Injury concerns not causing John Fox to curtail Bears minicamp work

Injury concerns not causing John Fox to curtail Bears minicamp work

The pre-camp portion of the 2015 offseason was a health disaster for some high-profile players. The problems have not, however, moved Bears coach John Fox to follow the leads of some teams and dial back an already limited workload for rookies beginning their NFL lives in sessions like this weekend’s rookie minicamp at Halas Hall.

The Bears used the No. 7 pick of the 2015 NFL Draft on wide receiver Kevin White, who developed pain in his left shin through early workouts, then was lost for the season when the injury turned out to be a stress fracture.

The Miami Dolphins and a handful of other teams have dialed back the limited work schedule in their minicamps even further, intent on orientation of rookies rather than exposing them to injury risk.

But Fox and the Bears do not put White’s injury in the same classification as those that took down some prominent rookies in minicamps this time last year.

“With Kevin, his ‘injury’ was more training, more a track-style of injury rather than football,” Fox said. “It obviously set him back, his rookie season back. But those things aren’t preventable as far as what you’re doing in practice and those types of things. But we’re always conscious of keeping guys out there, keeping guys healthy so they can practice.”

The Jacksonville Jaguars lost Dante Fowler for the season when the rookie linebacker, the No. 3 overall pick of the 2015 draft, tore an ACL barely an hour into the first minicamp. The Denver Broncos used a third-round 2015 draft pick on Ohio State tight end Jeff Heuerman, then saw him go down with a torn ACL suffered in rookie camp.

Former Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase, now Dolphins head coach, is putting his rookies through on-field practices. He didn’t learn that from Fox.

“I can’t speak to what Adam or anyone else did,” Fox said. “I know what we do and believe in and we’ll pretty much stick to that.”

The twist in all of this is that numerous coaches lament the rules under the collective bargaining agreement that dramatically dialed back the amount of hitting and other practice encounters permissible. Yet some are taking it upon themselves to reduce the practice load for incoming new players.

Fox sees a huge evaluation job, though, and that has to happen primarily through practice until preseason games arrive. And these practices are “Super Bowls” for many of those players, their one big chance.

“We’ve got 33 just tryout guys who aren’t under contract but were out there today,” Fox said. “I’ve seen these guys come from all different places, high picks, low picks, not picked. They understand they get an opportunity, had one of those chairs in the rooms last night, and they’re being evaluated. So they’ve got a time, albeit a short time, to catch coaches’ eyes.”

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. 

Bears cut ties with linebacker Jerrell Freeman

Bears cut ties with linebacker Jerrell Freeman

The Bears began their slew of offseason moves by releasing inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.

Freeman, 31, signed a three-year, $12 million deal with the Bears in 2016.

In his first year in Chicago he amassed 110 tackles in 12 games but was suspended four games for PED use. He played in just one game lsat season before suffering a pectoral injury that placed him on IR. He then tested positive again for a performance-enhancing drug, resulting in a 10-game suspension that bleeds over into 2018 for two more games, wherever he winds up.