Free agent focus: Which players could the Bears look to keep?

Free agent focus: Which players could the Bears look to keep?

The first decisions general manager Ryan Pace will have to make later this month are on which of his own players from the 2017 season he’d like to try to retain. There are 10 key names here to focus on before negotiations with other teams can begin March 12 and contracts can be finalized March 14.

Dontrelle Inman

Inman brought some much-needed length to the Bears’ receiving corps when Pace traded for him in October, and he caught 13 of 22 targets for 195 yards in his first three games in Chicago. But Inman’s production tailed off, with Mitchell Trubisky targeting him only eight times (with five receptions) for 45 yards and a touchdown in his next four games before Inman finished the season with five catches on 10 targets for 94 yards against the Minnesota Vikings. 

Former offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said in December that Inman’s decrease in usage was because teams quickly figured out that they could take him out of the gameplan by training their focus on him.

“Coverage,” Loggains said. “That’s as simple as it is. Nothing that he’s done or we’re trying to take him out of progressions.”

That’s not surprising — Inman isn’t a No. 1 receiver who can beat that kind of coverage — but the 6-foot-3 former Charger could be an option to return, and would be better suited as a rotational guy or someone who isn’t relied on to be the top target for Trubisky. 

Kendall Wright

The 28-year-old Wright led the Bears in targets (91) receptions (59) and yards (614) and played in all 16 games for the first time since his breakout 2013 season. But the Bears preferred to try to limit Wright’s snaps, as Loggains explained in October: “When he gets to play in that 25-35 range and he’s fresh and can bring the energy and juice,” he said. 

The Bears’ plan for Wright when they signed him a year ago was to have him be a complementary piece to their three top outside targets (Cameron Meredith, Kevin White, Markus Wheaton). With Meredith and White suffering season-ending injuries by the end of Week 1 and Wheaton proving to be a bust, the Bears had to rely on Wright more than they would’ve liked. 

As long as the Bears can better fill out the rest of their receiver depth chart, Wright not only would be a prime candidate to return, but someone who could be a productive part of the 2018 offense. 

Mark Sanchez

Sanchez wasn’t active for any of the Bears’ 16 games but still made a positive impact on the team in 2017. Specifically, the 31-year-old had a strong relationship with Trubisky, and the Bears could aim to keep that relationship intact. 

“He did a good job this year, all the things we value with him, his veteran leadership and his experiences,” Pace said, adding that Sanchez has expressed a desire to return to the Bears. “He’s a free agent, those are all evaluations that are ongoing.”

The bigger question is if the team believes Sanchez could be a viable backup after not dressing for a single game in 2017. There are other options on the free agent market, but it’s worth noting that one of those guys — Chase Daniel, who has connections to Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy — also didn’t throw a pass in 2017 (and has only thrown three since the end of the 2014 season).

Tom Compton

Compton was a steady presence as a reserve when he played and has the flexibility to play both guard and tackle. If Eric Kush is healthy after tearing his ACL last August, Compton could be a candidate to return as a swing tackle, or the Bears could look for someone on the free agent market. Worth noting is Compton’s relatively frequent presence on the Bears’ weekly injury reports last season. 

Zach Miller

Miller, unfortunately, doesn’t seem likely to play football again after dislocating his knee and tearing his popliteal artery against the New Orleans Saints, which nearly led to his leg being amputated. If Miller’s playing career is over, it’s a shame given he was one of the most well-liked players to pass through Halas Hall in recent memory. 

Kyle Fuller

If Pace were to use the franchise tag on Fuller, it likely would be a bridge to a long-term contract extension instead of using it to keep the cornerback under control for another year at $15 million. Fuller was one of four cornerbacks to break up 20 or more passes in 2017, but his inconsistent play in 2014 and 2015, as well as the injury that cost him the entire 2016 season, does present some risk. 

The Bears could opt to not use the franchise tag on Fuller and let him hit the open market and still have the confidence that they could re-sign him. To start: This year’s free agent cornerback class is headlined by Trumaine Johnson, Malcolm Butler, Bashaud Breeland and E.J. Gaines. Fuller would be entering a deep pool of cornerbacks, which Pace pointed out on Tuesday. 

