Bears

In-foe: Chargers are the mirror image of Bears

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In-foe: Chargers are the mirror image of Bears

If the Bears were inclined to throw a pity party over their injury situation, next Monday night's opponent, the Chargers, would have none of it.

San Diego was already without five-time Pro Bowl (and free agent-to-be) safety Eric Weddle and big free agent signing offensive lineman Orlando Franklin heading into last Sunday's game at Baltimore, not to mention two of their last three second-round linebackers, Manti Te'o and rookie Denzel Perryman. Then they had no less than a dozen players exit versus the Ravens, eight of whom didn't return. The infirmary included starting offensive linemen King Dunlap, Chris Watt (from Glenbard West), top reserve Chris Hairston, receivers Ladarius Green, Keenan Allen and Stevie Johnson, running back Branden Oliver, defensive lineman Corey Liuget and defensive backs Jason Verrett and Patrick Robinson.

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Allen's injury appears most grim, identified as involving the kidney suffered on an impressive touchdown catch after originally believed to be cramps or spasms. He ended the week second in the NFL with 67 receptions and third with 725 yards.

They've also lost four straight, none by more than eight points. Half of their six defeats have come on the game's final play. Sound somewhat familiar?

OFFENSE

Allen was front and center in the league's top passing offense, with Philip Rivers leading the NFL in completions (243), attempts (348), passing yards (2,753), third in TD passes (18) and fourth in completion percentage (69.8). His 102.1 passer rating is eighth.

While Allen may have been Rivers' favorite target, 34-year-old Malcom Floyd was making his own impact downfield. The 6-foot-5, 225-pounder can still break away, as evidenced by his 19.5-yard average (second in the NFL) and 70-yard scoring grab Sunday. Green (27 catches, 314 yards, 4 TDs)  took over the bulk of the tight end receiving duties while 35-year-old Antonio Gates served his four-game PED suspension. The undrafted free agent in his 13th (and likely final) season played through an ankle injury in Baltimore and has amassed 22 receptions in the four games since return.

But amidst all the aerial fireworks, their bid for balance by using the 15th overall pick (and giving up first-, fourth-, and future fifth-round picks to San Francisco to move up two spots) hasn't happened yet. Heisman runner-up Melvin Gordon has averaged just 3.7 yards a carry, and fumbled four times, losing three. Oliver was the Bolts' top rusher a year ago (582 yards) as an undrafted rookie, but the team was 31st with a 3.4 average, thus the Gordon investment. And 5-foot-8 veteran ultra-back Danny Woodhead exited after Week 3 a year ago with a broken leg, but has rebounded with 39 catches and a 3.8 rushing average (52 carries) thus far.

Left tackle Dunlap had a career year going into free agency and was rewarded (four years, $28 million) while Franklin made the move from John Fox, Adam Gase and the Denver Broncos to play next to Dunlap for $35 million (five years). Watt was the team's fifth center a year ago and began this season there, while 2013 first-rounder D.J. Fluker had trouble with speed on the edge and was moved inside once ex-Rams tackle Joe Barksdale was a late signing in free agency.

DEFENSE

John Pagano (brother of Colts head coach Chuck) runs a hybrid 3-4 system and former Illini Liuget has been a fairly productive 2011 first-round investment. But the league's ninth overall defense a year ago has slipped to 19th this season (still struggling against the run, at 28th) and has been allowing 28.4 points per game (27th). That's another parallel to the Bears.

While Liuget's fellow linemen have been rather pedestrian, Jeremiah Attaochu was the middle of three straight linebackers chosen in the second round in 2014. He's collected a team-high four of the defense's 15 sacks after playing in just 10 games as a rookie. Te'o (2013) and Perryman (2015) have felt the injury bug bite. Veteran Melvin Ingram (2012 first rounder) has also managed to miss 19 games his previous three seasons and Donald Butler had a disappointing first year in '14 after a contract extension. That pair is fourth and fifth on the Chargers in tackles. Te'o was second on the team in that category before sitting out against the Ravens.

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In the back, Weddle remains the top tackler despite spectating Sunday, as well. That broke a string of 87 consecutive starts. He's played with 11 different strong safeties over eight seasons and the emotional leader vows to enter free agency after a contract dispute this past off-season. Nasty hitter Jahleel Addae hopes to ease the uncertainty opposite Weddle. Nickelback Jimmy Wilson is third on the Chargers in tackles after coming over from Miami via free agency and providing depth at corner behind 2014 top pick Verrett (injured after six games as a rookie) and Brandon Flowers, who answered a one-year "prove it" deal following a release in Kansas City by earning a four-year, $30 million contract. But both Flowers and Verrett, while strong in coverage, are only 5-foot-9.

SPECIAL TEAMS

It all looked good when the Chargers invested in ex-Raven Jacoby Jones to handle return duties. But get this: San Diego has just one net yard on eight punt returns (!) between Jones and Allen. Their 21.9-yard kick return average from Jones and Oliver is ordinary. But from their standpoint, seeing the Bears coverage units, they're obviously looking to get "well" Monday night.

Free agent rookie Josh Lambo (15-of-17 field goals) bumped veteran Nick Novak from kicking duties. Twelve-year veteran punter Mike Scifres' 36.2-yard net average is the second-worst of his career. 

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.