Bears

Khalil Mack appears set to play Sunday with Tom Brady, Patriots looming

Khalil Mack appears set to play Sunday with Tom Brady, Patriots looming

Khalil Mack appears in line to play Sunday with Tom Brady, Patriots looming

Khalil Mack participated in the Bears’ final practice of the week on Friday, clearing the way for the edge rusher to play Sunday against the New England Patriots. 

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported earlier Friday that the Bears expected Mack, who hasn’t missed a game in his career, to play after suffering an ankle injury early in Week 6’s 31-28 loss to the Miami Dolphins. Mack is officially questionable for Sunday’s game at Soldier Field. 

Mack had little interest in discussing his ankle with the media on Friday, passing on answering questions about his readiness for New England. Coach Matt Nagy, though, said he thought Mack “looked pretty good” during practice on Friday. 

Mack didn’t record a sack against Miami and was held to just one pressure, per Pro Football Focus. The Dolphins’ gameplan was to commit plenty of resources to stopping Mack, but he wasn’t effective even when he had one-on-one pass rushing opportunities as the game went on. 

“He was (affected),” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “I can't put a percentage on it, but he definitely was.”

Having Mack available — even if he’s not full strength — will be critical for the Bears’ defense to have a chance at keeping Tom Brady from lighting up the scoreboard. The key for the Bears will be to generate pressure on the 41-year-old quarterback without blitzing, which is something Fangio’s defense was successful at prior to Sunday’s wacky loss to the Dolphins. 

Brady’s passer rating is 138.4 when he’s blitzed, per Pro Football Focus, while when under pressure his rating is 87.2. That’s still pretty good, but it’s worth noting that all of the six interceptions he’s thrown this year have come when he hasn’t been blitzed. And only one of the eight sacks he’s taken has come when he’s been blitzed. 

The point being: If the Bears feel like they have to start blitzing to generate pressure, they can expect Brady to pick them apart.  

“You could say all of that but ultimately (Brady’s) a gamer,” Mack said. “He’s going to take those hits, and you gotta be able to deliver them but also have coverage over the top. It’s going to be real important for us.” 

The good news for the Bears, perhaps, is that New England’s tackles have struggled at times this year. Left tackle Trent Brown has allowed 17 pressures in 234 pass blocking snaps, per Pro Football Focus (about one in every 14 snaps). And starting right tackle Marcus Cannon is out with a concussion, giving way for backup La’Adrian Waddle, who’s allowed eight pressures in 78 pass blocking snaps (about one in every 10). 

So the opportunities will be there for Mack, Leonard Floyd, Akiem Hicks and the Bears’ pass rush to affect Brady on Sunday.

A bigger injury concern?

While cornerback Prince Amukamara (hamstring) was a full participant in Friday’s practice and will play Sunday, slot corner Bryce Callahan suffered an ankle injury during Thursday’s practice and did not participate Friday. He’s officially questionable for Sunday. 

Callahan “did his ankle,” Nagy said, toward the end of Thursday’s practice, and he felt worse as the day went on. Nagy characterized Callahan’s absence from Friday’s practice as “precautionary.”

Callahan’s availability may be more of a pressing concern than Mack’s, given how well the Patriots’ offense has played since slot receiver Julian Edelman returned from a four-game suspension to begin the season. While his numbers aren’t eye-popping (11 catches on 16 targets, 111 yards, 1 TD), New England’s offense has scored 38 and 43 points in his two games back. 

“Brady has always had a guy in the slot that he’s comfortable with; whether it be (Wes) Welker, (Danny) Amendola or Edelman,” Fangio said. “It’s a big part of their offense. They haven’t missed a beat, but I really think it’s helped their offense and played a big part in them basically averaging 40 points in the last three weeks. I really appreciate and respect how good of a player he is and has been.”

If Callahan isn’t available, Sherrick McManis could be the next man up at slot corner. 

Bears grades and needs: Is offensive line consistency a good thing?

Bears grades and needs: Is offensive line consistency a good thing?

2018 depth chart

Tackles

1. Charles Leno
Usage: 16 games, 99.3 percent of offensive snaps
2019 status: $8.9 million cap hit

Leno’s steady improvement since being picked in the seventh round of Phil Emery’s final draft continued in 2018, with the 27-year-old allowing 32 pressures on 634 pass blocking snaps — roughly in line with pressure rates of veterans like the Rams’ Andrew Whitworth and the Giants’ Nate Solder. Leno was solid as a run blocker, though as is the case with the rest of the line (and the coaching staff, and the running back unit) there’s room for improvement. 

