Bears

Roach more than just a fill-in at middle linebacker

837397.png

Roach more than just a fill-in at middle linebacker

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. Midway through the Bears Monday practice, Nick Roach intercepted a Jay Cutler pass in the seven-on-seven drill that decidedly favors the offense. It was notable in part because Roach has never had an NFL interception in his five NFL seasons.

Considerably more notable, however, was where Roach was when he made the pick.

Roach, 26, for the fifth straight day, was in the middle linebacker spot that has been the domain of Brian Urlacher for more than a decade and still is, pending Urlachers return from knee soreness. Roach is expected to be the starting middle linebacker Thursday against the Denver Broncos.

And he is being considered by the Bears as the possible successor to Urlacher, whenever that time comes.

All of which makes Thursdays preseason game against Denver a little more interesting, given where Roach is expected to play.

The perception that the Bears have not planned for life after Urlacher is not exactly accurate. Urlacher is in the final year of his contract (so is Roach) and not contemplating retirement, having just turned 34 in May. The Bears have not addressed his contract situation, meaning that free agency is an obvious possibility, but thats a story thatll play itself out in the months ahead.

For now, the Bears believe they have a middle linebacker in the pipeline. He just happens to be starting at strongside linebacker. For now.

We feel very comfortable with Nick as our middle linebacker, coach Lovie Smith said.

Recent experience

Smith was comfortable moving Roach to middle linebacker once before. When Urlacher went down in 2009 with a fractured wrist, Roach started three games at Mike linebacker. It didnt work especially well and Hunter Hillenmeyer went to the middle (which also didnt particularly work, either).

But Roach has had two more full seasons in the Chicago defense, two more years of learning under a master in Urlacher as well as Smith and coordinator Rod Marinelli.

Its obviously better now being around it longer and watching Brian for a couple more years, Roach told CSNChicago.com. So theres definitely a higher level of comfort knowing what to expect. Im good with it and knowing how to react.

One popular notion was that the soft-spoken Roach simply wasnt loud enough for the job. There were other reasons, however, having nothing to do with decibels.

Nick knows the defense, Lance Briggs said. Nick knows the defense as well as anyone. The Lord didnt bless his vocals to go higher than what they go. He has a max on it.

But Nicks good at it. He knows how to communicate. We all know how to communicate. Thats the key.

Draft indicators

The Bears with the SmithMarinelli defensive scheme will not spend a high pick to draft a middle linebacker (or a nose tackle, for that matter; Stephen Paea is projected as a three-technique ultimately). Shea McClellin is not going to middle linebacker.

More to the point, the Bears 2012 draft was noteworthy for what they did not do as well as for what they did. The lack of a move to select an offensive lineman was a statement on what the organization felt about the line.

The Bears, despite Briggs and Urlacher both past 30 years of age, also did nothing to put a young linebacker in the pipeline. Blake Costanzo was signed last offseason but primarily for special teams. Five-year-vet Geno Hayes was signed but at 226 pounds is not a middle linebacker.

The Bears did look at a linebacker in the draft but did not have a need that overrode their draft board and made no move.

Part of the reason was Roach.

Job description

The Bears are explicit on what they require a middle linebacker to be. He must be more than 230 pounds (Roach is 234). He has to be mobile enough to drop and cover in the middle (Roach was lettered in track and basketball in high school). And he absolutely must be intelligent enough to have full mastery of the defense (Roach is a Northwestern graduate).

Indeed, the mobility and intelligence combination is critical because the Bears Mike linebacker cannot come off the field in passing situations he calls the defense.

In the case of Urlacher, hes the No. 1 communicator, making all the checks, giving all the alerts, pre-snaps, telling everybody in the huddle what to look for, Roach said. His communication is what keeps everybody at the highest level.

Roach does not fit the traditional stereotype of a middle linebacker, a run-stopping plugger in times past. But the game has changed, which is why a Ray Lewis is playing lighter.

