Bears

Four key tagging decisions bring free agency into focus for Bears

Four key tagging decisions bring free agency into focus for Bears

The NFL’s deadline for teams to place the franchise tag on players passed Tuesday afternoon, with the Bears deciding against using it — and the near $15 million salary that comes with it — on cornerback Kyle Fuller. But they will use the transition tag, which costs less than the franchise tag at $12.971 million.

The transition tag allows the Bears to match any offers a team makes to Fuller, but if they decline to match it, they will not receive compensation. That's the risk of the transition tag; the benefit is it costs less and affords the Bears more time to negotiate a long-term deal (the deadline for franchise tagged players to sign a long-term extension is July 15). 

This isn’t like the Alshon Jeffery situation last year, when the Bears declined to use the franchise tag and lost him to the Philadelphia Eagles (the transition tag was not used on Jeffery). Jeffery picked a team with more coaching and quarterback stability (and upside) in the Eagles over a Bears team that was about to sign Mike Glennon and was a month and a half away from drafting Mitch Trubisky. 

Fuller’s situation is much more stable in Chicago, with defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and defensive backs coach Ed Donatell returning for their fourth seasons with the Bears. It’d make sense if Fuller ultimately wanted to continue playing for the same coaching staff under which he enjoyed a breakout 2017 season, one which improved his stock from possible being a training camp cut to being due for a big payday. 

But since Fuller’s made it this far without being agreeing to a multi-year deal with the Bears, there’s little risk for him in testing the free agent market to see what his value is. The Bears know that, but still wanted to keep him without guaranteeing him more money in 2018 than he may get on the open market. 

“I would say cornerback this year in free agency and the draft is a good position,” general manager Ryan Pace said last week, “so that’s beneficial to us.”

Maybe that was Pace sort of winking at Fuller’s representation that, hey, the market you’re expecting may not be the market that develops given it’s flooded with top-end guys like Trumaine Johnson, Malcolm Butler and Bashaud Breeland, not to mention a draft class headlined by Ohio State’s Denzel Ward and Iowa’s Josh Jackson. The transition tag bears that out: The Bears want to keep Fuller, and it allows him to test free agency to figure out his market while allowing Pace to match any offers that come his way. The tag makes sense a lot of sense for the Bears, and probably does for Fuller, too. 

“I can definitely see myself back here,” Fuller said back on New Year’s Day. “I was drafted here. I like it here. But it’s my first time ever in free agency. I have to talk to my agents, my family and just see how that stuff works out. We’ll see. I understand it’s a business. So I’ll be looking forward to whatever it brings.”

Beyond Fuller, there were three other players who didn’t receive the franchise tag on Tuesday for whom the Bears could be in the market:

Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Allen Robinson

Initially, the thought was the Jaguars would do whatever they could to hang on to Robinson, especially after they signed Blake Bortles to a contract extension last month. But the Jaguars and the playmaking wideout have drifted apart in negotiations over the last week, and the team decided against spending $15.98 million on a guy coming off a torn ACL. 

When healthy, Robinson is one of the best receivers in football, catching 153 passes for 2,283 yards with 20 touchdowns in 2015 and 2016. He’ll have plenty of suitors and command a hefty payday with plenty of guaranteed money. Will that scare off the Bears, given their best wide receiver — Cameron Meredith — is similarly coming off a torn ACL? Or will Pace roll the dice and try to hit it big in finding a No. 1 target for Trubisky? The Bears’ level if interest here will be fascinating to watch develop. 

Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Sammy Watkins

The Rams were reportedly going back and forth on using the franchise tag on Watkins or safety Lamarcus Joyner, and ultimately decided to use it on Joyner. Watkins will have plenty of interest in the open market after averaging 15.2 yards per reception and hauling in eight touchdowns in 2017, though he only caught 39 passes for 593 yards as part of that explosive Rams’ offense. 

Watkins, like Fuller, could opt to stay in Los Angeles with the thought it’s the best place for him to further his career. But expect the receiver-starved Bears to make a push for Watkins, too, hoping to sell him on their own combination of a young, offensive-minded head coach and a developing franchise quarterback. 

