Prove it: Bears need Jay Cutler to take next step vs. Eagles

Prove it: Bears need Jay Cutler to take next step vs. Eagles

There were plenty of questions following the Bears' season-opening loss to the Houston Texans.

Can Kevin White play? And can he play with Jay Cutler?

Can Cody Whitehair be an NFL center and do silent counts with Josh Sitton?

Why didn’t John Fox challenge one Houston third-down conversion?

After matching its second-worst conversion-allowed rate (60 percent) from last year, can the defense get off the field on third downs?

But the performance that will bear most heavily on the Bears’ 2016 season — and beyond — lay with the player who threw the ball that White failed to get in the way of, the one who didn’t get Whitehair’s snap on the failed first-quarter quarterback sneak: Cutler.

Consider that White, Whitehair, Sitton — even Fox — aren’t going anywhere after this season. The Bears don’t want to be moving on from Cutler, either, but that’s kind of up to Cutler.

And teammates don’t want to see Cutler going anywhere but down the field. He was elected one of the co-captains on offense, and his stock in the locker room is solid, even given his turnover history.

“I’d rather have a gunslinger who’s going to try to make a play, rather than a guy who’s just going to stand back there, pat the ball and take sacks,” linebacker Jerrell Freeman told “I like a guy who’s willing to try to make plays.”

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So do the Bears. But more even than 2015, the 2016 season is Cutler’s prove-it year.

This is the last season in which the Bears have any guaranteed money tied up in Cutler. With the Bears debating a roster decision last March that committed $10 million this year, chairman George McCaskey said last year that money would not dictate decisions. But interestingly perhaps, Cutler’s money situation now could swing from burden to bargain.

The Bears looked at options in the 2015 offseason and draft, if not actively shopping Cutler, but their ideal situation would be for his level of play to take another tick upward, given that the Bears have him under contract at a very favorable $15 million for 2017 and $16 million for 2018.

Adam Gase was a driving force behind staying the Cutler course last year after he made exhaustive inquiries with numerous previous Cutler coaches. Gase came to understand from those phone calls that Cutler’s issues were never his talents but rather his decision-making, which Gase and then-quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains hammered in on.

Gase is now the head coach in Miami, and the next-stage handling of Cutler falls to Loggains and current quarterbacks coach Dave Ragone. Early indications are that the lessons of 2015 were not false-positives. Cutler followed his interception-free preseason with the one interception at Houston, which he took responsibility for but was not his mistake. He threw the one White-induced pick, getting sacked five times (13 total hits). Once upon a time (in a 2009 game at San Francisco), Cutler threw five interceptions and wasn't sacked at all, hit a total of three times.

Cutler’s first half vs. Houston was exemplary: 10-of-13 passing for 156 yards, a touchdowns and a 141.8 passer rating. The offense had at least one first down on four of its five possessions.

The second half? Not so good: 6-of-16 passing, zero touchdowns, the one interception and a 22.9 rating, with either a sack of Cutler or an offensive penalty on five of the Bears’ six possessions.

Some of the hits on Cutler came when he held the ball, which happens when quarterbacks don’t completely trust their receivers, or got happy feet, which happens when quarterbacks don’t trust their protection. Not to absolve Cutler of all responsibility, but this was a situation where it is unlikely that even channeling his inner Tom Brady, Cutler could have taken the team on his back and carried it to victory.

That said, those times will come, even as early as next Monday night at Soldier Field. Cutler, who once appeared to struggle more in night games, is now a career 10-5 on Mondays. With his team in extreme need of a win to right the season, this is Cutler’s chance to begin proving it.

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.