Bears

Mistakes doom Bears 'O' early but run game settles in without Matt Forte

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Mistakes doom Bears 'O' early but run game settles in without Matt Forte

Bears head coach John Fox said this week that his idea of a good offensive performance would be a nice 12-play touchdown drive. He didn’t get quite what he’d hoped for.

Penalties and miscommunications between quarterback and receivers thwarted the No. 1 offense, which managed a total of three points and four penalties over its two possessions. The second of those at least covered 61 yards in 12 plays and resulted in a Robbie Gould field goal of 48 yards, but that was necessitated by a false-start penalty when the Bears were attempting a conversion on fourth-and-2.

“For the first game, the first time they’ve ever executed the offense in a game, not bad,” Fox said. “Too many penalties. It took us a minute to get rolling. I think we had one good drive in there with the first group.”

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Quarterback

Jay Cutler completed four of seven passes for 42 yards and finished with a passer rating (74.7) nearly identical with what he generated in the Bears’ dismal home loss last season to the Dolphins (74.4). Since Cutler lost a fumble and an interception the last time he faced Miami, Thursday could be taken as at least some incremental improvement, particularly as he continued an interception-free run since the start of training camp.

Cutler was on the field for 15 snaps on two first-half possessions. The results were so-so against a Miami defense that ranked 12th in yardage allowed last season and added Ndamukong Suh to its front.

Somewhat concerning was Cutler seemed to be out of phase with receivers that he has had solid connections. He and Eddie Royal miscommunicated on what might have been a huge gain, with Royal running a square-out and Cutler throwing a deep ball down the left sideline in the second quarter. Cutler then overthrew Martellus Bennett.

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“We had to bump Eddie outside with Alshon [Jeffery] being down,” Cutler said. “He’s had a lot of work inside where he’s probably more effective. I wanted to go high, but he broke it off left tight. Just some things for us to work on and get better at.”

Jimmy Clausen played most of the game, beginning with 11 minutes remaining in the second quarter and made a solid showing playing with an assortment of backs, receivers and linemen. Clausen finished 17-for-27 passing, with 151 yards and generated 17 points in his time on the field.

“It’s been a hard time at different times, learning [the new offense],” Clausen said. “But I think we’re starting to get the hang of it and starting to roll with it.”

Running back

With Matt Forte held out of the game, the run game was about seeing what lies behind him on the depth chart. Jacquizz Rodgers provided the offense with some pop in the run game, netting 26 yards on six first-quarter carries.

Rookie Jeremy Langfordtook a screen pass for six yards on his first snap and followed that with a five-yard run on the second.

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Ka’Deem Carey, in a stiff roster battle with Langford, helped himself when he was stacked up on a fourth-and-goal play from the one, then bounced the play around right end for a touchdown, matching his rookie total of last preseason.

Running backs averaged 5.0 yards per carry and got touchdowns from Carey and Senorise Perry (54-yard run) and totaled 166 in a game plan that balanced run and pass nearly 50-50.

“I liked them in practice," Fox said. “I think as a coach you control practice, you make it as physical as you can and try to keep your guys healthy. So this is the first time for us as a coaching staff and them as players with us.”

Offensive line

The line struggled initially but then settled into a rhythm as offensive coordinator Adam Gase continued to run the football throughout.

Penalties were an unseemly part of the offense. Center Will Montgomery committed a false start on a fourth-and-2. Jordan Mills did himself and the offense no favors with a false start on the first trip to the line of scrimmage. Mills was beaten on an inside counter move by Cameron Wake that would have resulted in a crushing sack of Cutler. The play was nullified by offsetting holding penalties, one on left tackle Jermon Bushrod.

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Credit Kyle Long for alertly coming out of his stance when a Dolphin lineman stepped into the neutral zone. Long and Mills combined for a double-team of Wake that sprung Rodgers for a 15-yard sprint. Rookie center Hroniss Grasu was driven into the backfield by massive Dolphins rookie defensive tackle Jordan Phillips, stuffing Langford for a three-yard loss. But Grasu, who drew a holding penalty in the fourth quarter, was steady in his first NFL moments and directed pass protection well around Clausen.

