Bears

Bears Week 4 in-foe: Silver & Black on the way back?

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Bears Week 4 in-foe: Silver & Black on the way back?

Since Monday became a night of Bears becoming ex-Bears, we begin our preview of Sunday's matchup with Oakland with this: J'Marcus Webb is the Raiders' starting right guard. For offensive line coach Mike Tice. More on that later.

While John Fox, Adam Gase and Jeff Rodgers were last year's head coach and two of three coordinators in Denver, the Broncos' defensive boss got his second NFL head coaching opportunity in his virtual hometown. Jack Del Rio, who tied Tom Coughlin for most wins and longest tenure in Jacksonville Jaguars coaching history, became Oakland's eighth head coach since 2004. They haven't made the playoffs since losing in the Super Bowl 13 years ago. They come to town coming off their first back-to-back wins in three years, during which they totaled 11 wins. They're above .500 for the first time in four seasons, as they begin to finally bear fruit from GM Reggie McKenzie's most recent drafts. Sound like a blueprint Ryan Pace hopes to follow?

Offense

The offense ranked last overall in the NFL a year ago, also ranking 32nd rushing and 26th passing. Through their 2-1 start, those respective rankings are seventh, 17th, and seventh. Their comeback win two Sundays ago vs. Baltimore on a last-minute touchdown drive represented the first time in five years they've scored as much as 37 points a game.

[MORE: Bears trade Jared Allen to Carolina Panthers for draft pick]

Last year's second-round pick Derek Carr started every game as a rookie, with 21 touchdowns and a dozen interceptions, but a league-low 5.46 yards per attempt. He had one 300-yard passing game. He's doubled that already this year, thanks to the arrival of April's fourth overall pick Amari Cooper, performing as expected. It's been a decade since the Raiders last had a 1,000-yard receiver (Randy Moss). Cooper has 20 catches for 290 yards thus far, eight of those for 134 Sunday against a pretty good cornerback, Joe Haden. The other targets are ex-49er Michael Crabtree, who signed a one-year deal late in the offseason to go across the Bay, 6-foot-4 jump-ball specialist Andre Holmes and Seth Roberts, an undrafted free agent a year ago who has two touchdowns among his first seven NFL receptions this season. Those are the kinds of uncovered contributors Pace and Fox need to find moving forward.

As the ground game sputtered a year ago behind Darren McFadden and Maurice Jones-Drew, 6-foot-3, 230-pound Latavius Murray was given a shot in December and the former sixth-round pick (yes, sixth) showed something - just as he did Sunday in Cleveland, with his career-high 139 yards, landing him fourth among league rushing leaders entering Monday night. The 587 combined passing-receiving-rushing totals by Carr, Cooper and Murray is the largest by an under-25 trio in NFL history.

Tice inherited a line in which left tackle Donald Penn excelled last season after Tampa Bay dumped him after 2013 (yes, excelled coming off the scrap heap). He lines up next to Gabe Jackson, whom McKenzie selected in the third-round a year ago, and they solidified center by stealing Rodney Hudson away from division rival Kansas City in free agency. When right tackle Menelik Watson tore his ACL in training camp, Austin Howard slid over to the outside and was replaced at guard by Webb, reunited with Tice. The Raiders have allowed three sacks in three games.

[RELATED: Bears QB change not ruled out, but also not likely]

Defense

Khalil Mack was too good to last until the fifth pick of the 2014 draft. But he did, and Oakland's gift proved it by being Pro Football Focus' top-rated outside linebacker in his rookie campaign. Del Rio, like Vic Fangio, is in the process of turning the Raiders' 4-3 into a 3-4, and using Mack more in outside rushing mode, a la Von Miller in Denver. The recently-signed Aldon Smith is being gradually worked into the system as he awaits word on NFL discipline for his numerous off-field issues, but IF he ever finds a way to clean up his act, looms as a scary edge rushing complement to Mack. Two free agent signees hold down the other linebacker spots: tackling machine Curtis Lofton (at least 100 in each of his first seven seasons in New Orleans and Atlanta) and Super Bowl MVP castoff Malcolm Smith.

Another important free agent signing came up front, as run-stuffer Dan Williams was snatched from Arizona to pair with last year's impressive fourth-rounder, Justin Ellis (that draft/uncovered gem theme again). Ex-Giant and Golden Domer Justin Tuck led the lagging pass rush a year ago with five sacks, but Mario Edwards, Jr. - drafted four picks before the Bears chose ex-Florida State teammate Eddie Goldman - is pushing for playing time under defensive coordinator Ken Norton, Jr., the former Seahawks linebackers coach.

He hopes this is the year 2013 first-round pick D.J. Hayden plays a full season after the corner played in just eight games his first two seasons. He lines up opposite another draft success story. T.J. Carrie was a seventh-rounder last year, moved into the starting lineup late, and forms a "D.J. and T.J." cornerback tandem. But the secondary's shots are called by 18-year veteran safety Charles Woodson. With his game-sealing pick Sunday, he has an interception in every season, dating back to 1998, and 61 for his career. Only Hall of Famer Darrell Green has more consecutive seasons with an interception (19). It was after Jay Cutler's four-interception performance in 2012 when Woodson played for the Packers that he said afterwards, "It's the same old Jay. We just need to be in position. Jay will throw us the ball."

[NBC SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

Special Teams

Uh-oh. Rookie returners have burned the Bears each of the first three weeks, so what did the Raiders decide to do Sunday? Use Cooper on punt returns. The results were ordinary but Del Rio indicated Monday he may stay there after Carrie was the primary returner with backup running back Taiwan Jones returning kickoffs (fifth in the league with a 30.3-yard average). Sixteen-year veteran kicker Sebastian Janikowski needs five more field goals of 50-plus yards to take the all-time lead in that category, but while his kickoff distance has slipped, his overall accuracy has improved (24-of-27) since the start of last season.

**Get the latest weekday Bears news on Comcast SportsNet Wednesday and Thursday afternoons at 4:30 p.m. Join Chris and Dan Jiggetts for "Bears Huddle" Wednesday, as we hear from Vic Fangio, special teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers and various players. Adam Gase highlights "Bears Blitz" on Thursdays, along with the starting quarterback and other players.**

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.