Danny Trevathan

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Low

Decisions to be made on: Christian Jones (free agent), John Timu (free agent), Jonathan Anderson (free agent); Jerrell Freeman has reportedly been cut

Possible free agent targets: Demario Davis, Preston Brown, Anthony Hitchens, Avery Williamson, Navorro Bowman, Derrick Johnson

How the Bears rate Nick Kwiatkoski will be the key to figuring out what this unit will look like in 2018. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio thought Kwiatkoski finished last season strong, but strong enough to rely on him in 2018 as the starter next to Danny Trevathan?

The thing with the Bears’ inside linebackers, though: Trevathan makes whoever is playing next to him better. The problem is Trevathan hasn’t been able to stay on the field — he missed time in 2017 with a calf injury and a one-game suspension, and missed half of 2016 after rupturing his Achilles’. Trevathan hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2013, so durability is an issue for the soon-to-be 28-year-old.

So that leads to this question: Do the Bears need to find someone in free agency, regardless of how they value Kwiatkoski, who’s also missed time due to injuries in his first two years in the league?

Free agency could provide a few options. Demario Davis had a career high 97 tackles for the New York Jets last year and has never missed a game as a pro. Preston Brown had some decent production in Buffalo and also hasn’t missed a game since being drafted in 2014. Avery Williamson may not be a world-beater but has only missed one game in his four years in the NFL.

The Bears could also opt for someone who fits more of a rotational mold, like Dallas’ Anthony Hitchens, or try to lure a veteran linebacker like Navorro Bowman (who played for Vic Fangio in San Francisco) or Derrick Johnson (who Matt Nagy knows from his Kansas City days) to play next to Trevathan and/or Kwiatkoski.

The Bears could opt to keep the status quo and re-sign Christian Jones and John Timu for depth, and enter 2018 with Kwiatkoski and Trevathan as the team’s starters (Jerrell Freeman, who suffered a season-ending injury and then was hit with his second PED suspension in as many years, was cut on Tuesday). Signing a starting-caliber free agent isn’t out of the question, either, but there is a third option for the Bears if they appear to stand pat in free agency: Draft an inside linebacker in April. If that’s the route they go, Georgia’s Roquan Smith could be the guy. But again, those more pressing needs at other positions could mean the Bears don’t burn a first-round pick on an inside linebacker.

The Bears' pitch to prospective coaches will be enticing, but not perfect

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USA TODAY

The Bears' pitch to prospective coaches will be enticing, but not perfect

MINNEAPOLIS — The John Fox Era came to a close Monday morning, less than 24 hours after the 2017 season ended with a 23-10 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. 

As the Bears begin the search for their third head coach since firing Lovie Smith after the 2012 season, keep this in mind: It won’t be as simple as the Bears identifying their guy and hiring him. With plenty of franchises expected to also have head-coaching vacancies — including sides with established quarterbacks like the Indianapolis Colts and Detroit Lions — the Bears will have to pitch themselves, too.

New Year’s Eve wasn’t exactly a great pitch for the Bears, with Michael Burton the team’s leading rusher at halftime with one carry for zero yards (Jordan Howard carried five times for minus-one yard). Mitchell Trubisky made a rookie mistake when he flipped the ball to no one in the end zone for an intentional grounding-caused safety, and the offense didn’t cross midfield until early in the first quarter. The Bears committed 10 penalties; they finish the 2017 season having committed at least eight penalties in nine games.

But looking at the larger scope of the Bears, there are three clear ways Ryan Pace, Ted Phillips and George McCaskey can sell the Bears to prospective coaching candidates:

1. Mitchell Trubisky

While Trubisky’s final 2017 numbers might not look too impressive (seven touchdowns, seven interceptions), those are in line with what plenty of rookie quarterbacks have done in recent history. The No. 2 overall pick has shown flashes of brilliance this year and has the athleticism and intangibles to be molded into a much better player. His leadership qualities shined even as the Bears again slipped to the bottom of the NFC North: The best anecdotal evidence of that is multiple veteran offensive linemen saying Trubisky would tell them to “shut the f*** up” if they were goofing off in the huddle.

There’s no better way for a head coach to obtain job security than by developing and tying himself to a franchise quarterback. Trubisky’s already worked through a lot of the growing pains of being a rookie, and the Bears should be able to entice some of the league’s best coaching candidates with an improving, highly touted quarterback.

2. The rest of the core

In addition to Trubisky, a good number of the Bears’ best players are in Years 1 or 2 of their NFL careers: Jordan Howard, Tarik Cohen, Cody Whitehair, Leonard Floyd, Nick Kwiatkoski and Eddie Jackson fit that bill. Eddie Goldman and Adrian Amos just finished their respective third years in the league. Adam Shaheen flashed his potential a few times between when the coaching staff played him more (following Zach Miller’s injury) and a chest injury that wound up ending his season (after the Cincinnati game). Akiem Hicks was a home run free-agent signing, Danny Trevathan a rock-solid anchor of the defense and a healthy Kyle Long is a key building block.

There’s still a lot of building that has to happen to fill out this roster, with wide receiver, edge rusher and cornerback red-line needs. The Bears could look to upgrade at tackle, too. The free agency whiffs since Pace became the team’s general manager in 2015 — most recently and notably, Markus Wheaton and Marcus Cooper at those red-line positions — have made those needs even more pressing. The Bears won’t be able to address all of them through the draft; Pace will need to hit on a free agent signing or a trade if all of them will be filled.

