Ex-Bears defensive lineman Bryan Robinson found dead at age 41

Ex-Bears defensive lineman Bryan Robinson found dead at age 41

Sometimes news hits a bit close to home.

Former Bears Bryan Robinson – “B-Rob” to teammates and friends – came into the NFL as an undrafted free agent and earned himself a career and a place in Bears' lore. Late Saturday night, the defensive lineman was found dead at age 41 in a Milwaukee motel room.

The Toledo, Ohio, native was pronounced dead at 10:17 p.m. after being found at the Midpoint Motel. Autopsy and toxicology reports from the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s office were pending as of Monday morning.

Robinson, who played for the Bears from 1998 to 2003, was one of those individuals who made this job fun for this reporter over the years, even as he went on to play for Miami, Cincinnati and finally the Arizona Cardinals. Grabbing breakfast with B-Rob at the Golden Torch Restaurant in Waukegan was a tradition where the conversations had to do with a lot more than football, and seeing him down the road when the Bears played the Bengals and Cardinals meant something, because you knew what he’d overcome to achieve what he did, playing in a Super Bowl with the Cardinals.

He was an undrafted free agent with the St. Louis Rams who made a mark – literally – for himself when, as a rookie in 1997 broke the jaw of Rams tackle Fred Miller with a punch during a training camp dustup, which Robinson said was the result of a veteran mistreating rookies, something that he vowed he would never do, and didn’t. The Rams cut him at the end of training camp the next year and the Bears picked him up just before the 1998 season. Late that season, he had won a starting job.

His signature Chicago moment came in 1999 in the Nov. 7 “Walter Payton Game,” when Robinson elevated to block a chip-shot field goal try by Ryan Longwell to seal a 14-13 win over the Green Bay Packers in Lambeau Field on the weekend following the death of Payton. At 305 pounds, Robinson didn’t pretend to have a whole lot of vertical, declaring afterwards that, “I think Walter Payton actually picked me up a little bit and boosted me up in the air because I can't jump that high. Walter had a lot to do with it. I know he did.”

Robinson became an integral part of the Bears’ massive defensive front under coordinator Greg Blache, combining with Philip Daniels, Keith Traylor and Ted Washington to anchor a defense that led the Bears to the 2001 playoffs. When Lovie Smith arrived in 2004, Robinson did not fit the new, one-gap defensive scheme and Robinson was cut in the final roster trims, though not before serving as a mentor to then-rookies Tommie Harris and Tank Johnson.

The undrafted defensive lineman carved out a 14-year career for himself, finishing with 24 sacks, 16.5 of those for the Bears, who thought enough of him to accord him their transition tag in 2001 and eventually sign to a $20-millon contract.

Robinson was a character, one of the true tough guys in a sport replete with them. A hush fell over the Bears practice field one preseason day at Halas Hall when he and center Olin Kreutz came out of a pass-rush rep ready to throw down. They glowered at each other for a moment, then burst out laughing, while the rest of the crowd exhaled. Linebacker Brian Urlacher always said that he loved the Blache defensive scheme because he said Daniels, Traylor, Washington and Rovinson never let anyone get near him.

With the assembled media waiting eagerly to interview him as the new defensive end starter outside the dining hall at UW-Platteville on Day 1 of the 1999 training camp, Robinson came out the door and let loose with a verbal blast, declaring that he wasn’t talking to anybody who only wanted to talk with him now that he was a starter and hadn’t had time for him when he was a roster nobody. (Bears PR soothed the waters. Eventually.)

That was the essential B-Rob.

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.