Bears

Is the ‘not a winner’ label fair to DeShone Kizer?

Is the ‘not a winner’ label fair to DeShone Kizer?

DeShone Kizer has plenty of the traits desired by NFL scouts, like a strong arm and a 6-foot-4, 230 pound frame. What he doesn't have, though, is the label of being a "winner." It's the opposite for Kizer, who quarterbacked Notre Dame to a 4-8 record in 2016, the program's worst since that embarrassing 3-9 year under Charlie Weis a decade ago. 

Both Bears general manager Ryan Pace and coach John Fox have touted a quarterback's ability to elevate everyone around him, with Pace at the Combine specifically pointing to Drew Brees' success at Purdue. Kizer, then, doesn't check off that box.

But it's worth noting Kizer was a "winner" two years ago, when he was thrown into action seven quarters into the 2015 season and led Notre Dame within six points of a berth in the College Football Playoff. Kizer threw a last-second game-winning touchdown to Will Fuller at Virginia, led a furious comeback (that fell short on a failed two-point conversion) on the road in a rainstorm against national runner-up Clemson and scored what should've been a game-winning touchdown late against Stanford (only to have Brian VanGorder's defense blow it with under 40 seconds left). 

So how did Kizer go from being a "winner" one year to losing that label the next?

A point to note here is that 2015 Irish team had a bunch of players drafted in the first two days of the 2016 NFL Draft: Fuller and left tackle Ronnie Stanley were first-round picks, while center Nick Martin was a second-rounder and running back C.J. Prosise went in the third round. Kizer not only had less talent surrounding him in 2016, but most of those players he had to rely on were now inexperienced underclassmen. 

Notre Dame's offensive line and running game both regressed without the likes of Stanley, Martin and Prosise. That put more offensive responsibility on the passing game and Kizer, who was without six of his top seven targets from a year ago (the only returning one, Torii Hunter Jr., was sidelined for four games with various injuries). 

But Notre Dame's plummet wasn't just due to that talent drain on offense. Fired were VanGorder (four games into the season) and special teams coordinator Scott Booker (after the season) as both those units struggled do much of anything well. Two games in September were particularly egregious, with Kizer playing well in both but the Irish still conspiring to lose. 

In Week 1, Kizer threw for five touchdowns, ran for another and didn't turn the ball over in Notre Dame's 50-47 double-overtime loss at Texas. Kizer had a few chances to do more later in the game, but it's worth noting he was without Hunter, who left the game in the third quarter due to a concussion. Is it fair to assign "fault" to the guy who had to sub in and out with Malik Zaire in the first half and still had six total touchdowns and no turnovers? 

Twenty days later, Kizer threw for 381 yards with two touchdowns, one interception and one rushing score in Notre Dame's 38-35 home loss to Duke. After earning a quick 14-0 lead in the first quarter, Notre Dame allowed Duke's backup returner to run a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown. Duke ripped off touchdown plays of 25, 32 and 64 yards against a feeble Irish defense, with that 64-yarder coming less than a minute after Kizer pulled Notre Dame ahead midway through the fourth quarter. 

In those two games, though, had Notre Dame's defense and special teams merely been below average instead of a complete disaster, Kizer would've done more than enough to earn his team the two wins it needed to reach a bowl game. A 6-6 record hardly is good -- or acceptable in South Bend -- but it probably would've been more forgivable than the ugly stain of 4-8. 

Consider the records of the other four top quarterbacks' teams:

Clemson (DeShaun Watson): 13-1, national champs
North Carolina (Mitchell Trubisky): 8-5, lost Sun Bowl
Texas Tech (Patrick Mahomes): 5-7
Cal (Davis Webb): 5-7

The other side to this, though, is that Kizer and Notre Dame had a chance to win or tie late in the fourth quarter in seven games, with six losses (Texas, Michigan State, Duke, N.C. State, Stanford, Virginia Tech) and one win (Miami). No matter how little help Kizer had, he still had a chance to convert those opportunities and for the most part did not. 

