Josh Sitton

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

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USA Today

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. 
 

Bears need rookies to develop immediately to keep playoff hopes alive

Bears need rookies to develop immediately to keep playoff hopes alive

Nick Kwiatkoski found out something about the rookie “wall” about this time last year, his first in the NFL. It wasn’t even the games themselves, the first three preseason ones and the first two of the regular season, which Kwiatkoski missed with a severe hamstring injury. It isn’t even the grind of training camp, much of which Kwiatkoski had to sit out with the hamstring. It was all of it.

“I went right from my senior year into this point of the year and I felt drained,” Kwiatkoski said, shaking his head. “It’s such a difference from what you’re used to in college. Now it’s football-football-football, all the time. That plays into it.

“My bowl game [at West Virginia] was on a Saturday. I was back in training that Monday. I went and did that for three months – Senior Bowl, Combine, Pro Day, I was still training. OTA’s, minicamps. We got a break before the season but that didn’t feel like anything. Then you’re into the season.”

Limited workloads for ’17 draft class

Any rookie “wall” may be a relative threshold for the Bears, who may be making major changes but not yet with their rookies doing heavy loads. Only one rookie has started all eight games and none of the draft choices have played as many as 50 percent of the snaps on either offense or defense. The Bears need that to change.

The Bears and their rookies are deep into the season now, with players getting deep into their on-field preparations for the Green Bay Packers next Sunday and beginning the second half of the 2017. Over the past week-plus, a number of “resets” will have occurred, both physical and mental.

Both can be a problem, and right now the Bears’ margin for error at 3-5 is perilously thin for any coping with any problems.

“I did hit a wall,” said guard Josh Sitton, recalling his 2008 rookie season as a Packer. “I was ready to get the [heck] outta there. I remember it. My O-line coach actually called me in his office and said, ‘You look dead.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I feel like it.’”

The rookies have been practicing at an NFL level with veterans since the start of training camp at the end of July. But only safety Eddie Jackson had won his starting job by opening day; Jackson has started every game and played unofficially 99.6 percent of the opposing snaps.

Quarterback Mitch Trubisky replaced Mike Glennon four games ago, and has played 233 snaps. Tight end Adam Shaheen also has started four games but played barely 20 percent of the Bears’ snaps. With Zach Miller’s season-ending knee injury, a major void opens, with Shaheen now needed to play up to the level of a second-round draft choice, which he hasn’t.

The Case of Cohen

Running back Tarik Cohen became aware of the “wall” over the break, “going back home and seeing [alma mater North Carolina A&T’s] schedule and seeing they have two games left, possibility of three games left, and we [the Bears] have eight. So that's the only thing that really caught me off guard.”

Cohen has been in all eight games but started only one (Tampa Bay) and played 38 percent of the offensive snaps. Cohen, however, has played 49 snaps on special teams as the Bears’ primary kick and punt returner, particularly with Deonte Thompson released and Benny Cunningham missing time with a sprained ankle.

The novelty of Cohen has more than worn off, more like possibly worn “down” as in Cohen touches producing diminishing returns as the rookie season of the undersized running back hits the midpoint. Injuries have taken Cunningham (5-10, 217 pounds) out of the rotation to the point where Cohen has been pressed into a role for which he isn’t really designed, and the Bears now very much need Cunningham. Very much.

Cohen had double-digit touches (handoffs plus targets) in five of the Bears’ first six games, too much of an NFL workload for a player measuring 5-6 and 185 pounds and in his first NFL season after a small-college career. Viewed using the Darren Sproles template for diminutive backs: Sproles had no more than four offensive touches in a game until deep into his third season, by which time he’d developed more physically even with a second season spent on IR.

Like Sproles, Cohen is handling kick returns but is also carrying the football and working as a receiver. Cohen played 18 offensive snaps against New Orleans, plus nine on special teams, compared to 3 snaps for Cunningham, none on special teams.

Health is an obvious factor. But while it has been one for Cunningham, the risk now is that it will become one for an over-used Cohen. The gold standard for undersized backs is perhaps Warrick Dunn, who burst on the NFL with huge usage and production for Tampa Bay in ’97. But Dunn was out of Florida State at a time when the ‘Noles were perennially part of the national-championship discussion, a different exposure than Cohen’s, or Sproles’ for that matter.

The off-week (not the “bye” – a bye is what happens when you advance a round in a tournament or playoffs without a scheduled match) is a time for self-scouting; best guess is that Cohen’s usage will come up.

“I feel like I’m good. I’m refreshed,” Cohen said. “The bye week came at a perfect time. But even before the bye week I didn’t necessarily feel like I was getting sluggish or running into any type of wall.

“I feel like it’s been going well. I don’t feel like I’ve been overworked or had an overload put on me. I feel like I’m talking everything they want me to do in the playbook and really running with it in stride because it’s not necessarily a lot in one area, it’s just bits and pieces in a lot of areas, so I feel like I’m able to handle that.”

Playoffs? You kidding me? Bears should be in conversation

Playoffs? You kidding me? Bears should be in conversation

Chicago Bears, playoffs, 2017 – where are you?

"Playoffs? Don't talk about—playoffs?! You kidding me? Playoffs?!... .”   Jim Mora, Indianapolis Colts coach, 2001.

or...

“I do expect [the Bears] to be in the playoff conversation come mid/late December,” Chris Simms to NBC Sports Chicago.

*                          *                          *                          *​ 

Josh Sitton was a Pro Bowl Green Bay guard when the 2015 Packers began that season going 1-2, at which point quarterback Aaron Rodgers in a radio interview gave Green Bay fans a simple word of advice:

“R-E-L-A-X,” said Rodgers, who’d uncharacteristically completed less than 60 percent of his passes in the previous two games.