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

It could be beneficial to the Bears specifically with Fuller, as a super-rich contract might not materialize if those go to Johnson and Butler. The Bears should be able to pitch Fuller, too, on the consistency in their defensive coaching staff — specifically, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and defensive backs coach Ed Donatell — as being the best option for the former first-round pick to continue to develop as a player. 

But too, if the Bears were lose Fuller to free agency, they could replace him with a couple of free agents or a free agent and a high draft pick. As Pace said, the depth of the cornerbacks available over the next two months is beneficial to the Bears. 

Prince Amukamara

Amukamara was a solid enough cornerback at times, but he didn’t record an interception and was penalized seven times for 99 yards, the most of any Bears defensive player in 2017 (Fuller, for comparison, was penalized three times for 21 yards). Amukamara turns 29 in June and is coming off back-to-back one-year deals. Would he take another one? And would the Bears want him back regardless? Again, the deep free agent market/draft pool could help the Bears find an upgrade over Amukamara. 

If the Bears do keep Amukamara, they very well could still draft a cornerback with an early round pick in April. 

Christian Jones

Jones totaled 57 tackles with two pass break-ups, one forced fumble and two sacks while playing well as a reserve next to Danny Trevathan. He’s played three years in Vic Fangio’s defense and seems like a likely candidate to return. 

Mitch Unrein

Unrein was not only a favorite of former coach John Fox but is a favorite of defense line coach Jay Rodgers. Re-signing him and then having 2016 third-round pick Jonathan Bullard compete with him for playing time could be a productive path. 

One thing Rodgers liked about Unrein last year was that helped the rest of the defensive line — standouts Eddie Goldman and Akiem Hicks — play faster. 

“Mitch is the glue that kind of holds it all together,” Rodgers said. “Very versatile player, he’s played every position on the front during the course of his career. He knows me, he knows what the expectation is, he knows how to communicate, he knows what’s coming, run game, pass game, he puts it all together. And when he’s out there on the field with those guys, he allows those guys to play fast. And if they know what’s coming their way, then they can play even faster. And I think his demand in the room of knowing what to do, when to do it and how to do it, raises the elevation of the other guys in the room. And he holds them accountable to knowing their stuff.” 

Lamarr Houston

The Bears parted ways with Houston before the 2017 season, then brought him back in late November after injuries sapped the team’s depth at outside linebacker. Houston notched four sacks in five games after returning to the Bears, and without many more productive edge rushers who could potentially hit the free market, Houston could be a candidate to return to help fill out the team’s pass rushing depth. 

As Roquan Smith misses practice with hamstring soreness, Bears' Matt Nagy readies to face old friends

As Roquan Smith misses practice with hamstring soreness, Bears' Matt Nagy readies to face old friends

