Bears

Five things we learned from the first weekend of the Bears’ kicking competition 

Five things we learned from the first weekend of the Bears’ kicking competition 

Update, 6:45 p.m.: The Bears waived Redford Jones and John Baron II, and did not sign any of the four kickers at Halas Hall who were there on a tryout. 

The final practice of the Bears’ 2019 rookie minicamp ended with Matt Nagy calling out two names: Casey Bednarski and Redford Jones. 

Nagy then explained to the assembled group of drafted players, undrafted free agents and those there on a tryout what would happen next: Bednarski and Jones would have a kick-off that, essentially, boiled down to the loser being the first player to miss. But there was an additional twist: Bednarski represented the defensive players, while Jones was kicking for the offense.

Bednarski and Jones both connected 32- and 43-yard attempts as players heckled and cheered the contestants. Bednarski nailed his 48-yard try. Jones missed his. 

Defensive players mobbed Bednarski, who did his trademark backflip in celebration. Nagy then delivered the repercussions for the offensive players: They would have to circle up around Jones and do 25 up-downs while the losing kicker watched. 

“I thought it was awesome,” Elliott Fry, a kicker who wasn’t part of the competition, said. “That’s what you’ve got to do — you’ve got to create pressure situations, and obviously you can’t go out to Soldier Field and have 60,000 people there and have pressure on the line. That’s one of the best ways to create pressure and as kickers that’s kind of what it comes down to.”

The image of gassed offensive players doing up-downs at the end of practice — albeit the shortest one of the weekend — while Jones had to sheepishly watch is a defining one for how the Bears’ kicking competition may play out in the coming weeks and months. Here’s what else we learned after three days of closely following all eight kickers’ every move at Halas Hall:

1. Expect far fewer kickers present for OTAs. 

Nagy said the Bears, ideally, would have two to three kickers on the 90-man roster for OTAs, which begin May 21 at Halas Hall. He left the door open for the team to carry four kickers, but indicated things would have to awfully close for that many to be on the roster. 

From observing the eight kickers (Bednarski, Jones, Chris Blewitt, Elliott Fry, Emmit Carpenter, John Baron II, Spencer Evans and Justin Yoon) in the competition all weekend, the top four seemed to be Bednarski, Blewitt, Fry and Evans (Bednarski and Evans were at rookie minicamp on tryouts, Blewitt and Fry are on the roster).

Bednarski, though, was informed the Bears will not sign him. Jones and Baron II were waived, and none of the other kickers at Halas Hall on a tryout were signed. So that leaves two on the roster, for now: Blewitt and Fry. 

While making the most kicks is the No. 1 aspect of this competition, it’s not the only one. 

The Bears used tracking technology to gather data beyond makes and misses, such as trajectory and ball speed, which will factor into their equation of who to keep and who not to keep. Special teams coordinator Chris Tabor, too, made a point to let his kickers know that simply making kicks at Halas Hall wasn’t going to mean they’d make kicks in the conditions at Soldier Field. 

“I think he said, this is not an Augusta fairway,” Fry said. “It’s going to be bumpy out there. That’s something you have to deal with.”

And from a mental standpoint, Nagy and Tabor aimed to push the limits of each of the kickers present to, as Blewitt said, “see what we were made of.”

So Nagy, Tabor, Ryan Pace and the rest of the Bears’ decision-makers will huddle in the coming days to pour over data, scouting reports and video of every kicker brought into Halas Hall this weekend. Perhaps someone like Bednarski kicked his way onto the roster, while someone like Jones (who was the only kicker on the roster not made available to the media Sunday) kicked himself off it. We’ll find out in the coming days, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to only see two or three of these eight players back at Halas Hall in late May. 

“They’re not going to be easy (decisions),” Nagy said. “The kicker position is one where we’re going to have to — we have to make sure that we are making the right decision.”

2. Cody Parkey will loom over this competition, but Nagy wants it to be in a productive way. 

During Friday and Saturday’s practices, Nagy called out the name of a kicker — Fry on Friday, Blewitt on Saturday — to attempt a field goal in the middle of practice, in front of the entire team and coaching staff, from 43 yards. That was intentional: It’s the distance from which Cody Parkey’s game-winning kick against the Philadelphia Eagles doinked off the left upright and crossbar at Soldier Field. 