The stress-reduction suggestion appeared to work somewhere, since the Packers rolled off 10 wins in their next 11 games on their way to an overtime loss in the NFC Championship game to eventual Super Bowl champion Seattle.

It’s obviously easy to relax when Aaron Rodgers is your quarterback: “It’s about the confidence that comes from winning,” said Sitton, a first-team All-Pro that season and one of the obvious reasons Rodgers was relaxed. “Winning is a habit, and people start buying in more and more when they start winning. That’s human nature.”

The Bears at 3-5 likely aren’t going to be issuing any “R-E-L-A-X” dictums. But neither are they treating the second half of this season as just games.

Even without a culture reinforced by winning over the recent past, a winning mentality and belief “is possible, absolutely,” Sitton said. “You can see the difference around here, the way we’re playing. Guys believe. Guys are buying in. That comes with a couple wins in a row, and a couple games we lost, we know we could have won those games.”

(Sitton has been here before: The Packers were 2-2 in Rodgers’ first four starts, with Sitton a rookie guard that season. The Bears are 2-2 in Mitch Trubisky’s first four starts, for anyone who’s keeping score.)

Math being what it is, the Bears at the midpoint of their season do have playoff possibilities. The reason is simply that they have turned something around since the woeful start behind Mike Glennon, although the Bears were within a couple dropped Glennon passes of upending Atlanta in Week 1. They have won two of their last three games and own wins over Pittsburgh (6-2) and Carolina (6-3).

“You can just see the upside he has, you know, especially in the huddle, the intangibles like the leadership he has,” said running back Tarik Cohen. “You can feel that in the huddle, just feel that he's going to make the play and if you listen to him he'll lead you to the right … and the promised land.”

Which could be excused as hyperbole around a rookie quarterback who isn’t completing half his passes, but Cohen’s a rookie, too, so… .

Since 1990, Elias Sports Bureau reports that nine teams have started 3-5 and reached the playoffs. In seven of the last eight seasons, the NFC North has sent a wild card to the playoffs with at least five losses, four times with six losses. The margin of error is slim given the Bears’ five losses already, but far stranger things have happened.

“Hopefully we can stay a little bit more consistent as far as lineups,” coach John Fox said. “We have to be right on top of it. When we are, we win. And we’ve lost some close games, we’ve won some close games. I’d rather see that be more consistent in the second half.”

But the simple fact of the matter is that the Bears ARE within sight of the playoffs. And if there’s a team other than the Philadelphia Eagles, perhaps maybe the L.A. Rams based on sheer points production, that’s run away from the pack, you’ll need to make that case.

Because the Bears have beaten the Steelers and had potential game-winning possessions against Minnesota (6-2) and New Orleans (6-2). Blame parity or whatever, but the leaders aren’t out of sight up ahead of the Bears.

With that as context, NBC Sports Chicago is happy to provide this Viewers Guide to the Bears’ 2017 second half:

Week 10: Green Bay Packers (4-4)

The Bears are favored this time, not shocking given the projected absence of Rodgers. The only time the Packers faced the Bears without full-metal Rodgers was the first Bears-Packers game of 2013, when Rodgers went down and out early from a Shea McClellin tackle. The Packers couldn’t beat the Bears with Seneca Wallace that night, and Brett Hundley has a ways to go to reach Wallace’s level. W (Bears record: 4-5)

Week 11: Detroit Lions (4-4)

As abysmal as last season was, the Bears defeated the Lions in Soldier Field and did it with Jordan Howard rushing for 111 yards in his first NFL start, and with Brian Hoyer being the un-Jay Cutler (zero INT’s). Howard is the NFL’s No. 5 rushing-yardage leader and tied for third in first downs among backs. And Trubisky has sounded like he grasps the concept of ball security and the evils of giveaways. W (Bears record: 5-5)

Week 12: at Philadelphia Eagles (8-1)

This one will be a load. Carson Wentz is the template for trading up to No. 2 in the draft for a quarterback. Alshon Jeffery is happy in Philly. The Bears and Eagles are about equal defensively in yards and points allowed, but the Eagles are averaging 31.4 points per game; the Bears haven’t scored 30 points in even one game in nearly two full seasons (31 games). L (Bears record: 5-6)

Week 13: San Francisco 49ers (0-9)

The 49ers were one of the Bears’ three victims last season. They will likely defeat someone this year, just probably not the Bears in Soldier Field. W (Bears record: 6-6)

Week 14: at Cincinnati Bengals (3-5)

After missing the playoffs for only the second time in the last eight years, coach Marvin Lewis wasn’t given a contract extension last offseason, leaving him in the final year of his contract, a situation that could be matched next year by Fox and the Bears. The Bengals, perennial first-round losers in the playoffs, should be playing out the string right about the times the Bears show up. W (Bears record: 7-6)

Week 15: at Detroit (3-4)

The Bears haven’t won in Ford Field since 2012. This looms as a potential tipping-point game, possibly for both teams. L (Bears record: 7-7)

Week 16: Cleveland Browns (0-9)

So many jokes, so little time. W (Bears record: 8-7)

Week 17: at Minnesota Vikings (6-2)

The Bears had a chance to upend the Vikings in Trubisky’s first start. That chance ended with an interception leading to a game-winning Minnesota field goal. The Bears haven’t won in Minnesota since 2011. This won’t be in the snow at TCF Bank field but if the Bears hit town with a shot at the playoffs… . W (Bears record: 9-7).

(There – that wasn’t so hard, was it?)