Bears

Primetime, Thanksgiving games reportedly on tap for Bears' 2019 schedule

Primetime, Thanksgiving games reportedly on tap for Bears' 2019 schedule

While the NFL won’t release its 2019 schedule for another two months, Sports Business Journal reported a few noteworthy details on Monday for Bears fans dreaming of next season. 

Momentum continues to build for the Bears to open the 2019 season on Thursday night against the Green Bay Packers, a spot usually reserved for the defending Super Bowl champion. The NFL, per SBJ, wants to give the season opener to Chicago as both the Bears and the league celebrate their 100th anniversaries concurrently. If the Bears indeed get the Thursday night opener, it would be televised on NBC.

The Bears are lined up to play the Detroit Lions at Ford Field on Thanksgiving for the second consecutive year, per SBJ. Prior to last year’s 23-16 win over the Lions — which came on the quickest turnaround in NFL history following a Sunday Night Football game — the Bears hadn’t traveled to Detroit on Thanksgiving since 2014. 

The Bears, too, are likely to be in prime time plenty in 2019 as networks look to maximize on the team’s resurgence, talent and personalities. In addition to the teams always targeted for prime time based on their audience — the New England Patriots, Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers — networks are showing interest in the Bears, Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Rams for featured or prime time slots, per SBJ. The Bears play four of those teams in 2019: The Packers, Cowboys (at home), Chiefs (at home) and Rams (in Los Angeles), as well as a home date against the Philadelphia Eagles that could interest networks. 

The Bears are already locked into an October game in London against the Oakland Raiders, with WGN Radio’s Adam Hoge reporting that game is likely to take place at Wembley Stadium and not Tottenham Hotspur FC’s new stadium. Last season’s Philadelphia Eagles-Jacksonville Jaguars game was meant to be played at Spurs’ new stadium, but delays in its opening forced that game to Wembley a day before a critical Premier League match between Tottenham and Manchester City, leaving the field in horrendous condition

Bears grades and needs: Do Robinson, top WRs have another gear in 2019?

Bears grades and needs: Do Robinson, top WRs have another gear in 2019?

2018 Depth Chart

1. Allen Robinson
Usage: 13 games, 71.2 percent of offensive snaps
2019 status: $15 million cap hit

From a production standpoint, Robinson’s 94 targets, 55 receptions, 754 yards and four touchdowns aren’t eye-popping for a guy on a three-year, $42 million contract. But his averages weren’t all that far off from what he did in 2016. To compare:

2016: 12.1 yards/reception, 4.6 receptions/game, 55.2 yards/game, 48.3 catch percentage, 0.4 TDs/game

2018: 13.7 yards/reception, 4.2 receptions/game, 58 yards/game, 58.5 catch percentage, 0.3 TDs/game

Robinson did miss three games with groin and rib injuries, limiting his overall numbers. But if what he did in 2018 is the baseline for his time in Chicago, that’s not a bad thing — especially because there are reasons to believe Robinson can be even better in 2019. 

The No. 1 reason, which Robinson pointed out a day after the Bears’ season ended, is he’ll begin this year’s offseason program in April fully healthy, as opposed to a year ago when he was still rehabbing the torn ACL that ended his 2017 season in Week 1. 

“Just being able to go into OTAs and training camp and having that time period to be at 100 percent, to be able to condition myself for a whole season, just being able to prepare a lot better,” Robinson said. “Being able to not be just worried about getting back on the field and playing and running routes at about 60, 70, 80, 85 percent. Being able to do that at 100 percent and getting those 100 percent quality reps is going to be big.”

Robinson broke a franchise record with 143 receiving yards in the wild card loss to the Eagles, with the 33 yards he gained on consecutive catches getting the Bears into field goal range for Cody Parkey’s ill-fated double-doink. The connection he showed with Mitch Trubisky in a brief playoff appearance was encouraging, and expectations in 2019 should be high for a guy who doesn’t turn 26 until a few weeks before the season begins.  

2. Taylor Gabriel
Usage: 16 games, 77.2 percent of offensive snaps
2019 status: $6.5 million cap hit

Gabriel blew past his career highs in targets (93; previous high: 72), receptions (67; previous high: 36), yards (688; previous high: 621), catch percentage (72, previous high: 70) and offensive snaps (830; previous high: 61.2). Gabriel had six receptions of 30 or more yards, and flashed some impressive downfield ball skills on tough 40-plus yard grabs against the Dolphins (twice) and Vikings. 

