The five biggest Bears storylines to watch during free agency this week

The five biggest Bears storylines to watch during free agency this week

This week will mark Ryan Pace’s first true opportunity to re-shape a Bears roster that went 12-4 and won the NFC North, a task made more difficult by the meager $16.75 million in cap space with which he has to work. While the Bears may not make nearly as much noise in free agency as they did a year ago, there still are plenty of intriguing storylines to follow over the next few days:
1. Will Jordan Howard be traded?
It would seem unlikely the Bears would deal Howard without a replacement lined up, though ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported last week the team is having ongoing discussions about trading its leading rusher in each of the last three seasons. Perhaps that means the Bears work out a deal for someone like Jacksonville’s T.J. Yeldon or New Orleans’ Mark Ingram, and then deal Howard on Wednesday when the new league year begins, if they are to trade him. 
Howard’s production slipped in 2018, with the 24-year-old averaging 3.7 yards per carry and never really looking like a good fit in Matt Nagy’s offense. Howard, though, remains a good running back and is only one season removed from coming off a two-year stretch in which he rushed for 2,435 yards. If the Bears can save about $2 million in cap space and acquire a Day 3 draft pick for Howard, a trade would make sense, presuming they re-invest that money into a free agent running back while also drafting someone to add to the depth chart. 
Conversely, the Bears don’t have to trade Howard — hanging on to him as a reliable short-yardage/goal line option would, too, make sense. But the Bears don’t appear likely to enter 2019 with Howard as their No. 1 running back, whether he’s on the team or not. 
2. Where does Adrian Amos wind up?
Per a report on Sunday, there’s a “robust market” developing for Amos, which could price him out of a return to Chicago. Amos is a solid, reliable player who teamed up well with Eddie Jackson over the last two years, but a deep safety market means the Bears would have other (and cheaper) options to replace the 2015 fifth-round draft pick. 
One line of thinking on Amos is that a loaded marketplace of safeties — led by Earl Thomas, Landon Collins and Tyrann Mathieu — could drive his price down. But if it doesn’t, the Bears may be happy to move on from him and sign someone else, and then also potentially use a draft pick on a safety as well. 
3. What about Bryce Callahan?
Callahan’s market will be fascinating to watch develop. The increased usage of 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three receivers) means defenses are in sub packages (with at least five defensive backs) frequently, often more than they’re in base. For example: Of the 676 defensive snaps Callahan played in 2018, 610 were as a slot corner and 33 were as a box defender per Pro Football Focus. Those 643 snaps represent 57 percent of the Bears’ total defensive snaps, and that’s with Callahan missing 2018’s final three and a half games.
The point being: A slot corner is, nowadays, essentially a starting corner.  
Callahan, too, has proven to be one of the league’s better slot cornerbacks over the last two years. Opposing quarterbacks had an 80.5 passer rating when targeting Callahan last year, and he had two interceptions, five pass break-ups, two sacks and 13 total pressures in 2018. Those numbers represent the kind of versatile playmaking ability Callahan can bring to a defense. 
But Callahan has dealt with injuries every year of his four-year career, including the season-ending foot injury he suffered in 2018’s Week 14. Those durability concerns could affect his price, and could give the Bears an advantage as he hits the open market as no team will know his medicals better than they do. 
There also exists a school of thought that slot corner production is, to an extent, predicated on the play of a defense as a whole. Sherrick McManis’ solid play while filling in for an injured Callahan on the NFL’s best defense last year is a point in favor of this line of thinking. 
So all those reasons will make figuring out Callahan’s market one of the most interesting storylines of the week. 
4. Are the Bears in on any big-name free agents?
The short answer: Probably not. While the Bears could create more cap room by converting some of Khalil Mack’s 2019 salary into a signing bonus, or signing Chase Daniel/Danny Trevathan to a contract extension, those would have impacts on the team’s cap space in 2020 and beyond — which is also when Mitch Trubisky will carry a significantly pricier cap hit. 
But perhaps the market doesn’t develop for Landon Collins, the former New York Giants safety who could be an excellent in-the-box pairing with his rangy former Alabama teammate, Eddie Jackson. Or perhaps the Bears, coming off a 12-4 season with the reigning coach of the year, could convince one of the top free agents or biggest names in this year’s pool to take a short-term deal to chase a ring in Chicago. 
Again, it’s not especially likely. But as we’ve seen with Pace in the past, don’t rule anything out. 
5. What does the rest of the NFC North do?
Do the Green Bay Packers have any interest in Le’Veon Bell? Are the Minnesota Vikings able to improve an offense line that was a weakness in 2018? Will the Detroit Lions use their loads of cap space on a top free agent?
There’s plenty to watch this week around the NFC North, especially as the Packers have around $34 million and the Lions have about $31 million in cap space. The Vikings only have a little over $4 million in cap space and may not have the wiggle room to be active in free agency. 
Even if it turns out the Bears aren’t active in the coming days, expect their counterparts in the NFC North to be. 

