Bears

Fresh mentors point to fast turnaround for Bears' defense

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Fresh mentors point to fast turnaround for Bears' defense

During the owners meetings this Spring in Arizona, John Fox was asked how long it would take to turn around a Bears defense that was historically bad for the past two years. The new Bears coach had faced the same question recently from the board of directors, perhaps an indication of how fed up the board had become with the miserable state of affairs in a traditional Bears strength.

Fox prefers understating and over-producing rather than premature progress prognostications but did allow, “I think it will be sooner than later.”

Expect it to be sooner.

The Bears will have available to them the built-in excuse of a complete defensive-scheme makeover and needing time to staff up appropriately for a 3-4 defense. The surprise will be if they need to use it.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Bears fans!]

The excuse can be that they lack 3-4 personnel. A year ago, they did. But GM Ryan Pace has spent the offseason signing and drafting personnel to staff a front seven completely different from the ones assembled by Phil Emery.

Indeed, even without Ray McDonald, who was a priority signing to be one of the starters anchoring the defensive line, the Bears arguably are better equipped to run the intended 3-4 of 2015 than they were to operate the 4-3 of the past two seasons. They’re certainly better coached.

They may begin 2015 with Shea McClellin or Jeremiah Ratliff as the only starters from the 2014 front seven to start 2015. Even that is far from guaranteed, and both McClellin and Ratliff would be in completely different positions from their previous assignments.

Myriad teams switching to 3-4 schemes have shown immediate improvements, without a settling-in year. The Bears should be another one of those.

For one thing, the Bears should benefit from a bit of a “sneak-up” factor; they’ll be running a defense that Green Bay, Arizona and Seattle (the first three opponents) haven’t ever seen them operate.

And even if teams have seen some film on the 3-4 Bears, “you can’t really scheme [coordinator Vic Fangio’s] defense because you really don’t know what guy is coming,” said linebacker Pernell McPhee, the key first free-agent target in the makeover. “He’s got us playing where you don’t know who’s rushing, who’s dropping.

“In Baltimore you always knew, ‘Suggs is coming’ or ‘I’m coming or dropping.’ It’s just different and more creative.”

A whole greater than the sum of the parts?

But is there really a sneak-up factor? Well, the first time the Packers and Brett Favre saw Lovie Smith’s new Bears defense (2004), they scored just 10 points and lost, the first time with that few points vs. Chicago since Favre took over in 1992. The offense of Marc Trestman may have eventually stagnated, but the Bears won their first three games under him in 2013 and averaged 32 points for their first four Trestman games. After that...

Curiously perhaps, the Bears are likely to show a greater jump in performance changing their scheme entirely than they did the last couple of times they changed coaches but stayed with the basic overall system.

Reason: The scheme may be new to the Bears but it is not new to the major additions on defense, including outside linebackers McPhee and Sam Acho. The result is more than just Fangio coaching.

“I’ve got a couple of the young guys who, every day, I’ll say, ‘If you need help, or need help with the playbook, if I can help, I will,’” McPhee said.

[RELATED: Bears hoping Sam Acho becomes a 'smart' signing]

The Lovie Smith Bears benefited from the de facto on-field coaching of Brian Urlacher. The current Bears defense is not starting from scratch because of mentors in the midst.

“That’s kind of what I’ve been doing the last four years,” former Arizona Cardinal Acho said. “It just is a good fit.”

For perspective: Changing 4-3’s

In fact, the transition from the dysfunctional hybrid 4-3 of last season to a 3-4 this year may be less of a change than the successful one brought in a decade ago, one that even stayed within the 4-3 family tree.

When Lovie Smith brought in his version of a 4-3 in 2004, it was dramatically different from the one practiced by Dick Jauron and Greg Blache. The latters ran a two-gap system with a massive front four keeping blockers off Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher. Smith and coordinator Ron Rivera wanted a one-gap scheme based on speed and disruption from a front four averaging more than 30 fewer pounds per man.

Under Smith’s system, the Bears improved from 22nd in points allowed (21.6) in 2003 to 13th (20.7) in 2004. But they gave up nearly 30 more yards per game in 2004 before becoming one of the NFL’s elite defenses the following couple of seasons.

The Bears stayed with the general 4-3 in 2013-14 under Mel Tucker but dropped to epic poor levels.

