Bears Coaching Confidential: Steve Wilks

Bears Coaching Confidential: Steve Wilks

With the Bears' beginning their head coaching search this week, NBC Sports Chicago Bears Insider JJ Stankevitz and producer Paul Aspan will examine 10 coaching candidates who could be considered by Ryan Pace and team ownership. We've covered Josh McDaniels and John DeFilippo, but turn our attention to a candidate on the defensive side of the ball today. 

JJ: The Bears’ next head coach doesn’t *have* to be an offensive mind, as John “Moon” Mullin and I covered on the Under Center Podcast last month. Steve Wilks has an intriguing resume from the defensive side of the ball: He was Lovie Smith’s defensive backs coach from 2006-2008 and was part of that staff that made Super Bowl XLI, and while he’s only been the Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator for one year, he’s been an assistant to Ron Rivera since his D-coordinator days in San Diego. He’s also held the title of assistant head coach since 2015. Paul, thoughts?

Paul: Wilks is my favorite candidate from the defensive side of the ball. That assistant head coaching experience you just touched on could be invaluable in those crucial game situations in which John do I put this…*struggled* repeatedly. He’s grown with Rivera over the last 10-plus years from that Bears team, to San Diego and now in Carolina, working his way up each step of the way. But let me ask you, JJ, do you think his previous Bears / Lovie ties potentially help him or hurt him as a candidate? Does Ryan Pace want to avoid any link to a former -- and not so far removed -- regime?

JJ: That’s an interesting question. I don’t think Pace would rule a guy out because he has ties to the Lovie Smith/Jerry Angelo era -- if he’s the right candidate, he’ll be considered for the job (and you wouldn't figure Ted Phillips or George McCaskey would get in the way of a former Bears assistant, right?). Which brings me to this tangent: Kansas City Chiefs special teams coordinator Dave Toub absolutely could (or should) be considered for the Bears; opening. Toub, of course, was the Bears’ special teams coordinator from 2004-2012 under Smith and is widely respected around the league. The Bears interviewed Toub for their head coaching job after firing Smith and instead went with Marc Trestman, and Toub interviewed for the Miami Dolphins’ head coaching job in 2011 (which went to Joe Philbin). 

The Chiefs finished the 2017 season ranked 4th in Football Outsiders special teams DVOA; they were No. 1 in 2016, No. 9 in 2015, No. 3 in 2014 and No. 1 in 2013. Toub is a fantastic coach, and that should out-weigh special teams coaches rarely making the leap to becoming head coaches.

For what it’s worth, Bovada’s odds on the Bears’ next head coach don’t have Wilks, but they do include Toub:
Pat Shurmur                  3/1
Josh McDaniels            9/2
John DeFilippo             9/2
Todd Haley                   6/1
Frank Reich                   6/1
Jim Bob Cooter             9/1
Matt LaFleur                  9/1
Matt Nagy                     9/1
Dave Toub                    9/1

Anyways, now that I’ve successfully hijacked this thing on Wilks, let’s get back to it. 

Paul: My other question to you that relates to Wilks and Rivera: No doubt the Jerry Richardson situation in Carolina has much more serious implications than just football, but that being said, Rivera has to have an out clause in his contract if there’s a change in ownership, right? If Ryan Pace is gonna wait out a potential Super Bowl run on one of these highly touted coordinators, shouldn’t he consider rolling the dice on Riverboat Ron? If he does a little back channel research and finds out Rivera might be interested, at least consider waiting to take a shot at Rivera until after the sale of the Panthers. Maybe he’s tired of good Cam/bad Cam and wants a fresh start with a fan base that would welcome him with open arms?

JJ: Man, that would be quite a turn if it were to become realistic. But it’s not. The Bears can’t afford to wait out a process that may not even result in Rivera considering leaving Carolina. 

We just keep getting off track for Wilks, don’t we? 