(A bunch of injury information from Bears practice Tuesday, but that can get boring so we’ll start with something else for a change, because little of the injury stuff is for-sure….)
Third preseason games are significant as indicators for players, with starters typically playing into third quarters of these games. But for Matt Nagy in his first-ever gig as a head coach, Saturday’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs is also his first in which a modicum of game-planning is in order, making it a semi-revealing look at his game-day and game-prep capabilities.
Nagy will be on the opposite sideline from his mentor and coaching role model, Andy Reid, who gave Nagy his start in 2008 as a coaching intern with the Philadelphia Eagles, then hired Nagy in 2013 as quarterbacks coach when Reid moved to Kansas City.
So Nagy this week is scheming for an offense and defense with which he has more than just a passing familiarity (pun intended). And with individuals with whom he is close personally as well as professionally.
“It is preseason, and I think it just kind of puts a little added fun to it, just the respect I have for that organization and obviously for Coach Reid and [Kansas City GM Brett Veach,” Nagy said, smiling. “That’s where I started, so it’s fun.
“But [Chicago] is my home, and [the Bears are] my ‘family’ now. We’ll have a good time with it. There will be some chuckles and I’m sure some eye contact across the sidelines a few times, but it’ll be all fun.”
The Bears practiced with scout-team players wearing red over-jerseys to signify certain key Chiefs: e.g., 50 for Pro Bowl rush linebacker Justin Houston, 87 for tight end Travis Kelce. Nagy as Chiefs coordinator knows Kansas City personnel and the mind behind them.
“Game planning while knowing those guys, they know I know them inside and they know us inside out,” Nagy said. “So there’s a little bit of reverse psychology going on right now. You’ve just got to figure out if you’re playing chess or are you playing checkers. And I guess we’ll see.”
And now, those injuries, starting with…
Roquan Smith.
The rookie No. 1 draft choice was in uniform but was pulled from practice when he experienced soreness in his left hamstring. The immediate suspicion/concern is that Smith’s month-long holdout while his contract was hammered out contributed to the soft-tissue problem, not an uncommon occurrence with a player at the outset of training camp, which this past week has effectively been for Smith.
He was held out of the game in Denver and was expected to make some sort of debut against Kansas City. But the missed practice, spent running in the team’s sand pit for off-field work, raises a significant question about his potential readiness for Saturday, with the Bears waiting to see the state of his hamstring on Wednesday.
“There [was] just some tightness, so [sitting out is] more precautionary than anything,” Nagy said. “That’s exactly why we do what we do. If you put him in early and he’s not ready, then something like this happens where it gets worse. So we just want to be precautionary with it.”
Nagy said that had this been an in-season game week, the thought was that he could have practiced through the hamstring. But preparing for a preseason game that represents the only anticipated game action for the rookie linebacker before the regular season, the team wants the greatest chance that Smith will be operational by Saturday.
Smith identified game-level conditioning as the biggest hurdle for him to overcome heading into his first game. He worked out assiduously with strength coaches in Georgia during the contract negotiations, but “you work out and do all the running you can,” he said, “but it’s nothing like football shape.”
Smith is not the only significant member of the defense in particular who is unofficially “questionable” approaching the midpoint of a game week.
Linebacker Leonard Floyd, as expected, is not practicing after surgery to repair a fracture involving the fingers of his right hand. Defensive lineman Akiem Hicks was at Halas Hall on Tuesday but not practing on a balky knee that kept him out of the Broncos game. Linebacker Aaron Lynch remains out with a hamstring strain suffered in the first practice of training camp. 

Tight end Adam Shaheen, who left with a foot injury in the first quarter of the Denver game, is still not practicing and the Bears do not appear to be either clear on the precise degree of the problem or don’t want to get into it beyond identifying the injury as a sprain.
“With Adam yesterday, he went ahead and got his ankle looked at it, and we ended up seeing there’s a little bit more to it with his foot,” Nagy said. “We’re kind of trying to figure out exactly where he’s at right now. We’re probably going to get it looked at, a second-opinion type deal. And that’s kind of where we’re at with him.”

Report: Bears won't have shot at Khalil Mack yet

Report: Bears won't have shot at Khalil Mack yet

Bears fans looking for a blockbuster trade might not want to get their hopes up.

With Oakland Raiders outside linebacker Khalil Mack continuing his holdout, speculation has run rampant about a team like Chicago acquiring the star pass-rusher.

Early indications are, he’s not going anywhere.

Albert Breer from the MMQB reported Monday that “inquiries about Mack’s availability from other NFL outposts have been quickly met with a no.”

This doesn’t mean that the Raiders couldn’t change their mind at some point, but for now, Mack appears to be off the market.

Any potential deal for the 2016 Defensive Play of the Year would require massive compensation, likely a first-round pick and more. The team that trades for him also has to give him a long-term contract extension, which could cost upward of $20 million per season.

Still, the Bears remain among the favorites for Mack’s potential destination because of their available cap space and lack of proven pass-rushers.

The longer the holdout goes, the more pressure Oakland may feel to make a move with their Pro-Bowl edge rusher. When the trade deadline rolls around at the end of October, the Raiders could be more likely to pick up the phone.