Bears

As Bears enter season-tipping game, four ascending players could key win over Vikings

As Bears enter season-tipping game, four ascending players could key win over Vikings

The Bears, sure, haven’t beat anyone good. Their best win is over the 5-5 Seattle Seahawks, and the combined record of the six teams they’ve defeated is 19-38. 

But it’s also true that the Minnesota Vikings haven’t beat anyone good in 2018 either. Their best win came against the 4-5 Philadelphia Eagles, and the combined record of the five teams they’ve beat is 14-33.

The Vikings have lost to the Bills (3-7), Rams (9-1) and Saints (9-1), while the Bears have lost to the Packers (4-5-1), Dolphins (5-5) and Patriots (7-3). All this is to say: One of these two teams will get their best win of 2018 on Sunday night. 

And the Bears have shown plenty of signs over the last few weeks that they have a strong chance of emerging from a critical battle for the NFC North with a win. These four players are among the biggest reasons why:

1. Roquan Smith

The report: There’s little questioning the connection between Smith missing all but about a practice and a half of training camp/preseason and the No. 8 overall pick’s slow start to the regular season, but he’s come on strong as of late. Smith has 12 tackles in his last two games, providing big-time run support to mute the production of LeSean McCoy and Kerryon Johnson, and he sacked Matthew Stafford last weekend, too. 

He’s playing with a certain quickness that perhaps was lacking in the first eight weeks of the season, and it’s clear the game is slowing down for him, allowing him to make plays with his physicality and sideline-to-sideline athleticism. 

“He’s getting better and better every day and not just every game,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “I see better things in practice, just little things, processing quicker, executing his job crisper and more quickly, if that’s such a word, and he’s getting better every day.”

The matchup: The Vikings’ offense hasn’t got running back Dalvin Cook rolling since he returned from a balky hamstring in Week 9. His explosive rushing ability provides a different dynamic for the Vikings’ offense, and getting him going would make things far easier for Kirk Cousins, Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. While Eddie Goldman and Akiem Hicks are critical for the Bears’ run-stuffing efforts, it’ll be Smith and Danny Trevathan who may need to step up to keep him from ripping off a big-chunk play, as he did with a 70-yard dash against the Lions two weeks ago. 

“He’s strong but explosive,” Fangio said. “He can break the big run. He had a 70-yarder here recently against (Detroit) so he’s a threat to go the route all the time. He’s a really good all-around player.”

2. Anthony Miller

The report: Miller’s breakout game against Detroit (five catches, 122 yards, 1 TD) had been coming for weeks — he just needed Mitch Trubisky to connect with him when he ran open. That finally happened against the Lions. His chemistry with Trubisky is becoming apparent, and he’s combining his route-running savviness with increased experience to consistently find openings in whatever defense is in front of him. 

“He's slowly starting to fit into what we see him being down the road here,” coach Matt Nagy said. “And so any way we can get him the ball we're going to try to do that.”

The matchup: Miller primarily plays in the slot, running 71 percent of his offensive snaps from that position. Against the Vikings, he’ll face off against slot corner Mackensie Alexander, who’s allowed 28 receptions on 34 targets for 303 yards, good for 10.8 yards/reception, and a passer rating of 103.8 according to Pro Football Focus (for a slot corner comparison, scroll down for the Bryce Callahan section of this article). The Bears have a matchup edge here, so long as Trubisky is able to take advantage of it. 

3. Bryce Callahan

The report: Forget about the offseason price tag of Callahan, an impending free agent, going up by the game. The 27-year-old is playing spectacular football, holding opposing receivers to 28 receptions 38 targets (73.7 percent) for 219 yards (7.8 yards/reception) and a passer rating of 74.3 when he’s thrown at, per PFF. Perhaps making those numbers more impressive — of the 10 incompletions when passes are thrown his way, five were pass break-ups and two were interceptions. On top of all that, he has two sacks, two quarterback hits and seven hurries this year, good for 11 total pressures — more than double the next-highest total for a cornerback (Arizona’s Budda Baker has five). He’s playing at a Pro Bowl level. 

