Three keys and prediction: Bears vs. Lions

Three keys and prediction: Bears vs. Lions

1. Complete passes to open guys. While the Lions are allowing the fourth-fewest passing yards per game in the NFL (214.6), this isn’t a very good pass defense: They rank 30th in passing defense DVOA and have the third-worst coverage grade by Pro Football Focus. Six of the eight quarterbacks to face the Lions have had a passer rating of 108 or higher, including Russell Wilson, who had a perfect 158.3 rating while only throwing for 248 yards on Oct. 28. Wilson and Kirk Cousins both completed over 80 percent of their passes against this defense. And, on top of all this: Darius Slay, Detroit’s best cornerback, will miss Sunday’s game. Mitch Trubisky’s accuracy has waned in his last three games (54.5 percent), but he’ll need to connect with a group of receivers that should be running open for most of the afternoon. 
2. Pack your Kerryon. It’s not a coincidence that running back Kerryon Johnson’s three best games have come in Detroit’s three wins (16 carries/101 yards vs. New England, 12 carries/70 yards vs. Green Bay, 19 carries/158 yards at Miami). In Detroit’s last two games — which they’ve lost by a combined 29 points — Johnson has totaled 59 yards on 20 carries, though. With starting left guard T.J. Lang out on Sunday, this should be a good opportunity for Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman to own the interior and make the Lions one-dimensional. While Matthew Stafford has had success against the Bears in recent years, he was sacked 10 times last week and forcing him into third-and-longs should allow Khalil Mack and this pass rush to make an impact. 
3. Make plays when it counts. Stafford is 5-1 against the Bears since Vic Fangio became the team’s defensive coordinator, with some gaudy numbers behind it: 145/216 (67 percent), 1,675 yards (279.2 yards/game), 12 TDs, 5 INTs, 99.2 passer rating. And since he threw four picks against the Jets in Week 1, Stafford has largely been good, completing 69.6 percent of his passes with 13 touchdowns and only two interceptions. In the absence of turnovers or 10 sacks, the Bears need to succeed on third down and/or hold the Lions to field goals. The good news: Detroit is a middle-of-the-road offense on converting third downs (40 percent) and is among the league’s worst at turning red zone possessions into touchdowns (44.4 percent, fourth-worst). 
Prediction: Bears 27, Lions 16. The Bears’ defense is good enough to hold the Lions to a single touchdown and a few field goals, while the offense takes advantage of Slay’s absence and cruises to a comfortable win. 

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Here's how the Bears can fix their tight end problem in NFL free agency, draft

Here's how the Bears can fix their tight end problem in NFL free agency, draft

The Bears have to get better at tight end a year after their guys at that spot combined for 46 catches, 422 yards and two touchdowns — worse production than 12 individual tight ends had around the league in 2019 (yikes).

But how should Ryan Pace go about fixing the most glaring weakness, even more than quarterback, on his roster?

Presenting a three-part plan to beef up Clancy Barone's tight end room: 

1. Hang in with Mr. Hooper

The Falcons' Austin Hooper is the best fit for what the Bears need — he’s a highly productive receiver (146 catches, 1,447 yards, 10 TDs the last two years) who has the flexibility to play both the “U” (slot) and “Y” (in-line) tight end positions in Nagy’s offense. He’s never graded as a top-end blocker, but the Bears like what Demetrius Harris — who they signed earlier this month — can do in that space. 

Because of those qualities, and that he’s only 25, Hooper is going to get paid on the open market. Spotrac estimates a five-year contract worth about $50 million; it wouldn’t be surprising if he gets more than that. Either way, expect Hooper to wind up being the NFL’s top-paid tight end some time in mid-March. 

The Bears could make the money work on Hooper so long as they don’t enter some sort of ludicrous bidding war. A four- or five-year deal could be a bit backloaded to soften the cap hit in 2020, especially with Trey Burton still on the roster (more on that shortly). 

If Hooper’s price gets driven to the point where he’s not worth the money — like more than $12 million per year, perhaps — the Bears should train their focus on a guy willing to sign a shorter-term deal. Eric Ebron makes sense, even if he’s known for dropping too many passes. He’s more of a “U” who could be good Burton insurance, while someone like the 34-year-old Darren Fells could be a cheap option at the “Y.” 