Paul: Back to Wilks, Lance Briggs and Alex Brown both were on that Bears Super Bowl team on which Wilks coached in 2006, and both vouched for him as a leader when I asked them about him. He definitely fits the style of a coach that would shape the Bears in that defense first mold that has served the franchise so well historically. Plus, Lance said he looks like Denzel Washington and could parlay that into roles on all the Chicago Fire, Med, Justice, PD, Coast Guard whatever shows. Consider me sold.

JJ: That’s an...interesting...selling point. 

I talked with AB about Wilks earlier this week and similarly received a good pitch. Carolina ranked 7th in defensive DVOA this year, and Wilks’ unit was so fearsome that a certain quarterback only threw seven passes against it in October. The Bears aren’t the only team interested in Wilks, too: The Indianapolis Colts, New York Giants and Detroit Lions are in on him. That speaks to him being well-regarded around the league.

I’ll finish here with this thought: Wilks runs a 4-3 defense, which would mean the Bears would likely switch schemes from Vic Fangio’s 3-4, which the team has been building the last few years with guys like Eddie Goldman, Akiem Hicks, Leonard Floyd, Danny Trevathan and Nick Kwiatkoski. But a scheme change shouldn’t necessarily be a deterrent to who the next head coach and/or defensive coordinator will be -- if the right guy runs a 4-3, he’s still the right guy. 

Five things to watch for the Bears in Saturday's preseason meeting with the Broncos

Five things to watch for the Bears in Saturday's preseason meeting with the Broncos

DENVER — Expect the Bears’ starters to play deeper into the first half on Saturday in Denver than they did last week in Cincinnati, but their time on the field will still be relatively brief. The real dress rehearsal for the Bears will be next weekend, when they gameplan for and host the Kansas City Chiefs on Aug. 25. 

But Saturday’s game against the Denver Broncos at Mile High Stadium still represents sort of a checkpoint in the buildup to Sept. 9’s season-opening tilt with the Green Bay Packers. It’ll be the last game of the installation phase of the offseason, with coaches turning their focus to gameplanning for the Chiefs next week and then the Packers afterwards. 

There’s still plenty to be learned on Saturday, though. A few things to watch:

1. Will the first-team offense actually produce?

Mitch Trubisky this week bristled at the notion preseason games didn’t matter — “They don’t matter?” he said. “Then why do you guys talk about them so much?” — which fits with the attitude of a guy who was fairly frustrated with his and his teammates’ performance against the Cincinnati Bengals last week. Trubisky wasn’t happy with offense’s sloppy and ineffective play during the two drives he quarterbacked, and wasn’t willing to write it off as “just” a preseason game. 

“No matter what it is, if it’s on the practice field, if I’m in the backyard by myself, if it’s a preseason game, we’re trying to get better and we’re trying to move the football,” Trubisky said. “That’s what great players do. That’s what great teams do. We’re trying to get some momentum and everybody do our job and execute the offense.”

Still, because the Bears aren’t doing much in the way of gameplanning for the Broncos, any production or lack thereof won’t tell us much about the direction in which this offense is headed. More important will be how successful this group is next week against the Chiefs. 

But Trubisky’s competitiveness means he’s not going to let a poor performance slide, even if it’s only for a few series in a game that doesn’t count. He and the Bears hope that translates into some first downs and points on Saturday. 

2. Some notable debuts

Helping Trubisky’s cause will be the 2018 preseason debuts of running back Jordan Howard and wide receiver Allen Robinson, as well as running back Tarik Cohen — who only played one snap against Cincinnati — perhaps being used more. 

The Bears’ offense will not be at full strength, with wide receiver Taylor Gabriel (foot) and tight end Dion Sims (concussion) still out. But for Trubisky, it’ll be a good opportunity for him to see how all the work he and Robinson put in to develop a chemistry in the last few weeks translates to the field.

“We continue to create that chemistry in practice and my job is just to get the ball to the playmakers,” Trubisky said. “The more playmakers we have on the field, just continue to get them the ball and let them do what they do and we just need to roll as an offense, be on the same page, everyone continue to do their job, lock in and go out there and have fun an execute. It’ll be nice to see those guys with the ball in their hands this weekend.”

3. What about Roquan?

It wouldn’t be surprising to see Smith in full uniform going through pregame warmups, but it would qualify as a minor surprise if he actually played on Saturday. 

The benefit to Smith playing would be working to accelerate his development with an eye on Week 1, even if it’s only for a few snaps. But does the risk of him getting injured outweigh whatever benefit playing him would provide?

It’s a question the Bears surely are debating. But coaches and trainers made sure to not push Smith too hard in this week’s joint practices against the Broncos, and it would be risky to put him in Saturday but tell him to not play at full speed. 

It’s not out of the realm of possibility for Smith to play on Saturday, but more likely would be No. 58 making his preseason debut against the Chiefs with another week of practice under his belt. 

4. Snap decisions

James Daniels felt like he was a little sloppy last week against the Bengals, specifically with his hand placement but more broadly because the intensity of things was increased. 

“I think that’s when my technique gets sloppy is when you’re out there and playing against somebody else, you’re really playing,” Daniels said. 

This week’s joint practices, then, were beneficial for Daniels to focus on keeping his technique sound in a more intense setting. And he had the opportunity to do that all while still playing center, not left guard, where he had been working up until last week. How Bears coaches evaluate Daniels' week of practice — which certainly wasn't perfect — will be important, especially in the context of...

... Cody Whitehair going through a snapping “slump” over the last week or so, starting with that preseason game in Cincinnati. If those low/high snaps crop up again Saturday, and Daniels is able to put in a solid day of work with the second-team offensive line, it may nudge the Bears toward moving Whitehair to guard and inserting the second-round Iowa product into the starting lineup. 

The Bears haven’t considered that move yet, though, and the plan all along has been to keep Whitehair at center. A lot has to happen for that plan to change: If Whitehair can’t consistently get snaps to Trubisky, if Daniels proves he’s one of the team’s best five offensive linemen, and then if Daniels proves he’s a better option at center than Whitehair. So far, the Bears haven’t arrived at any of those conclusions, but Saturday’s game could have a significant impact on what those conclusions wind up being. 

5. Down-the-depth-chart position battles

Plenty of players fighting for a spot on the Week 1 53-man roster will get an extended opportunity to put more good — or bad — things on film on Saturday. 

Near the top of the depth chart, Adam Shaheen will have another opportunity to keep his arrow pointing up at the “Y” tight end spot with Sims still out. Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris will continue their competition for the final starting spot on the defensive line, with Bullard still likely the slight favorite. Nick Kwiatkoski can help his case to hold off Smith with another solid showing in what’s been a solid preseason. 

An all-hands-on-deck competition to be the Bears’ reserve outside corner is developing, and with Prince Amukamara (groin) not practicing this week, everyone from that group will get a chance to help their case of making the Week 1 roster. Marcus Cooper needs to have a better game than he did against Cincinnati, while 2017 practice squad’er Doran Grant should get plenty of opportunities, too. For undrafted rookies Anthony Toliver, Michael Joseph and John Franklin III, it’s a big opportunity, too, to turn a longshot bid for a roster spot into something more realistic. 

John Franklin III may be a longshot to make the Bears, but the former ‘Last Chance U’ star isn’t giving up on his dream

USA Today Sports Images

John Franklin III may be a longshot to make the Bears, but the former ‘Last Chance U’ star isn’t giving up on his dream

Down in Bourbonnais, one of the handful of players who stuck around the longest to sign autographs for fans after training camp practices was the starting quarterback and hopeful savior of a franchise that’s been mired at the bottom of its division for years. 

Another was a fourth-string cornerback who had never played that position before May and has an extremely difficult path to make it in the NFL. 

“Most of the time I’m out here with Mitch (Trubisky), like the last person,” John Franklin III said. “I’d rather have people know me than people not know me. So that’s a good thing.”

You might know Franklin as the super-talented Florida State quarterback transfer in Season One of “Last Chance U” on Netflix. A low point of Franklin’s life played out in living rooms across the world as he played sporadically behind Wyatt Roberts at East Mississippi Community College, but the south Florida native turned that strife into a lesson in persistence. 

From East Mississippi Community College, Franklin transferred to Auburn, where he stayed as a quarterback but didn’t see the field much. He graduated from Auburn and transferred to play his final year of college ball at Florida Atlantic, where Lane Kiffin gave him a shot at playing wide receiver. He didn’t put up the kind of production as either a quarterback or a receiver to get drafted, but his excellent speed is a trait that got him into rookie minicamp. 

After failing to secure a gig with the Seattle Seahawks at their rookie minicamp, the Bears brought Franklin to Halas Hall as a defensive back for a tryout a week later. He signed shortly after, and here he is, trying to figure out how to make it in the NFL at a position he’s never played on a side of the ball he was completely unfamiliar with until May. 

“People are so quick to quit when it doesn’t work the first time,” Franklin said. “It’s like, if you really give up and it didn’t work, then you really didn’t want it. If you keep pushing, it’s going to happen. Life’s not going to be peaches and cream, but you get what you get.”

Defensive backs coach Ed Donatell couldn’t recall ever seeing a player make the switch from offense to cornerback without any prior defensive experience before, let alone for a rookie battling to make a roster. 

“It doesn’t come up that much and usually they have some kind of training in there,” Donatell said. “Nothing comes to mind. 

“But why not us? Why can’t we?”

This isn’t a story about a player who is likely to important to the Bears’ success in 2018, like Trubisky or Allen Robinson or Leonard Floyd or Kyle Fuller. The odds are massively stacked against Franklin, especially after he was picked on by Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Auden Tate in last week’s preseason game (he did, too, have a nice break-up of a pass intended for Ka’Raun White). The stuff Franklin is learning right now are second nature to most NFL cornerbacks who’ve played the position — or at least, played on defense — their entire football lives. 

“I definitely feel like I was in good position most of the night, I just gotta — I know one thing I’m focusing on is getting my head around,” Franklin said. “That’s one thing that I still haven’t felt 100 percent comfortable with and that’s one of the things a lot of the vets are working with me on is to make sure I get my head around because most of the time I’m in a good position. Just finding the ball is still very new to me.” 

Training camp and preseason practices, then, present a difficult dichotomy for Franklin. On one hand, he knows he has to be patient as he learns an entirely new job that he likened to “trying to write with your non-dominant hand.” On the other hand, he has to show considerable progress to even be considered for a spot on a practice squad, let alone a 53-man roster. 

While Franklin has seen himself make significant progress on tape over the last few months and weeks, he knows he’s not where he needs to be or where he thinks he can be. It’s sort of a race against time for him, because rookies who don’t make a roster or practice squad usually don’t get a second chance in the league. 

“He’s such a willing soul,” Donatell said. “He came in here, he’s taking everything in, the veterans are helping him. But he has a skillset that you can see him doing things on the other side of the football that we want to translate to defense. … It’s a race for us right now and a race through this month, and he’s willing. We see progress every day. Time will tell how much.”

What Franklin puts on tape in these final three preseason games — Saturday against the Denver Broncos, Aug. 25 against the Kansas City Chiefs and Aug. 30 against the Buffalo Bills — will be critically important to his chances of sticking in some capacity in the NFL when the regular season starts.

Taking a step back, the task seems almost impossible. This is a guy who played quarterback his whole life, then moonlighted as a receiver for a year, and now is trying to make it in the NFL playing cornerback. It would be a remarkable feat if Franklin were to make a practice squad and allow himself more weeks and months to develop. 

But there’s no doubting Franklin’s desire to make it work. He wants to make it work to live out his dream of playing in the NFL, one he’s had since he was four. He wants to make it work to repay his parents for all they did for him. He wants to make it work to be an inspiration to others to never give up on their goals. 

Will it work? We’ll see. But it’s not in Franklin’s nature to give up, no matter how much of a longshot he may be. 

“I’m accepting the challenge,” Franklin said. “Doing something different at the highest level of football ain’t easy by any means.

“But it’s also doable and possible.”