Successful 3-4 morph’ings

The New England Patriots went back to a 4-3 under Bill Belichick and won a Super Bowl, defeating the Seattle Seahawks, another 4-3 team.

In sharp contrast with the Bears’ suspect history with change are the improvement spikes enjoyed by teams abandoning 4-3’s and tilting toward 3-4 principles:

The Arizona Cardinals abandoned the 4-3 run by then-coordinator Ray Horton and took up the 3-4 of Todd Bowles under coach Bruce Arians. With some key players still in place (Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett), the Cardinals leaped from 17th in points and 12th in yardage allowed into the top 10 in both categories.

[RELATED: Shea McClellin returning to roots in new Bears' 3-4 scheme]

When Dom Capers got to Green Bay in 2009, the Packers were a 4-3 team of long standing. Capers entirely retooled the defense, which went from 22nd in points allowed (23.8) to seventh (18.6). More striking, the 20th-ranked yardage defense jumped to No. 2.

The Packers had the obvious draft hits with No. 1 picks of B.J. Raji and Clay Matthews. But they also had in place linebackers Nick Barnett and A.J. Hawk, as well as defensive linemen Cullen Jenkins, Johnny Jolly and Ryan Pickett, all of whom transitioned seamlessly to a 3-4. Raji did not crack the No. 1 line, starting just one game in 2009.

The Indianapolis Colts changed to a 3-4 when Chuck Pagano took over from Jim Caldwell in 2012. The improvement was modest, but was noteworthy in that veteran 4-3 ends Dwight Freeney (age 32) and Robert Mathis (31) took their hands off the ground and functioned effectively as 3-4 edge rushers at relatively late points in their careers (see: Allen, Jared).

Ultimately, however, neither Fox nor Fangio buy into there being cataclysmic differences in schemes. The same basics still apply and time in the system doesn’t strike them as critical.

“Football is football,” Fangio said. “3-4, 4-3, it’s still seven guys up front, it’s just how you organize it and the mechanics of it. So I don’t think the experience is a big thing. A defensive lineman playing the 3-technique in our defense is very similar to what they do in a 4-3. So experience helps but it’s not the ultimate.”

Report: Bears could be a potential landing spot for Dolphins WR Jarvis Landry

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USA TODAY

Report: Bears could be a potential landing spot for Dolphins WR Jarvis Landry

The Bears are looking for an upgrade at wide receiver this offseason, and there may be one available.

The Dolphins used the franchise tag on wide receiver Jarvis Landry on Tuesday, in a move that many believe signals the team's desire to deal him instead of losing him in free agency for nothing.

Landry put up excellent numbers last season, catching 112 passes for 987 yards and nine touchdowns. He led the league in catches and was fourth in touchdown receptions but was just 17th in yards. His yards per reception ranked 108th of 139 qualifying players.

Still, it's no secret he'd be an upgrade for the Bears at wide receiver. Though they'll get Cam Meredith and Kevin White back from injury, the corps largely struggled and didn't give rookie quarterback Mitch Trubisky much help.

Luckily, they may be interested in Landry, per NFL.com's Ian Rapoport.

"There are a couple teams that we should keep an eye on as far as a potential Jarvis Landry landing spot......the Chicago Bears are looking for receviers," he said.

Rapoport also mentioned the Titans, Panthers and Saints as options for Landry. The franchise tag will pay Landry about $16 million before he becomes a free agent in 2019 (or has the franchise tag used on him again).

 

2017 Bears position grades: Management

2017 Bears position grades: Management

2017 grade: D+

For these purposes, “management” encompasses the coaching staff and front office. We don’t need a lengthy re-litigation of the failures of the John Fox era, so briefly: The offense was unimaginative, predictable and unsuccessful; there were too many head-scratching coaching decisions, punctuated by that backfiring challenge flag against Green Bay; the defense was solid but not spectacular; special teams had plenty of highs (three touchdowns) and lows (Marcus Cooper’s gaffe against Pittsburgh, Connor Barth’s missed field goal against Detroit). Fox didn’t win enough games to justify a fourth year, even if he left the Bears in a better place than he found them back in 2015. But that 5-11 record drags the management grade down. 

