Bears

Jay Cutler has answered doubters in Bears locker room, coaching staff

Jay Cutler has answered doubters in Bears locker room, coaching staff

When Jay Cutler came to the Bears in that 2009 trade with the Denver Broncos, he was “the new guy.” The locker room belonged to Olin Kreutz and Brian Urlacher on their respective sides of the football, and while the quarterback position by definition places its occupant in a necessarily leadership position, that wasn’t the Bears. They weren’t going to be “Cutler’s team,” not for a while.

But Matt Forte exited this past offseason and with him went the last position player – on either side of the ball – who had been here longer than Cutler now has. The reality wasn’t lost on Cutler.

“I was looking at the roster a couple of weeks ago and I feel like there’s been a major shift in experience — especially on the offensive side,” he said. “I’m at 11 [years] and then you look down, there’s a couple of nines, a couple of eights and mostly five and under, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I think a new talent and new guys in the building, there’s new energy and new attitude. I’ve embraced it. I’ve enjoyed it. I think the coaching staff’s done a great job of getting all these young guys up to speed. It’s a good group right now.”

It is also a group that looks to Cutler perhaps in ways teammates haven’t. Where Forte was at least the template for an NFL professional for his position group, Cutler now becomes the go-to veteran for everything ranging from details on a play-call to how to behave as a rookie.

It is a role that at times Cutler did not always appear to fit into comfortably, particularly with established veterans and personas that were the Bears’ identity for, in cases like Kreutz and Urlacher, a decade or more. Now, a player once sometimes perceived by outsiders as poutish or petulant has become something of a standard-setter for teammates.

“Obviously Jay does a great job with the younger guys,” said guard Kyle Long. “He brought me along, and continues to bring me along. He can be a little honest and blunt with me from time to time, but beyond a shadow of a doubt it’s the right thing to do in his position, as the leader and vested player.

“The quarterback is the leader of our team. I think he’s done a great job. I see him with the defense a lot, which is something I didn’t see a lot the first few years. I don’t necessarily know if that’s on Jay, or if it’s a perception-of-Jay basis. He’s a great guy. People in that locker room love him. He’s tough as hell. He’s got a cannon. He can run. And he’s a competitor. We love him. He’s been great this offseason and we’re looking forward to seeing how he’ll be this season with this new O-line and with the defense getting us the ball back a lot.”

Tough love approach

Cutler has earned the respect of his teammates. But gaining the confidence of his head coach and general manager through last year were possibly career turning points.

Cutler had been given a contract extension six games into his first (2009) year with the Bears. He responded by leading the NFL in interceptions.

When Phil Emery arrived as general manager, he spoke from the outset of Cutler as a “franchise quarterback” and “elite.” Emery gave Cutler a seven-year contract after the 2013 season, whereupon Cutler again led the league in interceptions in a 5-11 season marked by friction with coordinator Aaron Kromer and coach Marc Trestman, whose staff was fired after that year.

Instead of fawning treatment, Fox, coordinator Adam Gase and GM Ryan Pace were decidedly noncommittal on Cutler through last offseason and into the year. Cutler produced the best statistical year of his career, still not as good as Aaron Rodgers’ poorest single season, but with an overall performance that settled the Bears’ quarterback situation for the foreseeable future.

"I had questions on everybody," Fox said. "You come in, you take a job, you evaluate and you have to make decisions oftentimes before you even meet somebody in Year 1 as a head coach or general manager. They could be robots for all you know. But the game is still about people and relationships.

“I will say this: At the conclusion of the whole season working with Jay, I was very impressed. So I feel way more confident about him."

For Bears drafting at No. 8, the 'problem' with Notre Dame G Quenton Nelson is...

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USA TODAY

For Bears drafting at No. 8, the 'problem' with Notre Dame G Quenton Nelson is...

In the aptly-named mock drafts to this point, this reporter has posited the Bears selecting Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson. That’s not the complete story, however. There’s a “problem.”

The landscape: The Bears currently sit at No. 8 overall; Nelson is rated among the best prospects, regardless of position, in the 2018; Nelson is the consensus top offensive lineman in this draft; the Bears have an immediate need on the interior of their offensive line (at guard or center, depending upon where where the new coaching staff slots Cody Whitehair); and among the prime directives for GM Ryan Pace is the protection of franchise quarterback Mitch Trubisky.

And full disclosure: This reporter does see Nelson to the Bears, just not at No. 8, and presumably if the Bears do not address the post-Josh Sitton situation in free agency.

But there’s a problem. A couple, actually, and having nothing to do specifically with Nelson.

The “problem” centers (no pun intended) around his position: Guard.

Guards do not typically come off the board within the first 10 picks of drafts. Worse for guards, when they do, they don’t work out well. In the last five drafts, only two guards were selected within the first 10 picks, both in the 2013 draft, both (Jonathan Cooper, No. 7; Chance Warmack, No. 10) already undistinguished and both already on their second teams.

Great guards are indeed to be found in first rounds. But relevant NFL history says that they do not come early. Selectively, to wit:

Player Drafted Year
David DeCastro 24 2012
Alan Faneca* 26 1998
Steve Hutchinson* 17 2001
Kyle Long 20 2013
Zack Martin 16 2014

* 2017 Hall of Fame semifinalist

Meaning: Assuming the Bears do not spend starter money in free agency on the like of Andrew Norwell, Justin Pugh, Zach Fulton or (insert UFA name here). Parenthetically on the draft-value aspect of good guards, Norwell was undrafted, Pugh was the 2013 pick just ahead Long, as a tackle, and Fulton was a sixth-rounder.