Kizer never wavered in accepting responsibility for those losses during the season, and that message didn't change at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis last month. And it's one that should play well in draft rooms as teams decide whether or not Kizer, after a 4-8 season, is worth the investment of a first-round pick. 

"I just didn't make enough plays," Kizer said. "The ball's in my hand every play. It's my job at Notre Dame to put us in position to win games, to trust in the guys around me and develop the guys around me to make those plays with me."

Bears position battles: Do the Bears have enough talent at outside linebacker?

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USA Today Sports Images

Bears position battles: Do the Bears have enough talent at outside linebacker?

The Bears didn’t immediately know the severity of Leonard Floyd’s hand injury following Saturday’s 24-23 preseason win over the Denver Broncos, but merely the fact that it happened brought to the fore a concerning question. 

What do the Bears do without their ostensibly No. 1 pass rusher?

Last week, we wrote that Floyd is the most important member of the Bears’ defense in 2018, but for that to be the case, he has to be able to stay on the field. And that hasn’t been part of his resume — Floyd missed four games his rookie year due to concussions and six games last year thanks to freak knee injury. Not only do the Bears need Floyd to be productive, they need him to be healthy, too. 

The best-case for the Bears is that Floyd’s hand injury won’t lead him to miss any time once the regular season starts Sept. 9. But in the event Floyd does have to miss time, there’s a wide-open competition to see who will start next to Sam Acho in Green Bay. And that’s where we’ll start our review of where some key position battles stand after the Bears’ third preseason game:

1. Outside linebacker: Isaiah Irving vs. Kylie Fitts vs. Aaron Lynch vs. Kasim Edebali vs. Elijah Norris

Irving didn’t do much on Saturday, and neither did Fitts, who didn’t record a pressure or a sack on 16 pass rushing snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. 

Lynch didn’t play against the Broncos and hasn’t practiced since suffering a hamstring injury the first day of camp. The Bears took a one-year flier on Lynch back in March to see if reuniting him with Vic Fangio — his defensive coordinator his rookie year with the San Francisco 49ers — would nail a low-risk, high-reward type addition, but the injury issues that plagued him the last two years haven’t gone away. His Week 1 roster spot is hardly assured, and the Bears will have to see him at least practice, if not play, before they determine if he’s worth keeping on cut-down day. 

But that being said, this group of outside linebackers looks underwhelming. Irving has flashed at times, and so has Fitts, but neither has produced in the last two preseason games (Irving missed the Cincinnati game with an injury). 

Edebali could be a guy to watch in this battle, though. He had a sack on Saturday as well as a pressure and a tackle for a loss, and as recently as 2015 had five sacks with the New Orleans Saints. But the 29-year-old only played 102 defensive snaps last year with the Broncos and Lions and needed to try out to make the Bears back in May. Could he be a diamond in the rough? Sure. But counting on him, or Norris — an undrafted free agent — to be a significant part of this outside linebacker rotation could be dangerous. 

The Bears were already likely to be looking at acquiring another outside linebacker, either by trade or waiver claim, before Floyd’s injury. Depending on the severity of it, those efforts may have to be doubled. 

2. Center: Cody Whitehair vs. James Daniels

The Bears haven’t characterized this as a true competition yet, and until further notice remain committed to keeping Whitehair at center. A poor center-quarterback exchange that led to a safety on Saturday was the fault of Mitch Trubisky (“I just dropped it,” he said) and otherwise Whitehair’s snaps were not a problem. 

While the Bears may seem a little hard-headed regarding Whitehair sticking to center, this coaching staff is going to play the five best offensive linemen it has in Week 1. If Harry Hiestand believes his offensive line will be better off with Daniels at center and Whitehair at left guard, instead of Whitehair at center and Eric Kush/Earl Watford at left guard, then that’s how this thing will shake out. 

