounder - Matt Paradis - at center, and versatile Louis Vasquez at right guard. They've allowed just 18 sacks.

[MORE: Bears' rout of Rams merits broader perspective]

That line has only helped generate a 29th-ranked rushing offense, with C.J. Anderson (the 5'8 224-pounder referred to as "chubby" by Gase in the spring while praising Matt Forte) still listed as the starter, but with 324 yards (and a 3.6 average) has about 100 fewer than the speedier Ronnie Hillman.

Demaryius Thomas set another Alshon Jeffery payday bar before training camp (five years, $70 million, $43.5 million guaranteed), and despite Manning's troubles is still sixth in the league in receiving yards (816, on 68 catches) and seventh in yards per game, despite just one touchdown. Emmanuel Sanders (46-639, 4 TD's) missed the Chiefs game with an ankle injury. Last year's second round pick out of Indiana, Cody Latimer, has just five career receptions thus far. 

Ex-Naperville Central quarterback Owen Daniels was brought in to offset the loss of Pro Bowl tight end Julius Thomas in free agency, and has three touchdowns on 24 catches. Third-round pick Jeff Heuerman from Ohio State tore an ACL in rookie minicamp. Virgil Green remained Mile High after Fox and Gase tried to get him to sign here to back up Martellus Bennett. Trade deadline pickup Vernon Davis, envisioning happiness leaving the 49ers, is reportedly confused by his lack of playing time and involvement thus far (two catches, 19 yards).

DEFENSE

A league-leading 32 sacks. A league-leading 16 forced fumbles. And nine interceptions in as many games. Stopping the Broncos might be easier for the Bears than avoiding being stopped themselves by the league's top overall defense (277 yards per game) and third-ranked scoring D (18.7 ppg).

Wade Phillips is an absolutely masterful coordinator of the 3-4 defense, every bit as much as Vic Fangio, and some would argue even moreso. But he returned to the franchise for which he was not just previously in his current role, but as head coach (1993-94). And he inherited a lot more horses than Fangio did here. As in five Pro Bowlers.

The scheme doesn't always add up to pressure from the three down linemen, but Malik Jackson, Sylvester Williams and ex-Cowboy Antonio Smith have combined for nine sacks, softening the free agent departure of another Pro Bowler - Terrence Knighton, whom the Bears will see versus the Redskins.

[NBC SHOP: Get your Bears gear right here]

But the heartbeat of the 3-4 is in the linebackers, the exact area where the Bears need playmakers moving forward. DeMarcus Ware had 6.5 sacks from the weak side before missing the Kansas City game with back issues. Free agent-to-be Von Miller had 49 sacks his first four seasons under Fox, and has five this year (same as Pernell McPhee), usually from the strong side. The inside `backers are this team's top two tacklers, Exhibits 'A' and 'B' in how Fox's staffs coach-up relative castoffs. Brandon Marshall was let go by Jacksonville and totaled four tackles in all of six games his first two seasons. In 2014, he was arguably the talented defense's MVP as a tackling machine. Danny Trevathan was a sixth-round draftee in 2012. He was their top tackler in the 2013 Super Bowl season before a knee injury sidelined him after three games a year ago. Speaking of which, the Broncos rolled the dice with Shane Ray after his misdemeanor marijuana arrest four days before the draft dropped him all the way to Denver at 23. He's expected to return Sunday after missing the last two games, and has two sacks among his five tackles in spot duty.

Similar to low-round draftees Marshall and Trevathan, Chris Harris went undrafted in 2011. He became their Defensive Player of the Year in that wild first season under Fox and earned Pro Bowl honors last season. The opposite corner belongs to 6-foot-1 Aqib Talib, who'll return from his one-game suspension for poking a Colts player in the eye, looking to build on his three interceptions after going to consecutive Pro Bowls for different teams (Patriots in 2013). Big-time hitter and in-the-box safety T.J. Ward avoided suspension for his own incident Sunday. Rahim Moore was replaced by ex-Raven Darian Stewart at free safety, while top 2014 pick Bradley Roby rotates in regularly.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Brandon McManus is 19-for-20 on field goal attempts (that only miss from beyond 50). He and his teammates are ranked fourth in kickoff coverage. Sanders has held the bulk of the punt return duties, but Omar Bolden took an 83-yarder to the house in just two opportunities, while averaging more than 24 yards on his kickoff returns.

Report: Bears could be a potential landing spot for Dolphins WR Jarvis Landry

jlandry.png
USA TODAY

Report: Bears could be a potential landing spot for Dolphins WR Jarvis Landry

The Bears are looking for an upgrade at wide receiver this offseason, and there may be one available.

The Dolphins used the franchise tag on wide receiver Jarvis Landry on Tuesday, in a move that many believe signals the team's desire to deal him instead of losing him in free agency for nothing.

Landry put up excellent numbers last season, catching 112 passes for 987 yards and nine touchdowns. He led the league in catches and was fourth in touchdown receptions but was just 17th in yards. His yards per reception ranked 108th of 139 qualifying players.

