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Bears shut out (again) in NFL Network players’ poll naming Top 100 players of 2018

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USA TODAY

Bears shut out (again) in NFL Network players’ poll naming Top 100 players of 2018

No NFL season is without its snubs – Pro Bowl omissions, (insert job)-of-the-year head-scratchers, endless “rankings” of units and individuals based on some sort of logic or arcane analyses that challenge credulity.

But the Bears have received a group snub for the second straight year, something that, even discounting personality factors, can be considered a cause for concern, and escalating concern at that.

No Bear is among the Top 100 NFL players as voted on by those NFL players, in the results of the annual poll by NFL Network/NFL.com. The final 10-1 selections air Monday night on NFL Network, but any suspense involves only whether Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers is the players’ choice for the No. 1 player in their game, or how the Bears can possibly match up with the L.A. Rams this season and beyond with three in the top 38 and all young (Aaron Donald, Todd Gurley, Jared Goff).

This year’s blanking follows a shutout in last year’s poll, which represented returns from more than 900 players. This year the number was more than 1,100, making the rankings more than simply the opinion of an individual or even small group.

Making them more disquieting from a Bears perspective is the fact that this marks a de facto third consecutive year that the Bears approach a season without a player whose peers rate him among the top 5 percent in the game. Because the 2016 survey (coming out of the 2015 season) listed running back Matt Forte (No. 90) as the lone Bear, and he was on his way to the New York Jets by the time his number was called.

Rankings based on opinions can skew strangely. Akiem Hicks’ absence from the top 100 is more puzzling than his finishing out of the Pro Bowl money. Same with Eddie Goldman, maybe even Leonard Floyd, to name a few.

But they aren’t there yet. And whether the Bears are bottom-third in pass protection, Nick Kwiatkoski is top-five inside linebacker, or who has a high rating in Madden ’19 can all be classed as cred-lite.

Not so easily dismissed when the evaluation is the aggregate take of nearly two-thirds of the league.

More to the concerning side, some correlation may be drawn between that index of star power and team performance, either cause or effect, or both. The last time the Bears had more than Forte representing them in the Top 100 was 2014, meaning coming off the 2013 season. That Top-100 included Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Tim Jennings and Forte – from the last Bears team (8-8) to win more than six games in a season.

Enough fingers were pointed at Marc Trestman and then John Fox for what happened on the field. But the New York Giants (2) and Houston Texans (4) had fewer wins than the Bears last season but still were represented on the players’ honor roll.

“I need to point the finger at myself as well,” GM Ryan Pace said in the wake of firing Fox. “Our record is a reflection on me as well. But I feel good about where we’re at right now. I feel much better about where we’re at right now than at this time last year and that starts with the quarterback position. We have a 23-year-old quarterback that we feel very good about that we need to build around. We need to build upon that core and fortunately we have the resources to do that.”

One of Pace’s mandates has been to bring Bears talent to a level competitive with at least the NFC North. The more than 1,100 players canvassed don’t think it’s happening: The Bears are one of only four teams (plus Indianapolis, Tampa Bay and the Jets) not represented in the top 100, while Detroit (2), Green Bay (7) and Minnesota (5) have multiple selections. Even the 0-16 Cleveland Browns boast a pair – wide receiver Jarvis Landry, running back Carlos Hyde) by virtue of their offseason moves.

Getting down to Bears cases

The Bears may be convinced that Mitch Trubisky is a franchise quarterback, but his 12 starts apparently didn’t show enough for his peers to vote him into elite status. Deshaun Watson (No. 50, six starts) and Jimmy Garoppolo (No. 90, five starts) fared better in the balloting.

Trubisky goes into 2018 as the fourth-best quarterback in a four-quarterback NFC North. Player voting pretty much confirms that, leaving him off a list that includes Kirk Cousins in Minnesota (No. 94), Matthew Stafford in Detroit (No. 31) and Rodgers (top 10). And Trubisky knows he’s got some catching up to do.

“I just feel like I know what to expect more on a day-to-day basis,” he said during minicamp. “What I need to do, how I can make my teammates' job easier — and just continue to set goals. Weekly goals, short-term goals, continue to meet those goals, keep raising the bar and get better each and every single day.”

Jeffery and Marshall are Bears no longer, but Allen Robinson is, which Pace has wagered heavily will be a very good thing. Robinson’s peers in the past have agreed: Robinson was pegged at No. 31 in 2016, coming in off his 80-1,400-14 season of 2015. He came back to produce 73-883-6 in 2016 but finished off the list, perhaps not entirely surprising after his Jaguars went 3-13 in 2016. The Bears are gambling that Robinson will return to his elite form from last year’s torn ACL; the rest of the NFL has effectively said “prove it.”

Jordan Howard’s fit in the offense of Matt Nagy/Mark Helfrich has been and will be debated until he proves himself conclusively as a receiver. And Howard and Tarik Cohen may be popular among rankers of backfields.

But not yet with their peers. Neither made the players’ list, while New Orleans placed Alvin Kamara No. 20 and Mark Ingram 43rd among the top six running backs, which include Kansas City’s Kareem Hunt.

Floyd, Goldman and Hicks? Too many Pro Bowl selections ahead of them, at least at this point.