“There are a lot of little things that he’s mastered and can go to the next level as far as reading and dissecting routes and knowing how to play them, maybe playing them a half-second quicker than he did two years ago,” Fangio said. “Those things start to add up.”

The matchup: Adam Thielen can play both inside and outside, but has played the majority of his 586 snaps from the slot (53 percent). While he won’t be exclusively matched up against Callahan, the two former undrafted free agents will go against each other in a battle of strength vs. strength. Thielen already has 947 yards on 78 receptions, and until Minnesota’s Week 9 win over the Detroit Lions had eight consecutive games with at least 100 receivers yards (he’s also caught a touchdown in six consecutive games). Cousins has a passer rating of 119.2 when throwing Thielen’s way, too. If Callahan can win this matchup, it’ll be massive for the Bears’ chances on Sunday. It’s worth noting two of Cousins’ five interceptions have come when throwing Thielen’s way. 

“Both of those receivers with Thielen and Diggs, they're just very natural receivers,” Nagy said. “They have excellent hands, great route runners, they understand how to beat zones and then Kirk throwing the ball to them, he's been doing it for a long time, he's extremely accurate, he's tough, he finds different ways to get the ball to those guys.”

4. Mitch Trubisky

The report: On one hand, Trubisky lit up the Lions’ defense for 355 yards on 23/30 passing with three touchdowns and an additional rushing score. On the other hand, the Lions’ defense is awful, and the Vikings will bring a stout group to Soldier Field on Sunday night. The thought being: Trubisky still needs to prove himself against a good defense. 

But Nagy explained why what Trubisky did against Detroit didn’t necessarily have anything to do with Matt Patricia’s side having one of the league’s worst defenses. Specifically: Miller easily beat a blown coverage for a touchdown, but what Trubisky did to get him the ball translates against any defense. 

“Find an open guy and throw it to him,” Nagy said. “That's what we did. He has a progression. He has a progression. And so whether it's a blown coverage or a wide receiver runs a good route and beats a guy, as long as he's sticking within that progression and going from one, two, three, maybe four, or one, two, three, to run, etc., as long as he stays within that we're good.”

The matchup: A year ago, in primetime against the Vikings, Trubisky was baited into throwing a late-game interception by safety Harrison Smith, which led to a Kai Forbath game-winning field goal. Smith remains one of the very best safeties in the NFL, with three interceptions this year while allowing a passer rating of 66.1 when he’s targeted, according to PFF. 

“I think I’ve grown a lot since that play,” Trubisky said. “I’m not the same player, not even close. I’ve got better since that instance and I’m excited for the opportunity this weekend.”

Still, Trubisky will have to be aware of Smith at all times. Smith is one of those guys who epitomizes the Vikings’ ability to win close games — a been-there, done-that kind of guy. 

“He’s kind of like “Where’s Waldo?” He’s everywhere,” Nagy said. “And there’s several safeties in this league that are like him, where guys that can come down, play in the box, guys that blitz — very similar to (Jamal Adams). So he’s gonna be everywhere and he’s good at what he does. Harrison’s made consecutive Pro Bowls. We were with him in the Pro Bowl and he can play post-safety, play high, take care of the pass game. He’s got good ball skills. He can hit you hard. He can cover. It’s one of the reasons they’re a top defense. “ 

Bears will reportedly release Cody Parkey when new league year begins

Bears will reportedly release Cody Parkey when new league year begins

The biggest question regarding Cody Parkey wasn’t if he’d be released, but when. According to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, the “when” will be at the beginning of the new league year on March 13. 
 
https://twitter.com/RapSheet/status/1099078342974885888
 
Parkey will still be paid the $3.5 million in remaining guaranteed money on his contract. The Bears guaranteed Parkey $9 million in his four-year, $15 million deal signed last year, and will not net any cap savings by releasing Parkey. The Bears can use a June 1 designation on Parkey to release him on March 13 without costing them any cap space (without using that collectively bargained designation, the Bears would owe an additional $1.125 million against their 2019 cap). They’ll still have to shoulder Parkey’s dead cap figure of a little over $4 million, per Spotrac. 
 