Pace predilections: “stat” players

Pace is in desperate need of impact players in both the draft and free agency. A guard is simply not in the “impact” vein as Pace’s first three No. 1 draft picks, all top-10’ers and all with something in common that a guard does not bring: stats.

Stats themselves aren’t the point, and an elite offensive lineman contributes to the stats of everyone else on his unit. But 2015 No. 1 Kevin White is a wide receiver; they catch passes and score touchdowns. Pace’s 2016 No. 1 was a rush-linebacker who generates sacks; Leonard Floyd. And 2017 No. 1 was Mitch Trubisky. All players with the potential for producing major-impact, game-changing stat plays.

Conversely, Pace’s New Orleans touchstone was an offensive line that protected Drew Brees with mid-rounders Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks at guard, and no offensive lineman drafted higher than the second round (Jon Stinchcomb).

Best guess, too, is that new head coach Matt Nagy, who’ll obviously be an intimate part of the draft process, will not be pounding the table for a guard, or perhaps for any offensive lineman with that first first-round pick of his tenure. The Kansas City Chiefs got just a so-so starting tackle (Eric Fisher) with the No. 1-overall pick of the 2013 draft while Nagy was there. And the very good Philadelphia Eagles teams took exactly one offensive lineman higher than the fourth round during Nagy’s years there (2008-12) with Andy Reid – and that pick was a guard (Danny Watkins) picked at No. 23, and who was a bust.

Conclusion: If Nelson is far, far and away the highest-graded player on the Bears’ draft board, Pace will make that move – if, and only if, Pace cannot trade down and add the picks that every GM craves as part of franchise-building, which is where the Pace-Nagy administration stands.

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive backs

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive backs

2017 grade: B-

Level of need: High

Decisions to be made on: Kyle Fuller (free agent), Prince Amukamara (free agent), Marcus Cooper (contract), Sherrick McManis (free agent), Bryce Callahan (restricted free agent), Quintin Demps (contract)

Possible free agent targets: Trumaine Johnson, Malcolm Butler, Bashaud Breeland, E.J. Gaines, Rashaad Melvin, Robert McClain, Darrelle Revis

There’s a wide spectrum of scenarios for the Bears at cornerback, ranging from keeping the status quo to blowing the whole thing up, and everything in between. Safety is far more stable, with Adrian Amos and Eddie Jackson proving to be a reliable pairing, so that’s set for 2018.

Let’s start with one end of that cornerback spectrum: The Bears keep the top of this unit intact. That means, No. 1, retaining Kyle Fuller via the franchise tag and/or a long-term contract. No. 2, it means bringing back Prince Amukamara, who didn’t record an interception and committed a few too many penalties, but otherwise was a fine enough cover corner. No. 3, it means keeping restricted free agent Bryce Callahan as the team’s No. 1 slot corner.

On paper, this doesn’t seem like an altogether bad option. The Bears weren’t spectacular at cornerback in 2017, but the position was a little better than average, which isn’t the worst place to be for a single unit. Couple with solid play from the safeties and the Bears’ defensive backs were overall a decent enough group. Outside of Marcus Cooper -- who is a candidate to be cut for cap savings -- the Bears may not need to make wholesale changes to this group.

That, though, is a rosier look at this unit. The Bears can certainly improve the personnel in it with a healthy amount of cap space and a strong crop of free agent cornerbacks about to hit the market. Keeping Fuller and then signing a top-tier player like Trumaine Johnson or Malcolm Butler would upgrade this group, as would bringing back Fuller and Amukamara but then using a high draft pick on a player like Ohio State’s Denzel Ward.

Unless the Bears sign two big-time cornerbacks -- i.e. Fuller and Johnson, or even a guy like Brashaud Breeland or E.J. Gaines -- it would seem reasonable for them to use a first or second-round pick on a cornerback in an effort to find a longer-term solution at the position. That doesn’t mean the Bears would absolutely have to go that route, especially with other needs at wide receiver, guard and outside linebacker.

But here’s another thought: It’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Bears are able to sign a combination of two top cornerbacks in free agency. With plenty of cap space top-end free agents lacking at wide receiver and outside linebacker/edge rusher, could Pace allocate a good chunk of that money to, say, tagging Fuller and making runs at Johnson, Butler and/or Breeland? 2018 looks to be a good year to be aggressive in the free agent cornerback market, and that could play into the Bears’ strategy well.

Before we finish, we should carve out some space for Amos and Jackson. Pro Football Focus isn’t the only outlet that’s given Amos high marks -- Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 ranked him as the No. 1 free safety in the league, too. Jackson came in at No. 19 in B/R’s strong safety rankings, which is pretty solid for a fourth-round rookie.

But the larger point here isn’t exactly where Amos and Jackson are in outside evaluations -- it’s that, tangibly, the pair played well off each other on a consistent basis last year. Seeing as Amos didn’t enter the Bears’ starting lineup until Week 4 -- after Quintin Demps suffered a season-ending broken forearm against Pittsburgh -- how quickly and successfully he and Jackson meshed was one of the more impressive developments for the Bears’ 2017 defense. Amos needs to make more plays on the ball and Jackson has some things to clean up, but the Bears enter the 2018 league year not needing to address their safety position. That’s a good place to be for a team with other significant needs.