Kendall Wright

Free agent focus: Which players could the Bears look to keep?

Free agent focus: Which players could the Bears look to keep?

The first decisions general manager Ryan Pace will have to make later this month are on which of his own players from the 2017 season he’d like to try to retain. There are 10 key names here to focus on before negotiations with other teams can begin March 12 and contracts can be finalized March 14.

Dontrelle Inman

Inman brought some much-needed length to the Bears’ receiving corps when Pace traded for him in October, and he caught 13 of 22 targets for 195 yards in his first three games in Chicago. But Inman’s production tailed off, with Mitchell Trubisky targeting him only eight times (with five receptions) for 45 yards and a touchdown in his next four games before Inman finished the season with five catches on 10 targets for 94 yards against the Minnesota Vikings. 

Former offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said in December that Inman’s decrease in usage was because teams quickly figured out that they could take him out of the gameplan by training their focus on him.

“Coverage,” Loggains said. “That’s as simple as it is. Nothing that he’s done or we’re trying to take him out of progressions.”

That’s not surprising — Inman isn’t a No. 1 receiver who can beat that kind of coverage — but the 6-foot-3 former Charger could be an option to return, and would be better suited as a rotational guy or someone who isn’t relied on to be the top target for Trubisky. 

Kendall Wright

The 28-year-old Wright led the Bears in targets (91) receptions (59) and yards (614) and played in all 16 games for the first time since his breakout 2013 season. But the Bears preferred to try to limit Wright’s snaps, as Loggains explained in October: “When he gets to play in that 25-35 range and he’s fresh and can bring the energy and juice,” he said. 

The Bears’ plan for Wright when they signed him a year ago was to have him be a complementary piece to their three top outside targets (Cameron Meredith, Kevin White, Markus Wheaton). With Meredith and White suffering season-ending injuries by the end of Week 1 and Wheaton proving to be a bust, the Bears had to rely on Wright more than they would’ve liked. 

As long as the Bears can better fill out the rest of their receiver depth chart, Wright not only would be a prime candidate to return, but someone who could be a productive part of the 2018 offense. 

Mark Sanchez

Sanchez wasn’t active for any of the Bears’ 16 games but still made a positive impact on the team in 2017. Specifically, the 31-year-old had a strong relationship with Trubisky, and the Bears could aim to keep that relationship intact. 

“He did a good job this year, all the things we value with him, his veteran leadership and his experiences,” Pace said, adding that Sanchez has expressed a desire to return to the Bears. “He’s a free agent, those are all evaluations that are ongoing.”

The bigger question is if the team believes Sanchez could be a viable backup after not dressing for a single game in 2017. There are other options on the free agent market, but it’s worth noting that one of those guys — Chase Daniel, who has connections to Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy — also didn’t throw a pass in 2017 (and has only thrown three since the end of the 2014 season).

Tom Compton

Compton was a steady presence as a reserve when he played and has the flexibility to play both guard and tackle. If Eric Kush is healthy after tearing his ACL last August, Compton could be a candidate to return as a swing tackle, or the Bears could look for someone on the free agent market. Worth noting is Compton’s relatively frequent presence on the Bears’ weekly injury reports last season. 

Zach Miller

Miller, unfortunately, doesn’t seem likely to play football again after dislocating his knee and tearing his popliteal artery against the New Orleans Saints, which nearly led to his leg being amputated. If Miller’s playing career is over, it’s a shame given he was one of the most well-liked players to pass through Halas Hall in recent memory. 

Kyle Fuller

If Pace were to use the franchise tag on Fuller, it likely would be a bridge to a long-term contract extension instead of using it to keep the cornerback under control for another year at $15 million. Fuller was one of four cornerbacks to break up 20 or more passes in 2017, but his inconsistent play in 2014 and 2015, as well as the injury that cost him the entire 2016 season, does present some risk. 

The Bears could opt to not use the franchise tag on Fuller and let him hit the open market and still have the confidence that they could re-sign him. To start: This year’s free agent cornerback class is headlined by Trumaine Johnson, Malcolm Butler, Bashaud Breeland and E.J. Gaines. Fuller would be entering a deep pool of cornerbacks, which Pace pointed out on Tuesday. 

“I would say cornerback this year in free agency and the draft is a good position, so that’s beneficial to us,” Pace said. 

It could be beneficial to the Bears specifically with Fuller, as a super-rich contract might not materialize if those go to Johnson and Butler. The Bears should be able to pitch Fuller, too, on the consistency in their defensive coaching staff — specifically, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and defensive backs coach Ed Donatell — as being the best option for the former first-round pick to continue to develop as a player. 

But too, if the Bears were lose Fuller to free agency, they could replace him with a couple of free agents or a free agent and a high draft pick. As Pace said, the depth of the cornerbacks available over the next two months is beneficial to the Bears. 

Prince Amukamara

Amukamara was a solid enough cornerback at times, but he didn’t record an interception and was penalized seven times for 99 yards, the most of any Bears defensive player in 2017 (Fuller, for comparison, was penalized three times for 21 yards). Amukamara turns 29 in June and is coming off back-to-back one-year deals. Would he take another one? And would the Bears want him back regardless? Again, the deep free agent market/draft pool could help the Bears find an upgrade over Amukamara. 

If the Bears do keep Amukamara, they very well could still draft a cornerback with an early round pick in April. 

