Bears

Three questions for Bears OL: What kind of an impact will Harry Hiestand make?

Three questions for Bears OL: What kind of an impact will Harry Hiestand make?

Pre-camp depth chart
LT
1. Charles Leno
2. Bradley Sowell
3. Matt McCants

LG
1. Eric Kush
2. James Daniels
3. Jordan Morgan
4. Will Pericak

C
1. Cody Whitehair
2. James Daniels
3. Hroniss Grasu

RG
1. Kyle Long
2. Earl Watford
3. Brandon Greene
4. Jeremi Hall

RT
1. Bobby Massie
2. Bradley Sowell
3. Dejon Allen

1. Can Kyle Long get and stay healthy?

The expectation is that Long will be cleared to practice for the beginning of training camp, paving the way for him to be part of the Bears’ Week 1 starting lineup (Matt Nagy said in June that Long will be “good to go” for camp, for what it’s worth). Long has played less than 50 percent of the Bears’ offensive snaps in the last two years due to a string of injuries, and the 29-year-old underwent procedures on his shoulder, elbow and neck after his season ended. 

Long’s toughness isn’t in question — that he still started nine games last year despite never being 100 percent is a testament to that — but the Bears need him to play more for their offensive line to be at its best. Long’s health, and if he gets any planned rest days, will be a daily storyline in Bourbonnais. 

The good news, though, is Long already impressed his new offensive line coach during OTAs and minicamp despite not being able to do much on the field. 

“He really wants to be good,” Harry Hiestand said. “He’s fun to be around, he comes in the meeting room every day with a smile on his face, looking forward to working. He’s very interested in helping the other guys. I didn’t know that about him. But after I’ll say something, the meeting will break and they’ll be walking out to get a break and he’ll be like, you know what coach was talking about there to the young guys. So that part’s been really good about him.” 

2. Where will James Daniels wind up?

The snap assumption — pun intended — when the Bears drafted Daniels in the second round was that he’d play center and Cody Whitehair would shift over to left guard, where he played in college. But the Bears quickly quashed that theory, with Ryan Pace telling the media shortly after drafting Daniels that the Iowa product would begin his pro career practicing as a guard and cross-training at center. 

Daniels, indeed, worked at both positions during OTAs and minicamp, and trying to read any tea leaves from non-padded practices for offensive linemen can be a bit of a stretch. So we’ll get a good idea of where the Bears envision Daniels’ long-term position during training camp practices and then, more importantly, in preseason games. 

Wherever the 20-year-old Daniels winds up, though, the Bears are confident they added a solid piece to protect Mitch Trubisky and pave the way for Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen. 

“The benefit of having a guy like James Daniels, he’s versatile, he can play different positions,” Nagy said in May. “So (we’re) able to let him come in here and play guard and see what he can do, learn from the other guys, let Harry teach these guys the technique.”

3. Can Charles Leno keep growing under Harry Hiestand?

Pro Football Focus ranked Leno as the 15th best tackle in the NFL in 2017, while Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 rankings slotted him 20th among left tackles. Somewhere in that range probably seems right — Leno is a solid player but not among the best tackles in the league.

And here’s the thing: That’s fine. Leno’s four-year contract carries an average annual salary of $9.25 million, which ranks 16th among tackles. Ryan Pace believed in Leno’s upside when he signed him to that deal last August, and if Hiestand — who never coached a game without a future first-round pick at left tackle in six years at Notre Dame — can help Leno realize that potential, the Bears will have an absolute bargain at left tackle for years to come. 

“He’s going to push us,” Leno said. “He’s going to make sure we’re working every single day. Everybody’s coming to work every single day grinding, trying to get better at something, whether it’s putting your hands inside, or hands up, whatever it may be, you’re getting better at something. He’s pushing us to do that. so that just makes us better.”

Even if Leno doesn’t hit that upside and maintains being “solid” or “fine” or whatever you want to call it, that won’t necessarily be a deterrent to the Bears’ success. Ten of the top 20 tackles in Pro Football Focus’ rankings played for a team that didn’t make the playoffs in 2017 — and while, of course, having an elite left tackle is preferable, the Bears can still be competitive with Leno manning that position in 2018.

Postcard from Camp: Adam Shaheen's ankle injury puts a halt on the solid growth he's made this preseason

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Postcard from Camp: Adam Shaheen's ankle injury puts a halt on the solid growth he's made this preseason

Bears coach Matt Nagy wasn’t sure on Monday if Adam Shaheen’s right ankle sprain would keep him from playing Week 1 in Green Bay. If it does, though, it would represent the fourth consecutive regular season game the second-year tight end would miss dating back to last year. 

In a coincidental connection, too, it would mark the second straight year Shaheen wouldn’t be able to immediately build off a strong showing against the Cincinnati Bengals. Last December, Shaheen caught four of five targets for 44 yards with a touchdown in the Bears’ 33-7 win in Cincinnati; he caught all three of his targets for 53 yards against the Bengals in Aug. 9’s preseason game. 

Shaheen suffered a chest injury during that Bengals game last December and was inactive for the Bears’ final three games of the season. Coincidences aside, Shaheen’s ankle injury represents another speed bump in his developmental path, depending on the severity of it. 

But the good news, perhaps, is that Shaheen has made strides this training camp and preseason. We’ll look at one specific play against the Bengals that stands out below. 