Why what 'Run DMC' does catching passes in training camp will be a big clue for how good the Bears' offense will be

Why what 'Run DMC' does catching passes in training camp will be a big clue for how good the Bears' offense will be

How much better Mitch Trubisky will be is the defining question for the 2019 Bears. But we won’t begin to know the answer to that question until September — it’s not something that’ll be easily discernible during training camp practices in Bourbonnais or a handful of snaps in preseason games. Those can sometimes produce false positives and false negatives.

The Bears believe in Trubiskiy, of course, and you’ll likely hear Matt Nagy and players laud their quarterback’s growth over the coming weeks. But belief is one thing; tangible production is another. And we won’t truly get to see that growth until the night of Sept. 5 at Soldier Field. 

But there are a few things to look for in Bourbonnais that could clue us in that a big-time leap is coming for No. 10. We’ll begin this mini-series leading up to the start of training camp next week with this: Better success from running backs catching passes on first down. 

It’s a narrowly specific angle, but one that carries plenty of weight. Consider this excerpt from Warren Sharp’s 2019 Football Preview:

“First down has long been perceived as a running down. In 2017, the league-wide average run-pass split on first down was 47-53. It was 50-50 last season, but that was still well below the 59-41 league-wide split on all downs. Yet passing to running backs on first down is significantly more effective.

“In 2018, there were 6,248 running back rushing attempts on first down. They averaged 4.5 yards per carry, minus-0.01 Expected Points Added per attempt, and a positive play rate of 41.3%. When teams threw to running backs on first down, they averaged 6.02 yards per target, 7.8 yards per receptions. 0.08 EPA per attempt — slightly more efficient than the average of all passes regardless of down at 0.05 EPA — and a positive play rate of 52.3%.”

The larger point here (especially if your eyes glazed over some of those numbers — which, we promise, make sense) is this: Scheming more throws to running backs on first down is an area in which almost every team in the NFL can improve. It's worth noting the Kansas City Chiefs' most effective play on first-and-long in 2018, per Sharp, was a pass to Kareem Hunt. 

And the good news is the Bears re-worked their running back room in a way that could optimize their success throwing the ball to David Montgomery, Mike Davis and Tarik Cohen on first down. 

The 2018 Bears simply didn’t have the personnel to do that regularly or successfully.

Jordan Howard was only targeted nine times on first-and-10, catching five passes for 42 yards. All nine of those targets were short throws, either to the left (two), middle (one) or right (six), and Trubisky had a passer rating of 83 on those attempts. Meanwhile, Howard carried the ball 128 times on first-and-10, averaging 3.7 yards per carry and only generating nine first downs (the NFL average for rushing attempts on first-and-10 in 2018 was 4.7 yards per carry). 

Cohen was, roughly, the inverse of Howard’s numbers: He caught 30 of 37 targets for 241 yards (6.5 yards per target) and generated seven first downs through the air, but averaged just 3.2 yards on his 46 rushing attempts with four first downs. Neither player was particularly balanced in these scenarios: Howard was mildly ineffective running the ball and not a threat catching it; Cohen was largely ineffective running the ball but was a threat catching it. 

And for the crowd who still believes Nagy wasn’t willing to establish the run: The combined rushing attempts on first-and-10 of Howard, Cohen, Benny Cunningham and Taquan Mizzell totaled 182; the combined pass attempts by Trubisky and Chase Daniel in that down-and-distance was 176, per Pro Football Reference’s play index. 

The Bears, in 2018, averaged 5.5 yards per play on first-and-10, tied for 24th in the NFL. Yet only three teams — the New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts — averaged fewer yards-to-go on third down than the Bears’ mark of 6.9. That’s a sign of Nagy’s playcalling prowess and the talent on this offense, and it’s not a stretch to argue an improvement of first-and-10 success will have a significant impact on the overall success of the Bears’ offense. 

So back to the initial point about passes to running backs in these situations: The Bears believe both Montgomery and Davis have some untapped potential as pass-catching running backs. Montgomery caught 71 passes in college at Iowa State, while Davis was targeted the most by the Seattle Seahawks in 2018 on first down (17 of 42 targets). Cohen, of course, is already an accomplished pass-catcher. 

The “Run DMC” backfield needs to have more success carrying the ball on first-and-10 than last year’s group did, of course. But if you’re in Bourbonnais or watching a preseason game, keep an eye out for how effective the Bears are at passing to their running backs — especially if those passes travel beyond the line of scrimmage (another inefficiency noted by Warren Sharp's 2019 Football Preview). 

If you start seeing Montgomery making defenders miss after catching a pass, or Davis looking fluid with the ball in his hands, or Cohen breaking off some explosive gains — those will be significant reasons to believe in Trubisky and the Bears' offense in 2019. 

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Under Center Podcast: State of the Bears: Defense


Under Center Podcast: State of the Bears: Defense

JJ Stankevitz, Cam Ellis and Paul Aspan are back with their training camp preview of the Bears' defense, looking at if it's fair to expect this group to take a step back without Vic Fangio (2:00) or if it's possible to repeat as the league's No. 1 defense (10:00). Plus, the guys look at which players the Bears need to improve to remain one of the NFL's best defenses (15:15), debate if Leonard Floyd can be better (20:00) and look at the future of the defense as a salary cap crunch looms after 2019 (25:00). 

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below: