Bears

Behind the 3-4, even more changes loom for Bears

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Behind the 3-4, even more changes loom for Bears

The focus of the talk around the Bears’ 3-4 makeover has been on who plays end, inside linebacker, nose tackle, outside linebacker. But the Bears were among the NFL’s worst in passing yards allowed and 31st with an average passer rating against of 101.7 —  an average higher than Bears quarterbacks reached only three times in 16 games last season.

Over most of the past decade, the Bears have annually invested at least a draft choice and usually some free-agency capital trying to stanch the bleeding in the back end of their defenses, even when those were actually pretty respectable. That didn’t stop this offseason — a fourth-round pick for safety Adrian Amos following a 2014 fourth-rounder, to go with veteran Antrel Rolle after landing Ryan Mundy last offseason.

But more than the personnel has changed. And more than just at safety.

It would be difficult for change not to be for the better. The Bears had just three total interceptions through their final five games (all losses).

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The ideal, as elsewhere on the defense, is that the whole merges into something that is better than the sum of the parts. One of the reasons assessing the 2015 Bears defense is next to impossible is the magnitude of the changes, beginning with Vic Fangio as coordinator and defensive backs coach Ed Donatell, himself a coordinator with Green Bay (2000-03) and Atlanta (2004-06) as well as Mike Shanahan’s Denver defensive backs coach in winning two Super Bowls.

“I think it's going to work great,” Rolle said. "We've got the young guys pushing us and the veteran leadership there, too. We're all flying around. The veterans just have to lead by example. We want to be a force.

“We're going to grow, but this is a good group to grow with.

"The chemistry of this group is excellent. It's going to take some time, but I feel like we're going to click.”

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The expectation is that safety is secured at least in the near-term with Rolle and Mundy and Brock Vereen in waiting. Kyle Fuller is written in ink at one cornerback spot.

But one major position competition, overshadowed by the shuffling in the front seven, lies opposite Fuller. Tim Jennings suffered through his first interception-less season since he became a starter for Indianapolis in 2007 and is in a battle with newly acquired Alan Ball for the starting job on the side away from Fuller. Ball has practiced little this offseason because of injuries, but the casual handicapping has him emerging as the starter and Jennings moving inside to nickel.

“We're hungry, but it's because first and foremost we want to win,” Rolle said. “That's the competitive nature in us, that's our attitude and that's going to be our motto.

"We want to win games. Whether you've been here before or not, you want to win. ... It's coming together.”

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.