But the larger thing we’re going to focus on here is the hits and misses for Ryan Pace in the 2017 league year. The hits: 

-- Drafting Mitchell Trubisky. Will this be a long-term success? That’s another question. But Pace hitched his future in Chicago to a quarterback last April. For a franchise that hasn’t had a “franchise” quarterback in ages, what more can you ask for? If Trubisky pans out, nobody should care that Pace traded up one spot -- effectively losing a third-round pick for his conviction in his guy -- to make the move. 

-- Moving quickly to hire Matt Nagy. As with Trubisky, Pace identified his guy and made sure he got him. The Bears hired Nagy just two days after the Kansas City Chiefs’ season ended with that playoff collapse against the Tennessee Titans, and with the Indianapolis Colts -- who eventually got burned by Josh McDaniels -- sniffing around Nagy, Pace made his move to hire a young, energetic, offensive-minded coach to pair with Trubisky. It’s tough to argue with any of the coaching hires made by Nagy, who had a head start on the competition: He retained defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and that entire defensive staff, kept Dave Ragone to be Trubisky’s quarterbacks coach and hired Mark Helfrich to bring some different concepts as offensive coordinator, and hired a special teams coach in Chris Tabor who must’ve been doing something right to survive seven years and a bunch of coaching changes in Cleveland. Like with Trubisky, it’s too early to say if Nagy will or won’t work out long-term, but it stands out that Pace had conviction in getting a franchise quarterback and a head coach who will make or break his tenure in Chicago. 

-- Drafting Tarik Cohen and Eddie Jackson in the fourth round. In Cohen, the Bears found an offensive spark (who was nonetheless under-utilized) who also was a key contributor on special teams. In Jackson, the Bears added a plug-and-play 16-game starter at safety who looks to have some upside after a solid rookie year. Both picks here were a triumph for the Bears’ amateur scouting department: Cohen wasn’t on everyone’s radar (special teams coach Chris Tabor, who previously was with the Browns, said Cohen’s name never came across his desk in Cleveland), while Jackson was coming off a broken leg that prematurely ended a solid career at Alabama. These were assuredly two hits. 

-- Signing Akiem Hicks to a four-year contract extension. The Bears rewarded Hicks a day before the season began; Hicks rewarded them with a Pro Bowl-caliber season (despite him only being a fourth alternate) and was the best player on the team in 2017. 

-- Signing Charles Leno to a four-year contract extension. Leno may not be an elite tackle, and still has some things to clean up in his game, but he’s 26 and his four-year, $37 million contract is the 14th-largest among left tackles (for what it’s worth, Bleacher Report ranked Leno as the 20th best left tackle in the NFL). The Bears believe Leno is still improving, and could turn that contract into a bargain in the future. But this is important to note, too: Players notice when a team rewards one of its own, especially when that guy is a well-respected former seventh-round draft pick. 

-- Signing Mark Sanchez to a one-year deal. This wasn’t a miss, certainly, and while it’s not much of a “hit,” Sanchez was exactly what the Bears wanted: A veteran mentor to Trubisky. While Sanchez was inactive for all 16 games, he and the No. 2 overall pick struck up a good relationship that makes him a candidate to return in 2018 as a true backup. 

-- Releasing Josh Sitton when he did. Whether or not the Bears offensive line is better off in 2018 is a different question, but file cutting Sitton on Feb. 20 -- when the team had until mid-March to make a decision on him -- as one of those things that gets noticed by players around the league. 

-- Announcing the expansion to Halas Hall. The plan has Pace’s fingerprints on it, and should help make the Bears a more attractive destination to free agents in 2018 and beyond. 

And now, for the misses:

-- Signing Mike Glennon. That completely bombed out. While the Bears weren’t hurting for cap space a year ago, and Glennon’s contract essentially was a one-year prove-it deal, his play was so poor that he was benched after only four games -- when the initial plan was for him to start the entire season to give Trubisky time to develop. The wheels came off for Glennon on his seventh pass in Week 2, when after completing his first six he threw the ball right to Tampa Bay’s Kwon Alexander for an interception from which he never seemed to recover. He’ll be cut sometime soon. 

-- Signing Markus Wheaton. After signing a two-year, $11 million deal in the spring, Wheaton struggled to stay healthy, with an appendectomy and finger injury limiting him in training camp and the early part of the season, and then a groin injury knocking out a few weeks in the middle of the season. When Wheaton was healthy, he was ineffective, catching only three of his 17 targets. That places him with eight other players since 1992 who’ve been targeted at least 15 times and and caught fewer than 20 percent of their targets. He’s another one of Pace’s 2017 free agent signings who’s likely to be cut. 