Carolina Panthers guard Andrew Norwell 

Norwell would’ve been due a little over $14 million had he been tagged (the expectation in Carolina is he won't be). That’s money usually reserved for tackles, not guards, though the 26-year-old Norwell is one of the best interior linemen in the league and hasn’t missed a game since the 2015 season. 

Norwell could command around or more than $30 million in guaranteed money in the open market, which could be more than the Bears want to spend after releasing Josh Sitton and saving $8 million in cap room. But Norwell’s age and talent, coupled with the Bears’ healthy cap situation, does represent the team’s best chance to upgrade over Sitton at guard. Going with a cheaper free agent, or drafting a guard — whether it’s Notre Dame’s Quenton Nelson or a later-round guy — is certainly an option here as well. 

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Prince Amukamara and CDW surprise teens at MSI event

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USA TODAY

Prince Amukamara and CDW surprise teens at MSI event

This past Saturday, Prince Amukamara provided a great surprise when he showed up during a graduation ceremony to honor high school seniors who had been a part of the Museum of Science and Industry's (MSI) "Welcome to Science" initiative.

Students listened to brief speeches from CDW Vice President of Networking, Digital Workspace and Security Solutions, Bob Rossi, a number of Bears employees and Amukamara. 

Students engaged in open discussions on how they can further their dreams with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).  And through a donation from CDW’s Tech Fore! Kids program, students got perhaps the biggest surpise of all, as they were provided new laptops. CDW continues to help enable the MSI the opportunity to work with youth and further their interaction with STEM.

CDW Tech Fore! has done previous work with Chicago Bulls College Prep, and other schools and Boys and Girls clubs over time. The MSI's program looks to provide a diverse array of teens the chance to dive deeper into what it takes to have a career in science. On top of this, students are able to collect service leearning hours while simultaneously furthering their leadership and public speaking skills. 

Three compulsories loom as make-or-breaks for Mitch Trubisky Bears 'installation'

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USA TODAY

Three compulsories loom as make-or-breaks for Mitch Trubisky Bears 'installation'

The popular focus of the Bears offseason has been on a new offensive coaching staff phasing in a radically different system and playbook, integrating new “weapons” brought other teams and other schemes, and fusing them all together around a trigger/detonator in the person of quarterback Mitch Trubisky.

More than any of that, however, is Trubisky himself, the real linchpin “weapon.” All of the offseason additions, beginning with coaching staff, projects to make only marginal more impact than Dowell Loggains, Josh Bellamy, Dontrelle Inman and Kendall Wright if Trubisky himself is not much, much better than he was last season.

In three primary areas.

In figure skating and diving, the obligatory must-do’s were called “compulsories” – basic skills at which competitors were required to demonstrate proficiency. For Trubisky, improvements in three specific compulsories are the keys to this young quarterback’s development.

Trubisky is in his own molten state, still a raw, largely unknown with fewer NFL starts (12) than all but four projected starting quarterbacks (Jimmy Garoppolo, Pat Mahomes, AJ McCarron, Deshaun Watson) for 2018, but the poorest record (4-8) of any other anticipated starter, those four included. “Work in progress” is an understatement.

The Trubisky “installation” is in fact massive. Beyond the specifics of scheme, RPO’s and all the rest, Trubisky will go to training camp with precious little shared game experience with virtually any of his chief so-called weapons. Trey Burton, Taylor Gabriel and Allen Robinson weren’t Bears last year. Kevin White worked chiefly with Mike Glennon and the No. 1 offense while Trubisky was primarily with the 2’s. Anthony Miller was in Memphis.

But the Trubisky developmental group – coach Matt Nagy, coordinator Mark Helfrich, quarterbacks coach Dave Ragone, backup Chase Daniel – has three chief points of attention with what was drafted to be the foundation of the franchise:

Rediscover accuracy

For all of the positives coming out of his abbreviated rookie season, Trubisky completed just 59.4 percent of his passes – not good enough for an offense based in significant part on ball control with the pass. Substandard receivers account for some of the accuracy issues for a quarterback who completed 68 percent in his one year as a college starter. But Mike Glennon completed two-thirds (66.4 percent) of his throws in his four games throwing to largely the same group.