This coming week will be telling for the Bears’ Week 1 plans. If we see Daniels all of a sudden elevated to the first team offensive line, that’s probably the combination of five we’ll see rolled out in Green Bay. The Bears need to establish continuity up front, preferably by kickoff on Saturday. 

3. Defensive end: Jonathan Bullard vs. Roy Robertson-Harris vs. John Jenkins vs. Bilal Nichols vs. Nick Williams

With Akiem Hicks held out, all five of these players got some run with the first-team defense on Saturday. 

Robertson-Harris had another strong game, recording a sack on which he used his length and strength to stay with Broncos guard Ronald Leary and stretch his arm out to bring quarterback Case Keenum to the ground. He was credited with half a sack, too, and for what it’s worth he leads all defensive players with 3 1/2 preseason sacks and is second with six hurries. The impact he’s made this preseason has pushed him from being a rotational piece to, potentially, being a Week 1 starter. 

The Bears like Bullard’s steady play and his ability to play anywhere on the defensive line, and while Robertson-Harris could be in a position to start over him, he should play plenty this year. 

That leaves, likely, two open spots down the depth chart for the remaining three defensive linemen here (Jenkins, Nichols, Williams). Nichols has two sacks and three hurries, not that the fifth-round pick was ever really on a roster bubble, but that production has confirmed some of the things the Bears saw in him coming out of Delaware. Jenkins has played all over the place but would be a natural replacement for Eddie Goldman should something happen to the fourth-year nose tackle. That leaves Williams as, likely, the odd man out here if the Bears choose to keep six defensive linemen. 

4. Cornerback: Marcus Cooper vs. Doran Grant vs. Kevin Toliver II vs. Michael Joseph vs. John Franklin III

As things stand right now, four cornerbacks are locks for the Week 1 roster: Kyle Fuller, Prince Amukamara, Bryce Callahan and Sherrick McManis. LeBlanc is probably on the roster, and had a solid game Saturday despite fielding two punts inside the five-yard line (Nagy wasn’t too worried with that after the game, saying LeBlanc was only returning punts because of lack of bodies to do so). 

So that leaves, realistically, one spot open for five guys. It was worth noting Grant and Toliver were the first two cornerbacks to come in off the bench, and both got some reps against the Broncos’ first-team offense. Rookie wideout Courtland Sutton burned both of them, with Sutton drawing a pass interference foul near the goal line on Grant and then beating Toliver on a quick strike up the seam for a touchdown. 

Toliver, though, led the Bears in snaps played and gave up one yard after the three catches he allowed. Cooper didn’t play, while Joseph did and recorded six tackles. 

This is a battle that’ll likely come down to the last preseason game, or be pre-empted by a waiver wire transaction on cut-down weekend. The edge right now may be to Toliver, depending on how Ed Donatell and Vic Fangio grade his performance on Saturday. 

5. Wide receiver: Marlon Brown vs. Javon Wims vs. Bennie Fowler vs. Tanner Gentry vs. DeMarcus Ayers

It’s worth noting that Brown received plenty of work with the first-team offense on Saturday, though his only catch (a 30-yarder) came with Chase Daniel in the game. The 6-foot-5, 214 pound Brown does have some special teams experience in his career and caught seven touchdowns for the Baltimore Ravens as an undrafted rookie in 2013, but hasn’t played in the NFL since 2015. 

Wims still may have the upper hand in this group just based on him being a draft pick, but more than likely this spot will come down to who 1) Has the biggest upside as a receiver and 2) Can successfully contribute on special teams. Production on Saturday between Wims, Fowler and Gentry was relatively equal, while Ayers missed the game due to an injury. Like the cornerback battle, this will go down to the last week of preseason, most likely. 

With youth, pedigree and good fortune, Bears OL has rare opportunity to reach rare heights

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USA TODAY

With youth, pedigree and good fortune, Bears OL has rare opportunity to reach rare heights

As the Bears leave Denver and prepare for Kansas City, sorting through a couple of conundrums on the interior of their offensive line—James Daniels or Cody Whitehair at center? Best five?—a budding conclusion is this:
 
Mixed preseason numbers notwithstanding, the Bears stand on the brink of a potentially elite offensive line, in the hands of one of the most highly regarded coaches in the game.
 
