Bears

Ed Donatell has got the Bears' backs

Ed Donatell has got the Bears' backs

Youth is running rampant in the Bears' backfields. Both offensive and defensive. While Stan Drayton's group of runners consists primarily of backs with no more than two years of NFL experience in hopes of replacing Matt Forte by committee, Ed Donatell's group on the last line of defense at least has a couple of graybeards by comparison.

Antrel Rolle was supposed to come in and lead a year ago, but it was more vocal than on the field. Tracy Porter was the guy brought in just 14 months ago, and after one of the best seasons of his eight-year NFL career, he is back to play mentor, stay healthy, and drape the opposition's top wideout. But besides Sherrick McManis (seventh year) and Chris Prosinski (sixth season) — neither are locks to make the final 53-man roster despite their special teams capabilities — every other defensive back in camp right now has no more two years' experience at this level. And while there are expected improvements from offseason additions in the defense's front seven, many eyes now turn on the defensive back corps — shy on experience, and creating turnovers a year ago.

"It's a big challenge, but it's a lot of fun," said Donatell after Thursday's two hours of practice in 90-degree temperatures in Bourbonnais. "These guys are so willing. They're wide open to learning and they work together, and I think we're gonna be able to grab an energy from us all working together. That's going to make us a pretty solid group."

Despite the turnover deficiency (a franchise record-low eight interceptions, only four by defensive backs), the unit also ranked just 22nd in sacks last season, which doesn't help. The good? The defense still somehow rose from 30th in 2014 to fourth in pass defense (a bend-don't-break 224.6 yards per game). So now it's up to Donatell, who molded a quartet of young defensive backs in San Francisco to six Pro Bowl appearances in his four years there with Vic Fangio, to get this group to walk the fine line between aggressiveness and discipline.

[MORE: Bears go 'unscripted' in practice, giving offense game-like test vs. Fangio defenses]

"We want to come out with disciplined play. We don't believe it's an either/or — that you have to be unsound and leave your technique to produce takeaways," Donatell explained. "There's times when you have a non-aggressive angle we want you to go for the ball. When you don't, we want you to go for the tackle. When you have a deep zone, stay deep, when it's short, stay short. So stay within the defense. That's a non-compromising principle for us, and good things will happen."

But Donatell still expresses an urgency to make that leap intelligently, young or not.

"It's a mindset you create, it's a culture. There's no question about it here, and you've got a great measuring stick. You know, it was so great here (in defenses under Lovie Smith) a few years back, and we're looking to create that different places. It's not a switch you just turn on. It takes a little bit of time. We're not comfortable with waiting for it to happen. We want to speed it up and get going, where people have fun."

When all was said and done in 2015, a look at the starting lineups showed Donatell wound up relying on Porter, Kyle Fuller and Adrian Amos in three of those spots, with undrafted free agent Bryce Callahan developing trust in the nickel package. The latter will be given an opportunity to compete for one of the outside spots this preseason, while the 25-year NFL coaching veteran praises the way Amos wasn't intimidated, took on greater responsibilities as his rookie season went on, and kept getting himself ready every week despite a shoulder injury that required surgery right after the season.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

Here were some of Donatell's other thoughts Thursday.

On Fuller entering his third season:

"The biggest difference right now is he's more familiar with what we're doing, more sure of himself, which means he's going to react faster. We're always looking for them to `spike' the second year we have them, improve. He's getting used to the group of coaches we have, a new system, and right now he's on a path to keep improving."

On waiver pickup Harold Jones-Quartey rebounding from a mid-season benching to having excellent games in returning to starting safety the last two games:

"He was learning on the run. We gave him some game action, let him marinate a bit, then brought him back. But part of your talent, and we make no exception, is if you get the ball for us, there's a place for you in our defense."

On fourth-round draft picks Deon Bush and Deiondre' Hall, and sixth-round selection DeAndre Houston-Carson:

"We like them all. We've got a great room, but time will tell on that one. Time will definitely tell. We're excited for the preseason because that really tells us a lot."

Those games begin next Thursday, in the preseason opener at Soldier Field against the Denver Broncos.

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.