Bears

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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'It's fast-tracked iRacing': With sports shut down, Kyle Long explains sim racing

'It's fast-tracked iRacing': With sports shut down, Kyle Long explains sim racing

For years, the casual sports fan has heard about eSports, but while video games continue to grow in popularity, the virtual gaming world has never really threatened the mainstream sports world.

That is, until the COVID-19 pandemic effectively shut down sports altogether.

Last month, with no NASCAR race to show on television, FOX and iRacing partnered together to broadcast a live virtual race with real NASCAR drivers. And with sports fans all hunkered down at home starving for any kind of activity, the event quickly went viral on social media, with this year’s Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin winning the virtual Homestead race inside his own house with his daughter cheering him on.

With the success of that first race, FOX did it again last Sunday, racing virtually at Texas Motor Speedway, which would have been hosting that weekend’s real NASCAR race. This coming Sunday, they’ll do it again at Bristol. NBC Sports has also joined the party, announcing it will broadcast an IndyCar iRace Saturday at 1:30 p.m. CT on NBCSN.

But let’s shift into reverse. What is iRacing? And what the heck is that contraption Hamlin has sitting in his living room?

Of all people, recently retired Chicago Bears offensive lineman Kyle Long has the answers. He’s been iRacing since 2016 and is now a part owner of an actual iRacing team.

Yes, this is all very real.

“I got started right after I blew my ankle out against Tampa Bay,” Long told NBC Sports Chicago this week. “That was the first real serious injury I had in my life and I struggled mentally. I didn't know what to do.”

That’s when a friend recommended iRacing.

“I had no use of my right foot for like a year almost. I had a computer, so I downloaded and I subscribed to the iRacing service,” Long said. “I bought a few of the basic cars and basic tracks that are popular. I think it was Daytona, Talladega and Charlotte.”

You might be thinking that this is just some video game played on Xbox or Playstation, but it is very different. iRacing is a subscription-based racing simulator you use on the computer. And it’s about as real as it could possibly get. The Massachusetts-based company is backed by Boston Red Sox owner John Henry (who also is a co-owner of Roush Fenway Racing) and uses laser scanning technology to replicate every detail of every professional racetrack.

“They have this machine that essentially is like if R2-D2 and C-3PO had a baby -- but like a really fat baby -- and they roll it around the track, and it has lasers all over it like Mission Impossible style,” Long explained.

The technology works. If you have the right equipment at home, you can feel every bump in every track. Of course, the better your equipment, the more realistic the driving experience becomes.

“I was using a controller at first,” Long said. “So that's how cool iRacing is. You can go anywhere from a controller to a full-blown cockpit as you have seen on the internet. And I have somewhere in-between. I've got a really nice setup, but it's not as nice as say, Denny Hamlin's, which is (a) $150,000 rig. Mine's expensive, but nowhere near that.”

You definitely don’t need to spend more money on a rig than you would on a real car – Long said a nice Logitech wheel/pedal setup will set you back $150 – but there’s a reason why NASCAR drivers are spending so much money on their in-home simulators. The racing is so realistic, the professionals actually use iRacing to practice.

“If a guy lives in Charlotte and they have a race in Phoenix next week and they need to train and they want to get their car set up, they can do everything on the car,” Long said. “I'm not a mechanic, but you can set up the car how you'd like, as well as experience the track for free in the comfort of your own home without spending money on tires, fuel, flights, insurance, risking getting hurt, etc.”

The simulators are set up to give drivers hard forced-feedback on the steering wheel and pedals. Long has three monitors that wrap around his “GT-like” racing seat.

“It's incredible. When you're sitting in there and you're racing, you sometimes forget that you're in your living room and your dog is sitting right behind you,” he said.

But he’s also right that you don’t need an expensive setup to be successful. NASCAR driver Timmy Hill won Sunday’s Pro Invitational Series race at Texas with a simple wheel/pedal setup and one monitor in front of him.

“It's not like you have to break the bank to have success,” Long said. “You really just have to take it seriously and respect racing.”

Now that Long is done playing football, he’s showing racing even more respect. As iRacing tries to take advantage of the added attention it is getting with the sports world shut down, Long was one of many celebrity racers invited to join The Replacements iRacing Series, which now runs bi-weekly through June 30. The series includes Dale Earnhardt Jr. and longtime NASCAR crew chief Chad Knaus.

“I remember I was in there drafting with Bubba Wallace and Dale Earnhardt Jr. on lap 60 and it was just crazy for me. Such an experience,” Long said after last week’s race.

The next Replacements race takes place Tuesday night and can be streamed at Twitch.tv/iRacing. But while Long has made it on a big stage in the iRacing community, he still views it as a hobby and not a second career.

“If you're asking me if I'm going to be a pro racer, absolutely not in the iRacing community. Absolutely not,” Long said. “The talent level of these guys is crazy. I'd say I'm middle of the road or a little bit above average. I can be fast at times, but there are guys who are just incredible. So no, but I enjoy being part of the iRacing series and kind of pushing this brand forward.”

But Long admits “there is some rich soil in the roots of iRacing” and that those in the community have “projected that this thing is going to blow up eventually.” That’s why Long has jumped in as a part owner in iRacing’s premiere professional series, which is sponsored by Coca-Cola.

The eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing series runs every other Tuesday night at 8 p.m. CT and Long is part owner of Mode Motorsports, which has two cars in the series. One of them is a "Kyle Long Ford Mustang" with No. 75 painted on the side – the same number he wore for the Chicago Bears. Every detail is taken seriously, including the car paints, which are designed by the same people who design the paints on actual NASCAR and Formula 1 cars.

