Bears

Fox working miracles with Broncos

607924.png

Fox working miracles with Broncos

Hell likely finish well up the track in voting for NFL coach of the year. This season so far has belonged pretty much to Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco and to loss-less Mike McCarthy in Green Bay.

But like Harbaugh, without benefit of a typical offseason for orientation with his new team, John Fox has set in motion a turnaround in Denver that ranks among the NFLs best in recent years and does not appear to be done yet.

Fox was fired after the 2009 season following a 2-14 finish in Carolina (where he previously took a team from 1-15 to a Super Bowl within three years in his first head-coaching job). Now he has the Denver Broncos, up from a 4-12 record under Josh McDaniels in 2010 to 7-5 already and a tiebreaker lead in the AFC West, a spot they have occupied only once (2005) since 1999.

Turnarounds are accomplished ultimately by players but choosing those and remaking an organizations culture is the immutable starting points.

Culture makeover

Fox is Denvers third head coach in four years (Mike Shanahan 2008, Josh McDaniels 2009-10). Shanahan was taciturn, McDaniels abrasive. Fox is neither of those.

I think every week he always brings something new to our team meetings and a new outlook, just in his speeches, said quarterback Tim Tebow. He's always encouraging guys, and he's just upbeat, very positive, and players feed off of him. It's been kind of a feel of just do your job and count on the person next to you doing his job, and believe in everybody, be resilient and keep fighting.

Indeed, reforming the culture was the mission statement. Stories of his relaxed, unpretentious style abound through the organization, which are simply Fox being Fox.

At the end of the day, it was a similar situation that I experienced going into Carolina, Fox said. You do have to change the culture, you do have to change the mindset, and it takes a minute. And the guys have responded well.

Changing the changes

Fox himself has made changes in even his own ways of doing things. He is a devotee of the base 4-3 defensive scheme, but has turned Von Miller loose from a linebacker spot unlike his previous style in Carolina.

Offensively, he made the change from Kyle Orton to Tebow and then to more of a scheme in line with Tebows talents, however unorthodox.

Ive been in this business for a while and actually did a lot of research on Tim even when he came out, Fox said. I was well aware of his intangibles and the passion and the enthusiasm he plays the game with. I got to see that all through training camp.

Ironically, Fox caused a stir with a comment to NFL.com that if Tebow were operating in different offense, hed be screwed. The remark, taken out of context, appeared to lump Fox in with Hall of Famer and team executive John Elway as a Tebow doubter.

In fact, the full comment was vintage Fox, complimentary of his quarterback with the seemingly kidding at the end. Fox apologized and lost neither the team nor his turnaround cornerstone.

"He's just been very positive, Tebow said, and I think guys have really responded well.

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.