The move will bring to end an ignominious, brief tenure in Chicago, in which Parkey missed 10 kicks during the regular season before his infamous double-doink that dealt the Bears a loss in their first playoff game in eight years. Murmurs began surfacing regarding Parkey’s reliability when he missed a long game-winning field goal in overtime against the Miami Dolphins (a game the Bears lost), then hit a fever pitch when he bizarrely hit the uprights four times against the Detroit Lions at Soldier Field in November. 
 
A media circus quickly followed Parkey after that four-doink game, with helicopters from two news stations flying over Soldier Field while he practiced on a Wednesday night. Parkey did hit 10 of 12 field goals and 12 of 13 extra points after that brutal game against the Lions, but there was no coming back from the missed 43-yard field goal that knocked the Bears out of the playoffs. 
 
Parkey, too, didn’t help his cause by going on “TODAY” the Friday after that double-doink miss, with coach Matt Nagy sounding and looking annoyed with his kicker for that appearance. 
 
“We always talk as a team, we win as a team, we lose as a team,” Nagy said. “You know, I just -- I didn't necessarily think that that much too much of a ‘we’ thing.”
 
The Bears signed former Tulsa kicker Redford Jones to a reserve/future contract in January after bringing in several kickers for a tryout at Halas Hall. Cutting Parkey paves the way for the Bears to continue adding kickers in free agency, the draft and/or the undrafted free agent pool. 
 
Robbie Gould, who’s only missed three of 85 field goal attempts since being cut by the Bears before the 2016 season, is likely to have the franchise tag placed on him by the San Francisco 49ers, according to NBC Sports Bay Area’s Matt Maiocco.
 

Bears grades and needs: Tough decisions loom on edge rushing depth

Bears grades and needs: Tough decisions loom on edge rushing depth

2018 depth chart

1. Khalil Mack
Usage: 14 games, 71.2 percent of defensive snaps
2019 status: $22.3 million cap hit 

Mack’s salary cap hit accounts for 11.6 percent of the Bears’ 2019 cap, and he’s worth every single penny and every single percentage point of it. His individual impact was spectacular: 12 1/2 sacks, 73 total pressures, six forced fumbles, one interception, one touchdown.

And because of that production, his impact on the rest of the Bears’ defense was massive. He was the missing piece to take this defense from good to great. His quiet swagger meshed well within the Bears’ locker room, too. The two first-round picks the Bears sent to the Raiders are less valuable (No. 24 in 2019) in part because of what Mack did, and is expected to keep doing, in Chicago. 

Going forward, the Bears could convert some of Mack’s 2019 salary into a signing bonus, spreading that money out over the next few years to give them some relief this year. Using $10 million to retain, say, Bryce Callahan or fill out the depth chart would go a long way when the Bears only have about $12 million in cap space right now. It would impact the team’s cap in 2020 and beyond, but if the goal is maximize Mitch Trubisky’s rookie contract, it would make sense. 

2. Leonard Floyd
Usage: 16 games, 75.4 percent of defensive snaps
2019 status: $5,021,819 cap hit

Floyd was two things last year: 1) Disappointing, production-wise and 2) Absolutely worthy of having his fifth-year option exercised. 

A hand injury suffered in a mid-August preseason game against the Denver Broncos limited Floyd for around two months, to the point where former defensive coordinator Vic Fangio admitted the team probably rushed Floyd back and put too much on his plate while he was still recovering. It showed in his production: Floyd didn’t have a sack and only totaled four pressures in the Bears’ first seven games of the season, then had 32 pressures and four sacks over the final nine games. 