The races themselves are fascinating. Many of the drivers have cameras pointed at them and wear headsets that allow them to talk to their “spotters” who are viewing the race from different camera angles and can help their drivers get through traffic. And yet, it’s pretty obvious they’re at home.

“We get to see facial expressions of these 17 to 30-year-old dudes who are the best sim racers in the world, but they're in their bedroom,” Long said. “There’s one guy that’s got a lizard cage behind him or something.”

Hey, in these uncertain times, iRacing serves as an outstanding self-isolation tool all while remaining part of an online social community.

“(These are) unfortunate circumstances that iRacing and the simulation world are enjoying so much success right now with sports coming to a screeching halt, but it's just fast-tracked iRacing,” Long said. “I think there's tremendous value in it and teams are starting to see that. You're going to start to see real big sponsors.”

In the meantime, Long’s hobby is an entertaining distraction, both for drivers and newfound viewers.

“It's a welcomed escape from a crappy sort of time,” he said. “I'm looking out the window, it's April 1, it's a beautiful sunny day. It's a little brisk here, but I know I can't go out and go to town and have a good time … because there's bad stuff going around. So we welcome these things.”

And the eSport is welcoming new drivers too.

“If you're really all about racing, but you don't have the time or the weather or you got a bunch of kids and you don't want to get in a car going 150 miles per hour, you can go race in iRacing, which is what I've done.”

Considering most of our real cars are gathering dust in our garages right now, it’s not a bad idea.

Bears spoiling Packers' Brett Favre celebration was only highlight of John Fox era

Bears spoiling Packers' Brett Favre celebration was only highlight of John Fox era

NBC Sports Network will replay 2015’s Bears-Packers Thanksgiving game on Thursday night 8:30 p.m. CT, a game that was supposed to be a celebration of Brett Favre’s career. His No. 4 jersey was retired that night at Lambeau Field, and what better opponent to play than the one Favre so thoroughly tormented during his career in Green Bay, right?

“That’s like they’re scheduling a homecoming game, like a high school team is gonna schedule a homecoming game where they know they’re gonna whoop up on somebody so they can celebrate their homecoming,” ex-Bears tight end Zach Miller recalled. “I feel like they’re throwing this Brett Favre celebration on Thursday night, Thanksgiving, against us trying to have their ultimate celebration where they can celebrate the career he had.”

Only there was a hitch in the Packers’ plans: The Bears went into Lambeau Field and won, 17-13. It was a high point of the John Fox era — maybe the only high point — even if it didn’t change the course of Matt Nagy's predecessor's otherwise-forgettable three-year tenure in Chicago. 

The game itself was awfully sloppy, played in brutal conditions — rain, sleet, cold — and the score reflected that. 

“Pregame warmups, I don’t think I’ve seen more dropped football in my entire career in a matter of 20 minutes because of the rain and sleet we had coming down,” Miller said. “Literally the worst weather combination you could have if you want to throw the ball around. And guys were taking gloves off, guys were switching gloves and it still wasn’t working. I had footballs flying off my hands left and right. Going into this thing I was man, we’re gonna run the ball like 80 times.”

Then-offensive coordinator Adam Gase didn’t call 80 runs, though — 31 passes to 31 rushing attempts were the Bears’ final totals (balance!). But there were five fumbles, with the Bears recovering one of the Packers’ and turning it into a game-tying touchdown in the second quarter. 

Miller was the recipient of a three-year touchdown pass from Jay Cutler to end that drive, and remembered how worried he was he was going to embarrassingly drop a wide-open touchdown — one of the easiest of his career. 

“If you watch the tape, I turn my hands over and catch the football like a loaf of bread,” Miller laughed. “Normally I would have my hands, I would reach out and catch it, but I couldn’t just because I wanted to make sure that I was securing this thing. I’m sitting there, the ball’s flying at me and I’m like alright baby, just please catch this thing.”

The most remarkable thing about this game, though, was that Aaron Rodgers *didn’t* complete one of his patented fourth quarter comebacks against the Bears. 

As you’re watching this game on Thursday night, you might feel like your memory fails you (I know I did). We've seen this story so many times, with Rodgers driving the Packers into the end zone for a last-minute, game-winning touchdown against the Bears. He had to do it this time, right? This is Aaron Rodgers! Against the John Fox Bears! How could he possibly not get the job done?

After grabbing three first downs in succession inside four minutes, Rodgers was picked off by Tracy Porter. But the Bears couldn’t run the clock out and did the thing they’ve so often regretted — they gave the ball back to Rodgers with another chance to win the game. 

Rodgers drove the Packers to the Bears’ eight-yard line, and on fourth down rifled a pass to Davante Adams. Instead of Adams catching the pass over Bryce Callahan for a game-winning touchdown, it slipped through his cold, wet hands. The Bears won. 

The Fox era didn’t have many other memorable moments (maybe Eddie Jackson’s two-touchdown game against the Panthers in 2017?). But hey, Bears fans, when there’s an opportunity to re-watch a win over the Packers, you’re gonna take advantage of it no matter what, right?

8:30 p.m. CT on NBC Sports Network. I’ll be watching it. I hope you will too. 

“Cool for us to go up there and I guess spoil it in a sense,” Miller said. “I know they’re always going to remember the day they retired Brett Favre’s jersey, they got beat by the Chicago Bears.”  

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