Receiver

The position group has an in-limbo feel with Alshon Jeffery sustaining a calf strain that had him in a walking boot and on crutches. This on top of Kevin White still out with a shin injury, and it is unclear whether either of the intended top two receivers will play this preseason.

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Cameron Meredith, the rookie undrafted free agent from Illinois State, caught four of the six passes thrown to him. With the injuries to Jeffery and White, the need may be to keep an extra receiver for insurance and Meredith, at 6-foot-3, 207 pounds, could be a fit.

“All the receivers looked good tonight,” Clausen said. “I was just trying to spread the ball around to different guys. In this offense, anybody can get the ball at any time, and I thought they did a great job of making plays when plays were there.”

2017 Bears position grades: Outside Linebacker

2017 Bears position grades: Outside Linebacker

OUTSIDE LINEBACKER

2017 grade: C-

Level of need: High

Decisions to be made on: Willie Young (contract), Pernell McPhee (contract), Sam Acho (free agent), Lamarr Houston (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: DeMarcus Lawrence, Ezekiel Ansah, Adrian Clayborn, Connor Barwin, Kony Ealy

 

Would you believe that no true outside linebacker in this year’s free agent class had more sacks than Lamarr Houston did last year? Houston and the Rams’ Connor Barwin each had five, underscoring how rare it is for an elite edge rusher to make it to free agency.

 

There are a few that, for now, are due to hit the open market. DeMarcus Lawrence racked up 14 ½ sacks with the Dallas Cowboys last year, but played as a defensive end in a 4-3 scheme. The same goes for the Detroit Lions’ Ezekiel Ansah, who had a dozen sacks in 2017. But if either reaches free agency, it’d be a surprise -- again, pass-rushers with that kind of production rarely escape the franchise tag.

 

If Lawrence or Ansah do become available, the Bears would likely be a part of the feeding frenzy to sign either player. Whether they could convince either player that 1) Chicago is a desirable destination and 2) that they’d be just as, if not more, productive in a 3-4 base instead of a 4-3 is a different question.

 

The same goes for Atlanta’s Adrian Clayborn, who had 9 ½ sacks last year (including a ridiculous six-sack game) but played in a 4-3 and may not be looking to leave Atlanta. The Falcons, though, could be in a tricky salary cap situation with defensive lineman Dontari Poe and longtime kicker Matt Bryant both due to hit free agency.

 

Fangio’s scheme is malleable, though, and any of these players would be a fit in it one way or another. Spotrac estimates Lawrence would command an average annual salary of $14 million per year, while Ansah would be slightly lower at $13.2 million. Either way, either of those guys could command the biggest contract Pace has given a defensive player (although the Bears were prepared to give cornerback A.J. Bouye more than the $13.5 million average annual salary that he’s receiving with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

 

Both Willie Young and Pernell McPhee could be released this off-season, too, to free up cap room. Cutting Young would net $4.5 million in cap savings, while a release of McPhee would free up a little over $7 million, according to Spotrac. Of the two, Young may be the more likely guy to stick around, despite coming off a season-ending triceps injury. While he’ll be 33 next September, Young has 9 ½ sacks in the last two year while McPhee has eight (while playing in more games than Young). This may not be an either-or situation, though -- the Bears could very well cut both.

 

Houston is an interesting option to retain after he racked up four sacks in five games after returning to the Bears last December. He’s struggled to stay healthy in his career, though, and the Bears probably wouldn’t re-sign him and count on the 30-year-old to be a starter in 2018, especially considering the uncertain recovery status of Leonard Floyd. Sam Acho could be brought back as a solid depth option, too.