His durability is important, too: The only snaps he missed in 2018 were in that season-ending win over the Minnesota Vikings, when Matt Nagy pulled a number of starters in the fourth quarter. The last time Leno didn’t play 100 percent of his team’s offense snaps in a game previous was Week 3 of the 2015 season. 

Meanwhile, Leno’s 2019 cap hit ranks 20th among left tackles, per Spotrac. The contract extension he signed prior to the 2017 season looked even better in 2018, as Leno continued to build on the upside he showed early in his career. 

2. Bobby Massie 
Usage: 16 games, 99.5 percent of offensive snaps
2019 status: $3.8 million cap hit

Only three tackles with over 1,000 snaps allowed fewer pressures than Massie — those being the Chiefs’ Mitchell Schwartz, the Seahawks’ Duane Brown and the Ravens’ Ronnie Stanley. That’s good company in which to be. 

Additionally, only four tackles with over 1,000 snaps committed fewer penalties than Massie’s four, and he allowed just one sack, two hits and 23 pressures, per Pro Football Focus. With that backdrop, Ryan Pace’s move to sign Massie to a contract extension looks smart — especially given how his contract is structured, keeping his cap hit low in 2019. With Leno and Massie together again, the Bears can move forward with confidence their tackles will keep Mitch Trubisky upright again this season. 

3. Bradley Sowell
Usage: 16 games, 4.7 percent of offensive snaps, 17.7 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: $1.8 million cap hit

Sowell fits well as a swing tackle who was used in a few different ways last year: As a sixth offensive lineman (30 snaps, one of which was on “Santa’s Sleigh”), as a fullback (eight snaps, all in Week 17 against the Vikings) and in the slot (one snap). The question for Pace, though: Do all those traits make him worth keeping in the face of a potential $1.5 million in cap savings by cutting him?

The answer is, probably, yes. Sowell played well in 2017 as both a guard and a tackle, and his athleticism does allow Nagy to do some outside-the-box things with him. But without much cap space available, perhaps Pace will roll the dice with an unproven backup for cheap. 

4. Rashaad Coward
Usage: 0 games
2019 status: Exclusive rights free agent

Coward had a trial by fire in 2018, when he had to learn how to play right tackle while largely lining up against Khalil Mack during mid-week practices at Halas Hall. He’s an intriguing prospect, one the Bears weren’t willing to risk losing by trying to sneak him onto the practice squad last year. Depending on the kind of growth he showed under the tutelage of Harry Hiestand, he could be back in a reserve role in 2019. 

5. Cornelius Lucas
Usage (with New Orleans Saints): 1 game, 5 percent of offensive snaps
2019 status: Reserve/future contract

Lucas is a five-year veteran who’s appeared in 37 games in his career, but only played in once in each of the last two seasons (lone starts with the Rams in 2017 and Saints in 2018). If the Bears were to part with Sowell, he’d have an opportunity to compete to be the team’s swing tackle this year. 

6. Dejon Allen
Usage: Practice squad
2019 status: Reserve/future contract

Allen spent 2018 on the Bears’ practice squad, and the 6-foot-3, 290 pound Hawaii alum will have a shot at sticking around as a practice squad player again in 2019. 

Guards

1. James Daniels
Usage: 16 games, 70.9 percent of offensive snaps
2019 status: $1,579,581 cap hit

Daniels steadily improved throughout his rookie season, and acquitted himself well as the Bears muted the impact Ndamukong Suh and Aaron Donald had on their 15-6 win over the Rams in December. His future looks bright as the Bears seem to move forward with Cody Whitehair as their center and Daniels locked in at left guard. 

“We like where he's headed,” offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich said last month. “He's a guy that again is kind of a quietly confident, he's naturally a quiet guy and the more you're around him, I think he just has that calmness. … We believe in him. It's not a situation where we are going 'Hey we have to turn this way or that way or the other.’ He's going to have some tough matchups and we expect him to win them."

2. Kyle Long
Usage: 8 games, 47.5 percent of offensive snaps
2019 status: $8.5 million cap hit

Long seems like a candidate to have his contract re-structured, as the Bears value his presence but also may not be keen on committing $8.5 million to a guard — and a guard who hasn’t played a full season since 2015. The Bears declined to pick up Josh Sitton's $8 million option a year ago, opting to replace him with a combination of Eric Kush and James Daniels. 