Over half of Gabriel’s receptions on third down generated a first down, with the 5-foot-8, 165 pound receiver displaying strong hands and slick route running to become a favorite target of Trubisky’s when he needed to gain tough yardage. Gabriel’s catch percentage ranked 14th among qualified receivers in 2018. 

With opposing defenses often working to take away the deep ball from Trubisky’s arsenal, Gabriel didn't have a ton of downfield opportunities (he averaged a little under one target of 20 or more yards downfield per game, per PFF). He wasn’t able to do much after the catch, either — per NFL’s Next Gen Stats, he had the league’s third-worst difference in his average yards after the catch per reception (3.6) to his expected YAC per reception (5.1), though that number is likely skewed by some of the screens and short throws that required better blocking execution around him. 

Even if Gabriel’s statistical profile may not show it, he remains a speedy, versatile threat who Matt Nagy surely will try to do more things with in 2019. This is a guy nicknamed “Turbo,” after all. 

3. Anthony Miller
Usage: 15 games, 53.6 percent of offensive snaps, 9.2 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: $1,216,750 cap hit

Miller may miss some or all of OTAs and minicamp after undergoing offseason surgery to repair his shoulder, which separated twice during the season (including once while he was carrying an end-around against the Vikings in Week 17). Miller, though, wore a shoulder harness and battled his way through the season, playing in 15 games and leading the Bears with seven receiving touchdowns. 

Miller did disappear within the offense for a three-week stretch in December, only receiving three targets against the Giants, Rams and Packers. But that stretch didn’t change the team’s long-term outlook for the former second-round pick. 

“We probably overloaded him to some extent in the middle of the season because we, ‘Oh, my gosh, throw everything at him!’ And we kind of throttled that back a little bit,” offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich said in the midst of that December stretch. “People adjusted to him, you know. For a while it was, ‘Hey, let’s cover this guy. Or double this guy. Or what about this guy?’ So he’s been played a little bit differently but very, very excited about his future.”

4. Josh Bellamy 
Usage: 16 games, 29.9 percent of offensive snaps, 57.8 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: Unrestricted free agent

“Beezo” will hit free agency as one of the most popular, universally-respected players in the Bears’ locker room. He’s a core special teamer and has the flexibility to play all three receiver positions in Nagy’s offense. 

While Bellamy did mis-handle a Trubisky pass that led to an interception against the Patriots in October, he only had one other drop during the season, per PFF. He’s much better suited for the role he played in 2018 — fourth/fifth receiver, core special teamer — than having to be relied upon as a top-three receiver, which he had to be frequently during the John Fox era. His offensive usage rate in 2018 was the lowest in his four-year tenure with the Bears. 

That’s all to say it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Bears retain Bellamy in free agency next month. 

5. Kevin White
Usage: 9 games, 15.9 percent of offensive snaps, 1.2 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: Unrestricted free agent

White’s future with the Bears was sealed in Week 9, when he was among the inactives for a game against the Buffalo Bills in which Robinson (who, to be fair, played a different receiver position) was inactive as well. Nagy hoped having White focus on playing on position — he was the backup to Gabriel — would allow him to being to seize on the potential that led Ryan Pace to draft him seventh overall in 2015. That didn’t happen. 

White was healthy for the entire 2018 season, which was a positive, but was only targeted eight times. Some team will take a flier on him in free agency, but he’ll face an uphill battle to earn an active roster spot wherever he lands. 

6. Javon Wims
Usage: 4 games, 2.8 percent of offensive snaps, 1.2 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: $593,978 cap hit

Wims is an intriguing prospect with good size (6-foot-4, 215 pounds), good hands and good ball skills. Still, he wasn’t able to crack the Bears’ receiver rotation and was only active for one-quarter of the team’s games. 

Still, WIms likely left a positive impression on coaches with two tough catches on third down against the Vikings in Week 17. He’ll be given an opportunity to move up the depth chart during the offseason program and OTAs, but he’ll have to show improvement as a route runner to assure himself of a roster spot in 2019. 

7. Tanner Gentry
Usage: Practice squad
2019 status: Reserve/future contract

The Bears likely will bring in a few other receivers for camp competition with Wims and/or to replace White on the roster, with Gentry being a part of that competition. The Bears liked him enough to keep him on the practice squad all season and give him a reserve/future contract, but the 2017 training camp fan favorite has a long way to go to earn a roster spot. 