Still, it's no secret he'd be an upgrade for the Bears at wide receiver. Though they'll get Cam Meredith and Kevin White back from injury, the corps largely struggled and didn't give rookie quarterback Mitch Trubisky much help.

Luckily, they may be interested in Landry, per NFL.com's Ian Rapoport.

"There are a couple teams that we should keep an eye on as far as a potential Jarvis Landry landing spot......the Chicago Bears are looking for receviers," he said.

Rapoport also mentioned the Titans, Panthers and Saints as options for Landry. The franchise tag will pay Landry about $16 million before he becomes a free agent in 2019 (or has the franchise tag used on him again).

 

2017 Bears position grades: Management

2017 Bears position grades: Management

2017 grade: D+

For these purposes, “management” encompasses the coaching staff and front office. We don’t need a lengthy re-litigation of the failures of the John Fox era, so briefly: The offense was unimaginative, predictable and unsuccessful; there were too many head-scratching coaching decisions, punctuated by that backfiring challenge flag against Green Bay; the defense was solid but not spectacular; special teams had plenty of highs (three touchdowns) and lows (Marcus Cooper’s gaffe against Pittsburgh, Connor Barth’s missed field goal against Detroit). Fox didn’t win enough games to justify a fourth year, even if he left the Bears in a better place than he found them back in 2015. But that 5-11 record drags the management grade down. 

But the larger thing we’re going to focus on here is the hits and misses for Ryan Pace in the 2017 league year. The hits: 

-- Drafting Mitchell Trubisky. Will this be a long-term success? That’s another question. But Pace hitched his future in Chicago to a quarterback last April. For a franchise that hasn’t had a “franchise” quarterback in ages, what more can you ask for? If Trubisky pans out, nobody should care that Pace traded up one spot -- effectively losing a third-round pick for his conviction in his guy -- to make the move. 

-- Moving quickly to hire Matt Nagy. As with Trubisky, Pace identified his guy and made sure he got him. The Bears hired Nagy just two days after the Kansas City Chiefs’ season ended with that playoff collapse against the Tennessee Titans, and with the Indianapolis Colts -- who eventually got burned by Josh McDaniels -- sniffing around Nagy, Pace made his move to hire a young, energetic, offensive-minded coach to pair with Trubisky. It’s tough to argue with any of the coaching hires made by Nagy, who had a head start on the competition: He retained defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and that entire defensive staff, kept Dave Ragone to be Trubisky’s quarterbacks coach and hired Mark Helfrich to bring some different concepts as offensive coordinator, and hired a special teams coach in Chris Tabor who must’ve been doing something right to survive seven years and a bunch of coaching changes in Cleveland. Like with Trubisky, it’s too early to say if Nagy will or won’t work out long-term, but it stands out that Pace had conviction in getting a franchise quarterback and a head coach who will make or break his tenure in Chicago. 

-- Drafting Tarik Cohen and Eddie Jackson in the fourth round. In Cohen, the Bears found an offensive spark (who was nonetheless under-utilized) who also was a key contributor on special teams. In Jackson, the Bears added a plug-and-play 16-game starter at safety who looks to have some upside after a solid rookie year. Both picks here were a triumph for the Bears’ amateur scouting department: Cohen wasn’t on everyone’s radar (special teams coach Chris Tabor, who previously was with the Browns, said Cohen’s name never came across his desk in Cleveland), while Jackson was coming off a broken leg that prematurely ended a solid career at Alabama. These were assuredly two hits. 

-- Signing Akiem Hicks to a four-year contract extension. The Bears rewarded Hicks a day before the season began; Hicks rewarded them with a Pro Bowl-caliber season (despite him only being a fourth alternate) and was the best player on the team in 2017. 

-- Signing Charles Leno to a four-year contract extension. Leno may not be an elite tackle, and still has some things to clean up in his game, but he’s 26 and his four-year, $37 million contract is the 14th-largest among left tackles (for what it’s worth, Bleacher Report ranked Leno as the 20th best left tackle in the NFL). The Bears believe Leno is still improving, and could turn that contract into a bargain in the future. But this is important to note, too: Players notice when a team rewards one of its own, especially when that guy is a well-respected former seventh-round draft pick. 

-- Signing Mark Sanchez to a one-year deal. This wasn’t a miss, certainly, and while it’s not much of a “hit,” Sanchez was exactly what the Bears wanted: A veteran mentor to Trubisky. While Sanchez was inactive for all 16 games, he and the No. 2 overall pick struck up a good relationship that makes him a candidate to return in 2018 as a true backup. 

-- Releasing Josh Sitton when he did. Whether or not the Bears offensive line is better off in 2018 is a different question, but file cutting Sitton on Feb. 20 -- when the team had until mid-March to make a decision on him -- as one of those things that gets noticed by players around the league. 

-- Announcing the expansion to Halas Hall. The plan has Pace’s fingerprints on it, and should help make the Bears a more attractive destination to free agents in 2018 and beyond. 