But there’s enough of a core here — it’s certainly better than things were after the end of the Marc Trestman/Phil Emery Era — that the next coach won’t have to do as much “erasing” as Fox did when he took over in 2015.

3. Updated facilities

The Bears picked an odd time — 4:30 p.m. on a Friday — to announce plans to significantly expand and renovate Halas Hall back in November. But the renovations are designed to add plenty of space and resources for the team’s players and coaches, and could be a selling point for not only the next coach, but future free agents. The renovations are expected to be completed in time for the 2019 season and include:

— A 13,000-square-foot indoor turf space with a 133’x26’ video projection wall and an adjacent virtual reality room.

— The weight room being expanded by 2,000 square feet.

— The sports medicine space being four times larger than the current space; there will also be an equipment room, recovery space and a nutrition and fuel station that are double the current size at Halas Hall.

— Coaches offices increasing by 50 percent, and position meeting rooms doubling in capacity.

— The locker room being expanded by 1,700 square feet, and a 3,250 players’ lounge will be added.

— The cafeteria being expanded by 4,300 square feet.

— Two additional practice fields that are already under construction, doubling the team’s outdoor practice field capacity.

Bears players praise John Fox after what is likely to be his final game: 'I know he's a great coach'

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USA TODAY

Bears players praise John Fox after what is likely to be his final game: 'I know he's a great coach'

MINNEAPOLIS — John Fox’s postgame press conference lasted all of a minute following Sunday’s 23-10 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, with the third-year Bears coach, to paraphrase Marshawn Lynch, seemingly only there so he wouldn’t get fined.

“Look, I’m here, the league makes me be here to talk about this game, and that’s what we’ll keep it to,” Fox said when asked a question about his future. “And anything after that, we’ll keep you posted. Any other questions?”

There weren’t, besides a follow-up about if he really didn’t know when he’d meet with Ryan Pace and team ownership to decide his fate. Fox abruptly walked off the podium, bringing to end what all but certainly was his last press conference as head coach of the Bears.

The Bears didn’t announce a decision on Fox shortly after the game, as the Indianapolis Colts did in firing coach Chuck Pagano on Sunday afternoon. Players said Fox’s comments to the team after the game didn’t feel like a farewell address, and Fox did say (in his opening statement before taking two questions from the media) that he told the players “there’s a good culture in that locker room, there’s good guys. Obviously we need some pieces added. And really, to every one of them, to everybody in there, there’ll be better days moving forward.”

In all likelihood, the better days moving forward — if they happen — will be without Fox. If he indeed is on his way out, he’ll have left a largely positive impression on his players, even if they collectively are 14-34 in the last three years.

“He believes in us even when everyone else doubts,” linebacker Sam Acho said. “And for me as a player, you can’t ask for anything more. Everyone else is doubting you and he believes in the bottom of his heart, the depths of his soul. That’s all you can ask for as a player. You want a coach who believes — that was my only goal, when I was a free agent last year, my only goal was to go to a place who had a coach who believes in me. And coach Fox is that. That’s who he is.”

Added linebacker Danny Trevathan, who played for Fox in Denver from 2012 to 2014 prior to joining the Bears before the 2016 season: “I know he’s a great coach and whatever he does, he’s going to be good at.”

Fox does deserve credit for changing what was a less-than-harmonious culture after arriving at Halas Hall in 2015. The Bears didn’t quit on the 2017 season, even as the losses piled up, and Fox had a lot to do with that.

But does not quitting on a season really matter when the team is 5-11?

“The record don’t show it,” wide receiver Kendall Wright said, “but we played way better than what the record shows.”

Still, the record is the record. Fox has the second-worst winning percentage of any coach in Bears history, has a brutal 3-15 record against the NFC North and lost 10 or more games in all three of his seasons in Chicago. That’s a lot of losing.

Fox’s players, though, wanted to make it clear that they bore the biggest responsibility for that 14-34 record during his tenure.

“The coaches don’t play the game,” wide receiver Josh Bellamy said. “Players play the game. It’s not the coaches that play the game. It’s on the field. You don’t see a coach out there running routes or throwing the ball. All they do is call the plays and it’s up to the players to change the culture and make it happen. I feel like that’s what we gotta do and we gotta find way to do it.”

Akiem Hicks perhaps had the most poignant comments when discussing his likely soon-to-be-former coach. If and when Fox is fired in the coming hours, it’ll weigh on these players who, of course, understand the business side of things. They didn’t play well enough for Fox to keep his job, and the coaching staff didn’t coach well enough to justify a fourth year.

But there will be plenty of disappointment in the Bears’ locker room that they couldn’t do enough to save the job of a guy who is genuinely liked in there.

“It’s a guy you want to fight for week in, week out,” Hicks said. “You look up to (him) because he’s had so many championship-level teams. You almost want to be on his list of great teams and just somebody you respect and admire.

“There’s nobody that I think it weighs on more than Fox. When I leave the building 6:30, 7 at night, his truck is still there. He’s clocking his hours and doing his best to make us better.

“For him,” Hicks added, with a long pause to collect his thoughts, “I wish we had finished better.”