Ryan Pace says Bears are 'exploring every avenue' to upgrade tight end

Ryan Pace says Bears are 'exploring every avenue' to upgrade tight end

Bears general manager Ryan Pace didn't come across as a guy willing to go down in flames with his decision to sign tight end Trey Burton back in 2018 when he met with the media at the NFL Combine on Tuesday. Instead, he confirmed the Bears will be heavily invested in the tight end market this offseason, both in free agency and the 2020 NFL draft.

"We’re looking at it in free agency and the draft," Pace said of this year's available tight ends. "It’s deep in different areas. That’s an area of focus for us, I don’t think that’s a secret. This offense, a lot of it goes through the tight end, so we’re exploring every avenue."

It's hard to envision a scenario where Pace would be willing to travel down the big-money free-agent path again, but Falcons pass-catcher Austin Hooper could be too tempting to pass up.

Atlanta confirmed on Tuesday Hooper will be allowed to test the open market, and if he ranks high enough on Pace's wish list, we could be setting up to see a $10 million per year offer. It may seem like a waste of resources to tie that much money up in the tight end position (he and Burton would cost the Bears close to $20 million in 2020), but they experienced just how limited Matt Nagy's offense is without a capable playmaker at the position. Hooper would fix that.

The cheaper alternative for Pace to upgrade at tight end would be the draft, where several quality prospects will be on the board when the Bears pick at No. 43 and No. 50 overall. Players like Purdue's Brycen Hopkins, FAU's Harrison Bryant and Notre Dame's Cole Kmet could all be available when the Bears are on the clock, and all three of them would represent a marked uptick in talent for the depth chart.

Pace is being logical and rational when it comes to his evaluation of the tight end group. It's especially impressive considering the top two options currently on the roster -- Burton and Adam Shaheen -- were hand-picked by him and cost Chicago a top-of-the-market free-agent deal and a high draft pick (second round, 2017). 

Pace has a great opportunity to right his wrongs at tight end over the next couple of months.

How Matt Nagy's 'urgency' could foreshadow a Bears quarterback change

How Matt Nagy's 'urgency' could foreshadow a Bears quarterback change

INDIANAPOLIS — The Bears don’t look likely to sign or trade for a true starter to replace Mitch Trubisky, and Ryan Pace made clear he expects the 2017 No. 2 overall pick to be his starter in 2020. 

Let’s add an addendum to that, though, based on something Matt Nagy said: Just because Trubisky begins 2020 as the Bears’ starting quarterback does not mean he’ll hold on to that gig for the whole season, or even for half a season. 

In talking about the need to find an offensive identity in 2020, Nagy offered a response that leads you to believe job security won't be close to where it was in 2019:

“We got to figure out what our identity is and that's going to be an objective for us,” Nagy said. “And then last year you heard me say, sometimes it takes five or six weeks. I feel like personally that's always the case, but there's a sense of urgency for us going into this year. It needs to happen sooner.”

It needs to happen sooner. What happens if Trubisky doesn’t show any improvement through the first three or four games of 2020, and the Bears’ offense is lacking an identity at the end of September?

If there truly is a sense of urgency to find solutions on offense, then the Bears should consider something they didn’t last year: Changing quarterbacks. 

Chase Daniel was not on the roster to push Trubisky for playing time. He was brought in for his knowledge of the offense as “a little bit of an assistant coach,” as Nagy put it. The Bears figured surrounding Trubisky with as many resources as possible would help him thrive in Nagy’s complex offense. 

What the Bears need — and have indicated they want — is more competition in their quarterback room. That does not necessarily mean, again, luring someone like Teddy Bridgewater to Chicago to start. 

But it does mean adding someone to the roster who at least has a chance to be a better option than Trubisky, if Trubisky doesn’t show any improvement. 

Case Keenum could be that guy. Marcus Mariota, too (although Mariota sharing agents Bruce Tollner and Ryan Tollner with Trubisky could complicate any interest in him the Bears might have). Maybe there’s a trade to be made for Andy Dalton after all, if the Cincinnati Bengals are willing to bend to make the money work. 

A free agent signing along those lines and/or a draft pick — it doesn’t have to be a second rounder, either — would put someone on the roster who could be viewed as a legitimate replacement for an ineffective Trubisky. 

“If you're not creating competition around your whole roster, you're not pushing your own guys,” Nagy said.

The Bears didn’t do that at quarterback the last two years. 

But all signs are pointing to that changing in 2020. And while that may not mean an immediate change at starting quarterback, it means a switch during the season could become a real possibility. 

“If we all think that that’s what we want from (Trubisky), from last year, we’re fooling ourselves,” Nagy said. “He knows that and we know that. 

“But at the same time, we need to be real. What’s around him? And that’s where we’re at. I know it’s hard sometimes for all of us to understand that, and you see what’s going on with the instant gratification now, but there is a process for us. I do know that Mitch is very hungry. 

“He understands that we want him to play better, he understands that we want to coach better. So now we cannot worry and dwell about what happened last year. If you do that, you get stuck in the mud. We can’t do it. 

“It’s a clean slate. Now we’ve gotta get better for this year.”

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