8. Cyril Grayson
Usage: Practice squad
2019 status: Reserve/future contract

Grayson actually has a fascinating background: He’s a former track star who ran a 4.33 40-yard dash at LSU’s pro day in 2017, landing him a contract with the Seahawks despite not playing a down of football since his senior year of high school in 2011. The Bears signed him to their practice squad in November and will keep him around as their roster swells for training camp. 

Level of need (1-11, with 11 being the highest): 3

The Bears have decisions to make on Bellamy and the depth behind Robinson/Gabriel/Miller. Drafting a receiver wouldn’t be out of the question if there’s someone scouts like, but this isn’t a position at which the Bears will spend much in free agency outside of retaining Bellamy and/or bringing in some cheap veteran competition for training camp. 

Previous units: QBs | RBs

Looking to upgrade RB, Bears have more options than draft alone

Looking to upgrade RB, Bears have more options than draft alone

If the 2018 offseason is any sort of indicator, the question before the Bears heading into the unofficial “start” of the offseason – the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis – is less which position group they upgrade – the surprise will be if running back is not priority No. 1 – but how they go about it.

By way of background perspective, first consider what was done last offseason in terms of starter-grade moves:
 
QB2          Chase Daniel
WR           3: Taylor Gabriel, Anthony Miller, Allen Robinson
TE             Trey Burton
OL             James Daniels
DL             Bilal Nichols
OLB          Khalil Mack
ILB            Roquan Smith.
And there was also the matter of head coach.

Missing from the list is the secondary, although the pricey re-signings of Prince Amukamara and Kyle Fuller more than count toward commitment to roster-building; and running back, although whispers around the NFL was that the Bears were open to dealing Jordan Howard, which obviously didn’t happen.

The Bears have operated with the requisite “best player available” philosophy in drafting and other personnel acquisitions. How they accomplish that at running back will be among the most closely watched roster efforts of this offseason.

Some options

With no draft choice currently before the third round, the roll call and mock workups coming out of the Combine will feature a spectrum of players rather than one or two, the way if has been with the Bears picking in the top-10 range in the last four drafts.

But GM Ryan Pace has been the picture of aggressive with draft choices, specifically dealing them en masse for deals the included moving up for quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, to a lesser extent for Leonard Floyd, and dramatically in the trade for Khalil Mack.

The trade possibility should be watched, once the draft begins, and before.

The Cleveland Browns struck dramatically with the signing of Kareem Hunt, which abruptly gave them a crowded backfield of starter-grade talent: Nick Chubb, 23, coming off averaging 5.2 ypc in his rookie season; and Duke Johnson, 25, never a full-time starter but who’s averaged 4.3 ypc in four seasons with a very bad football team.

But Pace hasn’t used his actual No. 3 the past two drafts, dealing away his 2017 and 2018 No. 3’s as part of the move for Trubisky. This time he has a No. 3, but the surprise would be if he uses it where it now sits.

Would the Browns part with Chubb or Johnson for a No. 3? How about for a 4 or 5?  

Moving up?

The biggest reason to stay tuned in the second round when the draft arrives is Pace’s willingness to target and trade up to go get a player. He did it with Floyd and Trubisky in first rounds. He did it for wideout Miller in last year’s draft, dipping into 2019 to do it in the form of giving this year’s second-rounder (plus a No. 4) to move up from No. 70 (third round) to 51 (second).

Maybe Pace had some idea what would play out last season and its effect on this next draft. The 2019 Bears No. 2, now belonging to New England, is way down at 24th in the round after the 12-4 season (and would’ve been even lower if Cody Parkey makes his last kick vs. Philadelphia).

The Bears’ first scheduled pick in round three happens to be the 24th pick of the round; not high. Pace stayed put in the third rounds of his first two drafts, taking Hroniss Grasu (2015) and Jonathan Bullard (2016).

Brad Biggs over at the Tribune did a nice workup of some prospects likely to be around late on day two when the Bears’ turn comes at some point in the mid rounds. These become relevant because Pace and his staff have established an aptitude for finding NFL talent at running back down in the draft:

2015, 4th round           Jeremy Langford, now with Atlanta after stops on the Ravens, Jets and Dolphins practice squads;
2016, 5th round           Howard;
2017, 4th round           Tarik Cohen.