Bears

Trouble out wide for Bears

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Trouble out wide for Bears

No Jay Cutler. No Matt Forte. Now no Johnny Knox.

Wide receiver Johnny Knox was undergoing back surgery on Monday following the nightmarish hit he took in Sundays loss to the Seattle Seahawks. The hope is for a full recovery that will give Knox a chance of returning to his game, but more importantly, also to a pain-free life after a horrible injury.

On a completely different level, the Bears suddenly are facing desperate game situations needing to win by running the ball but without the full presence of their two speed receivers to create at least the threat of a deep throw now and then.

Knox was leading the Bears in receptions (37) at the time of his injury after leading them in receiving yardage last season. His gaudy 19.8-yard average per reception ranked among the NFLs best.

Now he is gone for the year and Devin Hester, the other outside speed opposite Knox, is still fighting through ankle and other minor injuries. Hester caught zero passes Sunday, wasnt targeted on any throws, and has zero receptions in five of the Bears last six games, and just one in the Philadelphia game before that span.

Meaning: The Bears primary receivers right now are Earl Bennett, Dane Sanzenbacher and Roy Williams, with a combined 4 receptions Sunday.

Ominously perhaps, Williams is still having communications problems with Bears quarterbacks, and now there may be a different one throwing to him. Williams misconnected with Caleb Hanie and the result was a 42-yard interception return for a touchdown by cornerback Brandon Browner in the fourth quarter.

That may have been Hanies last pass as a Bear.

Josh McCown replaced Hanie on the next series, only to see his second pass attempt, toward Williams, also be intercepted.

The Browner INT is on me, Williams said. Thats my fault. Dont put it on the quarterback; put it on me. It was a great play by the defender.

Bennett averages 15 yards per catch with a long of 34 this season. Sanzenbacher less than 10 yards per reception, none longer than 18 yards. Williams has no catch longer than 25 yards in 2011.

Weve lost some of our firepower out there, coach Lovie Smith acknowledged. Devin, best returner in the history of the game, knows how to make you miss and stretch the field. Johnny has had that role for us.

So we are missing those guys. But when youre down a few players you have to adjust what you do and find other ways to move down the field. You dont have to do it vertical always and thats what we have to do.

Bears cut ties with linebacker Jerrell Freeman

Bears cut ties with linebacker Jerrell Freeman

The Bears began their slew of offseason moves by releasing inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.

Freeman, 31, signed a three-year, $12 million deal with the Bears in 2016.

In his first year in Chicago he amassed 110 tackles in 12 games but was suspended four games for PED use. He played in just one game lsat season before suffering a pectoral injury that placed him on IR. He then tested positive again for a performance-enhancing drug, resulting in a 10-game suspension that bleeds over into 2018 for two more games, wherever he winds up.

2017 Bears position grades: Outside Linebacker

2017 Bears position grades: Outside Linebacker

OUTSIDE LINEBACKER

2017 grade: C-

Level of need: High

Decisions to be made on: Willie Young (contract), Pernell McPhee (contract), Sam Acho (free agent), Lamarr Houston (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: DeMarcus Lawrence, Ezekiel Ansah, Adrian Clayborn, Connor Barwin, Kony Ealy

 

Would you believe that no true outside linebacker in this year’s free agent class had more sacks than Lamarr Houston did last year? Houston and the Rams’ Connor Barwin each had five, underscoring how rare it is for an elite edge rusher to make it to free agency.

 

There are a few that, for now, are due to hit the open market. DeMarcus Lawrence racked up 14 ½ sacks with the Dallas Cowboys last year, but played as a defensive end in a 4-3 scheme. The same goes for the Detroit Lions’ Ezekiel Ansah, who had a dozen sacks in 2017. But if either reaches free agency, it’d be a surprise -- again, pass-rushers with that kind of production rarely escape the franchise tag.

 

If Lawrence or Ansah do become available, the Bears would likely be a part of the feeding frenzy to sign either player. Whether they could convince either player that 1) Chicago is a desirable destination and 2) that they’d be just as, if not more, productive in a 3-4 base instead of a 4-3 is a different question.

 

The same goes for Atlanta’s Adrian Clayborn, who had 9 ½ sacks last year (including a ridiculous six-sack game) but played in a 4-3 and may not be looking to leave Atlanta. The Falcons, though, could be in a tricky salary cap situation with defensive lineman Dontari Poe and longtime kicker Matt Bryant both due to hit free agency.

 

Fangio’s scheme is malleable, though, and any of these players would be a fit in it one way or another. Spotrac estimates Lawrence would command an average annual salary of $14 million per year, while Ansah would be slightly lower at $13.2 million. Either way, either of those guys could command the biggest contract Pace has given a defensive player (although the Bears were prepared to give cornerback A.J. Bouye more than the $13.5 million average annual salary that he’s receiving with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

 

Both Willie Young and Pernell McPhee could be released this off-season, too, to free up cap room. Cutting Young would net $4.5 million in cap savings, while a release of McPhee would free up a little over $7 million, according to Spotrac. Of the two, Young may be the more likely guy to stick around, despite coming off a season-ending triceps injury. While he’ll be 33 next September, Young has 9 ½ sacks in the last two year while McPhee has eight (while playing in more games than Young). This may not be an either-or situation, though -- the Bears could very well cut both.

 

Houston is an interesting option to retain after he racked up four sacks in five games after returning to the Bears last December. He’s struggled to stay healthy in his career, though, and the Bears probably wouldn’t re-sign him and count on the 30-year-old to be a starter in 2018, especially considering the uncertain recovery status of Leonard Floyd. Sam Acho could be brought back as a solid depth option, too.

 

The success of this unit, though, will hinge more on Floyd than whatever the Bears are able to do in free agency or the draft. The Bears need their 2016 first-round pick to A) stay healthy and B) improve as an edge rusher after injuries have limited him to 22 games and 11 ½ sacks in his first two seasons. If every team needs three reliable pass-rushers, the Bears will need to pencil in Floyd next to Akiem Hicks (who, for what it’s worth, is more of a run-stuffer, but did total 8 ½ sacks in 2017) and then either a free agent or a draft pick.

 

The most likely route to land that third pass rusher, though, is probably through the draft unless a top talent like Lawrence, Ansah or Clayborn hits free agency -- and then matches with the Bears.