Brian Hoyer's play produces Cutler trade rumors...and a Bears win

Brian Hoyer's play produces Cutler trade rumors...and a Bears win

When Brian Hoyer signed on with the Bears last offseason, he came in with the full knowledge that he was the understudy to quarterback Jay Cutler. He may still be, but leading the Bears (1-3) back from the abyss with a 17-14 win over the Detroit Lions vaulted Hoyer into some conversations that a couple of months ago may have seemed beyond unlikely.

Against the Lions (1-3) Hoyer completed 28 of 36 passes for 302 yards, two touchdowns and a passer rating of 120.1, the second-highest in his career. He ran his string of 2016 passes without an interception to 97 and in the process played his way into a problem coaches typically crave: being forced to choose between two good players for a position.

Indeed, Cutler-or-Hoyer may be the ultimate embodiment of what GM Ryan Pace and coach John Fox sought this past offseason when they built competition at myriad positions. What Fox needed was a leader to pick up the flag and order, “Follow me!” and Hoyer did that against the Lions.

Cutler’s future in Chicago is problematic, whether this week, this season or whenever. And that was open to question even before Hoyer demonstrated that the Bears may have the second coming of Josh McCown sitting on their depth chart.

Rumors started even during Sunday’s game that Cutler was the object of trade talks between the Bears and Miami Dolphins, who have a quarterback problem of their own but who also have Adam Gase as head coach. That would be the same Adam Gase who brought out the best in Cutler last season before the Dolphins hired him away and who lobbied hardest to stay with Cutler in the 2015 offseason. confirmed later Sunday that nothing of the sort was in the works. But the speed with which the chatter arose was suggestive of how fluid the situation is perceived to be.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

Fox did not dismiss the possibility of Hoyer winning and keeping the starting job last week when he said, regarding whether Cutler coming back from his thumb injury was a given to remain the starter, that there are no givens for a team in the Bears’ situation.

Fox essentially passed on the opportunity to end the discussion. Again, instead of stating that Cutler would start when healthy, Fox left the door open for Hoyer: “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” before opting to enjoy the moment of just his second win in Soldier Field as Bears coach.

And perhaps that decision already has been made, considering that few NFL coaches start into a week with any huge unknowns, particularly at one of the single most important positions in sports.

A quarterback question does have some chance of creating discord in locker rooms. Cutler was voted a co-captain by teammates and he has earned the respect of players. But Fox and coordinator Dowell Loggains will not be making the decision based on who likes Cutler vs. who likes Hoyer.

A mistaken notion is that players can’t lose their jobs because of injury. They don’t; they lose their jobs because their replacement played better than they did, including at the quarterback position. Case studies: Tom Brady for Drew Bledsoe in 2001; Jim Miller for Shane Matthews, also in 2001.

The decision will not turn on purely on tangibles, like arm strength or other talents. It will come down to the “best chance to win” determination, and Sunday afternoon it was difficult to argue against Hoyer.

“He played great,” said wide receiver Eddie Royal, who caught all seven passes Hoyer threw him, for 111 yards and including one for 64 yards and another for four yards and the Bears’ first-quarter touchdown. “Being accurate with the ball, getting it out on time and doing all the little things, converting on third down. Those things are key and he did a great job today.”

“Those things” are absolutely the key, and those are things that make offensive lines’ jobs easier, running backs more effective, sustaining drives – all axiomatic to the style of football Fox demands.

The belief inside Halas Hall is that the Bears erred in not staying with McCown when he demonstrated in 2013 that he was better suited to run Marc Trestman’s offense than Cutler. But management dictated that Cutler resume starting when back from two injuries that season. The decision this time will rest solely with the coaches, who have no vested, ego or financial interest in who starts, beyond best-chance-to-win.

“He’s played great,” said tight end Zach Miller, who has caught 13 passes from Hoyer, three for touchdowns. “His communication is very good. He’s leading in the huddle, taking care of the football, getting the ball out. Everything he can do, he’s doing.”

Which is pretty much what teams like players to feel about their starting quarterback.

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. 

Bears cut ties with linebacker Jerrell Freeman

Bears cut ties with linebacker Jerrell Freeman

The Bears began their slew of offseason moves by releasing inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.

Freeman, 31, signed a three-year, $12 million deal with the Bears in 2016.

In his first year in Chicago he amassed 110 tackles in 12 games but was suspended four games for PED use. He played in just one game lsat season before suffering a pectoral injury that placed him on IR. He then tested positive again for a performance-enhancing drug, resulting in a 10-game suspension that bleeds over into 2018 for two more games, wherever he winds up.