 

The success of this unit, though, will hinge more on Floyd than whatever the Bears are able to do in free agency or the draft. The Bears need their 2016 first-round pick to A) stay healthy and B) improve as an edge rusher after injuries have limited him to 22 games and 11 ½ sacks in his first two seasons. If every team needs three reliable pass-rushers, the Bears will need to pencil in Floyd next to Akiem Hicks (who, for what it’s worth, is more of a run-stuffer, but did total 8 ½ sacks in 2017) and then either a free agent or a draft pick.

 

The most likely route to land that third pass rusher, though, is probably through the draft unless a top talent like Lawrence, Ansah or Clayborn hits free agency -- and then matches with the Bears.

The Bears have options but no easy decisions on tagging Kyle Fuller

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USA Today

The Bears have options but no easy decisions on tagging Kyle Fuller

The Bears need long-term solutions at cornerback, and have one of the NFL’s most reliable players at that position in 2017 about to hit free agency. But that doesn’t mean Ryan Pace has an easy decision on his hands when it comes to applying the franchise tag on Kyle Fuller. 

Fuller was one of four players with at least 20 passes defended (breakups plus interceptions) in 2017, and also played well in run support. For a guy who not only had his fifth-year option declined last April, but had to play his way onto the Bears’ 53-man roster in training camp, it was an impressive year that should set Fuller up for a sizable payday. 

“(I’m) very proud of Kyle Fuller,” Pace said last month. “He went through some adversity the last couple of years and how he responded this year, his ball production was outstanding. A lot of PBUs. His preparation was outstanding. I think you can tell when a corner is prepared to play. And he can anticipate routes and things of that nature. Just a very professional approach. Very even-keeled approach. I think it started really with the way he attacked the offseason. And he had a good season because of that.”

That adversity Pace alluded to is another factor in the Fuller decision — was he a one-year wonder in 2017, and will the injuries and inconsistencies that plagued him from 2014-2016 return? 

The injuries are harder to predict, though it’s worth noting Fuller re-gained the trust of defensive coordinator Vic Fangio in 2017 after sitting out the entire 2016 season due to a knee issue. The inconsistencies, logically, shouldn’t return as long as Fuller remains as dedicated to film study and preparation in 2018 and beyond.

“(It was) definitely a different kind of season,” Fuller said on locker cleanout day in January. “Definitely feel good about what I was able to do. You always feel like you could do better.”

Fangio, importantly, consistently praised Fuller's play last season — and Fangio rarely entertains empty platitudes in his media sessions. 

"I think he’s come back with purpose," Fangio said in December. "He’s been very mature the whole year with his work ethic and habits and I think he had a mindset to go out and play better than he had in ’15 because you can’t compare it to ’16 and I think he’s achieved that. I just think he’s in a better frame of mind, more competitive. He knows what he wants and he’s got it narrowed down.”

If Fuller’s ceiling is higher than what he did in 2017 — he dropped a handful of interceptions, which stands as an easily-identifiable area of improvement - then perhaps he’d be a bargain with whatever contract he gets. 

But for now, we’re going to focus on the franchise tag. The Bears have the following options:

Place the non-exclusive franchise tag on Fuller. This would allow other teams to sign an offer sheet with another team, but the Bears would have the ability match the offer. If they didn’t, they’d be entitled to receiving two first-round draft picks from the team that signed Fuller. 

Place the exclusive franchise tag on Fuller. This would prohibit Fuller’s representation from seeking offers from other teams, and lock Fuller in to playing for the Bears in 2018 unless the tag were rescinded for some unexpected reason. 

Place the transition tag on Fuller. This would allow the Bears to match any offer sheet signed by Fuller, but they wouldn’t be entitled to compensation if they don’t match it. 

Decline to tag Fuller. This would mean he’d hit the open market once the league’s legal tampering period begins March 12 and free agency officially opens March 14. 