And Urlacher fits no mold, either. His career success has been based on speed, not bulk. The Bears have ranked second and fifth in run defense the past two years with linebackers whose first requirement is being able to play in space.

Which is where Roach was Monday when he made his interception.

For Bears drafting at No. 8, the 'problem' with Notre Dame G Quenton Nelson is...

quenton-nelson.jpg
USA TODAY

For Bears drafting at No. 8, the 'problem' with Notre Dame G Quenton Nelson is...

In the aptly-named mock drafts to this point, this reporter has posited the Bears selecting Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson. That’s not the complete story, however. There’s a “problem.”

The landscape: The Bears currently sit at No. 8 overall; Nelson is rated among the best prospects, regardless of position, in the 2018; Nelson is the consensus top offensive lineman in this draft; the Bears have an immediate need on the interior of their offensive line (at guard or center, depending upon where where the new coaching staff slots Cody Whitehair); and among the prime directives for GM Ryan Pace is the protection of franchise quarterback Mitch Trubisky.

And full disclosure: This reporter does see Nelson to the Bears, just not at No. 8, and presumably if the Bears do not address the post-Josh Sitton situation in free agency.

But there’s a problem. A couple, actually, and having nothing to do specifically with Nelson.

The “problem” centers (no pun intended) around his position: Guard.

Guards do not typically come off the board within the first 10 picks of drafts. Worse for guards, when they do, they don’t work out well. In the last five drafts, only two guards were selected within the first 10 picks, both in the 2013 draft, both (Jonathan Cooper, No. 7; Chance Warmack, No. 10) already undistinguished and both already on their second teams.

Great guards are indeed to be found in first rounds. But relevant NFL history says that they do not come early. Selectively, to wit:

Player Drafted Year
David DeCastro 24 2012
Alan Faneca* 26 1998
Steve Hutchinson* 17 2001
Kyle Long 20 2013
Zack Martin 16 2014

* 2017 Hall of Fame semifinalist

Meaning: Assuming the Bears do not spend starter money in free agency on the like of Andrew Norwell, Justin Pugh, Zach Fulton or (insert UFA name here). Parenthetically on the draft-value aspect of good guards, Norwell was undrafted, Pugh was the 2013 pick just ahead Long, as a tackle, and Fulton was a sixth-rounder.

Pace predilections: “stat” players

Pace is in desperate need of impact players in both the draft and free agency. A guard is simply not in the “impact” vein as Pace’s first three No. 1 draft picks, all top-10’ers and all with something in common that a guard does not bring: stats.

Stats themselves aren’t the point, and an elite offensive lineman contributes to the stats of everyone else on his unit. But 2015 No. 1 Kevin White is a wide receiver; they catch passes and score touchdowns. Pace’s 2016 No. 1 was a rush-linebacker who generates sacks; Leonard Floyd. And 2017 No. 1 was Mitch Trubisky. All players with the potential for producing major-impact, game-changing stat plays.

Conversely, Pace’s New Orleans touchstone was an offensive line that protected Drew Brees with mid-rounders Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks at guard, and no offensive lineman drafted higher than the second round (Jon Stinchcomb).

Best guess, too, is that new head coach Matt Nagy, who’ll obviously be an intimate part of the draft process, will not be pounding the table for a guard, or perhaps for any offensive lineman with that first first-round pick of his tenure. The Kansas City Chiefs got just a so-so starting tackle (Eric Fisher) with the No. 1-overall pick of the 2013 draft while Nagy was there. And the very good Philadelphia Eagles teams took exactly one offensive lineman higher than the fourth round during Nagy’s years there (2008-12) with Andy Reid – and that pick was a guard (Danny Watkins) picked at No. 23, and who was a bust.

Conclusion: If Nelson is far, far and away the highest-graded player on the Bears’ draft board, Pace will make that move – if, and only if, Pace cannot trade down and add the picks that every GM craves as part of franchise-building, which is where the Pace-Nagy administration stands.

