Bears

Bears grades and needs: Improved depth necessary at tight end

Bears grades and needs: Improved depth necessary at tight end

2018 depth chart

1. Trey Burton
Usage: 16 games, 80 percent of offensive snaps
2019 status: $8.675 million cap hit

No skill position player not named Mitch Trubisky was on the field for more offensive snaps than Burton (860, 30 more than Taylor Gabriel), and 54 catches for 569 yards with six touchdowns represented solid production from the “U” tight end spot in Matt Nagy’s offense. He didn’t drop a pass until Week 12, and Mitch Trubisky and Chase Daniel combined for a 111.2 passer rating when throwing his direction, per Pro Football Focus. He may not have had a spectacular Travis Kelce-like season, but he was an important part of the offense in the first year of his four-year, $32 million deal. 

The issue with Burton was what happened after his groin locked up less than 48 hours before the Bears kicked off their wild card game against the Eagles. His absence was capitalized on by Philadelphia’s defense, which shifted its focus to Tarik Cohen and largely took the versatile playmaker out of the Bears’ offense. Worth noting: During the regular season, only 89 of Cohen’s 495 snaps came without Burton on the field (18 percent). 

Burton still may have some upside to his game, especially as Nagy’s offense evolves beyond the “Football 101” foundation it laid in 2018. But the Bears have to be able to better deal with losing Burton on short notice going forward. 

2. Adam Shaheen
Usage: 6 games, 14.9 percent of offensive snaps
2019 status: $1,611,965 cap hit

Shaheen’s 2018 wasn’t a completely lost year in his development, given he was able to learn Nagy’s offense through OTAs and training camp. But the foot injury he suffered against the Broncos — after two days of joint practices in which he looked good against Denver’s defense — wiped out the first nine games of the season. When he returned, he suffered a concussion converting a two-point attempt against the Vikings, which held him out of another game. 

That leaves Shaheen’s outlook in question heading into an important 2019. The upside is there, but he has to improve as a blocker and a route-runner, with this next round of OTAs and camps critical in that development. A healthy and effective Shaheen would give Nagy the option of running more two-tight personnel groupings, which could help aid the run game. 

The Bears, though, may need to bring in some insurance behind Shaheen at the “Y” (in-line) spot given he’s missed 13 games in his two-year career.

3. Dion Sims
Usage: 8 games, 18.1 percent of offensive snaps, 15.1 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: $6,333,334 cap hit

The Bears will save $6 million in cap space by releasing Sims, per Spotrac. He’s been ineffective with the Bears, and only stuck on the 2018 roster thanks to the team having enough cap space to keep him. 

4. Ben Braunecker
Usage: 15 games, 11.1 percent of offensive snaps, 56.2 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: Restricted free agent

Braunecker was the next man up at both the “U” and the “Y” spots, giving him the important trait of versatility as a backup. He played 21 snaps on offense in Burton’s playoff absence, and from Weeks 9-11 (when Sims was out and Shaheen was eased back into the offense, only to suffer a concussion) he took most of the “Y” snaps. He also was a core special teamer, with only Josh Bellamy and Benny Cunningham playing a higher percentage of special teams snaps. 

OverTheCap projects the 2019 original round tender — which would be what Braunecker, a former undrafted free agent, would receiver — would be $2.035 million. Is that money worth it for a team that, after releasing Sims, will only have about $11 million in cap space? The Bears could try to not tender Braunecker and bring him back on a cheaper deal after he made $630,000 in 2018. 

5. Daniel Brown
Usage: 14 games, 2.1 percent of offensive snaps, 52.5 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: Unrestricted free agent

Brown showed some receiving upside in 2016 and 2017, catching 29 passes for 253 yards while playing a little over 500 snaps for the Bears those two seasons. He only appeared 23 times on offense and wasn’t targeted in 2018, and while he was a part of the team’s special teams units the Bears may look to replace him with someone who can specifically back up Burton. 

Level of need (1-11, with 11 being the highest): 6

The Bears need to improve their depth behind Burton and Shaheen, making this a sneaky position of need despite the money and draft capital already committed to it. 

Previous unit needs/grades: QB | RB | WR

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How can the Bears make Khalil Mack even better in 2019?

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USA Today

How can the Bears make Khalil Mack even better in 2019?

In the midst of Khalil Mack’s All-Pro debut season with the Bears, then-outside linebackers coach Brandon Staley offered a thought of how his star pupil could be even better in 2019. With the benefit of a full offseason of OTAs and training camp, the Bears would be able to move Mack around more within their defense, which would present tougher challenges for opposing coaching staffs trying to gameplan for him. 

Staley left for the Denver Broncos along with Vic Fangio back in January. But a new coaching staff has the same thought: There’s more to what Mack can do than we saw in 2018. And 2018 was pretty impressive. 

“There will be opportunities for him to do a variety of things from a variety of different alignments,” senior defensive assistant/outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino said. “Freedom, he has a little bit. But variety he has plenty. There’s plenty of things that we’re going to try to use him for and to do with him that allow him to showcase the things he does well.”

The No. 1 thing Mack does well, to boil it down, is wreck a game. Every head coach and offensive coordinator around the league has to develop a plan for limiting those game-wrecking abilities. It meant quick throws, the kind that leave the quarterback’s hand before Mack can even set up a pass-rushing move, for some teams. For others, it meant offering extra pass protection support through committing a tight end, running back or both to slowing him down. Mack still found a way to total 12 1/2 sacks and 73 total pressures, all while an ankle injury effectively wiped out four games in the middle of the season. 

