Bears

Now that he has some weapons, Mitch-a-palooza can really start

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USA TODAY

Now that he has some weapons, Mitch-a-palooza can really start

Assessing or “grading” any team’s work in free agency is something of a cousin to doing that sort of critiquing of a draft class; opinions are easy but real substance only comes beginning sometime in September.

The reason is fairly obvious, not unlike the SEC’s required caution to investors, that “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.” Decisions are based on performance but after that… .

So any meaningful answer as to whether the Bears are a better team by virtue of their moves in free agency lies some months off.

And there’s one other really, really big “if” in all this – the one that matters more than any free-agency or draft pickup:

Mitch Trubisky.

The standard line through this offseason, going back to and including the arrivals of coach Matt Nagy and OC Mark Helfrich on top of retaining QB coach Dave Ragone, has been that a key component in the 2018 Bears mission statement has been to secure more of a supporting cast for Trubisky. That’s backwards.

The only way Trubisky was worth his GM trading up to ensure getting him with the No. 2 pick is if he makes THEM better, not vice versa.

These incoming players are basically upgrades of a woeful offensive unit and would’ve been made whether Trubisky, Jay Cutler or Mike Glennon were the starting Bears quarterback for 2018.

The point is Trubisky himself. GM Ryan Pace envisions greatness for Trubisky, meaning the kind of quarterback like a Brady, Brees, Favre, Rodgers, the kind of quarterback who turns average into good and good in great.

Allen Robinson may be the delayed fill for Alshon Jeffery, and Trey Burton may replace what the offense lost when Zach Miller went down. But those things only happen if Trubisky plays to his seed, becomes what Donovan McNabb did for the Eagles or what the four in the previous paragraph did for their franchises. Weapons don’t make the quarterback; the quarterback “makes” the weapons. That’s why they get $25 million a season and the weapons don’t.

The Bears are putting $14 million a year for three seasons into Allen Robinson on the strength of the wide receiver’s 2015 and 2016 seasons with a combined 153 receptions, 2,283 yards and 20 TD’s. The Jacksonville Jaguars were 3-13 and 5-11 in those two seasons. Jacksonville reached the AFC Championship in 2017 with quarterback Blake Bortles putting up career-bests in completion percentage, QBR and interception percentage. And a defense that was No. 1 in the AFC in points, yards and passer-rating allowed. And without Robinson for 15-1/2 games.

How much better in fact IS the Chicago offense with Burton, Robinson and slot receiver Taylor Gabriel?

Burton: As he did with Glennon, Akiem Hicks, Pernell McPhee, Markus Wheaton and others, Pace is going for “upside,” what that player could be that he hasn’t been before. Sometimes it works (Hicks); sometimes it doesn’t (Glennon, etal.).

Burton was never the No. 1 tight end with Philadelphia and played less than 30 percent of the offensive snaps over his last two and most productive Eagles years. Pace had to shore up the “move” tight end position and receiving capabilities at the TE spot with the loss of Miller and pedestrian production of Dion Sims. Burton was behind two very good Philadelphia tight ends in Brent Celek and Zach Ertz, and he wasn’t going to supplant Ertz or replace the just-released Celek, a physical blocker with 40 pounds on Burton.

What the Bears need is for Burton to follow the performance curve of Martellus Bennett, who, personality issues aside, became a force when he got out from behind Jason Witten in Dallas.

Right now, this is an upgrade from where the Bears were over the final eight games of 2017. But Miller caught 20 passes (not including the mistaken overturn of that final pass in New Orleans) in eight games. Burton caught 23 in 15 games last year. Miller averaged 11.5 yards per Bears catch; Burton averaged 9.6 over his last two Philadelphia seasons.

The Bears are counting on “upside” for their $32 million over four Burton years.

