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.”

Bear PAWS: Reflecting on the 2017 NFL Draft ahead of the Bears' matchup with the Saints

Bear PAWS: Reflecting on the 2017 NFL Draft ahead of the Bears' matchup with the Saints

When reflecting on the 2017 NFL draft, the Shakespearean quote, “what’s past is prologue” comes to mind — a concept suggesting that previous events set the stage for what is happening in the present. During that 2017 draft, the decisions made by both the Bears and Saints helped reshape each franchise. Chicago’s bold moves shook the branches of the NFL tree, and the Saints, albeit indirectly, benefited greatly, as well. Another chess piece involved in the framing of this drafting drama was the San Francisco 49ers, as they were able to ride a wave of additional picks to revitalize a depleted, listless organization with talent and depth.

The 49ers aside, this Sunday matches two teams that garnered the most from the 2017 draft, Chicago and New Orleans. Using P.A.W.S. (Predictive Analysis With Stats), let’s examine the impact of the Bears’ draft day machinations.

The Browns, 49ers and Bears were the first three teams slotted to make selections in 2017. Once Cleveland chose DE Myles Garrett with the first pick (and not a quarterback) Bears GM Ryan Pace made his move. Despite San Francisco being a spot ahead of Chicago, Pace was determined to choose the next player. Aggressively, he swapped the Bears’ third overall pick with the 49ers second spot to select QB Mitchell Trubisky, while also sending the Bears’ 67th and 111th picks, and a 2018 3rd rounder (70th) to San Francisco.

According to Pace, “...when you have conviction on a guy you can’t sit on your hands.” Either emboldened by his selection of Trubisky, or because of the surrendered picks needed to acquire him, Pace continued making trades to widen his draft options. The Bears traded their second (36th overall) and seventh (221st overall) round picks that year to the Cardinals for their second (45th overall), fourth (119th overall) and sixth (197th) round selections, and a 2018 fourth round pick (115th overall), to boot.

In addition to those moves, Pace shipped out his 117th and 197th overall picks in a trade with the Rams to move up to the 112th spot (fourth round). When the dust settled, Chicago possessed one pick in the second round (45th overall) and two picks in the fourth round (112th and 119th overall), along with their original 5th-round selection (147th overall). The key players taken from these moves were QB Mitchell Trubisky (with the No. 2 pick), TE Adam Shaheen (45th), S Eddie Jackson (112th), and RB Tarik Cohen (119th).

Initially, because the Bears relinquished several mid-round picks to move up just one spot (arguably for a player that may have still been available), the general consensus was that Pace got fleeced by 49ers rookie GM John Lynch. Perhaps to support a colleague, Lynch stated afterward, “Kudos to the Bears, they saw a player they wanted at a really important position.”

Clearly, the 2017 draft for Pace and the Bears was about securing a franchise quarterback to build around. But in the process, Pace landed two all-pro talents in Jackson and Cohen, as each made their first Pro Bowl in 2018, with Trubisky making the trip as an alternate. No “fleecing” here!

Ironically, Pace’s 2017 draft moves created a “butterfly effect” — when a small localized change in a complex system can have large effects elsewhere — by strengthening his former employers, the New Orleans Saints. When the 49ers traded away the 67th overall pick they received from the Bears to the Saints, New Orleans used that spot to select RB Alvin Kamara. Kamara went on to become the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2017 and has already garnered two Pro Bowl selections early in his career. New Orleans had two first round selections that year, choosing CB Marshon Lattimore (11th) and OT Ryan Ramczyk (32nd). Both players have been starters since being drafted, and in 2017, Lattimore was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. Another significant draft-day selection was S Marcus Williams at the 42nd spot. Williams, too, has been a starter from the very beginning of his pro career. Undoubtedly, these core four players fortified the Saints’ roster infrastructure and propelled them to division championships each of the past two seasons. 

However, buried within the trade minutia between the Bears and 49ers is another move that may have saved the Saints from themselves: San Francisco traded their 34th pick and the 111th pick (formerly the Bears’ selection) to the Seahawks for Seattle’s first round choice (31st overall) and drafted LB Reuben Foster. The Saints had the very next pick at No. 32, and needed serious help on their defense, having finished dead last the previous season.