And now, for the misses:

-- Signing Mike Glennon. That completely bombed out. While the Bears weren’t hurting for cap space a year ago, and Glennon’s contract essentially was a one-year prove-it deal, his play was so poor that he was benched after only four games -- when the initial plan was for him to start the entire season to give Trubisky time to develop. The wheels came off for Glennon on his seventh pass in Week 2, when after completing his first six he threw the ball right to Tampa Bay’s Kwon Alexander for an interception from which he never seemed to recover. He’ll be cut sometime soon. 

-- Signing Markus Wheaton. After signing a two-year, $11 million deal in the spring, Wheaton struggled to stay healthy, with an appendectomy and finger injury limiting him in training camp and the early part of the season, and then a groin injury knocking out a few weeks in the middle of the season. When Wheaton was healthy, he was ineffective, catching only three of his 17 targets. That places him with eight other players since 1992 who’ve been targeted at least 15 times and and caught fewer than 20 percent of their targets. He’s another one of Pace’s 2017 free agent signings who’s likely to be cut. 

-- Signing Marcus Cooper. The Bears thought they were signing an ascending player who picked off four passes in 2016 and would be a better scheme fit in Chicago than he was in Arizona. Instead, Cooper was a liability when he was on the field and didn’t live up to his three-year, $16 million contract (with $8 million guaranteed). Dropping the ball before he got in the end zone Week 3 against Pittsburgh was a lowlight. The Bears can net $4.5 million in cap savings if he’s cut, per Spotrac. 

-- Signing Dion Sims. Sims isn’t as likely to be cut as Glennon and Wheaton, and even Cooper, but his poor production in the passing game (15 catches, 29 targets, 180 yards, one touchdown) puts a spotlight on how the Bears evaluate how he was as a run blocker in 2017. If that grade was high, the Bears could justify keeping him and not garnering a little more than $5.5 million in cap savings. If it was low, and the Bears are confident in Adam Shaheen’s ability to improve, then Sims could be cut as well. 

-- Signing Quintin Demps. The loss here was mitigated by the strong play of Adrian Amos, but Demps didn’t make much of an impact on the field before his Week 3 injury besides getting plowed over by Falcons tight end Austin Hooper in Week 1. He’d be a decent guy to have back as a reserve given his veteran leadership -- he was a captain in 2017 -- but given how well Amos and Eddie Jackson worked together last year, he’s unlikely to get his starting spot back in 2018. 

-- The wide receiver position as a whole. Kendall Wright led the Bears in receptions and yards, but his numbers would’ve looked a lot better had he been surrounded by better players. The cupboard was bare at this position, and after the worst-case scenario happened -- Cameron Meredith tearing his ACL in August, and Kevin White breaking his collarbone in Week 1 -- the Bears were left with an overmatched and underperforming group of receivers. For Trubisky’s sake, Pace has to work to make sure 2018 isn’t a repeat of 2017. 

-- The kicker position as a whole. Since we’re focusing solely on Pace’s 2017 moves, the decision to release Robbie Gould and replace him with Connor Barth doesn’t fall into this grade. But Barth had struggled with consistency prior to this season, and Roberto Aguayo didn’t provide much competition in his short-lived stint in training camp. The Bears eventually released Barth after he missed a game-tying kick against Detroit in November, then replaced him with a guy in Cairo Santos who was coming off an injury and, as it turned out, wasn’t completely healthy yet. So the Bears then had to move on from Santos and sign Mike Nugent to get them through the rest of the season. Better consistency from this position will be important to find in 2018. 

A couple moves fall into the neither hits nor misses category:

-- Drafting Adam Shaheen. Tight ends rarely make a significant impact as rookies, but Shaheen was only targeted 14 times last year. He did catch three touchdowns and flash some good chemistry with Trubisky before suffering an injury against Cincinnati that wound up ending his season. The gains he makes with a year of experience under his belt and during his first full offseason as a pro will be critical in determining his success in Year 2, and whether or not taking him 45th overall was a hit or a miss. 

-- Signing Prince Amukamara. This was neither good nor bad, with Amukamara playing solidly in coverage but not making enough plays on the ball and committing a few too many penalties. 

Pace still has decisions to make on a few other potential cuts, including right tackle Bobby Massie ($5.584 million cap savings per Spotrac) and linebackers Willie Young ($4.5 million cap savings) and Pernell McPhee ($7.075 million cap savings). Whether or not to place the franchise tag on Kyle Fuller and potentially pay him $15 million in 2018 is another call Pace has to make before the official end of the 2017 league year. 

But for Pace, did the hits out-weigh the misses in 2017? The Glennon signing imploded, but Trubisky showed signs of promise during an average season for a rookie quarterback. Cooper was a bust, but Fuller emerged as a potential long-term option to cover for that. The most glaring misses, then, were at wide receiver and tight end where, after injuries sapped those units of Cameron Meredith and Zach Miller, there weren’t reliable targets for Trubisky. 

We’ll probably need more time to determine if Pace’s “hits” on Trubisky and Nagy truly are “hits.” But if they are, the misses of 2017 -- Glennon, Wheaton, Cooper, etc. -- will be nothing more than amusing footnotes to a successful era of Bears football.