When healthy, Long is critical to the Bears’ success running the ball. The good news is he said on locker cleanout day he feels confident in his health — “no knives this offseason,” he quipped. “It’s gonna be pretty awesome. Jettisoning Long, too, would leave a significant hole in the right side of an offensive line that otherwise is returning all of its starters from 2018. How the Bears approach Long in the coming weeks and months will be an important storyline to follow. 

3. Bryan Witzmann
Usage: 10 games, 49.6 percent of offensive snaps, 10.1 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: Unrestricted free agent

Witzmann lent a steady hand in place of Long from Weeks 8-16, allowing only 16 pressures in 306 pass-blocking snaps, per Pro Football Focus. He didn’t allow a pressure against the Rams in Week 14, and the Bears’ offensive line didn’t fall apart after he swapped in for the injured Long. He played in all five of the Bears’ games in December, which represented Jordan Howard’s best stretch of the season, too. The Bears could do worse with a backup guard. 

4. Eric Kush 
Usage: 15 games, 32 percent of offensive snaps, 14.9 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: Unrestricted free agent

Kush began the season as the team’s starting left guard and struggled to run block consistently. He began rotating with Daniels in Week 4, then rotated with Witzmann in Week 9 and didn’t play an offensive snap after that. Based on that lack of usage, the Bears will likely move on from him this offseason. 

5. Willie Beavers
Usage: Practice squad
2019 status: Reserve/future contract

Beavers, a former fourth-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings in 2016, has bounced around practice squads over the last three years, including the Bears’ in 2018. 

Centers

1. Cody Whitehair
Usage: 16 games, 100 percent of offensive snaps
2019 status: $1,344,180 cap hit

The Bears will need to work out an extension for Whitehair, who played every single one of the Bears’ offensive snaps in 2018 and earned a trip to Orlando as a Pro Bowl alternate. His steady presence, ability to read opposing defenses and good relationship with Trubisky is important for the Bears’ offense. 

What Whitehair’s extension could look like will be interesting to see, presuming he indeed signs one sometime between the start of training camp and the beginning of the season. Perhaps something similar (and a little richer) than the three-year, $27 million extension signed by Seahawks center Justin Britt (a 2014 second-round pick) will be the starting point. 

2. James Daniels
Usage: 0 snaps at center

Daniels played 122 snaps at center during the preseason but didn’t play at all there during the regular season. He’ll likely remain the team’s backup center going forward, though. 

Level of need (1-11, with 11 being the highest): 5. Teams can always use quality offensive line depth, and the Bears will need to address their interior reserves, whether that means bringing back Witzmann or looking elsewhere. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Bears draft an offensive lineman, as Pace has done every year as the team’s GM (Hroniss Grasu and Tayo Fabuluje in 2015, Whitehair in 2016, Jordan Morgan in 2017 and Daniels in 2018). 

Level of need (1-11, with 11 being the highest): 5

Teams can always use quality offensive line depth, and the Bears will need to address their interior reserves, whether that means bringing back Witzmann or looking elsewhere. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Bears draft an offensive lineman, as Pace has done every year as the team’s GM (Hroniss Grasu and Tayo Fabuluje in 2015, Whitehair in 2016, Jordan Morgan in 2017 and Daniels in 2018).  

Previous needs & grades: QBs | RBs | WRs | TEs 

Under Center Podcast: What should the Bears aim to accomplish at the NFL Combine?

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USA TODAY

Under Center Podcast: What should the Bears aim to accomplish at the NFL Combine?

With the NFL Combine starting next week, JJ Stankevitz, Cam Ellis and Paul Aspan look at if the Bears should still focus their draft strategy on taking the best players available, or if needs at running back and/or kicker should supersede that.

Plus, the gang dives into what questions they want to hear answered from Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy next week and wonders if the thought of trading a draft pick for a running back is a good idea.

1:00: What questions do we want answered by Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy next week?

7:40: Do the Bears need to shift away from taking the best player available to drafting for need?

16:20: Robbie Gould is likely to get tagged by the 49ers. Now what?

20:45: Thoughts on trading a pick for a running back…like Cleveland’s Duke Johnson?

Listen to the full episode in the embedded player below:

Under Center Podcast

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