Leonard Floyd

The six Bears most likely to make the 2019 Pro Bowl

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The six Bears most likely to make the 2019 Pro Bowl

While no Bears were named to the initial NFC roster for the 2018 Pro Bowl, the future may not be bleak for this franchise's representation in Orlando. In the short-term, Akiem Hicks and Jordan Howard could be alternates to this season's Pro Bowl, but there are a handful of players currently on this roster that could make strong cases a season from now.

1. DL Akiem Hicks

Regardless of what defensive scheme the Bears have in 2018 -- 3-4 or 4-3 -- Hicks will be an anchor for whatever plans the team has on defense. He's been a force in 2017 with eight sacks and 15 tackles for a loss, a nice reward for Ryan Pace after he rewarded Hicks with a four-year contract extension in September. Don't be surprised if Hicks uses his initial Pro Bowl snub as part of his motivation to play at an even higher level in 2018. 

2. OL Cody Whitehair

Whitehair struggled at times in 2017, though perhaps that was due to him sliding between guard and center during training camp and then in the first few weeks of the regular season. But Whitehair is finishing this year strong, and he played close to a Pro Bowl level as a rookie in 2016. If he sticks at center in 2018, chances are he’ll make a strong case to earn a Pro Bowl bid in his third year in the league. 

3. RB Jordan Howard

Howard missed out on the Pro Bowl in 2018 despite being the NFC’s second-leading rusher with 1,069 yards through 14 games. Perhaps his low public profile played a role in that snub, with Los Angeles' Todd Gurley and New Orleans' Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara getting in over him. But Howard is one of the best running backs in the NFL, and if the Bears’ offense can evolve into something less conservative in 2018, chances are he won’t face loaded boxes as much as he has in 2017. According to NFL’s Next Gen stats, 41.2 percent of Howard’s runs have come with eight or more defenders in the box, the seventh-highest percentage among qualified running backs. 

4. RB Tarik Cohen

Cohen could make it as a running back and/or a return specialist in 2018, based on what we’ve seen from the explosive rookie in 2017. Cohen is already the Bears’ best offensive weapon, with 348 yards on 82 carries, 327 yards on 45 receptions and three offensive touchdowns. He’s returned a punt for a touchdown and had a 90-yard kick return called back on Saturday against the Detroit Lions. Whoever is coaching the Bears in 2018 will have a dynamic player on his hands; Cohen’s highlight-reel plays and engaging approach with the media will certainly keep him on many’s radar around the league. 

5. LB Leonard Floyd

Floyd wasn’t on track for a Pro Bowl bid in 2017 before he suffered a season-ending knee injury in November, but the flashes were there for the 2016 top-10 draft pick. The issue with Floyd’s nascent NFL career hasn’t been about his athleticism or potential, but with his ability to stay healthy, with concussions costing him a few games in 2016 and the knee injury wiping out nearly half a season in 2017. A healthy Floyd should be able to play at a Pro Bowl level in Year 3 with the Bears, but whether or not he can be healthy remains to be seen. 

6. QB Mitchell Trubisky

Trubisky’s 2017 numbers aren’t far off from those of most rookie quarterbacks in recent history, and it’s likely the No. 2 overall pick will improve in his second year as a pro. Whether that improvement will be great enough to get him into the Pro Bowl is another question, and may be more dependent on the offense he’s running and who he’s playing with in that offense. 

Projecting what holes the Bears will have to fill on their 2018 depth chart

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Projecting what holes the Bears will have to fill on their 2018 depth chart

On Wednesday’s edition of the Under Center Podcast, John “Moon” Mullin and I broke down the Bears’ current depth chart, and which players on it will and won’t be back in 2018. 

The genesis of the pod, which you can listen to below, was with this color-coded depth chart:

 

Instead of a deep dive into each of these units, as we did on the podcast, this will more be a look at who those players are who are locked into roster spots in 2018. This should begin to paint a picture of where the Bears’ positions of need are heading into the offseason. 

OFFENSE
 
QB: Mitchell Trubisky
RB: Jordan Howard, Tarik Cohen
FB: 
WR: Cameron Meredith, Kevin White
TE: Dion Sims, Adam Shaheen
LT: Charles Leno Jr.
LG: Josh Sitton, Eric Kush
C: Cody Whitehair
RG: Kyle Long, Eric Kush
RT: 

The first point to note with any of these projections is we don’t know what the Bears offense and defense will look like in 2018 with a potentially different coaching staff in place (i.e., if that coaching staff wants a fullback). 

The biggest need on this side of the ball, clearly, is wide receiver. Meredith and White are both coming off injuries (for White, three injuries in three years), and it’s fair to wonder if they can be as productive as the Bears expected them to be this season. 

