Some Bears carrying 'The Chip' that makes holding a grudge a good thing

Some Bears carrying 'The Chip' that makes holding a grudge a good thing

Almost without exception and not expressly by design, the Bears this offseason have brought in a succession of free agents from teams with a history of success: Arizona (Ted Larsen, Bobby Massie), Denver (Danny Trevathan), Indianapolis (Jerrell Freeman), New England (Akiem Hicks), among others.

But while playoff appearances were only incidental, football character has been a decidedly prominent target in the search process, and in no small part, that character has centered around the driving motivations inside players who felt overlooked or slighted as far back as their draft years. Using slights as motivation is time-honored, and multiple Bears are carrying an inner grudge that they are translating into something positive: Don’t get bitter; get better.

Put another way: The players have the requisite pads on their shoulders, and underneath those, some giant chips on those shoulders.

“I see a lot of guys with that chip on their shoulder,” said linebacker Willie Young, himself a former seventh-round draft choice by Detroit and who has never felt secure in the NFL. “My biggest thing and it kind of goes back to what I said about Day 1 in Detroit. Regardless of what … I had to figure out how to survive with what I was given. You come into the league as a seventh-round draft pick, you’re expecting to be nothing but a practice-squad guy.

“But I never heard that. I never paid that no mind. I continued to live life on the edge — playin’ ball on the edge, take my chances… . Every day … it’s a jungle out there, man. I’ve never had a break. I don’t expect to get a break.”

Young paused. “I’m always working. I’m always working.”

Trevathan comes from Denver with a Super Bowl ring and two Super Bowl appearances in the last three years, but also with an edge from falling to the sixth round in his (2012) draft.

“I feel like, that you know a lot of people doubt them or some guys were hurt last year or this and that, but you know they're playing like they're hungry, with a chip on their shoulder,” Trevathan said. “They're playing like they're hungry and that's what I'm used to and that's where you need to start.”

It is not an emotional burn to take lightly, even among greats.

Michael Jordan used doubters as fuel. Jay Hilgenberg, an undrafted free agent center who went to seven Pro Bowls, knew draft rounds of defensive tackles he had coming up, and the higher the pick, the better.

Hilgenberg never lost the chip. He is not alone in holding a constructive grudge.

“No question, that chip never leaves your shoulder, especially a free agent like I am,” Freeman said. “I know [Trevathan] was a late-round pick… .It’s always going to stay on you. That’s just why we play like we do; just running around, aggressive, just flying around because we have that … I know I have that free-agent mentality. I just feel like I’ll always be a rookie free agent in everybody’s eyes, so I’m out to prove [myself to] everybody.

“I don’t think anybody in the NFL has taken my path: Division III [college], CFL, NFL, being cut. I just have the mentality [that] I just don’t want to go home. I feel like I’m out to prove myself not week-to-week, just every day, in the weight room, training, on the field, My journey has kind of shaped me into who I am.”

The result even in these earliest stages of the run-up to the 2016 is palpable and on the minds of numerous veteran players, not to mention perhaps rookies like running back Jordan Howard (fifth round) who would like nothing better than to show opponents that passing over them was a mistake.

“I can definitely see a chip on a lot of guys,” Young reiterated. “Seems like there are a lot of similarities.”

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.