Playoff field provides lessons for Bears: Draft defense high, Cutler backup


Playoff field provides lessons for Bears: Draft defense high, Cutler backup

Lessons are to be taken from playoffs even for teams not in them (or maybe especially for teams not in them).

Two prominent ones are staring the Bears and everyone else in the facemask as the 2015 postseason opens this weekend and moves in the divisional round next.

The first is that defense still can wins championships. No AFC playoff team ranks worse than No. 11 (Pittsburgh) in scoring. Only Green Bay (12th) and Washington (17th) are out of the top seven, and one of those two will be gone after Sunday. The obvious shock of the 2016 draft may be if the Bears do not grab defense at No. 11 (or higher via trade).

The second is that the Cincinnati Bengals, Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, Seattle Seahawks and Washington Redskins, nearly half of the 2015 playoff field, are playing 17 or more games and in some measure with or even because of backup quarterbacks – in fact, backup quarterbacks drafted despite having apparent franchise starters in place at the time they were drafted.

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Bears GM Ryan Pace is thinking that direction looking ahead to the 2016 draft, irrespective of Jay Cutler being ensconced as the starter.

“It’s always going to be best player available,” Pace said earlier this week about his draft framework. “So if it’s a quarterback, it’s a quarterback. I’ve said before how important that position is and that will continue to be the case.”

Pace is nothing if not a student of history. His is a strategy that has served championship teams well.

Tom Brady. Mark Rypien. Bart Starr. Joe Montana. All drafted to back up incumbent starters. All drafted third round or later or much later. All Super Bowl MVP’s.

Pace’s first Bears draft produced expected starters with the first five picks and the foundations of the future indeed lie in the draft. But free agency comes first, and by the time their turns come on the second and third days of the 2016 draft, the Bears may have given themselves all-important options, including at quarterback.

The Bengals had Andy Dalton in place and with trips to the playoffs, albeit ending in losses, in each of his first four NFL seasons. Yet the Bengals invested a fifth-round pick in the 2014 draft on A.J. McCarron and won two of McCarron’s three starts after Dalton went down in Game 13 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Bengals (12-4) finished two games ahead of the Steelers (10-6).

The Denver Broncos, with Peyton Manning secure as their starter, used their second-round pick in the 2012 draft on Brock Osweiler. With Manning injured, Osweiler started the final seven games, the Broncos went 5-2 in those starts and finished 12-4 – one game ahead of Kansas City (11-5) for a first-round bye.

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The same offseason (2012) that the Seattle Seahawks lavished $9 million guaranteed as part of a $20.5 million deal on quarterback Matt Flynn, with 2011 starter Tavaris Jackson also returning, the Seahawks also used a third-round pick for Russell Wilson, who promptly beat out the other two. Like Dalton, Wilson has gone to postseasons after every one of his years (three) and to Super Bowls after the last two.

The New England Patriots have made history with a backup, having taken Brady with a sixth-round pick in the 2000 draft when they were seemingly fixed with Drew Bledsoe. Bill Belichick and the organization followed that template last year when they, like the Broncos two years earlier, used a second-round pick (Jimmy Garoppolo) to back up a Hall of Fame starter.

Two 2012 rounds after the Broncos were drafting Osweiler, Washington was raising eyebrows with the fourth-round selection of Kirk Cousins, ostensibly as Robert Griffin III’s backup. But Washington squeaked into the 2012 playoffs by one game after Cousins rallied the Redskins for one victory and won the following week while Griffin was laid up. This year has belonged to Cousins.

The Bears know how this can work.

They made the 2005 playoffs with an epic-grade defense but also with a backup quarterback, a backup rookie quarterback, a backup rookie quarterback drafted in the fourth round. More than one member of the Bears’ defense said after the season that the team should’ve stayed with Kyle Orton instead of going back to Rex Grossman and losing to Carolina in the wild-card round.

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.