Tim Jennings’ release guarantees all-new starting secondary for Bears


Tim Jennings’ release guarantees all-new starting secondary for Bears

When the Bears started the 2014 season, the secondary was rated a strength, particularly at cornerback. Pro Bowl’ers Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman were starting, with Kyle Fuller, a first round draft pick, as the nickel back. In a defense that could have exactly zero players in the same spots they began last season in, the entire starting secondary is assured to be new, with Alan Ball moving into Jennings’ spot and Sherrick McManis standing by as the No. 3 and nickel corner.

Indeed, three of the current four starting defensive backs were not even Bears this time a year ago.

Whether anything stays that way, which it was to open the game against the Cincinnati Bengals with rookie Adrian Amos and veteran Antrel Rolle at safety, is of course not assured. But Amos has settled in next to Rolle, and Ball, an eight-year veteran out of Illinois who has played with Dallas, Houston and Jacksonville, with 44 career starts, was signed to a one-year contract worth $3 million for a reason.

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“My confidence is growing,” said Ball, who adds six inches of height at the position over Jennings’ 5-8. “I’m really getting a feel for what Vic [Fangio] is doing and how he’s calling the defense.

“I’m getting a feel for what the safeties are doing; we have new additions in Antrel and Adrian over there, and Kyle at cornerback. We’ve been rotating groups and rotating guys. You get that gel between the whole group.”

The issue for Ball has been health over his recent career. He was ensconced as a starter with Houston in 2012 and Jacksonville the past two seasons but missed 15 of 48 games over those three seasons with a foot injury (2012, five games), groin strain (2013, one) and season-ending biceps injury last year (nine games.

Ball, 30, had surgery on the foot last offseason and benefited from the down-time just recovering overall health.

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“You know part of the off-season and the preseason is getting guys ready for the regular season,” said coach John Fox. “But he's got length, I think he's played at a high level, he's adapted to our system very well and he's produced since he's been here.”

Ball, a seventh-round draft pick of the Cowboys in 2007, has six career interceptions, all over the past five seasons, and 34 pass-defenses. He also was a member of playoff teams in Dallas and Houston.

For the Bears, more than the names and faces are changing. The shuffle of players and coaches means that a group identity has yet to be forged among players, and the kind of second-nature cohesion, anticipation and familiarity are works in progress

Not a problem, nor that unusual, to Ball’s thinking.

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“I think every year going in you want a new identity no matter where you are, no matter what guys you’ve got out there,” Ball said. “You’re always searching for a new identity. The team is not going to be the same from last year or the year before. Going forward, every step we take, we’re a new group no matter who’s out there. You’ve got to find your identity.

“So going forward we want to create our identity and step on the field week one and establish who we are. We’re doing it in practice piece by piece as a defense. But until we get out there week one and really do what we gotta do, that’s when you know who you are.”

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.