Gabriel: Gabriel is joining his third team in the last four years, being cut after his first two years in Cleveland by a Browns team coming off a 3-13 year in 2015 and was going to go 1-15. Playing for the NFL’s 2016 MVP in Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, Gabriel caught 35 passes and scored 6 of his 8 career touchdowns. Whether the Bears were outbid by the Miami Dolphins for former Kansas City slot receiver Albert Wilson or in fact wanted Gabriel more doesn’t matter in the rearview mirror. But Gabriel is presumed to add more explosiveness with the football than Wilson or Kendall Wright.

That explosiveness is what the Bears are investing considerably more than the $2 million they paid Wright in 2017. What they are banking on, again, is upside. Gabriel has averaged 33 catches over his four NFL seasons and 13.8 yards per catch. Wright caught 59 for the Bears last year but only one for a TD and his career average of 11.4 ypc isn’t likely going up at age 29.

Robinson: Potentially huge upgrade over everything the Bears tried at wide receiver in 2017. The qualifier: Robinson’s comeback from season-ending ACL surgery. That projects to roughly a 50-50 proposition, based on research of colleague JJ Stankevitz on wide receivers pre- and post-ACL injuries.

A second qualifier: The Bears never had a winning season over Jeffery’s final and best four Chicago seasons, in which he averaged 70 catches per season. Robinson averaged 67 receptions over his three good Jacksonville seasons. The Jaguars didn’t win then, either, because neither the Bears nor Jags got the quarterback situation where it needed to be.

***

Sometimes the free-agency marketplace imposes some quirky realities on the Bears and everyone else.

The Bears solidified their cornerback situation with the transition-tag’ing of Kyle Fuller and re-signing Prince Amukamara for $27 million over three years. But it means that the Bears approach 2018 with the same No. 1 corner pairing that they had for 2017, just with a combined price of $21 million vs. last year’s $10 million for the same players.

Whether they are the better with Amukamara at $9 million-per vs. Trumaine Johnson at a reported $15 million-per or Malcolm Butler at $12 million-per will play out in the fall.

Why Leonard Floyd is the key to the Bears' defensive success

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USA Today Sports Images

Why Leonard Floyd is the key to the Bears' defensive success

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — For all the attention heaped on Roquan Smith in the last 48 hours, he’s not the most important player to determining the success of the Bears’ defense in 2018. 

Rightly, the Bears feel good about their depth at inside linebacker, especially now that the No. 8 overall pick is in the mix. Smith, Danny Trevathan and Nick Kwiatkoski being at the top of the depth chart is solid at worst; John Timu is entering fourth year in Vic Fangio’s defense, and rookie Joel Iyiegbuniwe has some promise. 

This isn’t to diminish the importance of Smith, who represents the biggest (and, arguably, only major) addition to the Bears’ defense made in the 2018 offseason. But if you’re looking for the guy whose performance will be the most critical to the success of this defense, look toward the last Georgia product the Bears took with a top-10 pick. 

Given the upside of Leonard Floyd and where the Bears stand at outside linebacker three and a half weeks before the start of the regular season, that’s your guy. And over the last few weeks, Floyd has practiced and played better and better, providing an encouraging sign for a guy the Bears are betting big on this year. 

“He’s feeling more comfortable,” Trevathan said. “So I’m just happy with the direction he’s heading. It’s just going to make our defense better with Flo flying around.”

The Bears have seen flashes from Floyd in the past, but he’s yet to put together much in the way of consistency when it comes to affecting the quarterback. His 11 1/2 sacks in 1,118 career snaps come out to an average of one sack every, roughly, 102 snaps in 22 career games. For a guy that’s averaged 51 snaps per game his first two years in the league, that averages out to about one sack every two games. 

If you factor in quarterback hurries, of which he has 21 in two years, Floyd is affecting the quarterback once every 34 snaps. Pernell McPhee, who the Bears released earlier this year, averaged a sack or a hurry once every 24 snaps, abeit in a small sample size. Von Miller, who Floyd is sharing practice fields with this week, averaged a hurry or sack once every 26 snaps in the last two years over 1,828 snaps. 