To set it up: Earlier this month, Shaheen talked about how he’s improved at reading coverages and how that’s helped him improve as a route runner. That’s something that has come with experience as he enters Year 2 in the NFL. 

“It’s a big part of this offense as a receiver, recognize the coverage and where you need to be,” Shaheen said. “How you get there is everything.

“… There’s a little more not-so-much focus on, like, a perfect square cut. It’s more, like I said earlier, against this coverage you need to be in that hole at the right time. You might just be in that hole just pulling a defender another way to open up your teammate. That’s a big part.”

That growing savviness was on display in Cincinnati on Aug. 9. Specifically, this play:

Shaheen runs a drag over the middle on third-and-four but encounters linebacker Hardy Nickerson (red circle) standing in his way.

Instead of keeping strictly to the route and trying to run through or beneath Nickerson (yellow arrow), Shaheen faced up to the Bengals’ linebacker, did an inside-out juke move and goes to Nickerson's outside shoulder (blue arrow).

Shaheen is then able to use his strength and athleticism to gain leverage on Nickerson and work his way into the open field. 

The whole play took all of two seconds to develop, and by the time Chase Daniel releases the ball, Shaheen has a step on Nickerson. The result is not just a first down, but a 29-yard completion. 

“Some routes are locked in, and other ones we’ve got a little wiggle room to work,” Shaheen said. “Those ones are obviously very good to see a linebacker over there because you know you can really have an opportunity to get the ball and work him.”

Those little things will continue to grow Shaheen’s game with more experience. The potential is there for Shaheen to play a significant role in the Bears’ offense in 2018 — provided he’s healthy for the start of it. 

Construction and nature of Bears pass rush adds to potential impact of Leonard Floyd hand injury

Construction and nature of Bears pass rush adds to potential impact of Leonard Floyd hand injury

Measuring the impact and domino effect of Leonard Floyd’s fractured right hand suffered in the weekend win over the Denver Broncos is next to impossible at this juncture simply because what Floyd’s effectiveness will be in a cast isn’t remotely clear. Coach Matt Nagy noted Monday that players have functioned with a “club” for a hand but the Bears need more than Floyd just playing.

The injury, which required surgery, affects Floyd’s fingers, and irrespective of the specific injury, those requiring casting and club-like encasement have dramatically affected effectiveness in even the game’s top pass rushers: Clay Matthews in Green Bay (2013); Jason Pierre-Paul with the Giants (2015); J.J. Watt in Houston (2016).

Nagy used the word “relief” in talking about Floyd’s situation; good word choice. Because the Bears have lost elite linebackers to season-ending thumb or wrist injuries (Bryan Cox, 1996; Brian Urlacher 2009).

But any diminishing of Floyd’s effectiveness projects to a potential catastrophe for a Bears defense wanting to start fast and help an offense that will be learning to stand fully upright through its first season under Nagy. Pass rushers, particularly speed rushers, need their hands. And fingers.

The reason is more than simply Floyd. It’s the construction of the Bears defense and its rush options. Because in the Bears’ case, numbers can obscure the true nature – and degree of vulnerability – of the Bears’ pass rush.

The defense posted 42 sacks in 2017, ranking an eminently respectable tied for seventh despite being without a single defender with more than Akiem Hicks’ 8-1/2, and better than Arizona (17th) with Chandler Jones (17 sacks), for example.

That is both good news and bad news.

The good news is that a top-10 defense was not based on one individual rush terror – a Matthews, Watt, Von Miller. Consider it a rush-by-committee, with Floyd, Hicks, Sam Acho, Pernell McPhee, Willie Young or any of more than a half-dozen threats capable of delivering one of the single most devastating defensive plays other than a takeaway.

But that is also the bad news. Because the Bears lost McPhee, Young, Lamarr Houston and the players who produced more than one-third (14-1/2) of the 42 sacks.

This is more than a simple headcount issue; it’s an integrated-whole problem. The Bears had so many potential impact rushers, their scheme was able to bring pressure from different places and players. The rush may not have had one elite pocket disruptor, but it did have quantity to the point where double-teaming any one created opportunities that non-elite rushers exploited.

Acho benefitted from Young benefitted from McPhee benefitted from Hicks benefitted from Floyd benefitted from... You get the idea.

The point is that no Bears rusher was, or now, is, capable of exerting consistent dominance by himself, as great pass rushers do. Dan Hampton benefitted from Richard Dent, but Hampton was a Pro Bowl rush threat before Dent arrived. Watt had 20 1/2 sacks in 2012, before the Texans drafted Jadeveon Clowney, and 20 1/2 in 2014 when Clowney only played four games.

The Bears situation is not necessarily a crisis; the whole being greater than the sum of the parts is by definition the antithesis of crisis. But the Bears lost a significant number of those parts. Liken it to the Bears having a great offensive line and losing a couple of starters: The remaining starters could the better members of the “great” group, but unless the lost players are replaced with talent equal to or greater than the losses, the chances of the group achieving anywhere near what it was when it had all its components are slim.

Hicks is coming off a career year. But the Bears did little to replace Houston, McPhee and Young, who contributed both to Floyd’s development and his production. Now the pass rusher drafted to be a linchpin of the Bears defense has a significant impairment.

So does the entire defense.