“You’ve got a phenomenal, phenomenal athlete, all that stuff” defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. “He’s a great football player, but he’s a better teammate. And he’s a better person. He doesn’t say much, but actions speak louder than words. Again, he’s a great worker. He’s a smart guy. He picks things up. Not gonna say much, but out here on the football field he’s going to lead by example.” 

As the 2018 season progressed, the Bears felt more comfortable with having Mack play on the left and right during games, not one spot exclusively (in the season’s first four weeks, 166 of Mack’s snaps came on the left and 25 came on the right, per Pro Football Focus). By the playoffs, the Bears were able to strategically use Mack on either side of their defense to try to counter-act the scheming done by Eagles coach Doug Pederson (Mack played 26 snaps on the left and 26 on the right in that game, per Pro Football Focus). 

But both the previous and current coaching staffs envision Mack being able to do more than just line up on either side of the formation. And Monachino has experience in figuring out the best way to create that variety he talked about, too: He was Terrell Suggs’ position coach in 2011 when the Baltimore Ravens edge rusher won defensive player of the year honors (also: That was the lone year in which Pagano was the Ravens’ defensive coordinator). 

Suggs primarily rushed from various defensive line positions (end/outside linebacker, as designated by Pro Football Focus), but lined up off the ball on a little under 20 percent of his snaps in 2011. An NFL.com article described him as playing a “hybrid-linebacker” position, which sounds about right. 

Suggs finished 2011 with 14 sacks, seven forced fumbles and two interceptions. 

It’s only May, which means it’s far too early to predict how the Bears will use Mack. Coaches don’t even know the specifics yet. But it’s fair to expect a few different wrinkles for how Mack’s game-wrecking ability is deployed in the Bears’ defense with a full complement of offseason practices — and, too, the coaching minds of Monachino and Pagano. 

“With a player like this, you don’t even have to sit in the offense’s meeting rooms on the other side to know that they have to tend to him on every snap,” Monachino said, referencing Suggs. “They have to know where (former Pittsburgh Steelers safety) Troy Polamalu is on every snap. You gotta know where (Houston Texans edge rusher) JJ Watt is on every snap. This is a guy that you have to do that with. So with Khalil, being able to predict that they’re going to talk about, how do we tend to Khalil Mack on every snap, and then being able to move him into different spots and then to show him in different ways and to do different things with him, it’s going to be really valuable for the defense.”

The Bears are getting a different type of nickel cornerback in Buster Skrine

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USA Today

The Bears are getting a different type of nickel cornerback in Buster Skrine

When the Bears’ defense takes the field against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers on Opening Night, they’ll be returning 9 of the 11 starters that were part of a 2018 squad that was one of the best in Bears’ history. 

One of the few new faces that figure to be among the starting 11 is cornerback Buster Skrine. Gone is Bryce Callahan, who left for Vic Fangio’s Denver team after spending the first four years of his career in Chicago. Though Bears’ scouts have had their eye on Skrine for a few seasons now, it was his more palatable three-year, $16.5 million contract -- compared to Callahan’s three-year, $21 million contract -- that finally got him in house. 

“Me and Buster came out the exact same year, and I’ve watched him,” Prince Amukamara said after OTAs on Wednesday afternoon. “He actually played with my best friend and he would always talk about how fast Buster is -- especially when Buster played gunner. 

“I’ve always watched him, and I feel like he’s very similar to Bryce [Callahan] by being quick and being active. I’m definitely happy with the pick up.” 

Once considered a spot to place the third-best, less-athletic cornerback, no position has seen it's value increase so dramatically over the last decade. Offenses are changing dramatically; no team saw more three receiver sets in 2018 than the Bears’ defense. Per Sharp Stats, opposing offenses lined up in 11 personnel against Chicago 78% of the time. The next closest was the Chiefs at 71%, and the NFL average is 65%. 

“I think nickel is a different ball game,” Amukamara added. “I would say it can be one of the hardest positions on the field, just because you’re on an island, but the receiver has so much room to work with. Plus, it’s a lot of mental gymnastics, so you’ve got to know when you’re blitzing, know when you’re running, and so we put a lot on our nickel.” 

Despite not being considered part of a what teams have traditionally considered base defense, the pass-happy nature of this era in the NFL has all but mandated that nickel corners are on the field for most of the defensive snaps. It’s no coincidence that before breaking his foot against the Rams in Week 12, Callahan was on pace to set a career-high in snap percentage. 

“Nowadays, you see a lot more sub packages,” Bears defensive backs coach Deshea Townsend said. “You’re probably playing 70% in sub during a game now… Otherwise, it hasn’t really changed - he just plays more. That’s the thing - he is technically a starter. He’s probably going to run on the field first in a lot of games, and by rule that’s a starter.

“One thing about the nickel position is that you’ve got to do a little bit of both. You can’t just go out on 3rd down and cover and run the option routes. Now they’re going to hand off the ball and find out where you’re at and you’re going to have to make a tackle. That’s the difference in the position now - it’s a first and second down type of guy that has to be able to do it all.”

While Skrine isn’t considered as good a cover corner as Callahan, Skrine’s pass rush and run defense looks pretty similar. Per Pro Football Focus, Skrine’s run defense graded out significantly higher (80.7) than Callahan’s (57.8). 

“With Buster, it’s about his playing experience,” Townsend added. “He’s a guy who will mix it up in the run. He can blitz, and he’s reliable. He’s tough.”