Trey Burton

As offseason program begins, Bears' offensive depth chart comes into focus

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USA Today

As offseason program begins, Bears' offensive depth chart comes into focus

The Bears’ offseason program begins Tuesday, with players allowed to report to Halas Hall for rehab, strength and conditioning work. Attendance is voluntary, and the first time the Bears’ non-strength/training coaching staff will be able to work with players will be during April 17-19’s voluntary veteran minicamp. 

But this week will be the first opportunity for Matt Nagy and his players to set the tone for the 2018 season, with OTAs and minicamps to follow over the next two months. So as the offseason program gets underway, here’s where the Bears’ depth chart stands, starting today with the offense:

Quarterback

1. Mitch Trubisky
2. Chase Daniel
3. Tyler Bray

The Bears could look to sign an undrafted free agent later this month to, at best, compete with Bray — who was only guaranteed $45,000 in his one-year, $795,000 deal, according to Spotrac — and at worst be a camp arm to have in Bourbonnais. Both Daniel and Bray know Nagy’s offense well, which is why they’re here. 

“So now you get Chase and Tyler that both know the offense, that are there to just from both sides help Mitch out,” Nagy said. “But yet, they’re both going to compete. So now Tyler goes in there. Tyler is very accurate, has a really strong arm with great accuracy. And really has grown into a really good person and than as a player, he hasn’t had a whole lot of opportunity. And now unfair to him at the end of the game there, you know, he had that one play, and there were some different conditions and different scenarios. That’s now who Tyler is, but he knows his role and he’s just going to help out Mitch.”

Running back

1. Jordan Howard
2. Tarik Cohen
3. Benny Cunningham

While there are some questions about Howard’s fit in Nagy’s offense — which requires its running backs to be reliable pass-catchers — the only running back in franchise history with consecutive 1,000-yard seasons to begin his career will have a prominent role in 2018. Cohen’s versatility fits a lot of what Nagy wants to do, and he’ll have more help around him this year than he did in 2017, when opposing defenses were able to double-team him without leaving themselves exposed. 

Cunningham reportedly will return to the Bears, which doesn't necessarily take Ryan Pace out of the market to draft a running back. But the Bears like Cunningham's leadership, pass protection skills and special teams play, all of which may be traits difficult to find in a mid-to-late-round running back.

But the focus on this unit is how Howard and Cohen can play off each other. 

“They’re completely different, right? But you can you use them in different ways,” Nagy said. “You can move them out and if they want to go ahead and try to cover you with a linebacker or cover you with a safety, that may predicate, dictate what you’re going to do offensively. I think you’re seeing that because of those two things, injuries and then because of positional flexibility of being able to get matchups.”

“X” and “Z” (outside) wide receiver

1. Allen Robinson
2. Kevin White

1. Cameron Meredith
2. Joshua Bellamy

Meredith isn’t officially back in the fold yet, as he remains a restricted free agent following the Bears’ decision to place an original round tender — worth $1.907 million — on him last month. Here’s reportedly attracted interest from the Indianapolis Colts, Baltimore Ravens and New Orleans Saints, but hasn’t signed an offer sheet, which the Bears would have the opportunity to match. The Bears were prepared for this, though, and teams are able to present offer sheets to Meredith through April 20. 

“When we tendered him that way, we know these are some of the circumstances,” Pace said. “So we’re monitoring it closely. We know we’ll have a decision to make if an offer comes in, and we’re prepared for that.”

If the Bears were to lose Meredith, drafting a receiver would become a priority. But Nagy wants to give White every opportunity to succeed, and if the 2015 first-round pick makes the roster, he probably won’t be a part of Chris Tabor’s special teams units. That’s generally a requirement for reserve receivers — Bellamy is a special teams ace — and would mean that if the Bears do draft a receiver, he’ll probably be someone who can contribute on special teams. The point: Don’t look for the Bears to draft a receiver in the first round, and potentially not in the second round, either. 

“Zebra” (slot) receiver

1. Taylor Gabriel
2. Tarik Cohen

The primary responsibility for the “Zebra” receiver in Nagy’s offense is to play the slot, but it’s a versatile position that looks to be an ideal fit for these two diminutive, speedy players. Nagy said the Chiefs’ coaching staff scouted Cohen during the pre-draft process a year ago, though it didn’t sound as extensive as the Saints’ work on him.

“Y” (in-line) tight end

1. Adam Shaheen
2. Dion Sims
3. Ben Braunecker

“U” (split out) tight end

1. Trey Burton
2. Daniel Brown

The Bears are set at tight end, roster-wise, with Shaheen, Sims and Burton topping the depth chart and Braunecker and Brown solid special teams contributors. 

The boom-or-bust potential in this unit is huge — Shaheen and Burton combined last year for only 35 catches and 375 yards, but also combined for eight touchdowns. At best, Burton can be a highly-targeted matchup nightmare between the 20’s, with Shaheen an excellent finisher in the red zone. At worst, neither player takes the step the Bears envision, and the productivity from this position doesn’t improve much from 2017’s mediocre-at-best results. 