It has not performed to “elite” yet, although not without traces of upside. A hyper-conservative run game that averaged 4.2 yards per carry in 2017, with defenses facing neither a pass offense nor subterfuge, is plodding to 3.8 ypc through three preseason games.
 
Mitch Trubisky was sacked once every 11.6 pass plays as a rookie; this preseason, he and Chase Daniel have fared a bit better, sacked once every 15.8 pass plays (No. 2 Daniel is included because his protection includes offensive linemen factoring into current deliberations). Against the Denver Broncos, albeit without rush leaders Bradley Chubb and Von Miller playing the entire game, Bears quarterbacks were sacked just twice in 44 pass plays, with a total of five hits. 
 
But consider a bigger picture, beyond one game or even one season:
 
Right guard Kyle Long turns 30 in December and the roster has zero offensive linemen currently older than 29 years of age. While the spotlight was on adding weapons around quarterback Mitch Trubisky, GM Ryan Pace was also continuing a methodology that included making sure the ONLY weapons around Trubisky are ones wearing the same uniform.
 
“It’s up to us to find the guys who want to work hard and have the right attitude about getting better,” said offensive line coach Harry Hiestand. “If you have that, we’ll overcome things like never being in a [three-point] stance or how to get leverage in the running game. We have guys who are tough enough to do it.”
 
And ones who will be around for awhile.
 
Four of the projected starting five are under some significant degree of contract control: Daniels, Long and left tackle Charles Leno are signed through 2021, Whitehair through 2019. Right tackle Bobby Massie becomes a free agent after this season but Rashaad Coward, a promising prospect at either guard or tackle after converting from defense this spring, does not hit unrestricted free agency until 2021, with the Bears holding future tender-offer options on the 23-year-old former nose tackle.
 
“[Defensive coordinator] Vic Fangio pointed out when I first got here that we’ve got a young guy [Coward] who really has some good traits about him as a football player,” Hiestand said. “He’s tough. He works his tail off. He’s learning on the job really well right now. Very positive growth.”
 
The overall situation is the result of some organizational commitment – if Daniels starts and Whitehair moves to center, the Bears will have a No. 1 (Long) and two No. 2’s as the three individuals closer to the football than anyone not named Trubisky.
 
And the result of luck – Leno was the 246th player taken in the 2014 draft, meaning that GM Phil Emery phoned in picks of Ego Ferguson, Will Sutton, Ka’Deem Carey and David Fales, plus a punter (Pat O’Donnell) before opting for Leno in the seventh round.
 
Maintaining perspective
 

A titanic offensive line is no solution by itself (besides the obvious fact that things dubbed as “titanic” can, you know, sink).
 
The Dallas Cowboys fielded an offensive line in 2015 that included No. 1’s Travis Frederick, Zack Martin and Tyron Smith, plus rookie La’El Collins, with a top-10 grade but undrafted over character concerns. That Cowboys team went 4-12.
 
With Frederick, Martin and Smith still in place (Collins was injured), the 2016 Cowboys 180’ed to 13-3 after they got the quarterback (Dak Prescott) and running back (Ezekiel Elliott) things addressed. In 2017, the line even added another No. 1 pick (Jonathan Cooper) but the Cowboys dipped to 9-7 after Elliott was suspended for six games and averaged a full yard per carry less than the year before, and Prescott more than tripled his interceptions (to 13 from 4).
 
Even elite protectors have their limits if the protectees don’t do enough with the protection.
 
Health is a critical, annual issue, but where injuries have thrown several recent offensive lines into chaos. The Bears started four different right guards in 2017; Whitehair started at a different spot each of the final three games.
 
“I think our biggest thing,” said Whitehair, “is playing together under one set of eyes, seeing the field together and playing together.”