Let’s evaluate these options:

Non-exclusive franchise tag

The dance here would be if Fuller would quickly sign the one-year tag and begin negotiating a long-term deal — the two parties would have until July 16 to do so — or if he’d wait things out until the spring or summer to sign it. The Bears are in a healthy position salary cap-wise, so Fuller wouldn’t necessarily gain leverage by signing the one-year tender to guarantee him somewhere around $15 million (the NFL hasn’t released its official franchise tag figures yet, and won’t do so until sometime in early-to-mid-March. The Bears could afford to pay Fuller that one-year salary and still seek another top-level free agent, as well as other signings. 

It’s unlikely any team would be willing to part with a pair of first-round picks for Fuller, so effectively, this would be an exclusive tag. 

The calculation for Pace is this: Is Fuller really worth somewhere in the range of $15 million? That salary would make him the highest-paid player on the Bears, on an annual average salary basis, ahead of Akiem Hicks ($12 million annually), Kyle Long ($10 million), Charles Leno ($9.25 million), Pernell McPhee ($7.75 million, though he could be cut) and Mitchell Trubisky ($7.258 million — and this doesn’t include Mike Glennon, who all but certainly will be cut). 

In a multi-year deal, Fuller wouldn’t get an average annual value of $15 million — not when A.J. Bouye ($13.5 million) and Stephon Gilmore ($13 million) got less in free agency last year. Spotrac provided the following “market value” estimates for fellow 2018 free agent cornerbacks: $13 million annually for Malcolm Butler, $11 million for Trumaine Johnson, $9.3 million for E.J. Gaines and $6.9 million for Bashaud Breeland. How accurate those numbers are depends on your evaluation of each player — but for what it’s worth, Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 rankings have Fuller (No. 10 corner) as the highest-rated player of that bunch. 

If the Bears couldn’t work out a long-term deal with Fuller, he’d play out 2018 on the franchise tag, leading to Pace facing the same decision — albeit at a higher salary — at this time in 2019. 

Exclusive franchise tag

Fuller may be a good player, but he’s not *so* good that the Bears would want to place the exclusive tag on him. Some team may be willing to give up two first-round picks to sign Le’Veon Bell, but almost certainly not Fuller. 

Transition tag

If the Bears were to place this on Fuller, it would cost them less money in 2018 (it pays the average of the top 10 salaries at a position, instead of top five for the franchise tag) but wouldn’t entitle the Bears to compensation if they declined to match an offer sheet for Fuller. It seems unlikely the Bears would use this, given the defensive coaching staff and front office remain in place and have a strong and thorough evaluation of Fuller. Essentially: The Bears should know by March 6 at the latest if they're in or out on Fuller. If the Bears are going to risk losing Fuller to get him at a lower price, they’ll more likely…

Decline to place the tag

This would mean Fuller would be risked losing to the open market. Butler, Johnson, Gaines and Breeland comprise a solid crop of free agent corners, but that may not prevent Fuller from landing one of the three biggest contracts at his position. If the Bears went this route, they’d likely still try to re-sign Fuller while also putting forth competitive offers (as they did last year for Bouye and Gilmore) for Butler and/or Johnson. 

Letting Fuller hit unfettered free agency could mean the Bears are confident in their ability to sign at least one top cornerback, though that’s a dangerous game to play after Bouye turned down more money from them to sign with the Jacksonville Jaguars a year ago. But perhaps Pace feels more confident this year in his team’s ability to lure top free agents, thanks to consistency in a well-respected defensive staff, a young and energetic head coach, a hopeful franchise quarterback in place and significant improvements to Halas Hall in the works. 

Pace has two weeks to make his call; expect him to use up most of that time to calculate the decision on Fuller. The Bears could opt to go a route that keeps Fuller in Chicago, then re-sign Prince Amukamara (who’s an unrestricted free agent) and Bryce Callahan (who’s a restricted free agent) and keep the top of their cornerback depth chart steady, and then draft a cornerback — either a top one, like Ohio State’s Denzel Ward, or a more developmental one in the middle rounds. Or the Bears could blow up the depth chart, letting Fuller and Amukamara walk and looking to sign and draft players to fill out the position. 

But the decision on Fuller is the first step. What it is will start to bring the Bears’ offseason into focus.