-- Signing Marcus Cooper. The Bears thought they were signing an ascending player who picked off four passes in 2016 and would be a better scheme fit in Chicago than he was in Arizona. Instead, Cooper was a liability when he was on the field and didn’t live up to his three-year, $16 million contract (with $8 million guaranteed). Dropping the ball before he got in the end zone Week 3 against Pittsburgh was a lowlight. The Bears can net $4.5 million in cap savings if he’s cut, per Spotrac. 

-- Signing Dion Sims. Sims isn’t as likely to be cut as Glennon and Wheaton, and even Cooper, but his poor production in the passing game (15 catches, 29 targets, 180 yards, one touchdown) puts a spotlight on how the Bears evaluate how he was as a run blocker in 2017. If that grade was high, the Bears could justify keeping him and not garnering a little more than $5.5 million in cap savings. If it was low, and the Bears are confident in Adam Shaheen’s ability to improve, then Sims could be cut as well. 

-- Signing Quintin Demps. The loss here was mitigated by the strong play of Adrian Amos, but Demps didn’t make much of an impact on the field before his Week 3 injury besides getting plowed over by Falcons tight end Austin Hooper in Week 1. He’d be a decent guy to have back as a reserve given his veteran leadership -- he was a captain in 2017 -- but given how well Amos and Eddie Jackson worked together last year, he’s unlikely to get his starting spot back in 2018. 

-- The wide receiver position as a whole. Kendall Wright led the Bears in receptions and yards, but his numbers would’ve looked a lot better had he been surrounded by better players. The cupboard was bare at this position, and after the worst-case scenario happened -- Cameron Meredith tearing his ACL in August, and Kevin White breaking his collarbone in Week 1 -- the Bears were left with an overmatched and underperforming group of receivers. For Trubisky’s sake, Pace has to work to make sure 2018 isn’t a repeat of 2017. 

-- The kicker position as a whole. Since we’re focusing solely on Pace’s 2017 moves, the decision to release Robbie Gould and replace him with Connor Barth doesn’t fall into this grade. But Barth had struggled with consistency prior to this season, and Roberto Aguayo didn’t provide much competition in his short-lived stint in training camp. The Bears eventually released Barth after he missed a game-tying kick against Detroit in November, then replaced him with a guy in Cairo Santos who was coming off an injury and, as it turned out, wasn’t completely healthy yet. So the Bears then had to move on from Santos and sign Mike Nugent to get them through the rest of the season. Better consistency from this position will be important to find in 2018. 

A couple moves fall into the neither hits nor misses category:

-- Drafting Adam Shaheen. Tight ends rarely make a significant impact as rookies, but Shaheen was only targeted 14 times last year. He did catch three touchdowns and flash some good chemistry with Trubisky before suffering an injury against Cincinnati that wound up ending his season. The gains he makes with a year of experience under his belt and during his first full offseason as a pro will be critical in determining his success in Year 2, and whether or not taking him 45th overall was a hit or a miss. 

-- Signing Prince Amukamara. This was neither good nor bad, with Amukamara playing solidly in coverage but not making enough plays on the ball and committing a few too many penalties. 

Pace still has decisions to make on a few other potential cuts, including right tackle Bobby Massie ($5.584 million cap savings per Spotrac) and linebackers Willie Young ($4.5 million cap savings) and Pernell McPhee ($7.075 million cap savings). Whether or not to place the franchise tag on Kyle Fuller and potentially pay him $15 million in 2018 is another call Pace has to make before the official end of the 2017 league year. 

But for Pace, did the hits out-weigh the misses in 2017? The Glennon signing imploded, but Trubisky showed signs of promise during an average season for a rookie quarterback. Cooper was a bust, but Fuller emerged as a potential long-term option to cover for that. The most glaring misses, then, were at wide receiver and tight end where, after injuries sapped those units of Cameron Meredith and Zach Miller, there weren’t reliable targets for Trubisky. 

We’ll probably need more time to determine if Pace’s “hits” on Trubisky and Nagy truly are “hits.” But if they are, the misses of 2017 -- Glennon, Wheaton, Cooper, etc. -- will be nothing more than amusing footnotes to a successful era of Bears football.