Drama missing from Bears receiver corps...for a change


Drama missing from Bears receiver corps...for a change

For so many recent Bears training camps, there was some drama to play out at the receiver positions, some position competition, something to resolve, usually something significant and pressing.

Not this year.

The training camp “issues,” such as they are, are not really issues at all. There is no "Devin Hester as No. 1 receiver." No "How will they use Brandon Manumaleuna?" Not even "Who will win the No. 3 slot?"

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Drama around the tight end position dissipated when Martellus Bennett attended the mandatory minicamp and said he intended to be there for training camp. What the Bears are able to get from oft-injured Zach Miller or Dante Rosario are not front-burner concerns.

Brandon Marshall is gone, which by definition reduces the “drama” quotient by somewhere between half and two-thirds. The only drama now is performance-related, whether or how quickly rookie Kevin White reaches the level of excellence set by Marshall and expected of a No. 7-overall draft choice. White missed a number of offseason sessions, some for an unknown reason, but no indication of worrisome drama there.

“It'll happen, slowly but surely,” White said. “It'll all come together.”

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His bosses agree: “It’s always tough [for] rookie receivers,” said offensive coordinator Adam Gase. “It’s completely different than anything you’ve done, and just getting used to the tempo and the speed of practice and being able to maintain it. Coach Fox said it best: ‘You’re getting ready for a 20-plus game season, where the most you’ve ever gone is 13.’ And so for [White] to get ready, it’s going to be a mental challenge, but I think he’s up for it.”

Alshon Jeffery is a known NFL quantity. The only “drama” there is whether the Bears go to him before season’s end with a new contract to pre-empt his reaching free agency. The assumption is that the early stages of talks have begun and that the Bears will not stint on keeping an impact receiver of Jeffery’s stature in place.

Replacing Marshall with White has obvious payroll effects, even with the money spent to add Eddie Royal this offseason.

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Royal effectively removes any of the drama around the No. 3 receiver spot. Marquess Wilson displayed promise in the early days of camp 2014 before suffering a broken clavicle. But the anticipation of Wilson’s return from injury seemed inflated; Wilson caught 17 passes over the final six games but averaged a very modest 8.2 yards per catch and scored just once, doing nothing to lead the new coaching regime to do anything but upgrade the No. 3 position with Royal, who is on a mild mission of his own.

“I’m trying to show that I’m more than a slot, that I can play outside and I can play everywhere,” Royal said. “As a receiver, you don’t want to be defined in just one role. You want to try to expand that, and that’s what I’m trying to do now.”

Wilson projects as depth at, ideally, more than one position. Josh Morgan caught 10 passes in spot duty last season (seven starts) but signed with the New Orleans Saints in May. Josh Bellamy returns but is in roster competition with rookie free agents Ify Umodu and Cameron Meredith, Rashad Lawrence and possibly Marc Mariani, whose chief value lies in return abilities.

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.