Bears

Final thoughts: Taylor Gabriel doing the little things to become a complete receiver 

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Final thoughts: Taylor Gabriel doing the little things to become a complete receiver 

PHOENIX — Taylor Gabriel, through two games with the Bears, is playing a lot more than he did in two years with the Atlanta Falcons. His snap percentage increase — from 41 percent in 2016 to 53 percent in 2017 to 90 percent so far in 2018 — is commensurate with the four-year, $26 million pay bump the Bears gave Gabriel back in March. 

While Gabriel hasn’t had an explosive play yet — though he could’ve against the Seattle Seahawks had Mitch Trubisky not overthrown him when he was open over the middle in the first quarter — he has made contributions in two important areas: Run blocking, and scrapping for yards on quick throws. 

“He can take it to the house any given play, he's just so fast,” coach Matt Nagy said. “But he's learning right now how to be a full-time wide receiver, meaning he's getting a lot more reps. So when you have him in different motions and moving him around a lot, that can be tiring. But he has handled that really well.”

Gabriel made a few plays as a run blocker to help set up some of the Bears’ more successful runs in a largely unsuccessful game on the ground against Seattle. While he’s only 5-foot-8 and weighs 165 pounds, he said “cut blocking is my forte” and said the attention paid to offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has helped, too. 

“When (Hiestand’s) putting in the plays for running, we’re not just not paying attention or watching film of something else, we’re focusing on those little things in run blocking,” Gabriel said. “We are a big part of that.”

Gabriel, then, probably the smallest player Hiestand — a career offensive line coach who, in his previous stop, developed four first-round picks at Notre Dame — has ever coached, even indirectly. But his stature, in addition to not prohibiting him from sticking his nose in run blocking, hasn’t prevented him from gaining a critical extra yard or two when necessary. 

That skill showed up on the Bears’ 11-play, 66-yard scoring drive against the Seahawks (link) on both passing and running plays. It’s all part of Gabriel’s efforts to be more than an occasionally-used deep threat. 

“Playing more plays than I usually do, so just going out there and trying to be a complete wide receiver,” Gabriel said. “And that’s not just running the whole route tree, catching the ball, that blocking — run blocking. So just trying to make guys miss a little bit, get on the second level and that’s where we can help out.”

Tapping into Miller

Rookie wideout Anthony Miller said he’ll give the ball he caught for his first career touchdown to his mom, and believes it’s the first of many he’ll catch in his currently-nascent career. 

“Scoring that touchdown, it just raised expectations for myself,” Miller said. “I just feel like I could contribute to this team in a big way and I think that’s what you’re going to see as this season continues to go on.”

Miller’s had that self-confident attitude ever since his rise from walk-on to star at Memphis, and it was among the reasons the Bears traded back into the second round to draft him back in April. Ever since that moment, Miller has had the mindset of an immediate contributor, not someone who would need time to develop and see the field. 

“That’s why they picked me to come here,” Miller said. “They didn’t pick me to come here to be scout team, not contributing at all. They expected me to come here and play right away and make plays and do what I did in college. And that’s what I aim to do.”

Playing favorites

The Bears head to the desert as 4 1/2-point favorites over the Arizona Cardinals, marking only the second time since Ryan Pace took over as general manager this team is favored in a road game. It’s also only the 10th time since 2015 they’ve been favored, with the previous results being:

2015 Week 13, vs. San Francisco: L, 26-20 (OT)
2015 Week 14, vs. Washington: L, 24-21
2016 Week 2, vs. Philadelphia: L, 29-14
2016 Week 6 vs. Jacksonville: L, 17-16
2016 Week 10 at Tampa Bay: L, 36-10
2017 Week 10 vs. Green Bay: L, 23-16
2017 Week 16 vs. Cleveland: W, 20-3
2018 Week 2 vs. Seattle: W, 24-17

In the John Fox era, the Bears were only favored eight times, winning just one (on Christmas Eve last year against the Cleveland Browns). The Bears being favored in back-to-back games this early into the Nagy era has plenty to do with the competition — Seattle and Arizona might wind up being two of the worst teams in the NFC in 2018 — but it also does speak to the distinct improvement in talent across the board on this team assembled in the last half-year by Pace. 

The Bears can be aggressive in NFL free agency if they bet on new CBA

The Bears can be aggressive in NFL free agency if they bet on new CBA

If the NFL’s proposed CBA is ratified by the NFLPA — and, right now, it seems like it will be — every current, active contract will look like a bargain in a few years. And that’s the starting point for how the Bears could maybe, just maybe, get a little weird in free agency this year. 