Christian Jones

Jones totaled 57 tackles with two pass break-ups, one forced fumble and two sacks while playing well as a reserve next to Danny Trevathan. He’s played three years in Vic Fangio’s defense and seems like a likely candidate to return. 

Mitch Unrein

Unrein was not only a favorite of former coach John Fox but is a favorite of defense line coach Jay Rodgers. Re-signing him and then having 2016 third-round pick Jonathan Bullard compete with him for playing time could be a productive path. 

One thing Rodgers liked about Unrein last year was that helped the rest of the defensive line — standouts Eddie Goldman and Akiem Hicks — play faster. 

“Mitch is the glue that kind of holds it all together,” Rodgers said. “Very versatile player, he’s played every position on the front during the course of his career. He knows me, he knows what the expectation is, he knows how to communicate, he knows what’s coming, run game, pass game, he puts it all together. And when he’s out there on the field with those guys, he allows those guys to play fast. And if they know what’s coming their way, then they can play even faster. And I think his demand in the room of knowing what to do, when to do it and how to do it, raises the elevation of the other guys in the room. And he holds them accountable to knowing their stuff.” 

Lamarr Houston

The Bears parted ways with Houston before the 2017 season, then brought him back in late November after injuries sapped the team’s depth at outside linebacker. Houston notched four sacks in five games after returning to the Bears, and without many more productive edge rushers who could potentially hit the free market, Houston could be a candidate to return to help fill out the team’s pass rushing depth. 

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


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.”

Bears grades: Dominant win generates straight A's for offense, defense

Bears grades: Dominant win generates straight A's for offense, defense


Mitchell Trubisky completed 25 of 32 passes for 271 yards with a touchdown and a passer rating of 112.4, and also rushed for a touchdown on a read option in the third quarter. It was easily his best game as a pro; beyond his impressive stat line, the offense had a different feel to it on Sunday than it did in any of the previous eight games Trubisky started. Trubisky was calm and comfortable in the pocket, and did well to click through his progressions and remain patient for his receivers to get open. He perhaps could’ve been more accurate on a pass to Adam Shaheen in the end zone in the second quarter that was broken up by safety William Jackson, and he took a sack with about 20 seconds left in the first half that he shouldn’t have taken. But those feels like nitpicking after such a strong overall afternoon. 


Jordan Howard exerted his will on a banged-up, uninspired Bengals defense, rushing 23 times for 147 yards with two touchdowns. Howard ran tough, or in his own words: “I feel like I got back to my violent ways a little bit.” Tarik Cohen provided a spark with 80 yards on 12 carries, too, combining with Howard for 227 rushing yards. 


Kendall Wright caught 10 of his 11 targets for 107 yards and consistently got open in a way no Bears receiver had up to this point. Josh Bellamy provided an early spark, with his two receptions for 52 yards coming on the Bears’ first three drives.  Strangely, Dontrelle Inman — who had shown the best and most reliable connection with Trubisky over the last few weeks — was not targeted. But Wright’s huge day was enough to prop this unit up with its highest grade of the season. 


Shaheen caught four of his five targets for 44 yards and a touchdown, and drew a pass interference flag in the end zone too. Dion Sims and Daniel Brown combined for four catches on five targets for 41 yards, too, and Sims in particular did some good things in the run blocking game to pave the way for Howard and Cohen. Shaheen still had a few blocking issues, but his contributions in the passing game — like his 16-yard reception on a fourth-and-three play — more than covered for them. 


There were still too many penalties (four) on this group, but the run blocking was solid — even without Kyle Long — and one of the two Bengals’ sacks was more the fault of Trubisky than the offensive line. The Bears averaged 6.1 yards per carry, and this unit had plenty to do with it.


The absences of Eddie Goldman and Mitch Unrein were noticeable in this unit, and the Bengals were able to make sure Akiem Hicks (one tackle) didn’t make much of an impact. But Roy Robertson-Harris did notch a sack, and as with every other defensive unit, this grade is boosted by the Bengals managing only seven points and 234 yards on 53 plays (4.4 yards/play). 


Danny Trevathan led the Bears with 10 tackles and broke up a pass, while Nick Kwiatkoski broke up a pair of passes as well. And the Bears’ ragtag group of outside linebackers — missing Leonard Floyd, Pernell McPhee and Willie Young — turned in two sacks, with Lamarr Houston and Howard Jones accounting for those two. 


Kyle Fuller had another outstanding game, with Pro Football Focus putting together these numbers:

Eddie Jackson picked off a deflected pass and impressively stripped A.J. Green near the sideline for a fumble the Bears recovered. What kept this unit from an A+ was Deon Bush getting beat by Brandon LaFell on a corner route for the Bengals’ only touchdown of the game. 


Mike Nugent missed a PAT — his first kick in a Bears uniform — but rebounded to connect on a pair of chip-shot field goals from 34 and 27 yards. Cohen admitted he was a little too passive in not fielding some punts, which led to the Bears being backed up a couple of tomes. And John Timu and Marcus Cooper were both guilty of holding penalties on returns, with Cooper’s coming on a punt on which Cohen called for a fair catch. 


Give John Fox and Dowell Loggains some credit for opening up the Bears’ offense and scheming to expand, not maintain, a lead in the second half. Still, why Fox challenged a play on which Trubisky clearly threw beyond the line of scrimmage was a head-scratcher, and the Bears were heavily penalized (10 for 74 yards), though the play of both the offense and defense was enough to cover for that sloppiness.