The top five receivers currently scheduled to hit free agency are Davante Adams (744 yards, 7 TDs), Jarvis Landry (699 yards, 6 TDs), Marqise Lee (637, 3 TDs), Paul Richardson (592 yards, 5 TDs) and Sammy Watkins (528 yards, 6 TDs). Dontrelle Inman and Kendall Wright could play their way into contracts with the Bears in 2018 — both are due to hit free agency, too — with good play down the stretch. Inman, especially, has quickly developed chemistry with Trubisky since being acquired from the Los Angeles Chargers in October. 

The Bears could also potentially see an upgrade at right tackle, depending on how they’ve evaluated Bobby Massie’s season and his potential cap savings if he’s released ($5.6 million, according to Spotrac). There will be a need to add depth behind these starting linemen — though if Kush returns healthy from a training camp ACL injury, that would be a boost. 

Not all of these offensive players are "core" guys, but Trubisky, Howard, Cohen, Sitton, Whitehair and Long should fit that designation. 
 
DEFENSE

DE: Akiem Hicks, Jonathan Bullard
DT: Eddie Goldman
OLB: Leonard Floyd
ILB: Danny Trevathan, Nick Kwiatkoski
CB: 
S: Eddie Jackson, Adrian Amos

Whether the Bears’ 2018 defense is a 3-4 (as run by Vic Fangio) or a 4-3 (as run by a different defensive coordinator) remains to be seen, but these eight players would fit any scheme. 

The clear need is at cornerback, with Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara becoming free agents next year. Marcus Cooper hasn’t played up to his contract and would save the Bears $4.5 million in cap room if he were released (again, per Spotrac). Nickel corners Bryce Callahan (a restricted free agent) and Cre’von LeBlanc could be back, as could special teams ace Sherrick McManis (an unrestricted free agent). Finding an upgrade at this position is a definite “must-do” for the Bears’ offseason checklist.

But so is adding at least one go-to edge rusher, regardless of scheme fit. Pernell McPhee and Willie Young aren’t guaranteed to be back, given their relative lack of production (largely in McPhee’s case), their injury histories (in both players’ cases) or their age (in Young’s case). But if the Bears pencil in Hicks and Floyd as go-to pass-rushers in 2018, they still need a third. 

The good news is Jackson and Amos proved to be a solid safety duo in 2017, and that should carry over to 2018 (Quintin Demps could return, but perhaps as a backup). Goldman has been one of the Bears’ best defensive players this year and could be in line for a contract extension in the offseason. Trevathan is a rock on this defense, too, and is another player on whom a 2018 defense can be built. 

The "core" guys in this group: Hicks, Goldman, Trevathan and Floyd. 
 
SPECIAL TEAMS

PK: 
Punter: 
Long snapper: Andrew DePaola, Patrick Scales

Pat O’Donnell will be a free agent, while the Bears’ revolving door of kickers in 2017 isn’t likely to produce a long-term solution in 2018. 
 

With Leonard Floyd going on injured reserve, will the Bears have a pressing need at outside linebacker in 2018?

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With Leonard Floyd going on injured reserve, will the Bears have a pressing need at outside linebacker in 2018?

The Bears placed Leonard Floyd on injured reserve Thursday morning, ending the second-year outside linebacker’s season following a knee injury suffered Sunday against the Detroit Lions. Floyd suffered an MCL and PCL injury and will have surgery in the next week, coach John Fox said, and the Bears do not have a timetable for his recovery yet. But that Floyd didn't suffer damage to his ACL is potentially good news for Floyd's recovery timetable. 

Still, with Floyd on injured reserve and out for the season, the Bears’ current outside linebacker depth chart consists of two veterans (Pernell McPhee and Sam Acho) and two practice squad signees (Isaiah Irving and Howard Jones). These final six games of the 2017 season could serve as auditions for all four players for roles on the 2018 Bears. 

If every team needs at least three good pass rushers, the Bears can count on Akiem Hicks and Floyd for 2018, provided Floyd comes back healthy. But who’s the third?

The Bears could save about $7.5 million in cap space if they release McPhee in 2018; if they were to cut ties with Willie Young, who’s on injured reserve right now as well, it would provide $4.5 million in cap relief. McPhee will be 29 in December, while Young will turn 33 next September. 

The Bears won’t necessarily need the cap relief next year, and could certainly decide to keep both players, who’ve shown they’re still productive when healthy. But even if both players are back, the Bears may need to add another outside linebacker via free agency of the draft — remember, the team could’ve began the season with Floyd, Young, McPhee, Acho and Lamarr Houston as their outside linebackers; an injury Houston suffered in the fourth preseason game ended his time in Chicago. 

Needs at wide receiver and cornerback are pressing, but outside linebacker may need to be in that same conversation. If the Bears have a top-10 pick for the fourth consecutive year, plus some cap space, they perhaps could have the ability to address all three needs in March and April. 

That may be looking a little too far into the future, though. The best-case for the Bears is McPhee finishes the season strong and Irving and/or Jones shows something in the opportunities they receive in these final six games (Jones, for what it’s worth, had five sacks as a rookie with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2015). But the worst-case — and perhaps the most realistic — is that the Bears go into the offseason needing to fill at least one pass-rushing spot.