Bears

Mullin, Florio talk Urlacher, Bears

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Mullin, Florio talk Urlacher, Bears

Its always a great chat with Mike Florio over at ProFootballTalk.com and today was no exception. Few reporters have as strong a sense of the NFL overall, and Mike and I have successfully visited on the Bears in the past.

Among the issues Mike brought up and we covered on ProFootballTalk Live!:

Brian Urlachers status, injury and contract-wise

Urlacher is getting time off from full practice to do some rehab running on the knee injured during the final week of the season. A leg injury of any sort is a concern with a veteran player, especially one whose speed is key in his play and the defenses, but Urlacher and the Bears are being smart about this and he will be used judiciously throughout training camp. Id be surprised if he plays at all in game four, possibly even in game one of the preseason.

The Bears have taken care of Urlacher contractually with a couple of extensions. Best guess is that they will not send him into free agency when his deal is up after this season. Thats just bad PR with a pillar of the franchise.

And the Bears also have no succession plan in place, and that's perhaps another indicator of where they envision being with No. 54. Nick Roach can plan the Mike spot but thats a second-tier option. Nothing is done until its done, but an added year for Urlacher will make sense, as well as something for Lance Briggs as well.

The new Bears offense

Mike noted that some speculation is that the offense under Mike Tice will resemble the Minnesota offense when Tice was head coach there. He then added, Im not sure that would be a good thing.

Mike also wondered about the Bears becoming a more pass-oriented offense, which is a reasonable thought given the addition of receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery and quarterback coach Jeremy Bates, who was with Marshall and Jay Cutler in Denver.

But as Ive noted before, and Marshall did as well, that Denver offense didnt win anything. The numbers were big; the key wins were not.

Lovie Smith is in a must-win year (another topic Mike raised) and he is not going to allow the offense to lose its compass as it did at the outset of both years under Mike Martz. The Bears now have the clear ability to be a big-game passing team but Smith wants sanity and balance. Tice brought that the past two years, and its unlikely the offense sets out to be an airshow.

But its a comfort for the Bears to know that they could be.

Biggest area of concern?

Based on this being the end of the offseason, with minicamp through Thursday, Mike wanted to know what was perhaps the one biggest area of concern. He and I have discussed in some depth the offensive-line situation, but I said that the tackle position on offense is not the one of most concern.

It would be the defensive tackle situation.

With Gabe Carimi, JMarcus Webb and Chris Williams, the Bears may not have incumbent Pro Bowlers. But all three tackles have started.

One defense, however, where Smiths scheme demands interior disruption from the three-technique, the Bears have only Henry Melton, Stephen Paea and Matt Toeaina. Melton is in a contract year and flashed at times last year (seven sacks) and Paea started to show up later in the season.

But it is a perilously thin depth chart at a crucial spot, and Paea had knee problems last training camp. Best guess is that the Bears will be looking hard a cuts later in August for a fourth player, a veteran, to fortify what they have in front of Urlacher.

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.

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.