“What coach said when he first brought us in here is you face adversity head on,” Baron said. “Like, we don’t shy away from that kick at all. That’s part of the game. If it comes down to that kick again, he needs the guy that’s going to go in there and make that. We’re not going to be scared of it; we’re going to fight it.”

Nagy showed not just the eight kickers, but his entire team — returning veterans included — a clip of Parkey’s infamous miss, driving home his message of turning the brutal end to last season into something positive this season. 

“No elephant in the room,” Nagy said. “This is where we're at. This is what happened last year. This is gone now. How can we improve? Well, that happened to be the last play of our season. So now if you're a kicker and you're in the room, you're going to feel uncomfortable. If you're a player or coach in the room, you're going to feel uncomfortable. So let's go test it out now.”

3. This process may not net the Bears their Week 1 kicker. 

An irony loomed over the daily kicking competition updates emanating from Halas Hall: The kicker the Bears will begin 2019 with may not have been there. 

Nagy said he feels “strongly” that the team’s Week 1 kicker was at Halas Hall this weekend, but there exists a possibility that would render this months-long competition utterly pointless. 

The Bears could whittle this competition down to three guys for OTAs, two guys for training camp and then keep the winner on their roster on cut-down day over Labor Day Weekend…and then, a day later, acquire a kicker off waivers and release the “winner” of the competition. 

At this early of a stage, nothing can be ruled out for how things will end, and who will wind up kicking field goals on Sept. 5 against the Green Bay Packers at Soldier Field. 

4. The media has a role to play in this. 

Usually, everything that happens in these minicamp/OTA practices at Halas Hall is considered off the record by the Bears’ media policy — meaning reporters are not allowed to provide specifics of what they see on the field. 

The team tweaked its policy, though, for rookie minicamp: Anything done by kickers on the main practice field was considered fair game for reporting, which is why we’re able to tell you what happened at the end of practice Sunday, for example. The bulk of the kickers’ work came on a different practice field, where reporters charted makes and misses to provide general thoughts on what we saw. It was impossible to not notice the reporters standing near the goalposts or on the sideline. And by giving us in the media more freedom to report what we see, it could have the effect of putting more pressure on the members of this competition. 

“I don’t think anyone really minded it,” Baron said. “We kind of expected it coming into it. But I don’t think it threw anyone off or did anything like that. Media is always to be around especially if you’re trying to compete at an NFL level.”

5. Blewitt is pronounced how you think it is.  

Nagy cracked a smile when he was asked about Blewitt in March at the NFL Annual Meeting in Arizona, saying the kicker’s seemingly-unfortunate last name was pronounced “Blue-Ay.” 

It’s not. 

“I heard he said I was French,” Blewitt said. “I’m not French. You know, it was fun, people are going to have fun with that.”

2020 NFL Combine: Time, TV schedule and how to watch online

2020 NFL Combine: Time, TV schedule and how to watch online

The 2020 NFL Combine on-field workouts kick off Thursday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, and with so much pressure on Bears GM Ryan Pace to get this year's second-round picks right, the Combine will be even more important than in the past. 

It's true that the underwear Olympics aren't always a good indicator of future NFL success, but Pace and his contingent of Bears scouts and front office decision-makers have to gather as much information, from every clue available, before pulling the trigger on any of this April's draft hopefuls.

With the NFL Combine moving to primetime this year, Bears fans have a greater opportunity to decide for themselves which prospects look the part from an athletic standpoint. Here are all the ways you can catch the drills:

TV: NFL Network
Streaming: NFL.com, NFL Mobile App

Workout schedule

Date: Thursday, Feb. 27
Time: 4-11 p.m. ET
Positions: QB, WR, TE

Date: Friday, Feb. 28
Time: 4-11 p.m. ET
Positions: RB, OL, K, ST

Date: Saturday, Feb. 29
Time: 4-11 p.m. ET
Positions: DL, LB

Date: Sunday, March 1
Time: 2-7 p.m. ET
Positions: DB

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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