What do Bears have in Cutler replacement Jimmy Clausen?


What do Bears have in Cutler replacement Jimmy Clausen?

With the hamstring injury to quarterback Jay Cutler late in the first half of Sunday’s 48-23 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, Jimmy Clausen is expected to be the starting quarterback for the Chicago Bears for the second time in the span of five games.

In the last two games Clausen has played, he left the field a loser both times and was a woeful 1-9 as a rookie starter with the Carolina Panthers under then-coach John Fox.

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But accurately discerning what the Bears will have under center in Seattle against the Seahawks is virtually impossible. Not the Bears’ overall situation going into one of the NFL’s most difficult road venues to play the defending NFC champions; that’s not a difficult prediction.

Clausen is the unknown.

Clausen’s history offers few clues - few clear positive ones, in any case. His recent history unfortunately includes concussions, first in the 2014 Game 15 loss to the Detroit Lions when Cutler was benched in favor of Clausen, then this preseason when he suffered a second on a hit by a Cincinnati Bengals linebacker while going into a play-ending slide.

Regardless of whether they were looking just at old tape of Clausen, from 2010 when he was a second-round draft choice coming out of Notre Dame, or some combination of pro and college scouting reports, two different Bears general managers (Phil Emery, Ryan Pace) thought enough of him to sign him.

And two NFL teams were lurking with intent to sign Clausen last offseason when he chose to re-sign with the Bears, who thought enough of him to make a pre-emptive move in the days before free agency officially opened. That move came with Fox, the coach who had Clausen for that 1-9 rookie year in Carolina, already in place.

More to the on-field point, Clausen’s performances do not clarify much. Neither the Detroit game last season nor Sunday’s second half against Arizona make for easy assessment of Clausen.

Clausen’s installation as starter against the Lions was nothing less than a summary case study of the dysfunction within the Marc Trestman regime, which gave Clausen not only not the best chance for player success, but arguably set Clausen up in the worst possible circumstances and for failure.

[MORE - John Fox message after Bears’ loss: 'We’ll find guys who want to do it']

The Clausen-for-Cutler change was announced to the players on Tuesday morning after a Monday night disaster against the New Orleans Saints. So Clausen, who had not taken a regular-season snap in four years, was going to get his comeback snap coming off an already short week.

Trestman added to Clausen’s challenge by then giving the team Wednesday off, removing one of the two main practice days from Clausen’s already short week. Finally, just to make it really interesting: A shaky quarterback’s best friend is a successful supporting run game, Clausen’s return to the NFL came against the Detroit Lions, the NFL’s No. 1 rushing defense. Sure enough, the Lions throttled Matt Forte, who finished with just 55 yards on 19 carries (2.9 ypc).

Clausen put up a line in the game that included 23-of-39 passing for 181 yards and a passer rating of 77.0. He was sacked twice and hit four times by Ndamukong Suh but threw for two touchdowns. He also threw one interception, on the final possession while driving toward a possible game-winning touchdown.

Critics dismissed Clausen as no better than Cutler had been. Considering the overall situation, having the Bears in position for a fourth-quarter win against a playoff team, the question should have been not how bad was Clausen, but rather how was he that effective and proficient under the circumstances?

Fast forward to Sunday, when Clausen entered again against the NFL’s Week 1 No. 1 run defense (Arizona), on an even shorter week than he had to prepare for Detroit last December (the backup QB gets little or no work during the week). Clausen’s line was a sub-standard 14-of-21 passing for 121 yards and a 56.6 rating also with an interception.

“The biggest thing is not getting [practice] reps with the 1’s [during the week] and a little different tone of voice being out there with those guys and changing up the snap count,” Clausen said as for the toughest part of the situation vs. Arizona. “There’s no excuse for it.”

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Medium

Decisions to be made on: Mitch Unrein (free agent), John Jenkins (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: Jared Crick, Frostee Rucker, Dominique Easley

This unit was consistently the Bears’ best in 2017, with Akiem Hicks playing at a Pro Bowl level (don’t let his exclusion from the game fool you on that) and Eddie Goldman putting together a rock-solid, healthy year. 

Hicks signed a four-year contract extension just before the season began and rewarded the Bears with a dominant year, racking up 8 ½ sacks and 15 tackles for a loss. Goldman played in and started 15 games and was a key reason why the Bears limited opposing rushers to four yards per carry, tied for the 10th-best average in the league. 

But while the Bears’ defensive line was certainly good, it wasn’t as good as it could’ve been. These words from Vic Fangio ring true for Hicks and Goldman:

“I think they all have a lot more to give to us than we’ve seen,” Fangio said. “And it’s our job to get them to improve and become even better players. That will be more important to us than anybody we can acquire between now and whenever our first game is. So, and I know it’s always sexy to talk between now and the first game, you know, who are you going to draft, who’s in free agency, etc., but we’ve got to get our so-called good players playing even better. And that will be critical.”

Hicks will enter Year 3 in Fangio’s scheme, while 2018 will be Goldman’s fourth. It’ll also be a critical year for Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris, who’ve flashed potential at times but haven’t been able to turn that into consistent success on the field. 

And that’s where we begin to look ahead to free agency and the draft. Is the Bears’ evaluation of Bullard -- their 2016 third-round pick -- positive enough to hand him a bigger role in 2018? That’s question No. 1 to answer, with No. 2 then being if the team should try to re-sign Mitch Unrein. 

It may be a bit risky to move forward with Bullard, given how popular Unrein was among the Bears’ defensive coaching staff. 

“He’s one of the glue guys on the defense and the team,” Fangio said last November. “Every team needs a few of those guys who are going to do everything right, full speed, hard and tough all the time, and that’s Mitch.”

Defensive line coach Jay Rodgers offered this up about Unrein back in October: “He allows those guys to play fast,” with “those guys” being Hicks and Goldman. 

Statistically, the 30-year-old Unrein doesn’t  jump off the page, but he did record a career high 2 ½ sacks in 2017. Perhaps there would be some benefits to continuity in the Bears’ base 3-4 defensive line.

Worth noting too is this position isn’t a huge need, given Unrein usually played between 40 and 55 percent of the Bears’ defensive snaps on a per-game basis last year. Keeping Unrein for a relatively low cap hit would make some sense, as opposed to testing free agency to replace him.

Jared Crick is coming off back surgery and an ineffective 2016; Dominique Easley is coming off his third torn ACL this decade; Frostee Rucker is in his mid-30’s. The Bears could look to pick a 3-4 defensive end in April, but that would be a pretty quick re-draft of the position and would be an indication they don’t think much of Bullard. This seems like a position where keeping the status quo is likely, save maybe for replacing John Jenkins with a different backup behind Goldman. 

2017 Bears position grades: Offensive Line

2017 Bears position grades: Offensive Line

2017 grade: C+

Level of need: Medium

Decisions to be made on: Josh Sitton (contract), Eric Kush (contract), Hroniss Grasu (contract), Bobby Massie (contract), Tom Compton (free agent), Bradley Sowell (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: Andrew Norwell, D.J. Fluker, Justin Pugh, Josh Kline, Jonathan Cooper

How the Bears’ offensive line will shape up in 2018 begins with a decision on which the Bears are already on the clock. The team has until March 9 to pick up Josh Sitton’s 2018 option -- or, to put it another way, they have until March 9 to determine if Sitton was/is/will be good enough to justify keeping him and not netting about $8 million in cap savings, per Spotrac. 

For what it’s worth, Bleacher Report ranked Sitton as the league’s sixth-best guard in 2017. If the Bears’ grades of Sitton match those outside ones, then the team probably won’t cut him -- not destabilizing Mitchell Trubisky’s offensive line would be well worth the money in that case. While Sitton turns 32 in June, cutting him would put a lot of pressure on Kyle Long, who hasn’t been fully healthy since 2016. The Bears are hopeful that Long will be back to full strength after multiple offseason surgeries, but releasing Sitton and then signing/drafting his replacement would be a gamble on Long’s health. 

Sitton’s status is the first part of the Bears’ 2018 offensive line equation. There’s also a decision to be made on Bobby Massie, who Bleacher Report ranked as the NFL’s 14th-best right tackle last year but could be cut for about $5.5 million in cap savings, according to Spotrac. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Bears cut or kept both Sitton and Massie for now, then drafted an offensive lineman in the first round (like Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson or Texas tackle Connor Williams) and released one of them. Or they could keep both through the end of the 2018 season. All those options would make sense on some level.

What wouldn’t seem to make sense is the Bears cutting Sitton or Massie and replacing them with a free agent. This year’s offensive line free agent class, without adding any potential cap casualties to it, isn’t particularly strong. By Bleacher Report’s rankings, the best free agent right tackle is Houston’s Breno Giancomi, who’s 27th in that list -- 13 spots behind Massie. At left tackle, New England’s Nate Solder (No. 22) isn’t rated as highly as Charles Leno (No. 20), who we'll talk about in a bit here. 

The only potential upgrade available via free agency would be Carolina Panthers guard Andrew Norwell (No. 2 in B/R’s rankings), who’s 26 and is in line for a big payday this spring -- but that would seemingly be counter-intuitive to releasing Sitton and then potentially paying more money to a different guard, even if he’s younger and has more long-term upside. The Bears could opt for a cheaper guard in free agency who could have some potential working with respected O-line coach Harry Hiestand -- the Giants’ D.J. Fluker (57th in B/R’s rankings) or Justin Pugh (42nd) fit that mold, as would the Titans’ Josh Kline (37th) or Cowboys’ Jonathan Cooper (38th). Or the Bears could keep Sitton and still sign one of those guys as insurance in case Long and/or Eric Kush, who tore his ACL last training camp, isn’t ready to start the season. 

Tom Compton and Bradley Sowell proved to be serviceable backups last year and could be an option to return, even with a new coaching staff in place. The health of Kush, who was missed as a reliable backup in 2017, will be important in figuring out what the Bears' O-line depth looks like. Hroniss Grasu struggled when he was on the field and missed time due to a hand injury, and despite playing for offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich at Oregon could be on the chopping block before/during training camp. 

We’ll finish here with some thoughts on Leno and Cody Whitehair. Could the Bears upgrade at left tackle and displace Leno to the right side of the offensive line? Possibly, especially if Hiestand believes he can make that move work. But it’d be odd if the Bears shifted Leno off left tackle and then signed someone who’s older and, depending on the evaluator, not even as good as him. 

This is all probably a moot point, since the Bears’ internal evaluation of Leno is what matters here. Leno is 26 and the Bears believe he hasn’t reached his ceiling yet, so more than likely, he’s sticking where he is. At the very least, he’ll enter 2018 with a starting job on the Bears’ offensive line. 

One other offseason objective for Hiestand and the new coaching staff: Keeping Whitehair at the same position. Whitehair’s versatility felt like it worked against him at times last year, with the former regime opting to shift him between guard and center quite a bit from the start of training camp through the early part of the season. That instability seemed to affect Whitehair’s play, as he went through a bizarre patch of snapping issues after moving back to center and struggled to be as consistent as he was in 2016. But Whitehair finished 2017 strong, and keeping him at center for the entirety of 2018 could get him back on track to make his first Pro Bowl.