Eddy Pineiro is proving to be the least of the Bears' concerns

USA Today

Eddy Pineiro is proving to be the least of the Bears' concerns

The biggest question about the Bears before this season began, it appeared, was centered around their kicker. This looked like a Super Bowl caliber roster with one glaring weakness, right?

Five games into the 2019 season, the Bears are 3-2 and have far more question marks than they expected back in August. But one of those questions marks does not involve Eddy Pineiro. 

Pineiro has made eight of nine field goals and all of his PATs this season, and blasted a game-winning 52-yarder to net the Bears a massive Week 2 win in Denver (imagine how much worse things would be in Chicago if that kick didn't go in and the Bears were 2-3 right now). He then kicked through the pain of a pinched nerve in his right leg for three weeks and only missed one try. 

Nine kicks isn’t quite enough to say Pineiro has completely proven himself, but between his mental toughness, physical toughness and that walk-off field goal — what more could the Bears want?

"I think he’s grown, each day, and he keeps getting better," special teams coordinator Chris Tabor said last week. "That’s what we’re doing right now – we’re in the process of developing a player. He’s checking off boxes. As I stated last week, there’s going to be a lot more boxes to check off. I always say we’re not in a hurry to hit everything. It’s a developmental process."

Pineiro has maintained the Bears’ off week would help him get his leg back to 100 percent. He’s looked less and less hobbled since that Week 3 game against Washington, and was listed as a full participant in the Bears’ three practices before Sunday’s loss to the Oakland Raiders. 

Coach Matt Nagy’s trust in Pineiro has grown, too. For a team unable to count on its offense, Pineiro’s dependability is at least a silver lining. Whether or not you believe the end justifies the means of the Bears’ offseason kicking competition isn’t quite relevant anymore. The Bears have a good kicker, one who hasn’t given the team any reason to doubt him. And that’s what matters. 

And look around the rest of the league — there are plenty of teams without ideal kicking situations through the early part of the season. 

Robbie Gould enters Week 6 having made seven of 12 field goals for the San Francisco 49ers. Adam Vinatieri, arguably the greatest kicker of all time, is 8/11 on field goals and a jarring 9/12 on PATs, and quite literally lost the Indianapolis Colts their season opener. New England’s Stephen Gostkowski has missed four PATs. The Tennessee Titans had to release Cairo Santos and replace him with Cody Parkey. 

So for a team on which more hasn't worked than expected, there’s a least one thing (not involving the defense) that’s going right. And it’s their kicking situation with Eddy Pineiro. 

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Bears.

Projected 2020 NFL salary cap is good news for the Bears

Projected 2020 NFL salary cap is good news for the Bears

The NFL informed all 32 teams on Tuesday that the 2020 salary cap will increase to between $196.8 million and $201.2 million, according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport. The increased cap figure is a bit of good news for the Bears, who are one of six teams with more than $200 million committed to its roster in 2020.

The salary cap for 2019 was set at $188.2 million.

More money means more flexibility for GM Ryan Pace in free agency. And while the Bears still don't project as one of the major players on the open market this year, they'll certainly have enough spending power to add second-tier free agents and possibly a starter along the lines of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix's addition last year.

There are some player contracts Pace may want to take a closer look at this offseason, too. Wide receiver Taylor Gabriel, for example, has a $6.5 million cap hit in 2020 but represents just a $2 million dead cap figure if the Bears part ways with him. It's a quick $4.5 million in extra spending money that Pace could decide is critical for a must-have free agent. Plus, with the group of talented and young receivers already on Chicago's roster, a player like Gabriel may no longer be needed.

And what about cornerback Prince Amukamara? Sure, the veteran defensive back is a valuable starter, but cheaper options could be available on the open market. Plus, the Bears may have found his future replacement in Kevin Tolliver. Cutting Amukamara would free up $9 million in cap space (he has a $1 million dead-cap figure).

This is the funny thing about the salary cap. It's pliable. Pace can manipulate the numbers to add a big-name free agent even as we enter an offseason that appears ominous for the Bears' cap situation.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Bears.