“(Burton) was the second, sometimes third, tight end in Philadelphia,” Nagy said. “Well, now we’re going to put him in a role where those numbers are going to be able to jump up. And that’s on us to be able to do that.”

Left tackle

1. Charles Leno
2. Bradley Sowell

Left guard

1. Eric Kush
1A. Earl Watford

Update: The Bears made official a one-year deal with Watford on Tuesday. The 27-year-old former Arizona Cardinals interior offensive lineman has played in 42 games, starting 22, in his four-year NFL career. 

Center

1. Cody Whitehair
2. Hroniss Grasu

Right guard

1. Kyle Long
2. Jordan Morgan

Right tackle

1. Bobby Massie
2. Bradley Sowell

A few options are here as the Bears look toward the NFL Draft next month. If Quenton Nelson is available when the No. 8 pick comes around, re-uniting the former Notre Dame guard with Harry Hiestand would be a layup. Nelson projects as a longtime Pro Bowler, and with the pool of quality offensive linemen shrinking seemingly by the year, it doesn’t matter that he’s “only” a guard. 

But for those reasons, the chances Nelson makes it to No. 8 may not be good. The Bears could opt to draft an interior offensive lineman with their second-round pick — as they did with Cody Whitehair in 2016 — and have him compete with Kush, Morgan and/or Grasu in training camp. Or the team could stick with Kush, who played well in 2016, and perhaps look to draft Massie’s eventual replacement at right tackle. Either way, it’d be surprising if the Bears didn’t take at least one offensive lineman in the draft. 

Zebras, U's and aggressiveness: What Matt Nagy's offense could look like

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USA Today

Zebras, U's and aggressiveness: What Matt Nagy's offense could look like

ORLANDO — The 2017 Bears’ offense wasn’t aggressive, and it certainly wasn’t flexible. Instead, it was conservative and predictable, but we’re not here to re-litigate that flawed roster and old-school coaching approach. 

But with how dour things were for the Bears in 2017 as the backdrop, listening to Matt Nagy talk about what his 2018 offense will look like should provide some reasons for excitement for a fanbase that hasn’t been able to watch a lot of “fun” football in recent years. Nagy’s offensive approach will be aggressive and flexible, designed to create mismatches and take advantage of opposing defensive personnel groupings. 

That shouldn’t sound like a novel concept, except that it feels like one after last year. For example: Jordan Howard, who admitted on NFL Network earlier this year that opposing teams “knew what was coming, like, every play,” faced eight or more defenders in the box on 43 percent of his runs. Kareem Hunt, in Nagy’s Kansas City Chiefs offense, only had to run loaded boxes on 23 percent of his rushing attempts. 

How does Nagy’s offense fix that problem that plagued Howard last year?

“We’re going to always attack you downfield,” Nagy said. “We’re going to make sure that you understand you can’t just sit there at 10 to 12 yards and just wait for these intermediate throws to be thrown. We’re going to go downfield, and we’re going to test you. Not every ball is going to be complete, and that’s okay. It’s going to stretch the defense. It’s going to open it up for guys like Jordan and Tarik to be able to do some things in the run game.”

The Bears didn’t really have a deep threat last year, though, and Tarik Cohen was the only truly flexible player on that offense. On one hand, he didn’t play enough — he only was one the field for more than 40 percent of the Bears’ offensive snaps six times — but on the other, that the Bears had to rely on a sort of gadget-type rookie running back for all their offensive versatility last year speaks to how bleak the personnel situation was. Perhaps Adam Shaheen could’ve been used more creatively; it’s also rare for rookie tight ends to make significant impacts. There’s two sides of all of these stories. 

But the 2018 Bears have plenty of players who profile as versatile. Shaheen, for one, will primarily be an in-line “Y” tight end, but Nagy said he’ll learn and be used at the split-out “U” tight end position, too. That’s where the Bears project Trey Burton will make his impact, with his ability to block if a defense is in nickel or create a matchup problem against a linebacker if they’re in base. 

“It’s what we did with (Travis) Kelce,” Nagy said. “It’s an important role, it’s a position that a lot of our offense, it’s easy to create some plays for. And when you have a guy that has the size that Trey has and the speed that he has, it’s about mismatches.” 

Taylor Gabriel and Cohen are both options to play the slot-oriented “Zebra” receiver position, which is where Tyreek Hill made his name with the Kansas City Chiefs. That position has loads of flexibility, and the prospective of a pair of diminutive, speedy guys to use there is a tantalizing thought. 

“You see what he can do with screens, he can catch the ball behind the line of scrimmage and take it for a touchdown really on any given play,” Nagy said. “Now a lot of that goes with regards to blocking that goes on with wide receivers and that, but he’s not just that quote-un-quote gadget guy. He can be a true receiver and really do well and excel, and he’s proven that.” 

Allen Robinson’s ability to take the top off defenses and beat opposing cornerbacks with his savvy route-running skills from the “X” or “Z” outside receiver spots will keep teams honest, too. Robinson will draw attention from a team’s best cornerback, and pushing the field will keep teams honest as part of Nagy’s aggressive plan. 

