Nick Kwiatkoski

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 grades: No rookie 'freebies' for Trubisky, mid-game lulls reflect poorly on coaches

Bears grades: No rookie 'freebies' for Trubisky, mid-game lulls reflect poorly on coaches

QUARTERBACKS: B-

Mitchell Trubisky’s final stat line was fine, and merely "fine:" 18/30 (60 percent) for 179 yards and a touchdown, and six rushes for 53 yards and a lost fumble (that turned into a Detroit Lions touchdown). There were some outstanding throws and decisions made by the rookie, like his touchdown toss to Adam Shaheen and his athletic, instinctive 19-yard scramble on fourth and 13 in the dying embers of the fourth quarter. But there were too many poor decisions and missed throws — for example, two incompletions were the result of low, inaccurate passes (to Benny Cunningham near the goal line in the first quarter and to Daniel Brown on third and six midway through the third). Trubisky was only sacked once after being dropped 16 times in his previous five games, which was an encouraging improvement. He did some good things but admitted after the game he has to be better, and being a first-year starter isn’t an excuse: “You don’t get a freebie because you’re a rookie,” Trubisky said. 

RUNNING BACKS: A

Jordan Howard sparked a big day with a 50-yard run in the first quarter, and averaged a staggering 8.3 yards per carry (15 attempts, 125 yards). Outside of that explosive run, Howard was efficient and effective, averaging 5.4 yards per carry and getting in the end zone on a well-blocked and well-executed 12-yard run. Tarik Cohen played 31 snaps — he played 31 snaps combined against the New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers — and was effective both with the ball in his hands and as a decoy to draw coverage toward him on others. His 15-yard touchdown run and subsequent leap into the end zone tied the game in the fourth quarter, and he caught four of six targets for 44 yards. 

WIDE RECEIVERS: D+

There weren’t any egregious mistakes from this group, but Dontrelle Inman, Kendall Wright, Tre McBride and Markus Wheaton combined for 13 targets, seven receptions and 82 yards. That fewer than half of Trubisky’s pass attempts were intended for his wide receivers is disappointing, yet it's not surprising given the struggles this group has had all year. Inman ran a good in-cut route and connected with Trubisky on it to set up Connor Barth’s missed game-tying field goal, which was the highlight of the day for this unit. 

TIGHT ENDS: B+

Shaheen caught all four of his targets for 41 yards and a touchdown, and displayed some impressive chemistry with Trubisky, his roommate when he arrived in Chicago in the offseason. The Bears need to continue to involve their second-round pick more in the offense — him not being on the field during that last-ditch drive in the fourth quarter was strange given his production, and the wide receivers' lack of production, in the game — and he blocked up Howard’s 12-yard touchdown run well. Daniel Brown caught two of his five targets for 23 yards, including a 13-yard catch on third and 10 that sprung the Bears’ opening-possession scoring drive in the first quarter. 

OFFENSIVE LINE: B+

This group kept Trubisky upright, allowing only that one sack and scattering four pressures on Trubisky’s 30 pass attempts. But it was the run blocking from this group that stood out: Beyond the explosive ground gains it set up, the Bears only had two negative running plays on Sunday. Dinging the grade here are two penalties on Kyle Long, especially an unnecessary roughness flag that negated a 15-yard Trubisky scramble right before he lost that fumble for a touchdown. 

DEFENSIVE LINE: B

Detroit wasn’t able to run the ball, with Theo Riddick, Ameer Abdullah and Jamal Agnew combining for 62 yards on 21 carries (a shade under three yards per carry). But the defensive line didn’t do enough to disrupt Matthew Stafford’s rhythm, with Mitch Unrein recording the only sack and one of two hurries (Eddie Goldman had the other) from this unit. 

LINEBACKERS: B

Nick Kwiatkoski made the biggest play of the day for the Bears’ defense with his sack-strip of Stafford in the first quarter, and Christian Jones chipped in with a sack as well (Jones’ sack was key in that it forced the Lions to kick a field goal, keeping the Bears’ deficit within one possession in the fourth quarter). Both inside linebackers played well, the outside guys didn’t make as big of an impact: Leonard Floyd had four tackles, two hurries and one tackle for a loss, Pernell McPhee had three tackles and Sam Acho had one tackle and one hurry. The lack of a pass rush from the guys expected to be pass rushers kept Stafford comfortable in the pocket, allowing him to pick apart a Bears’ secondary that didn’t have its best day on Sunday. 

DEFENSIVE BACKS: D-

Kyle Fuller missed a tackle on Detroit’s first drive and was benched for Marcus Cooper in the second quarter. Cooper struggled mightily, though, playing too soft of coverage on T.J. Jones on a third-and-15, allowing a conversion that sparked a Lions scoring drive that ended with Marvin Jones burning Cooper with a double move for a 28-yard touchdown. Prince Amukamara was flagged for a pass interference penalty for the second consecutive week, too (last week’s against Green Bay was a questionable penalty at best, to be fair). Fuller re-entered the game and dropped an interception, too. The lack of game-breaking plays and the 120.2 passer rating compiled by Stafford combine to earn this unit the lowest mark on the team from Sunday. 

SPECIAL TEAMS: D

Barth’s missed 46-yard game-tying field goal wiped out some good things Jeff Rodgers’ special teams units did on Sunday. Explosive Lions punt returner Jamal Agnew returned three of Pat O’Donnell’s four punts for only 23 yards, and he averaged 18 1/2 yards on four kick returns. But the Bears, as a team, couldn’t overcome Barth’s miss — and at the start of that drive, Cohen probably should’ve taken a knee in the end zone instead of returning the kickoff from five yards deep in his own end zone to the Bears’ 17-yard line. 

COACHING: D+

Dowell Loggains opened up the playbook for Trubisky (and Cohen), and the result was the Bears’ best offensive effort of the year. At times, this looked like a completely different offense than the one the Bears’ ran in the first 10 weeks of the season, with some zone reads, plenty of shotgun snaps and well-designed plays to spring a 24-point effort. But as John Fox said after the game, the Bears are still susceptible to “siestas,” with those mid-game lulls proving difficult to overcome. The Bears have played 10 games in 2017, and not one of them has been a complete, four-quarter effort. That bigger-picture look falls on the coaching staff, and has greater implications than some questionable personnel decisions (like why Shaheen/Howard/Cohen weren’t on the field for the two-minute drill in the fourth quarter). 
 

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.”