Bears

Jerrell Freeman, Danny Trevathan impact multiple areas of Bears 3-4 'D'

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Jerrell Freeman, Danny Trevathan impact multiple areas of Bears 3-4 'D'

Not many teams would replace two of their three leading tacklers from the previous season and believe they’re improving. But the Bears are in the process of doing exactly that.

The makeover of the Bears defense that began effectively a year ago with the hirings of coach John Fox and coordinator Vic Fangio took another step on Saturday when the Bears signed former Indianapolis Colts inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman to a three-year contract. This follows by a matter of hours the addition of former Denver Broncos inside linebacker Danny Trevathan.

The signings presumably foreshadow the exits of Christian Jones and Shea McClellin as the Bears retool their 3-4 linebacker corps closer to players from that scheme rather than attempting to staff the defense with players specifically acquired for another system, which inside linebackers Jones and McClellin were.

Jones was second to rookie safety Adrian Amos on the Bears last season with 98 tackles. McClellin was third with 96, with Pernell McPhee a distant fourth at 64.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

Running the defense

McClellin primarily and Jones in his absence were tasked with handling defensive signals, assignments and positionings in the Bears’ scheme. Both Freeman and Trevathan have done precisely those duties at a demonstrably higher level.

“My greatest strength is understanding and knowing my job and understanding the defense,” Freeman said. “I'm a big studier. You may not know a lot about [Div. III] guys, but we don't get athletic scholarships. We get academic ones. Speed, being able to run around and tackle. Just a lot of things that make me who I am.”

Freeman was surprised when the Colts made no effort to re-sign him after four years with them, chalking it off to the NFL simply being a business. “It was just like a, 'good luck in free agency,'” Freeman said. He said he didn’t realize that the Colts were on the Bears’ 2016 schedule, but being informed of that on Saturday brought a healthy laugh.

In the meantime, Freeman was clear on what Fangio and Fox expect of him.

“Being a three-down linebacker,” Freeman said. “Being able to stay on the field, cover, my understanding and being able to dissect plays, just being a playmaker. Just doing what I've been doing. I guess that's plenty.”

[MORE: Bears bolster defense, agree to terms with linebacker Jerrell Freeman]

Coverage issues

Freeman and Trevathan are unique upgrades in part because they are inside linebackers with coverage skills, which neither Jones nor McClellin demonstrated. Neither has an interception in their Bears careers. Jones had 4 pass breakups last season, McClellin two. For purposes of perspective: little-used backup cornerback Alan Ball had 5, as did linebacker Jonathan Anderson who spent the first five weeks of the season on practice squad and played fewer than half the ’15 snaps that Jones and McClellin did. Reserve defensive tackle Will Sutton had four. Defensive end Willie Young had three.

Freeman is one of three NFL linebackers since 2012 to record at least eight forced fumbles and four interceptions along with Lavonte David and Thomas Davis. Freeman has 17 pass breakups in his four Indianapolis seasons, more than Jones and McClellin combined for their four years as Bears linebackers (McClellin was played at defensive end his first two years).

The Freeman and Trevathan signings combine to dramatically dial down any need to address that position, beyond on a best-player-available basis, in the draft, which is generally considered below average in 2016 at the inside-linebacker position.

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.