“He’s a guy that presents a lot of problems to defensive backs just because of his ability with his size,” Nagy said. “But he’s a good route-runner. He’s able to, if you have a smaller DB on him, he can beat you up with his size. A bigger DB, he can beat you up with his route running.” 

We’re still five and a half months away from seeing Nagy’s offense in a game that matters, and the Bears still have to optimistically project how good their free agent signings and ascending young players will be. But the way Nagy described how his offense could look here in sunny Orlando, it’s hard to not envision a much more successful, appealing product being on the field come September. 

Following the money, the Bears had to bet big on Mitch Trubisky this offseason

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USA Today

Following the money, the Bears had to bet big on Mitch Trubisky this offseason

ORLANDO — That Ryan Pace has, in 2017, hired an offensive-minded coach and splurged on free agents designed to improve the structure around Mitch Trubisky isn’t surprising, given this: 

Only six NFL teams are spending less cash on their quarterbacks than the Bears, who by virtue of Trubisky’s rookie contract are only pouring about $9.6 million in money against the cap into that position. Only 6.4 percent of the Bears’ cap spending is allocated to quarterbacks; 20 teams are using at least 10 percent of their cap space on quarterbacks, according to Spotrac. 

“We’re in an advantageous position right now with that,” general manager Ryan Pace said. “I think you’re seeing us add weapons around him right now, and that will continue as you go into the draft and even into the preseason. But it starts with him, and we’re in a fortunate situation right now.”

To say the Bears have a favorable window to win over the next few years, while Trubisky is still on his rookie contract, may seem odd given this franchise is 14-34 in the last three years and hasn’t reached the playoffs since 2010. The Bears haven’t done a lot of winning lately. But there is an opportune window to win from 2018-2020, when Trubisky’s cost will be a fraction of what it will be if his fifth-year option is picked up and/or he’s signed to a long-term extension. 

Consider where the Bears rank in positional spending outside of quarterback, all according to Spotrac: 

RB: 32nd, $1.960 million (league average: $6.922 million)
WR: 4th, $27.236 million (league average: $20.239 million)
TE: 3rd, $15.449 million (league average: $8.380 million)
OL: 20th, $27.718 million (league average: $30.268 million)

DL: 25th, $17.644 million (league average: $17.644 million)
OLB: 29th, $5.564 million (league average: $13.171 million)
ILB: 11th, $8.628 million (league average: $6.806 million)
CB: 15th, $18.344 million (league average: $16.412 million) 
S: 32nd, $4.078 million (league average: $11.429 million)

Special teams: 15th, $5.312 million (LA: $5.087 million)

Cornerback spending will rise with contracts details for Marcus Cooper and Sherrick McManis to be announced; the structures of Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara’s contracts mean the Bears have the fourth-highest total of cap money invested in cornerbacks in 2019. If the Bears have to match an offer sheet for Cameron Meredith, or sign him to an extension, they could jump to second in receiver spending. Drafting Quenton Nelson with their first-round pick would move the Bears into the top half of offensive line spending, too. 

But signing Allen Robinson, Trey Burton and Taylor Gabriel was made possible, in part, by Trubisky’s contract (shrewd cap management, which allowed for one-year outs for most of the Bears’ “bust” signings, helped too). And that’s sort of the point: The Bears don’t know for sure if Trubisky is going to be good yet, but they had to spend money to give him weapons in case he is good. 

The Los Angeles Rams executed a similar plan last year, surrounding Jared Goff with an offensive-minded, quarterback-driven coaching structure as well as two new wide receivers (Robert Woods and Sammy Watkins), a highly-regarded free agent center (John Sullivan), a second-round tight end (Gerald Everett) and second- and fourth-round receivers (Cooper Kupp and Josh Reynolds). They did so with Goff coming off a horrendous rookie year, with legitimate questions being asked if he was actually any good. 

The Philadelphia Eagles had a better idea about Carson Wentz after a strong rookie year, but spent money to sign running back LeGarrett Blount (albeit to a cheaper deal) and wide receivers Torrey Smith and Alshon Jeffery. For both the Rams and Eagles, the window to win opened quickly in Year 2 of their highly-drafted quarterbacks. 

Consider this: Trubisky was his least effective self when throwing passes traveling 10-19 yards outside the numbers to his left in 2017, according to Pro Football Focus. Allen Robinson was at his best when he was catching passes traveling 10-19 yards outside the numbers to his left in 2015 and 2016. 

To put it succinctly, Robinson is good in an area in which Trubisky was not. Were Trubisky’s issues throwing that direction last year because of the receivers he had to target? Or was it because of a deeper underlying issue? 

Whatever the answer to the question, the Bears had to sign Robinson or an equivalent top-level receiver. Maybe the guys who’ve signed this month will help Trubisky’s career take off, so he’ll be at cruising altitude when he’s due his second contract that’ll take up a lot more of the Bears’ cap space. The Bears’ window to win should still be open beyond the 2020 season so long as it doesn’t shut before then.