This does not mean targeting someone like Hunter Henry or Tyler Eifert — players with varying levels of upside but significant durability concerns. 

The benefit of a free agent on a shorter contract is the Bears would improve their tight end room in 2020 while not needing a draft pick to be a major contributor immediately, instead viewing that guy as a cheap solution for 2021-2023. But Hooper is still the best option here so long as the price is right. 

2. Don’t count on Trey Burton, but don’t count him out. 

Burton’s contract is built to keep him in Chicago in 2020. The Bears would have to eat $7.5 million in dead cap while only saving a little over $1 million if they were to release him. That’s not worth it right now, even if Burton had a truly awful 2019. 

“Our hope is that we finally kinda solved the issue and that there’s an upward trajectory now with him,” Pace said of Burton’s offseason hip surgery. “That’s our hope.”

The Bears, though, should view whatever they get out of Burton as a bonus. He caught 54 passes for 569 yards and six touchdowns in 2018; even half of that would be valuable in 2020. 

Training camp, then, should essentially be a tryout for Burton. If he’s still not himself a year and a half after this injury business started just before wild card weekend, then the Bears could cut him. But that’s a move to be made in late August, not late February. 

And if Burton is healthy and looks like himself again? That’s great, and it wouldn’t be a problem to fit him with Hooper/Ebron/Harris/draft picks, etc. 

3. Draft a tight end, but don’t view him as *the* solution.

Expecting Cole Kmet or Brycen Hopkins or Adam Trautman to make an immediate, significant impact would be a foolish bet for a team that can’t afford to whiff on this position again in 2020. 

This is less a commentary on the NFL potential of those guys and more an argument based on history. Tight end is a hard position to play in Year 1, seeing as it requires a load of responsibilities and physical play rookies often struggle to carry.  

Over the last decade, there have been 29 tight ends picked in the first two rounds of an NFL draft. On average, those players’ numbers in their rookie years: 44 targets, 27 catches, 306 yards, three touchdowns. 

So Adam Shaheen’s rookie year (12 catches, 127 yards, three touchdowns) is far closer to the norm than Rob Gronkowski’s (42 catches, 546 yards, 10 touchdowns). 

That does not mean Pace shouldn’t draft a tight end. But it can’t be his only solution. 

The depth chart

At the Y:

1. Austin Hooper
2. Demetrius Harris
3. Ben Braunecker/JP Holtz

At the U:

1. Trey Burton
2. TBD draft pick
3. Ben Braunecker/Jesper Horsted

This means releasing Shaheen — which would save a little over $1 million in cap space — and letting Braunecker, Holtz and Horsted battle for one spot on the roster (Braunecker, too, could be released to free up some cap space). 

The Bears can win with that depth chart. It’ll require Pace pouring money and draft capital into a position in which he’s, well, already poured money (with Burton) and draft capital (with Shaheen). But a fix here would be a massive boon to Nagy's offense, and whoever winds up playing quarterback in 2020. 

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Under Center Podcast: What are the Bears looking for at the NFL Combine?

Under Center Podcast: What are the Bears looking for at the NFL Combine?

Bears GM Ryan Pace and head coach Matt Nagy spoke to the media live from the NFL Combine and talked as much as they could on solutions to the problems that plagued them this past season. Host Laurence Holmes is joined by NBCS Bears reporter JJ Stankevitz from the NFL Combine to discuss what the plans are for Mitch Trubisky and the quarterback position, and how the new CBA could affect what the Bears can do this offseason.

You can listen right here, or in the embedded player below. 

(1:30) - How were the Bears at the Combine
(4:53) - Ryan Pace on evaluating Matt Nagy
(8:28) - Matt Nagy talks about finding solutions to the Bears issues to the media
(15:30) - Ryan Pace continues to compare Mitch Trubisky to Drew Brees
(21:37) - Matt Nagy on what he needs Trubisky to get better at
(26:00) - Matt Nagy's coaching hires
(30:42) - Is Ryan Pace looking to replace Trubisky as the starter?
(34:20) - What are the Bears looking for in the draft?