As Broncos hire Vic Fangio as head coach, challenge for Bears' defense in 2019 grows greater

As Broncos hire Vic Fangio as head coach, challenge for Bears' defense in 2019 grows greater

Only a few days after their season ended in an ignominious, disappointing loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, the Bears’ were dealt another blow: The departure of defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. 

Fangio will become the next head coach of the Denver Broncos after interviewing with general manager and president of football operations John Elway on Monday. Reportedly, the Broncos’ decision came down to either Fangio or Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak. 

The Bears have known losing Fangio could be a possibility, and Matt Nagy surely has a contingency plan in place. The 60-year-old Fangio has long wanted to be an NFL head coach, especially after the San Francisco 49ers passed him over after the departure of Jim Harbaugh in 2015. 

But in losing Fangio, the mastermind (or “evil genius,” as Khalil Mack called him) of the league’s best defense in 2018, the Bears’ challenge to stave off regression in 2019 will become even more difficult. 

“We understand that the position that he's in just knowing that, and I say this positively, just knowing that he's not getting younger,” cornerback Prince Amukamara said. “So with him, if he aspires to be a head coach I would say that his time is now and he's worked hard to put himself in a position to be sought after, as he is. 

“Of course as a defensive group and I'm sure everyone in this organization would love for him to stay and not go and get interviews but we do understand that this could be something, a goal that he's aspired to achieve. Me personally I support him but also selfishly I would love for him to stay.”

Amukamara’s sentiment was echoed around Halas Hall as players cleaned out their lockers on Monday. The members of Fangio’s defense would be happy for their defensive coordinator if he got a head coaching gig, but selfishly, want him to stick around. 

“He’s a great coach, a great defensive mind,” safety Adrian Amos, an unrestricted free agent, said. “A lot of our success is due to him, as well. It’s all a business. We want what’s best for people. If he wants to be a head coach one day, we want him to take a job to be a head coach. Everybody just wishes him well.”

“I hope he stays, I really do,” outside linebacker Leonard Floyd said. “And if he don't that's my guy, that's one of my favorite coaches and whoever the next coach is we're going to play hard for him.”

The Bears’ defense was never going to be the same in 2019, not with three unrestricted free agents (Amos, slot corner Bryce Callahan and outside linebacker Aaron Lynch) about to hit the open market. Only Callahan and outside linebacker Sam Acho were placed on injured reserve from this unit in 2018, while Amukamara, Mack and Eddie Jackson were the only other starters to miss time due to injuries — and only combined to sit out five games. 

That same kind of injury luck is difficult to replicate, even if Nagy, head trainer Andre Tucker and sports science coordinator Jen Gibson built and executed a successful plan for keeping players healthy and rehabbing existing injuries. The Bears’ depth was tested against the Eagles, with Jackson’s absence noticeable at times and slot corner Sherrick McManis — who replaced Callahan — allowing Golden Tate’s go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. 

It’ll also be difficult for the Bears to replicate the massive success they had turning the ball over (36 in 2018). No team in the last decade has had consecutive years with 35 or more takeaways; drilling down further, the only team in the last five years to have consecutive seasons with 30 or more takeaways is the Buffalo Bills, who had 30 each in 2013 and 2014.

That’s not to say the Bears’ defense in 2018 was built on luck. Far from it. Fangio’s complex scheme fit his personnel perfectly, especially after the Labor Day blockbuster trade to acquire Mack. There were no weaknesses in a defense that could stop the run, pressure the quarterback and take the ball away. And the level of talent on this entire defense took a massive step forward, with improvements from Akiem Hicks to Kyle Fuller to Eddie Jackson to Roquan Smith and plenty others. 

As Fangio, who developed an enjoyably gruff rapport with the media in 2018, was fond of saying: “We played good.”

The challenge, now, will be for the Bears to still play “good” without the architect of their defense. The coordinator will be different, the players will largely be the same — but the success nonetheless will be difficult to replicate. 

“Good for Vic, man,” McManis said. “… I feel like he knows it’s a good opportunity for him. It’s something to try out. Whatever he decides to do, I know it’s the best. So good luck to Vic and good luck to everybody and hopefully we can come back next year and keep it rolling.”

Mock Draft: Bears stick to best player available, wait to take a running back

Mock Draft: Bears stick to best player available, wait to take a running back

Mock drafts are, at best, educated guesses. At worst, they’re blindly throwing darts at a board. 

For the first time since 2014, the Bears will not make a selection in the first 10 picks of an NFL Draft. And for the first time since 2010, the Bears won’t have a first- or second-round selection at all. That makes for a lot more guesswork in projecting this year’s NFL Draft for those outside Halas Hall — and those in it as well. 

“We’re trying to project right now who will be there (at No. 87),” general manager Ryan Pace said of his team’s first pick this year. “So I would just say that third-round cloud, for example, is just bigger than it is in previous years. There’s this bigger pool of players that we’re talking about.”