These numbers don’t factor in a lot of things, like coverage assignments or flat-out statistical misses of hurries (for instance, Floyd wasn’t credited with a hurry in last week’s preseason game against the Cincinnati Bengals, despite his pressure on quarterback Andy Dalton forcing a throw Kyle Fuller picked off and ran back for a touchdown). But the overall point is this: The Bears need Floyd to put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks and be that double-digit-sack guy they envisioned when drafting him two years ago. 

Floyd isn’t putting that pressure on himself, though, and stuck to the usual one-day-at-a-time answer when asked how he achieves better consistency and what his goals are for the season. 

“Going out and practicing and just going as hard as you can, fixing your corrections and just continuing to be better every day,” Floyd said. 

If Floyd was a little reserved about his own expectations for the season, his teammates are more than willing to do the talking for him. 

“Even if he’s not flashy in the way you would want to see your outside linebacker flashing, he’s scaring offenses, you know what I’m saying?” defensive end Akiem Hicks, who tabbed Floyd as a Pro Bowl favorite as early as April, said. “So he already put that intimidation factor in there, and then to come up with the plays on top of that, the sky’s the limit for that guy. You just look at the body of work that he’s had as far as putting it in the past couple years, you’re waiting for that moment where he just takes over the league, and I think it’s this year.”

“He’s more disruptive,” Trevathan said. “I see a sense of him trying to create more big plays. Instead of just a sack, more to it. Sack/caused fumble. Getting the quarterback’s (vision). He’s guarding, dropping back. He’s doing everything that Flo is supposed to do even better now.”

Another positive point in Floyd’s favor is outside linebackers coach Brandon Staley seeing him talking more in meetings and growing more comfortable with his role and position on this defense. While Floyd isn’t going to be a vocal leader in that room — that role is ably filled by Sam Acho — his teammates are starting to notice his performances in practice. 

“I think our guys know that Leonard can do so many things for us,” Staley said. “They lean on him by his example — how he is in the practice field, how he is in the meetings. He's been doing a good job.”

But the most important point on Floyd may be this: The Bears bet big on him, and are betting big on him, based on how they addressed outside linebacker in the offseason. Aaron Lynch was brought in on a one-year, prove-it deal, but the injury issues that dogged him in San Francisco have returned during training camp (he’s only participated in one practice due to a hamstring injury). Acho was re-signed to a two-year deal, rewarding him for the stable play he’s provided over the last few years, but he’s only recorded four sacks in 47 games with the Bears. Ryan Pace waited until the sixth round before drafting an edge rusher, giving a flier to Kylie Fitts. Isaiah Irving, an undrafted rookie from a year ago, has flashed in a few preseason games dating back to last year but didn't record a sack in his 41 snaps on defense in 2017. 

Those moves screamed one thing: The Bears believe in Floyd, and believe if he has the kind of season they think he can have, they didn’t need a massive addition to their group of edge rushers. That doesn’t mean Pace won’t make a move for an edge rusher before or after cut-down day in September, but unless he were to pay an exorbitant price to trade for Khalil Mack, whoever is brought it won’t be viewed as the team’s No. 1 edge rushing option. 

That would be Floyd, who’s shown in the last few weeks that he’s past his season-ending knee injury from 2017. It’s now on the third-year player to make that leap in production and play a major role in the success of a Bears’ defense that, other than Smith, largely stood pat this spring. 

Under Center Podcast: Takeaways from the Bears’ joint practice in Denver

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AP

Under Center Podcast: Takeaways from the Bears’ joint practice in Denver

JJ Stankevitz and The Athletic’s Kevin Fishbain break down the Bears’ joint practice with the Denver Broncos on Wednesday, including how Roquan Smith looked, some encouraging signs for the offense and an enjoyable sequence of pass-rushing drills involving Von Miller.

Listen to the full Under Center Podcast right here: