Bears

Bears cornerbacks Duke Shelley and Stephen Denmark are learning new positions in their own way

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USA TODAY

Bears cornerbacks Duke Shelley and Stephen Denmark are learning new positions in their own way

Stephen Denmark was willing to transfer from wide receiver to cornerback for his final collegiate season at Valdosta State for one simple reason.

“I kind of figured there’s a lot of 6-3, 220 wide receivers,” Denmark said. “But there’s not many 6-3, 220 cornerbacks at all, really.”

As it turned out, that transition is what got Denmark drafted, even if it was on a seventh-round flier by the Bears. General manager Ryan Pace alluded to Denmark’s “ridiculous” measurables last weekend and said the Bears see “tremendous upside” in him.

If anyone around Halas Hall is dreaming big, could that upside be Richard Sherman — another lengthy receiver-turned-corner who’s put together an intriguing Hall of Fame case in his eight-year career?

“I look up to him,” Denmark said. “There’s plenty (of WRs-turned-CBs) out there but Richard Sherman, yeah, he’s pretty good.”

Of course, there are hundreds of metaphorical hurdles separating Denmark from one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. He would’ve been higher than a seventh round pick had there been certainty he’d be the next Richard Sherman.

So this weekend’s rookie minicamp will begin a long, grueling process for Denmark to make good on his opportunity in the NFL. But he’s someone who, at the least, the Bears are fascinated to see develop.

“This late in the draft, it’s just a very interesting, intriguing prospect for us to take,” Pace said. “I can tell you this: When we go to the rookie minicamp, he’s going to be one of the guys I’m going to be most interested in watching, just because of the traits that he possesses.”

A different kind of learning curve

Duke Shelley has far more experience playing cornerback than Denmark, having played 37 games while picking off eight passes over the last four years for Kansas State.

But Shelley is changing positions, too, at the NFL level — only he’s moving from outside corner, where he played at K-State, into the slot. And that’s not always an easy transition.

“Nickel’s a hard position to play, just because of where you’re at on the field,” Shelley said. “There’s more grass, more field to cover. Guys have opportunities to go two-way go’s on you and things like that.

“But for me personally, my skill set fits it, being my size and how quick I am and the feet I have. Transition, I don’t feel like will be hard for me. Being out there now during walk-throughs I was able to get in there at nickel a little bit and just lining up, it feels a little different. But after you get going and you get a couple of reps, you’ll be fine. So you just put your best foot forward and rely on the things you’ve been doing your whole life, so that’s kind of where I’m at with that.”

While Shelley was a solid, productive corner in the pass-happy Big 12 — opposing quarterbacks had just a 52.0 passer rating when targeting him in 2018 — his undersized 5-foot-9, 180 pound frame and a season-ending toe injury last year led to him not being invited to the NFL Combine. And that led to him being perhaps under-scouted, though the Bears discovered they liked his traits as a projectable special teamer now and slot corner in the future.

“He’s so scrappy,” Pace said. “If it’s completed, it’s earned. He’s very sticky in coverage. He’s highly, highly competitive. He’s just very athletic.”

Still, Shelley will have some learning to do before he can be an NFL-ready slot corner. The good news for the Bears is there are two veterans ahead of him on the depth chart (Buster Skrine and Sherrick McManis), so Shelley should have some time to develop behind the scenes so long as he’s contributing on special teams.

“Nowadays everyone (is) going to nickel personnel, 10 personnel, so it's opportunities — you got to put guys on the field who can run and come up and make tackles,” Shelley said. “I’m loving it, loving the transition. Learning new things about nickel. But I'm definitely loving the transition.”

 

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Another day, another reason why Bears won the Khalil Mack trade

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USA TODAY

Another day, another reason why Bears won the Khalil Mack trade

Oh, now this is a doozy.

As if it wasn't obvious enough already, the Bears absolutely won the Khalil Mack trade over the Raiders. Not only did they acquire the 2016 Defensive Player of the Year, but they did so when the rival Green Bay Packers were also interested. Based on a recent revelation from Packers president Mark Murphy, the extent to which the Bears won the trade is greater than we may have realized. 

In an interview with 105.7 The FAN, Murphy revealed a unique reason as to why the Raiders chose the Bears over the Packers.

"Well the whole Khalil Mack thing. It's not that we didn't try," Murphy said on Thursday. "We were aggressive. We wanted to sign him. I think, ironically, the Raiders took the Bears offer because they thought they would be a better draft pick."

As it turned out, the Packers had a higher first-round pick (No. 12 overall) than the Bears (No. 24) in 2019. This very well could change in 2020, but for the time being, let's get this straight.

Not only did the Bears acquire one of the best (if not the best) defensive players in football, but:

-Their trade package was highlighted by what should be two late first round picks (assuming the Bears remain a playoff team in 2019), and
-Acquiring Mack kept him out of Green Bay.

Talk about absolutely winning a deal. In the end, the Bears have a three-time All-Pro (2015-16, 2018) pash rusher entering his age 28 season. The Raiders and Packers surely cannot say the same thing.

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Why what 'Run DMC' does catching passes in training camp will be a big clue for how good the Bears' offense will be

Why what 'Run DMC' does catching passes in training camp will be a big clue for how good the Bears' offense will be


How much better Mitch Trubisky will be is the defining question for the 2019 Bears. But we won’t begin to know the answer to that question until September — it’s not something that’ll be easily discernible during training camp practices in Bourbonnais or a handful of snaps in preseason games. Those can sometimes produce false positives and false negatives.

The Bears believe in Trubiskiy, of course, and you’ll likely hear Matt Nagy and players laud their quarterback’s growth over the coming weeks. But belief is one thing; tangible production is another. And we won’t truly get to see that growth until the night of Sept. 5 at Soldier Field. 

But there are a few things to look for in Bourbonnais that could clue us in that a big-time leap is coming for No. 10. We’ll begin this mini-series leading up to the start of training camp next week with this: Better success from running backs catching passes on first down. 

It’s a narrowly specific angle, but one that carries plenty of weight. Consider this excerpt from Warren Sharp’s 2019 Football Preview:

“First down has long been perceived as a running down. In 2017, the league-wide average run-pass split on first down was 47-53. It was 50-50 last season, but that was still well below the 59-41 league-wide split on all downs. Yet passing to running backs on first down is significantly more effective.

“In 2018, there were 6,248 running back rushing attempts on first down. They averaged 4.5 yards per carry, minus-0.01 Expected Points Added per attempt, and a positive play rate of 41.3%. When teams threw to running backs on first down, they averaged 6.02 yards per target, 7.8 yards per receptions. 0.08 EPA per attempt — slightly more efficient than the average of all passes regardless of down at 0.05 EPA — and a positive play rate of 52.3%.”

The larger point here (especially if your eyes glazed over some of those numbers — which, we promise, make sense) is this: Scheming more throws to running backs on first down is an area in which almost every team in the NFL can improve. It's worth noting the Kansas City Chiefs' most effective play on first-and-long in 2018, per Sharp, was a pass to Kareem Hunt. 

And the good news is the Bears re-worked their running back room in a way that could optimize their success throwing the ball to David Montgomery, Mike Davis and Tarik Cohen on first down. 

The 2018 Bears simply didn’t have the personnel to do that regularly or successfully.

Jordan Howard was only targeted nine times on first-and-10, catching five passes for 42 yards. All nine of those targets were short throws, either to the left (two), middle (one) or right (six), and Trubisky had a passer rating of 83 on those attempts. Meanwhile, Howard carried the ball 128 times on first-and-10, averaging 3.7 yards per carry and only generating nine first downs (the NFL average for rushing attempts on first-and-10 in 2018 was 4.7 yards per carry). 

Cohen was, roughly, the inverse of Howard’s numbers: He caught 30 of 37 targets for 241 yards (6.5 yards per target) and generated seven first downs through the air, but averaged just 3.2 yards on his 46 rushing attempts with four first downs. Neither player was particularly balanced in these scenarios: Howard was mildly ineffective running the ball and not a threat catching it; Cohen was largely ineffective running the ball but was a threat catching it. 

And for the crowd who still believes Nagy wasn’t willing to establish the run: The combined rushing attempts on first-and-10 of Howard, Cohen, Benny Cunningham and Taquan Mizzell totaled 182; the combined pass attempts by Trubisky and Chase Daniel in that down-and-distance was 176, per Pro Football Reference’s play index. 

The Bears, in 2018, averaged 5.5 yards per play on first-and-10, tied for 24th in the NFL. Yet only three teams — the New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts — averaged fewer yards-to-go on third down than the Bears’ mark of 6.9. That’s a sign of Nagy’s playcalling prowess and the talent on this offense, and it’s not a stretch to argue an improvement of first-and-10 success will have a significant impact on the overall success of the Bears’ offense. 

So back to the initial point about passes to running backs in these situations: The Bears believe both Montgomery and Davis have some untapped potential as pass-catching running backs. Montgomery caught 71 passes in college at Iowa State, while Davis was targeted the most by the Seattle Seahawks in 2018 on first down (17 of 42 targets). Cohen, of course, is already an accomplished pass-catcher. 

The “Run DMC” backfield needs to have more success carrying the ball on first-and-10 than last year’s group did, of course. But if you’re in Bourbonnais or watching a preseason game, keep an eye out for how effective the Bears are at passing to their running backs — especially if those passes travel beyond the line of scrimmage (another inefficiency noted by Warren Sharp's 2019 Football Preview). 

If you start seeing Montgomery making defenders miss after catching a pass, or Davis looking fluid with the ball in his hands, or Cohen breaking off some explosive gains — those will be significant reasons to believe in Trubisky and the Bears' offense in 2019. 

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