Cubs

10 days, 6,000 miles, 200 players

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10 days, 6,000 miles, 200 players

Try it sometime when you have nothing better to do. Drive 6,000 miles in 10 days and interview and evaluate 200 of the best high school football players in the country. Even a side trip to Hawaii is all work, no vacation, no time for surfing or sightseeing, even a luau.

"I lost my voice over the last three days," reported recruiting analyst Tom Lemming after his most recent travel odyssey. "In all honesty, at this point, I'm sick of football. After I got back, I slept for an entire day."

Lemming has been making trips like this for 33 years. But this one was a little over the top. On three days alone, he drove over 1,000 miles. He flew to Hawaii, then drove through California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Nevada, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Arizona. He met 40 players in Hawaii and 100 in Los Angeles.

It completed his four-month tour of the nation, which covered every state except Alaska and North and South Dakota. If there are any college prospects in those states, Lemming hasn't heard of them. Now, after making a few short hops to New York and Ohio, he'll settle in to write his annual 300-page magazine that reveals the nation's top players.

"Hawaii is loaded with talent. It is the last frontier of college recruiting," Lemming said. "It is too far for most colleges to travel, 10 hours by flight from Chicago."

In Honolulu, Lemming met the University of Hawaii's new coach, Norm Chow, who told him: "I wish you weren't here because it brings too much attention to the state."

Lemming predicts that 20 to 30 Hawaiian products will commit to Division I schools. And he believes that Hawaii produces five or six players with All-America potential every year that most people don't know about except for a few schools on the West Coast.

The best player in Hawaii is 6-foot-3, 238-pound linebacker Isaac Savaiinaea of Punahou, the same school that produced Notre Dame star Mantei Teo and President Barack Obama. He is committed to Stanford.

Other standouts are 6-foot-3, 245-pound linebacker Kama Correa and 6-foot-4, 320-pound offensive guard Reeve Koehler of St. Louis High School in Honolulu, 6-foot-1, 300-pound nose tackle Kennedy Tulimasealii of Waiahae and 6-foot-4, 270-pound defensive tackle Scott Pagano of Moanalna.

Pagano, who benches 405 pounds, has been offered by Illinois, Michigan and Michigan State. Correa and Koehler are uncommitted but Correa's dream is to play for Notre Dame, which hasn't offered yet. All are being pursued by Pac-12 schools.

"If Pagano lived in Chicago, he'd be an All-American," Lemming said.

Another player who figures to attract more attention as the summer goes along is 6-foot-5, 2225-pound linebackertight end Danny Mattingly of Spokane, Wash. He is a second cousin of former baseball great and Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly. He has been offered by Notre Dame, Oklahoma, UCLA and Nebraska.

For you travel buffs, Lemming recommends "the most beautiful drive I've ever had in the United States," a 400-mile trip from Pullman, Wash., to Boise, Idaho, along routes 95 and 55.

"It started in a snowstorm and 30 degrees and ended up in 80-degree weather," he said. "It was the prettiest drive I've ever been on, including Hawaii. I kept pulling over to look at the scenery along the way...mountains, lakes, streams, canyons, wildlife. It's amazing that it is never talked about."

Meanwhile, Lemming clarified his up-to-date evaluations of the leading prospects in what he has described as the best class of talent in the Chicago area since 1986. The headliners include running back Ty Isaac of Joliet Catholic, tackles Ethan Pocic of Lemont and Jack Keeler of Barrington, quarterbacks Aaron Bailey of Bolingbrook and Matt Alviti of Maine South and defensive tackle Ruben Dunbar of Glenbard West.

Regarding Isaac, whom Lemming rates as the No. 1 running back in the nation: "He has everything. What sets him apart from the others is he had great production as a junior. He has ideal size, speed and athletic ability. It looks like everything clicked for hi last year. No one is more all-around than him...run, block and catch."

Lemming said Bailey's commitment to Illinois "gives new coach Tim Beckman and his staff instant credibility in recruiting. He is one of the elite athletes in the country, the best all-around athlete in Illinois. When you see him on film in last year's state championship game, he looked like a precision passer in bad weather. There are a lot of question marks about his passing but he answered them in the state final. He has the ability to play quarterback, running back, wide receiver, safety and tight end. But he is a quarterback. Illinois can't go back on its word to let him play quarterback."

Lemming said Alviti's decision to commit to Northwestern "was a great choice. He looks like their quarterback of the future. He is a great precision passer. He only lacks height. If he was 6-foot-4 or 6-foot-5, he would be a top 100 player. He has foot speed, smarts and arm strength to be the best quarterback ever to come out of Maine South. Northwestern told him that he would be their quarterback of the future, that they would build their offense around him."