So with that in mind, here’s a stab at who the Bears could wind up with after the dust settles on Saturday:

Third round (No. 87 overall): Miles Boykin, WR, Notre Dame

Ryan Pace goes for a true “best player available” play here, given the Bears don’t “need” a wide receiver, at least right now. The 6-foot-4, 220 pound Boykin blew up at the NFL Combine this spring by running a 4.42 40-yard dash, vaulting the Tinley Park native into some second-round discussions. But if a team doesn’t take a shot on his outstanding athletic profile and the upside he flashed in his redshirt junior year in South Bend (59 receptions, 872 yards, eight touchdowns), the Bears could. Boykin would be a good fit with the Bears, especially given he’d be provided at least a year to learn the offense and refine his game without necessarily having the pressure of needing to start, as Anthony Miller had a year ago. 

“There’s so many variables and so many scenarios, because there’s so much space before we pick,” Pace said. “There’s a bigger pool of players, so you’re playing out every one of these scenarios. ‘Man, what if this player fell?’ Or there’s just a bigger pool of players we’re talking about. A lot of scenarios. That’s probably the challenge that exists with that.”

More than any pick, No. 87 will be an opportunity for Pace to pluck someone he, Matt Nagy and scouts like who perhaps has fallen further than expected. The Bears don’t “need” Boykin right now. But in a year? They very well could. 

Fourth round (No. 126 overall): Will Harris, S, Boston College

Harris’ 4.41 second 40-yard dash was the fourth-fastest among safeties in this draft class, and he totaled 158 tackles for Boston College in the last two years while steadily improving as a run defender. He doesn’t profile as a ballhawk based on his past production (five interceptions in four years) but the Bears could see Harris as someone with long-term potential to play next to Eddie Jackson in the future. 

If the Bears do take a safety around this part of the draft, remember: Pace unearthed Adrian Amos and Jackson in the fifth and fourth rounds, respectively. While not everyone has become a key starter (Deon Bush, Deiondre Hall), the Bears’ front office does seem to know what to look for in mid-round safeties. 

Fifth round (No. 162 overall): Corey Ballentine, CB, Washburn

Pace has selected someone from below the FBS level in each of his last three drafts: Hall (Northern Iowa) and DeAndre Houston-Carson (William & Mary) in 2016, Adam Shaheen (Ashland), Tarik Cohen (North Carolina A&T) and Jordan Morgan (Kutztown) in 2017, and Bilal Nichols (Delaware) in 2018. Ballentine, from Division II Washburn, participated in the Senior Bowl and is regarded as having the athleticism and makeup to make it in the NFL with the ability to play either outside or in the slot. 

PROJECTED TRADE: Bears acquire a sixth-round pick (No. 204) from New England for 2018 seventh round pick (No. 238) and 2020 seventh-round pick

The Patriots are notorious for hoarding picks and frequently trading down, so if the Bears want to move into the sixth round, targeting New England’s comp pick here makes sense. And trading down would land the Bears, in this scenario, their running back:

Sixth round (No. 204): Travis Homer, RB, Miami (Fla.)

Part of this projection is having all three of Darrell Henderson, Miles Sanders and David Montgomery go off the board before the Bears pick at No. 87. If any one of them — Henderson especially — is available when the Bears pick in the third round, it wouldn’t be a surprise for Pace to jump at the opportunity to draft a running back. 

The Bears waited until the sixth round to address their most obvious need last year — edge rusher, in drafting Kylie Fitts — so we’ll say Pace does the same thing this year (running back in 2019, though, is far less of a need than edge rusher was in 2018). Homer averaged six yards per carry in three years at Miami and flashed some pass-catching potential. At the least, he could be a third-down back as a rookie with some special teams upside — think a replacement for Benny Cunningham — who could have an opportunity find a larger place in the Bears’ offense. 

Seventh round (No. 222, from Denver via Philadelphia): Yosuah Nijman, OT, Virginia Tech 

The 6-foot-6, 324 pound 23-year-old has good athleticism and size but poor technique, making him an ideal prospect for offensive line coach Harry Hiestand to develop behind the scenes. Interestingly, this would be the first time Pace has picked an offensive tackle since the last selection of his first draft (Tayo Fabuluje, who never played in the NFL). 

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Bears fans on social media want Penn State RB Miles Sanders in 2019 NFL Draft

Bears fans on social media want Penn State RB Miles Sanders in 2019 NFL Draft

Even without a pick until the third round, Bears fans are still excited for what the 2019 NFL Draft could bring.

They’ve had to do their homework on prospects available later in the draft, but overall, fans have reached a consensus on their favorite player for the 87th overall pick.

Sports Illustrated partnered with the Clemson Social Media Listening Center to look at which draft prospects have received the most attention from fans on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Bears fans are enamored with Penn State running back Miles Sanders in the third round.

“After dealing Jordan Howard to the Eagles, the Bears are in the market for a back to pair with Tarik Cohen,” Sports Illustrated wrote. “It's easy to understand why Sanders, a savvy runner with an emerging three-down skill set, would be garnering the most buzz among Bears fans.”

Sanders emerged from the shadow of Saquon Barkley to break out in 2018, and a strong showing at the NFL combine bolstered his draft stock.

He might have played his way out of the Bears draft range, but if he’s on the board when Ryan Pace is on the clock, the fans will be clamoring for their favorite running back.