Floyd deserves credit for playing well against the run, and he did notch the Bears’ only sack of Nick Foles in the wild card loss to the Eagles. But drawing single-teams thanks to Mack’s presence on the other side of the line didn’t lead to the massively productive season hoped for when the Raiders bizarrely decided to trade one of the best pass rushers in the league to the Bears. 

Still, the Bears have to bet on Floyd moving forward. He’s still cheap in 2019, and while his salary will significantly increase in 2020 it’s a gamble well worth taking to see if the former top-10 pick can fulfill his potential. 

"He played well and we're happy where he's at," general manager Ryan Pace said. "I feel like Leonard is still doing this (indicating upward trajectory) and I think you felt that as the season was going on."

3. Aaron Lynch 
Usage: 13 games, 33.6 percent of defensive snaps, 3.1 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: Unrestricted free agent

Lynch rewarded the Bears’ one-year prove-it deal by playing in 13 games (his most since 2015) with three sacks, four tackles for a loss and one interception. He was strong against the run, too, though his season ended early after Week 15 due to an elbow injury. 

There are a few things to consider as Lynch moves toward free agency: First, durability has been an issue in his career, and he did miss nearly all of training camp. His best years in the NFL have come under the watch of now-former defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, too. 

But edge rushing depth is difficult to find, especially for cheap. Lynch may look for a bit of a pay raise off the $4 million deal he signed last year, but it may not be significant enough to make it necessarily prohibitive for the Bears. Still, the best bet is Lynch won’t be back, though if Pace likes him enough — or isn’t enamored with other options — he could be. 

4. Sam Acho
Usage: 4 games, 2.6 percent of defensive snaps, 8.5 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: $2.375 million cap hit

The Bears will have a tough decision coming on Acho, a well liked and highly respected figure inside Halas Hall who played well in 2017 both on defense and special teams, but missed 12 games last season after suffering a pec injury in Week 4. The Bears could save $2.125 million in cap space by releasing Acho, though they could attempt to bring him back on a cheaper deal. 

All the community work around Chicago Acho has committed himself to would make him an especially tough cut for the team. Then again, a little under $3 million isn’t a bad price to pay for a reserve edge rusher, one who did have three sacks two years ago. So again, a tough decision is coming here. 

5. Isaiah Irving
Usage: 13 games, 11 percent of defensive snaps, 43.8 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: Exclusive rights free agent

Part of the Bears’ decisions on Lynch and Acho will depend on their evaluations of Irving and Kylie Fitts moving forward. Irving played in 10 games last year with eight pressures and one sack, and to date the former undrafted free agent has mostly flashed in the preseason. It’s worth noting the Bears would’ve gone into 2018 with Irving having a bigger part of their edge rushing rotation had they not traded for Mack. 

6. Kylie Fitts 
Usage: 6 games, 5.5 percent of defensive snaps, 5.9 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: $613,050 cap hit

Fitts was tabbed as a possible sleeper after he tested well at the NFL combine but fell to the sixth round of last year’s draft. A good rule of thumb with edge rushers, though: Productive players at that position rarely last until the sixth round. Over the last five years, no sixth or seventh round outside linebacker has more than 3 1/2 sacks in their entire career. 

7. James Vaughters
Usage: 16 games with Calgary Stampeders in CFL
2019 status: Reserve/future contract

Vaughters had five sacks with the Calgary Stampeders in the CFL in 2018, and the Chicago native and Stanford alum will try to make the jump to the NFL with the Bears in OTAs/minicamp/training camp. 

Level of need (1-11, with 11 being the highest): 7

The Bears have a number of questions to address with their depth behind Mack and Floyd, and would do well to target this position in the draft. But again: It’s hard to find quality edge rushers without a first- or second-round pick, and the Bears may not be sold on anyone with their third-round pick. Signing an inexpensive veteran and taking another flier on a later-round draft pick may be the route here. 

Previous grades and needs: QBs | RBs | WRs | TEs | OL | DL

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