Prince Amukamara

Why Prince Amukamara thinks Allen Robinson is exactly who the Bears needed

Why Prince Amukamara thinks Allen Robinson is exactly who the Bears needed

Highlight reels posted to social media are an easily-sharable way to get excited about a player in mid-March, when the first games of the 2018 NFL season are still nearly half a year away. But a different, and maybe better, way to judge a player is by how he practices: That influences not only what he can put on those highlight reels, but how he’s perceived and accepted by his coaches and teammates. 

Prince Amukamara had a first-hand look at Allen Robinson’s practice habits in 2016, when the two were teammates with the Jacksonville Jaguars. And the Bears’ cornerback, who inked a three-year deal on Wednesday, came away impressed. 

“Allen Robinson was a nightmare in practice, and I say that in the best way possible,” Amukamara said. "He’s very, very competitive. If he makes a play, he’s going to let you know it, and he just works extremely hard."

What makes Robinson such a difficult matchup, Amukamara explained, is his elite athleticism to pair with his 6-foot-3, 220 pound frame. Even if a cornerback feels like he’s covering Robinson well, he can go up and get passes with a large catch radius that can’t be defended. 

And even more promising, as Amukamara sees it, is Robinson’s youth and his potential for growth. That 2016 season was a “down” year, as it compared to Robinson’s 1,400-yard, 14-touchdown 2015 season, with 73 catches for 883 yards and six touchdowns. But Amukamara sees a higher ceiling for Robinson, and said he’s an ideal fit for the Bears’ offense. 

“He’s so raw, he’s super young and I think he’s definitely what this team needs,” Amukamara said. “He’s a big-play guy. Not too long ago, he was one of the leaders in touchdowns and yards in this league and I know he’s excited to get back to that.” 

As Bears claim 'pretty aggressive' talks with Kyle Fuller, a deeper look at their cornerback situation


As Bears claim 'pretty aggressive' talks with Kyle Fuller, a deeper look at their cornerback situation

INDIANAPOLIS — It would be out of character for someone whose prime directives include ensuring that what’s said in Halas Hall stays in Halas Hall. But you do wonder how much negotiating Bears general manager Ryan Pace was doing through the media this week.

Not really, because Pace is clearly saying exactly the same things to agents for cornerback Kyle Fuller (and Malcolm Butler, and Trumaine Johnson, and ...): that “your client is a really good player, the Bears want him, but the draft is cornerback-heavy and there are other options, so let’s stay on Earth with those contract numbers.” And if he’s talking indirectly to Fuller, he’s mentioning to the media, that “ya know, we still do have that nasty ol’ franchise tag.” Same thing he doubtless has reminded Fuller’s agent of, just adding some public emphasis.

Divining exact intentions is never usually an exact science during the annual Scouting Combine here. But from Pace’s words and actions, some scenarios appear to be setting up.

Foremost among those is that the Bears in fact do want Kyle Fuller in a Bears uniform in 2018. That there are active negotiations point to Fuller as the Bears’ first choice for resolving matters at one of the two cornerback vacancies. For the Bears he is a known quantity, inconsistencies and his mystery absent 2016 notwithstanding, and Pace’s experiences with free agents from other teams were disastrous last offseason. As he said on Wednesday, “a lot of times guys become free agents for a reason, and we’re mindful of that.” His own guy (well, Phil Emery’s actually), Fuller, is available for the simple reason that he’s coming out of his rookie contract.

And getting a starting cornerback settled upon takes one very big position off Pace’s to-do list looking ahead to the draft.

Back to the Fuller overall: Pace said that the Bears are being “pretty aggressive” in talks with Fuller. Of course, Pace’s idea of “aggressive” might differ sharply from Fuller’s agent’s idea of “aggressive,” but the Bears are in fact talking a multi-year deal, which is in itself a statement. Not necessarily a conclusive one though: They were what they thought was aggressive on a multi-year deal with Alshon Jeffery in 2016 and still needed to resort to the franchise tag in the end.

Fuller isn’t expected to be hit with the tag, meaning the Bears will in fact be getting help from the rest of the NFL in setting Fuller’s market. A key in this process is the Bears strengthening a relationship with Fuller even as they’re saying no to a contract proposal and telling him to see if there’s a better deal out there.

Looking a little deeper at what Pace has at his disposal: As of this week at least, the Bears have not cut cornerback Marcus Cooper, a monumental disappointment from last year’s free-agency class. Consider this as Pace keeping an option open, far from his first choice but still an affordable body. Consensus from a number of different sources: Fuller is option one, followed by Johnson/Butler, then by Prince Amukamara returning, and finally by Cooper. Pace thought enough of Cooper to sign him to a three-year deal topping out at $16 million and carrying a 2018 base of $5 million.

That amount might appear outrageous, but only because of Cooper’s woeful performance, which no doubt has him ensconced in Vic Fangio’s doghouse. Which of course is exactly where Fuller was after a non-existent 2016. But the Cooper figure is about one-third of the money Fuller and presumably the other top corners are seeking per year. Best guess is that they will get close to max contracts simply because of the money supply chasing them. No one likes a bidding war, but with the massive cap spaces open, the surprise will be if the Bears have to get into exactly that, like it or not.

Pace wouldn’t do it last year for his first choices at cornerback. This year, he won’t have that choice.

— — —

There’s one other catch in all this, that of simply getting the best/right guy, because that has been a franchise-grade problem for Pace.

How serious is that? Not many would categorize John Fox as a victim. But consider: In a must-win year for Fox, besides getting a rookie quarterback, with his No. 1 pick, Fox was given, in last offseason alone, Marcus Cooper, Quintin Demps, Mike Glennon, Dion Sims and Markus Wheaton. Just last offseason. All on contracts about which the best could be said, by Pace, that the deals were structured such that the Bears could exit them with relative ease.

But Winston Churchill famously declared after the heroic escape of the British Army from Dunkirk, that wars are not won with evacuations. And football teams take not even a little step forward when they exit a contract on a wrong player. That is not, in any remote respect, a victory.

The Glennon situation is perhaps the one in that group of gaffes that’s a little more interesting because of the reasoning behind it. Pace got the wrong guy, obviously, and what makes it more pointed is not specifically the money, because if Glennon had turned out to be an average or even a little below-average starting quarterback, he’d have been paid average or a little below-average money for a starting NFL quarterback.

What probably makes it sting a little more is that the Bears could’ve had Brian Hoyer back for about one-third of what Glennon cost, and the Bears didn’t even make Hoyer an offer. Ill-advised in hindsight. And ill-advised from the standpoint of mentoring Mitch Trubisky, who was Pace’s target all along. Hoyer arguably represented the best composite of Glennon as interim starter and Mark Sanchez as backup/positive influence. Hoyer’s price and value become an even bigger "what were they thinking?" when you throw in that one less roster spot would’ve been tied up in a quarterback.

But Pace, and by extension the McCaskeys and the organization, get a grudging "OK, I get it" in the context of not playing safe and in fact taking a flyer on a guy who might flash once he got his opportunity after a few years of league experience. Like the Vikings did with Case Keenum (9-16 as a starter before last year) or the Eagles with Nick Foles (Philly thought so much of Foles the first time that they traded him away for Sam Bradford), Pace was going for upside and a shot at “wow!” with an out-clause.

Wrong guy, but not a totally idiotic plan or philosophy, no matter how it ended up.

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.