Keller was the best offensive lineman that Lemming saw last year in the Chicago area, better than his more heralded teammate Dan Voltz, who committed to Wisconsin. "He is a legitimate 6-foot-7. He'll be a top 125 player, maybe higher," Lemming said, ranking him in the same class with Pocic and tackles Kyle Bosch of Wheaton St. Francis, Colin McGovern of Lincoln-Way West and Logan Tuley-Tillman of Peoria Manual.

Lemming said he has watched Pocic for three years and, while he rates him as perhaps the No. 2 prospect in the Chicago area behind Isaac, he admits that he isn't the dominating player he should be or will become. "He has athletic ability and can run and block downfield. But he isn't dominating yet. He is a four-plus guy right now, like Bosch, McGovern, Keeler and Tuley-Tillman. But to become a five-star player, they need to dominate on almost every play. They are much bigger and more athletic than the guys they are going against," Lemming said.

According to Lemming, Dunbar is very athletic and has great growth potential and has the highest ceiling of any defensive player in the state. "But he hasn't realized his potential yet. He has yet to play like the impact player that he should be. For 33 years, I've talked about players taking plays off, like (former Simeon and Illinois star) Martez Wilson, kids who don't play hard all the time. Simeon Rice was the same way," Lemming concluded.

Albert Almora Jr. gave another example of his all-around game

Albert Almora Jr. gave another example of his all-around game

Albert Almora Jr. might be in the middle of a breakout season. The 24-year-old outfielder continues to show his impressive range in center field and is having his best year at the plate.

In Sunday's 8-3 win against the Giants, Almora had three hits and showed off his wheels in center to rob Evan Longoria of extra bases. The catch is visible in the video above.

"Defensively, right now he's playing as well as he possibly can," Maddon said.

On top of the defense he has become known for, he is hitting .326. That's good for fifth in the National League in batting.

"He's playing absolutely great," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "He's working good at-bats. His at-bats have gotten better vs. righties.

"The thing about it, is there's power there. The home runs are gonna start showing up, too."

There's also this stat, which implies Almora is having a growing significance on the Cubs as a whole:

There may be some correlation, but not causality in that. However, with Almora's center field play and growing accolades at the plate, the argument is becoming easier and easier that he is one of the most important players on the Cubs. That also goes for Almora's regular spot in the lineup, which has been up in the air with Maddon continuing to juggle the lineup.

Bears still see Dion Sims as a valuable piece to their offensive puzzle

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Bears still see Dion Sims as a valuable piece to their offensive puzzle

Dion Sims is still here, which is the outcome he expected but perhaps wasn’t a slam dunk — at least to those outside the walls at Halas Hall. 

The Bears could’ve cut ties with Sims prior to March 16 and saved $5.666 million against the cap, quite a figure for a guy coming off a disappointing 2017 season (15 catches, 180 yards, one touchdown). But the Bears are sticking with Sims, even after splashing eight figures to land Trey Burton in free agency earlier this year. 

“In my mind, I thought I was coming back,” Sims said. “I signed to be here three years and that’s what I expect. But I understand how things go and my job is come out here and work hard every day and play with a chip on my shoulder to prove myself and just be a team guy.”

The Bears signed Sims to that three-year, $18 million contract 14 months ago viewing him as a rock-solid blocking tight end with some receiving upside. The receiving upside never materialized, and his blocking was uneven at times as the Bears’ offense slogged through a bleak 11-loss season. 

“The situation we were in, we weren’t — we could’ve done a better job of being successful,” Sims said. “Things didn’t go how we thought it would. We just had to pretty much try to figure out how to come together and build momentum into coming into this year. I just think there were a lot of things we could have done, but because of the circumstances we were limited a little bit. 

“… It was a lot of things going on. Guys hurt, situations — it was tough for us. We couldn’t figure it out, along with losing, that was a big part of it too.”

Sims will be given a fresh start in 2018, even as Adam Shaheen will be expected to compete to cut into Sims’ playing time at the “Y” tight end position this year. The other side of that thought: Shaheen won’t necessarily slide into being the Bears’ primary in-line tight end this year. 

Sims averaged 23 receptions, 222 yards and two touchdowns from 2014-2016; that might be a good starting point for his 2018 numbers, even if it would represent an improvement from 2017. More important, perhaps, is what Sims does as a run blocker — and that was the first thing Nagy mentioned when talking about how Sims fits into his offense. 

“The nice thing with Dion is that he’s a guy that’s proven to be a solid blocker,” Nagy said. “He can be in there and be your Y-tight end, but yet he still has really good hands. He can make plays on intermediate routes. He’s not going to be anybody that’s a downfield threat — I think he knows that, we all know that — but he’s a valuable piece of this puzzle.”