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

0222-joe-maddon.jpg
USA TODAY

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

MESA, Ariz. — The frequent mission of spring training is to iron out a 25-man roster.

But at Cubs camp, that mission seems to already be completed.

With an entire Cactus League schedule still to play, the Cubs’ 25-man group that will leave Arizona for the season-opener in Miami seems pretty well set.

The starting rotation: Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood.

The position-player group: Willson Contreras, Victor Caratini, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, Tommy La Stella, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist.

The bullpen: Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, Brian Duensing, Justin Wilson and Justin Grimm.

Boom. There’s your 25.

Joe Maddon, do you agree?

“You guys and ladies could probably write down what you’re seeing and be pretty accurate,” Maddon said Thursday. “I can’t deny that, it’s true. Oftentimes, when you’re a pretty good ball club, that is the case. When you’re not so good, you always get auditions during spring training.

“I think what the boys have done is they’ve built up a nice cache in case things were to happen. The depth is outstanding. So you could probably narrow it down, who you think’s going to be the 25, and I won’t argue that.”

It’s the latest example in a camp that to this point has been full of them that the Cubs are one of baseball’s best teams and that only a World Series championship will fulfill expectations. Had the front office stuck with a starting rotation of Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, Chatwood and Montgomery, then there would’ve been a spot open in the bullpen. But the statement-making signing of Darvish jolted the Cubs into “best rotation in the game” status, sent Montgomery back to the bullpen and further locked the roster into place.

Guys like Grimm and La Stella have been forced off the 25-man roster at points in recent seasons, though even their spots seem safe. Maddon even said that a huge spring from someone else wouldn’t mean as much at what guys have done at the major league level in recent memory.

“Spring training performance, for me, it’s not very defining,” Maddon said. “You’re going to be playing against a lot of guys that aren’t going to be here, more Triple-A guys, even some Double-A guys. Some guys come in better shape, they normally look better early. The vibe’s different. You play a couple innings, you don’t get many at-bats, the pitcher doesn’t see hitters three times and vice versa. So I don’t worry about that as much.

“It’s more about, guys that might be fighting for a moment, what do they look like, does it look right, does it look good, how do they fit in? Is there somebody there that you scouted? Because what matters a lot is last year and what you did last year and the last couple months of last year.

“So of course guys that have been here probably have a bit of an upper hand, but we’re very open-minded about stuff. And I think when you look at the guys, you’re right, it’s probably pretty close to being set. But stuff happens.”

Could the recently signed Shae Simmons give Grimm an unexpected challenge for the final relief spot? Maddon said guys who have been with the Cubs in the recent past have a leg up. Could Chris Gimenez turn his experience with Darvish into a win over Caratini for the backup catcher spot? Maddon threw cold water on the "personal catcher" narrative last week.

Of course, Maddon left the door open the possibility of an injury that could open up a roster spot and even shake up the depth chart. But barring the unforeseen, this 25-man group looks locked into place.

That gives the Cubs an edge, perhaps, in that they can specifically find ways to tune up those guys rather than focus on getting enough at-bats for players who are fighting for roster spots. But most of that edge came during the winter, and in winters and summers past, when the front office built this team into a championship contender.

There have been plenty of years when the fans coming to Mesa to watch the Cubs play in spring training saw the blossoming of a big league player thanks to a monster spring or a surprise tear during March. That’s going to be unlikely this spring, a reflection of just how far this team has come.

“It’s easy for me to reflect on this because when I started out with the Rays, wow,” Maddon said. “That was a casting call trying to figure it out. You had very few settled positions when you walked in the door. And then as we got better, it became what we’re talking about. As we moved further along, you were pretty much set by the time (you got to spring training) except for one or two spots.

“So I think the better teams are like that.”

The Cubs are most definitely one of those better teams.