More to a larger point, the Bears were 2-4 when Trubisky completed less than 60 percent of his throws. His completion rate is nothing short of pivotal in keeping possessions sets of downs and entire possessions on schedule, converting third downs and resting his defense.

Nagy dialed back the offense at one point during OTA’s, Trubisky played faster “and you saw completions out there,” Nagy said, “and that's what it's all about.”

Only the Carolina Panthers reached the playoffs with a quarterback (Cam Newton) completing less than 60 percent of his passes. Slightly better statistically, Philadelphia quarterback Carson Wentz (60.2) was leading the MVP discussion before a season-ending knee injury, and Blake Bortles (60.2) had Jacksonville a fourth-quarter away from the Super Bowl. But the Eagles and Jaguars were top-five in both scoring offense and scoring defense. And Nick Foles got the Eagles to a Lombardi Trophy completing 72.6 percent in the postseason filling in for Wentz.

Tom Brady completed 63.9 percent as a rookie and never below 60 percent in 17 years as a starter. Aaron Rodgers, never below 60 percent in 10 years as a starter. Drew Brees, 15 of his 16 seasons at 60-plus, including the last 14 straight. Ben Roethlisberger, 12 of 14 seasons at 60-plus percent. Peyton Manning, 15 of his 17 seasons at 60-plus percent. Those five account for 17 Super Bowl appearances.

Trubisky was drafted to be that echelon of quarterback. Reaching that level begins with completing passes.

Stay the ball-security course

Trubisky may not have been dominant in any area as a rookie, but he bought into the emphasis placed on ball security by John Fox and coordinator Dowell Loggains. He ranked 12th with a very respectable 2.1-percent interception rate. Of the 11 passers rated ahead of him, only Jacoby Brisset in Indianapolis failed to get his team to .500, and eight of those 11 were in the playoffs. Ball security matters.

And it is something to watch through training camp and preseason. Adam Gase made ball security the No. 1 objective with Jay Cutler when Gase arrived in 2015. Cutler went a dozen straight practices and his 33-pass preseason without throwing an interception. The carryover was obvious; Cutler had the best season (92.3) and second-best interception rate of his career in 2015.

The same is expected, and needed, from Trubisky for the new offense, and the “old” defense, to work.

“He had, I think was a three-to-one or maybe even a four-to-one touchdown to interception ratio in college,” Helfrich said. “That works. That’s a good thing. We need to continue that. We can’t put the defense in a bad situation, our team in a situation, because there’s times in the NFL they’re going to get you and I think a quarterback kind of has that innate ability to take care of the football versus turning it over when he, for lack of a better word, panics.” 

Trubisky lost two fumbles in the span of 12 games. Very respectable and a strong starting point for his year two.

Get the ball off on time

Trubisky in 2017 tied for fourth in percentage of pass plays sacked (8.6), a problem that might be laid at the feet of an offensive line forced by injuries into seven different starting-five combinations. Might, but far from entirely.

Nagy’s passing offense is rooted in timing. Receivers during practices have precision drilled into them, meaning being exactly where they’re supposed to be at precisely the instant they’re supposed to be there. Trubisky’s tutoring has stressed plays being on time.

Only the Buffalo Bills reached the playoffs with a quarterback (Tyrod Taylor, 9.9) taking sacks at a rate higher than 6.6 percent. Alex Smith went down at a rate of 6.5 percent running the Kansas City offense under Nagy and coach Andy Reid.

Trubisky’s mobility is an obvious asset for extending plays. But getting the ball out of his hands is the goal, and his decision-making and execution will be key in how long his line has to sustain blocks. Trubisky early on evinced a grasp of balancing the reward of rescuing a play under pressure against the risk of taking a sack.

“Ball security is very important so I'm just trying to take care of the football,” Trubisky said not long after taking over for Glennon last season. “But at the same time you want to stay aggressive and you could say the sacks are a result of that.”