The Saints, in need of a pass rusher, were eyeing DE Takkarist McKinley, but the Falcons traded up and drafted him. Reuben Foster’s stock was dropping, due to off-the-field concerns, but his talent was too hard to ignore. So the Saints primed themselves to select him, until the 49ers moved up (armed with Chicago’s fourth round pick ) and grabbed Foster. Having both defensive interests taken ahead of them, New Orleans ‘settled’ on the next best talent off their draft board, OT Ryan Ramczyk. Well, Foster was released by the 49ers in just his second year and is currently on IR with Washington. Ramczyk, on the other hand, has been an anchor for an offensive line that pass blocks for Drew Brees and run blocks for Alvin Kamara. Thanks, Chicago! Sure, it’s great to speculate on what-ifs… If the Bears don’t make that trade with San Francisco, do they possibly take Kamara at 67th instead of Cohen at 119th? Or, could another team have shot up to the second overall pick to take Trubisky instead of Chicago, leaving the Bears ‘settle’ on QB Deshaun Watson? Could the Bears have had a backfield of Trubisky and Kamara... or Watson and Kamara?

Regardless, the Bears did a good job in 2017, which paved a path towards an even more successful 2018 campaign, as evidenced by a division title, playoff appearance and multiple postseason accolades. Yet, this season the Saints are thriving at 5-1 without Drew Brees, while Chicago hovers precariously with a 3-2 record. Why is that? Talent! The Saints (with Chicago’s unwitting aid) drafted better in 2017. There is a metric (AV — approximate value) that gives a numeric rating to players, approximating their value to their own teams. A player’s AV can be influenced by the number of starts they have, big plays they’ve made, awards they’ve won, etc.

The Saints’ players taken in the 2017 draft have significantly higher AVs than do the Bears’ selections. Taking the top 4 players’ AVs  from each squad, we see: 

Saints - Marshon Lattimore (14) Ryan Ramczyk (25), Marcus Williams (12), Alvin Kamara (30); 

Bears - Mitch Trubisky (20), Adam Shaheen (1), Eddie Jackson (20), Tarik Cohen (16).

Despite the Bears’ immediate concerns at quarterback, the offensive line, and a banged-up defensive front, Chicago still has a dominant defense and is coming off a bye week. The

Saints are faced with injury issues beyond Drew Brees, and Alvin Kamara not playing greatly improves Chicago’s chances of winning at home. Chicago is getting back 20 AV with the return of Trubisky from injury, whereas the Saints lose 30 AV with Kamara sitting on Sunday.

So, this weekend’s game may actually be won by the most talented roster on the field after all.

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Saints DE Cam Jordan really wants to hit Chase Daniel, but swears it's out of love

Saints DE Cam Jordan really wants to hit Chase Daniel, but swears it's out of love

All signs this week have pointed to Mitch Trubisky returning for the Bears’ Week 7 matchup against New Orleans, which should be exciting news for Chicago fans (right?).

Cam Jordan and the Saints defense, for their part, won’t be happy to see Mitch under center, but maaaaybe not for the reason you’d think. In an appearance on NFL Total Access this afternoon, Jordan was asked by Lindsay Rhodes what the difference between facing Trubisky and backup QB Chase Daniel is for New Orleans, and he laid out a pretty compelling case for preferring Daniel:

 

“I’ve been meaning to hit Chase ever since I got to the league,” Jordan said. “I’ve already hit Mitch.”

Jordan was quick to clarify that he “love[s] Chase” from his days sharing a locker room with him in New Orleans early in each of their careers. Daniel backed up Drew Brees from 2010-2012, overlapping with Jordan’s rookie and sophomore seasons (2011-2012). 

“He brought so much juice to our locker room when he was here,” Jordan continued. “I can’t wait for a chance to hit him. That’s how I show love to my friends.”

Daniel took the rib in stride, tweeting out a light-hearted response to the clip of Jordan a few hours later:


Jordan responded to that by saying he has "nothing but admiration" for Daniel and implored him to be the Brett Favre to his Michael Strahan. (Favre, you'll remember, famously crumpled in a heap at the feet of Strahan in Week 17 of the 2001 season, with Strahan needing only one sack to break the single-season record. That record of 22.5 sacks still stands to this day.) Chicago fans would certainly sign on for Daniel granting Jordan's wish, in the event of a blowout Bears victory.  

Whether it’s Trubisky or Daniel leading the Bears’ huddles on Sunday, though, the Saints defense will prove a formidable matchup, and Jordan is a big reason why. The four-time Pro Bowler has already racked up five sacks (tied for eighth in the NFL) and nine quarterback hits six games into the season.

Optimistically, the hope is Jordan never gets the chance to set his sights on any Bears quarterback this Sunday. Unrealistic? Definitely. But one can dream.

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