Fire

Kiper has Te'o, Eifert projected as first-round picks

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Kiper has Te'o, Eifert projected as first-round picks

In the sense of competing for a National Championship, getting their degrees and being captains on the team that brought Notre Dame back, the decisions of Manti Teo and Tyler Eifert to return to South Bend for their senior seasons look like pretty good ones.

Id be kicking myself if I couldnt be a part of this team, Eifert said in November.

But for the pairs next step, the move to return certainly improved each players draft stock.

ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper, Jr., has Teo ranked No. 2 on his early big board and Eifert as the best tight end in Aprils NFL Draft, although theres obviously plenty of potential for movement over the next four months.

For Eifert, Kipers comments were essentially what coach Brian Kelly has been getting at all year -- the seniors production may be down, but hes a much better tight end than he was a year ago. With one game left, Eifert has 19 fewer catches and 179 fewer yards than he did in 2011, when he led all FBS tight ends in receptions and yards.

But Eifert won the Mackey Award -- given to the nations top tight end -- in 2012, signaling there are plenty outside South Bend who see him as more than just a pass-catcher.

He has great ability to adjust, he has great ball skills, go up and get it, Kiper explained. And his blocking has significantly improved. He's a complete tight end. blocking was the big thing he answered very positively and definitively this year.

John Mullin: 2013 draft could see 5 OTs taken in first round

Eiferts a guy who some Bears fans have keyed on as the solution for the teams tight end woes, understandable given his success and Kellen Davis shortcomings. Others have looked to Teo as Brian Urlachers successor, although having No. 5 suit up for Chicago is far more of a pipe dream.

Kiper expects Teo to be selected in the first five picks, a rarity for an inside linebacker. But he explained Teo made strides in his pass-coverage ability, helping ease concerns about his ability to be a three-down linebacker.

But with such a high projection comes added scrutiny -- and despite Teos seven interceptions (most by an FBS linebacker since 2000) there are questions about his ability to be a three-down linebacker.

There's still going to be some concern about (pass coverage), because at the pro level there's a little different from playing at Notre Dame and the kind of opponents, college players you're seeing, Kiper explained. There still are concerns, what his 40 time ends up being, there are people that will say what's his 40 time going to be, how fast will he prove out to be?

In a normal year, Kiper would project Teo somewhere in the No. 10-12 pick range, but without an elite skill player entering the 2013 draft hes likely to be among the first few to come off the board.

Joao Meira spills the first news of the Fire's offseason

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USA TODAY

Joao Meira spills the first news of the Fire's offseason

The wait to find out which players have their options picked up or declined by the Fire might still be a couple weeks, but the first news of a player move in the Fire's offseason came via Twitter.

Defender Joao Meira announced he won't be returning to the club in 2018.

Meira signed with the Fire just before the start of the 2016 preseason after being out of contract in Europe. The Portuguese center back signed a one-year deal with a club option for the second year.

After he played 28 matches with 26 starts in 2016, the Fire picked up his option. He became even more of a fixture at center back in 2017, beating out Jonathan Campbell for the other starting spot alongside Johan Kappelhof. Meira played in 30 regular season matches and made 27 starts, finishing fourth on the team in minutes played (2,412).

That Meira won't be back isn't a major surprise for a few reasons. First, he was out of contract. He was one of two players, along with Bastian Schweinsteiger, on the Fire's roster that the team had no control over for 2018. On top of that, the 30-year-old had made it clear that he wanted to be closer to his home and family in Portugal.

Meira's departure leaves a gap at the center back position for the Fire. Kappelhof, who enters the third year of a three-year guaranteed deal in 2018, and Campbell, who will likely have his club option picked up, enter as the only healthy center backs in 2018. Christian Dean was added in August via trade, but is coming off a broken foot, an injury that has plagued him before. His status for the start of the 2018 season is unclear.

Grant Lillard, a potential homegrown signing and a senior at Indiana, could compete for time at center back next season. He is one of the top rated players in the country for the Hoosiers, which are the No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. While Lillard could step in from a numbers perspective and would add size to the Fire's back line (Lillard is 6-foot-4), he wouldn't be able to replace Meira's ability on the ball. Meira wasn't as effective of a defender as Kappelhof, but was arguably the best passer among the Fire's center backs and helped alleviate pressure at times.

This also opens up an international spot on the Fire's roster. The Fire went over the alloted total last season, but were able to put John Goossens and Jorge Bava on the disabled list to clear room. Meira's exit gives a bit more flexibility in that department.

Bears-Lions prediction: Will special teams continue John Fox's NFC North woes?

Bears-Lions prediction: Will special teams continue John Fox's NFC North woes?

Only three of John Fox’s 12 wins as Bears coach have been against NFC North opponents, while 12 of his 29 losses have come against divisional opponents. 

That’s a recipe for back-to-back-to-back last place finishes in the NFC North. And if the Bears can’t beat an Aaron Rodgers-less Green Bay Packers team, why could it beat a Detroit Lions team that has a healthy franchise quarterback?

The positive end of that answer is the Bears do have wins over two playoff teams (Pittsburgh and Carolina) while six of their four losses have been by eight points or fewer. Sunday’s game will probably be close, again (if it’s not, and the Bears are on the losing end of it, it would raise some significant concerns about the state of Fox within the locker room). 

So if the game is decided by one possession or less, this could be the difference: Detroit has one of the best special teams units in the NFL, ranking second in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, while the Bears are 28th by the same measure. 

Getting Sherrick McManis back this week should help solidify Jeff Rodgers’ special teams units, but Jamal Agnew has two punt return scores and is averaging 18.3 yards per return. 

“Tough guy — he’ll return inside and outside,” Rodgers said. “He’s got multiple longer returns against people this year. it’s not just, ‘I had a long return in Week 2 or Week 1,’ and kinda held onto that. he’s been productive in a lot of games. certainly a guy that we’ve gotta do a good job against.”

If the Bears don’t do a good job bottling up Agnew, though, he could be the reason why the game flips to Detroit — or, at least, why the Lions keep the Bears at arm’s length. 

Prediction: Lions 24, Bears 16