The Bears love their defensive depth. Now their playoff chances – and offseason plans – rely on it

The Bears love their defensive depth. Now their playoff chances – and offseason plans – rely on it

As it turns out, the Bears’ inside linebacker situation is a great litmus test for how you feel about the team in general. Roquan Smith is done for the year, and it doesn’t feel like Danny Trevathan is ready to return yet. The Bears will likely have to win out with Nick Kwiatkoski and Kevin Pierre-Louis, and while that was certainly never the plan, it also may not be the disaster that many think. 

“It’s unfortunate with some of the injuries that we’ve had this year,” Matt Nagy said on Monday. “But it’s a part of the game. It’s a physical game. I just like the fact that our coaches are preparing our depth guys to come in. It’s no slight on the other guys — the depth of guys that are coming in and playing, we like that.”

The Bears coaches, particularly on defense, have raved all year about the depth across all three levels. How Kwiatkoski and KPL – both UFA’s after the season – play is quietly one of the more important storylines in a final three weeks that’s already not lacking for narrative substance.

“I think they both can do the jobs,” inside linebackers coach Mark Deleone said. “There’s a perception about Kwit that I think, this year, he’s shown that he has coverage skills, and he’s done really well this year when we’ve put him in those situations. I feel comfortable with both of them – they play different positions, but they do a lot of the same jobs. I don’t feel like we’re changing the way those two guys play, based off who’s in the game.”

The good news is that so far, things look good. Though he’s only appeared in seven games, Nick Kwiatkoski’s overall grade (79.8), per Pro Football Focus, is already the fourth-highest on the defense. 

“I think he’s productive,” Deleone said. “Every single game he’s played serious minutes in, he’s made a lot of plays. And that’s something that, and I really believe this, that good linebackers make tackles. And he’s made a lot when he’s played.”

The only players with higher scores? Sherrick McManis (!), Khalil Mack, and … Kevin Pierre-Louis. After logging the second-most snaps (46) of his 68-game career, KPL was PFF’s highest-graded player on the Bears’ defense. 

“It’s not college anymore, where certain players supposedly have to do everything,” he said on Monday. “We have the right pieces, so I just have to make sure I do my job, and the rest of the team is going to have my back.” 

Deleone said that if Kwiatkoski and KPL are in fact the starters in Green Bay this Sunday, Kwiatkoski will wear the green dot. Even still, facing Aaron Rodgers and a Packers’ run game that ranks fourth in DVOA is a lot to ask, and possibly (probably?) getting Akiem Hicks back will be critical to helping both ILBs. The team’s still working to gauge where Hicks is physically, and for the first time since suffering the injury, he’ll be going against blocks in practice.

“I’ve always thought that Akiem has been an integral part of this defense,” defensive line coach Jay Rodgers said. “When he’s on the field, he obviously has more impact than when he’s off the field. But his impact off the field has been great so far.” 

Getting Hicks back in time for the Packers game may be especially good news for Leonard Floyd, who, for whatever reason, has a fun tendency of putting together huge games against Green Bay. Floyd is well on his way to another divisive and all-around confusing season: sack loyalists see a bad player, the analytics see a productive player, and the Bears see a great one.

“I think there are a lot of DBs that would love to have some of his traits,” outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino said. “I think there’s a lot of defensive linemen that would love to have some of those traits, and they just don’t. He’s got that package, and if we can get him to finish those rushes and drive those sack numbers up, I think that we’d all be talking about him differently.”

The ifs are doing a lot of heavy lifting in that quote, and eventually the Bears are going to have to decide if they want to pay top dollar for a player whose best contributions can only be described because they ‘don’t show up on tape.’ For what it’s worth, Monachino also said that he can’t think of too many players that he’s asked more from than Floyd, and that every week the edge rusher is in the conversation for “who does [their] job best on our defense.”

Especially with Kevin Tolliver filling in for Prince Amukamara, the Bears’ defense looks as unfamiliar as it has during the Khalil Mack era, and at the worst time. They’ve always been proud of their depth, and now their playoff odds – not to mention offseason budgetary plans – directly rely on it. With all that in mind, you can understand why Matt Nagy’s still looking for this season’s silver lining.