There's always money in the banana stand, after all. 

The Bears are projected to have about $26 million in cap space, per Spotrac, a number that currently would not allow them to sign a big-name free agent or trade for a guy with a high price tag. Cap space can always be created, though — it just depends on how willing a team is to kick the proverbial can down the road. 

And that bill always comes due. But what if the Bears have loads more cap space when the bill comes due thanks to lucrative new TV deals signed a few years after the CBA is ratified?

A new CBA would likely immediately increase 2020's salary cap (the Athletic estimated a $5 million increase per team). But the best way for the Bears to create more cap space in 2020 is by borrowing from the Bank of Khalil. 

The Bears could create about $10 million in cap space by converting some of Mack’s base salary into a signing bonus, per Spotrac, and could also do the same with the contracts of Eddie Goldman, Kyle Fuller, Cody Whitehair and Akiem Hicks, if they so chose. 

The Bears would save a total of about $22.5 million in 2020 cap space by restructuring all five of those contracts. Add in a contract extension for Allen Robinson that could save a few million in 2020 and the Bears wind up with over $50 million in cap space this year. 

That’s a lot of cans to kick down the road, and it’s not without risk (injuries, age-based regression, etc.). It's also crazily aggressive, but who knows what contracts will look like in 2022 or 2023. Paying Mack $26 million then might look like a bargain, even as he plays into his 30s.  

So the money is there if the Bears really want it, and are willing to place a big bet on their 2020 roster. This space of the interweb has mostly been reserved for preaching the Bears’ need for salary cap prudence this offseason; it’s part of the reason why the expectation still is for Ryan Pace to target a backup who can “compete” with Mitch Trubisky, not a guy to start over him. 

But maybe the Bears can shop in a different aisle for that second quarterback. Instead of targeting a Case Keenum-type on a cheap, one-year contract, perhaps the Bears can pry Andy Dalton away from the Cincinnati Bengals and not worry about his $17.7 million cap hit. 

Maybe it means offering a contract to the guard or tight end Pace and Matt Nagy want, not the one they can afford. Needs at inside linebacker, cornerback and/or safety could be more readily addressed before the draft, freeing Pace up to actually stick to his “best player available” mantra. 

There is hope here if you want the Bears to be more aggressive in free agency than their current amount of cap space suggests they will be. That doesn’t mean the Bears are going to follow this path, though. The new CBA needs to be ratified first, of course, and maybe that immediately drives up prices in the free agent market, leaving the Bears in the same position they’re in now. 

But the Bears do have a way to inflate their salary cap balloon, and if they do, they might not need to totally worry about it popping a few years from now. It all depends on if the new CBA is ratified or not before the new league year begins in mid-March. 

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David Montgomery on list of players poised for 2nd-year breakout

David Montgomery on list of players poised for 2nd-year breakout

Bears running back David Montgomery began his rookie season with a lot of hype. Probably too much hype, to be honest.

It began with his strong training camp performance and continued through the preseason, especially after his dazzling opener against the Carolina Panthers when he totaled 46 yards and a touchdown on just six touches.

And while his regular season wasn't a complete disappointment, it did fall short of those summer expectations. He finished the year with 242 carries for 889 yards and six touchdowns (3.7 yards per carry). At times, he looked like a player who could put the Bears' offense on his back. At other times, he looked like a typical rookie running back who danced too much behind the line of scrimmage.

There was more good than bad, however, and it's because of those good moments that Montgomery is considered one of next season's second-year players poised to breakout.

Montgomery averaged a solid 4.3 yards per carry in the final five weeks of the regular season, which is a sign the 22-year-old finally became acclimated to the NFL game. 

Another promising sign? Only a handful of running backs broke more tackles than Montgomery, who lacks the home run speed to consistently pull away after contact but should become more of a volume rusher after head coach Matt Nagy spends an offseason creating more opportunities for one of his best offensive weapons. 

It's hard to imagine a player with Montgomery's talent won't explode, especially if he's better supported by an offense that was a mess and fourth-worst overall in 2019. 

Montgomery was at least partially victimized by a sub-par offensive line and a passing game that never quite found its rhythm. Opposing defenses dared the Bears to throw the ball; Montgomery was fighting an uphill battle each and every week.

The Bears will make every effort to upgrade the offensive line as well as add a legitimate pass-catching tight end who can loosen up the second-level of the defense. If that happens, Montgomery will have more room to run and is a safe bet to eclipse 1,200 rushing yards, assuming he gets the touches he deserves. 

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