Bears

Evaluating the Bears’ pass-catching options with Kevin White going on IR

Evaluating the Bears’ pass-catching options with Kevin White going on IR

The Bears aren’t sure if Kevin White will return in 2017, with the star-crossed former seventh overall pick going on injured reserve with a fractured scapula.

Whether he does or doesn’t, though, won’t affect the question facing the Bears’ passing offense: Now what?

When training camp opened in late July, the Bears’ top three wide receivers were lined up to be Cameron Meredith (who’s out for the year), White (who may be out for the year) and Markus Wheaton (who didn’t play Sunday due to a fractured pinkie suffered in August). So where can the help come from, if it materializes at all?

Currently on the 53-man roster:

Kendall Wright didn’t catch his first pass Sunday until the fourth quarter. He’s a savvy route-runner who’s adept at getting open in space, but is primarily a slot receiver, which limits his opportunities to get on the field if…

— The Bears use more two- and three-tight end sets. Zach Miller was Mike Glennon’s second-most targeted player on Sunday (six times, with four catches for 39 yards), and coach John Fox made the point last week that when Miller was injured in 2016, he was the team’s best pass-catcher. Dion Sims caught two passes and could be utilized more as a big body up the seam. Rookie Adam Shaheen didn’t show much during preseason but played a handful of snaps, but he and his 6-foot-6, 270 pound frame could be molded into a useful weapon in certain situations.

“He’s getting better every day, every week,” offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said last week. “We’ll just keep practicing. He’s going to fill a role for us right now and it’s a deep position for us so we’re fortunate that we can develop a talented player and he’ll have a role and that role will continue to grow as he’s ready to take on more.”

Deonte Thompson and Josh Bellamy haven’t been more than 20-catch, 300-yard receivers with special teams value in their respective careers, but may be counted on to do more going forward. Bellamy in particular played well late against the Falcons, and while a possible game-winning touchdown hit him in the hands, it looked like he was held and had his timing disrupted on that play.

— Ryan Pace said last week the Bears “we’re excited about adding” Tre McBride, a waiver claim from the Baltimore Ravens. McBride was inactive last week and only has two career receptions for eight yards. “He spent last week getting kind of oriented in our offense, he's a possibility,” coach John Fox said.

Markus Wheaton is “improving,” Fox said Monday, but has yet to practice without a club on his hand to protect his healing pinkie. He has the established speed to at least be a deep threat for opposing secondaries, but only played in three games last year with the Pittsburgh Steelers due to a shoulder issue that required surgery in January. If he can return to the field soon, he could add an important dimension to the Bears’ offense, so long as he’s able to stay healthy.

“I haven’t played a lot of football yet,” Wheaton said last week. “I’m sure it’ll come quick once I start playing again.” 

Tarik Cohen was outstanding on Sunday, catching eight passes for 47 yards and plowing through cornerback Desmond Trufant for a 19-yard touchdown. But can the 5-foot-6, 181 pound Cohen hold up over a full 16-game season taking the kind of shots he did from the Falcons’ defense? He’s shown impressive toughness, but given his early status as the best playmaker in this offense, may need to be calculated about the risks he takes (i.e., going down/out of bounds against zone coverage to avoid the biggest of hits).

Jordan Howard wanted to improve his all-around game in 2017, but the drop he had near the end zone late Sunday hurt. He only had 13 carries, though, and if the Bears’ offense can find a way to be effective while making sure he’s fresh throughout games and the entire season, it’ll benefit this group as a whole.

Benny Cunningham has pass-catching ability as a third-down back, but suffered a high ankle sprain on Sunday. That may lead to waiver claim Taquan Mizzell, who caught 195 passes in college at Virginia, being active against Tampa Bay to fill Cunningham’s role.

Not on the roster, for now:

— Training camp star Tanner Gentry could be an option if the Bears elevate him off the practice squad. He has a better understanding of the offense than anyone the Bears could acquire from outside the organization, which could help him step in faster. But the Bears decided against keeping him on their initial roster, and he wasn’t claimed on waivers by any of the other 31 teams in the league. Perhaps Gentry develops into a solid player, but it’s worth remembering the last undrafted rookie receiver to make it with the Bears (Meredith) only had 11 catches for 120 yards in his first year.

— The free agent pool at this time of the year, obviously, is limited. Could someone like a Dorial Green-Beckham, who caught 36 passes for 392 yards and two touchdowns last year, be an option? Possibly, though teams have had two and a half months to sign the former second-round pick and haven’t, likely due to off-the-field questions. Former Pro Bowler Vincent Jackson is out there, but tore his ACL last year and, at the age of 34, has seen his production sharply decline over the last three years. The Bears’ front office will continue to scour the free agent, and possibly trade, markets, but finding an impact guy in mid-September will be difficult.

“When injuries happen in the league is, how thick your roster is at that position and how fast you can get a guy schooled up?” Fox said. “We dealt with that more than our share last year and it's not unusual but we'll adjust.”

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.