With time running out, Bears still need answers in kicking battle

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With time running out, Bears still need answers in kicking battle

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — With time expiring at the end of the first half of the Bears’ preseason game against the New York Giants, Javon Wims hauled in an impressive 29-yard snag from Chase Daniel. The play moved the Bears from the Giants’ 38-yard line to the 12. 

It was the kind of play that’ll help cement Wims’ case to make the Bears’ 53-man roster — and also the kind of play the Bears might not call in the regular season, given the pass was caught in bounds and Chase Daniel spiked the ball with just one second remaining. Consider it an important “test” play, though, for seeing how close Matt Nagy can cut it without any timeouts with the clock running at the end of a half. After the game, Nagy said he was pleased with how testing that play — which the Bears have done in practice — translated to success in a game. 

But that success meant Eddy Pineiro would attempt only a chip shot with time expiring instead of what would’ve been a 56-yard try. 

“I was itching for a far one, to be honest with you,” Pineiro, who made his 27-yard try, said with a grin. 

Nagy, though, said he doesn’t view a short kick any different than a long kick so long as it goes through the uprights. 

“So every kick they get, it’s going to count and these preseason games carry some weight,” Nagy said. “Wherever it’s at, I don’t care. Just make the field goal.” 

Still: Making a 56-yard field goal could’ve helped Pineiro separate himself from not only Fry, but other kickers around the league who could be on the Bears’ radar. Every kicker is expected to make a 27-yarder. Showing an ability to make a kick as long as 56 yards could've been an important marker. 

“I was hoping we would get more kicks, more farther kicks but that’s just the way the preseason plays out,” Pineiro said. “Next game, maybe I get a long one, maybe you only get short ones. You just never know. That’s just part of the game.” 

Pineiro made a 41-yard field goal in the first quarter, which was a step in the right direction for a guy who missed from 48 in last week’s preseason opener. Elliott Fry, meanwhile, missed wide left on a 47-yard try in the second quarter — his only attempt of the game. 

While Fry did go on to make a PAT, he said it’s hard to not think about missing his only field goal try in one of the Bears’ four preseason games. 

“You’re trying to come back, I know you get an extra point and in the NFL that’s like a shorter field goal, a 33-yarder,” Fry said. “Still gotta hit those good, try to come back and make that but yeah, it’s definitely frustrating. But as a kicker that’s what you gotta do, you gotta move on and go to the next one.” 

The clock is very much ticking on the Bears’ kicking competition, with only five practices and two preseason games left to figure this thing out. Both Pineiro and Fry have had a good game and a bad game apiece — Pineiro is 3/4 without a PAT attempt, while Fry is 1/2 with two PAT makes. Each have made field goals in practice at, unofficially, a low-80’s clip. When general manager Ryan Pace said on FOX-32 prior to Friday’s game the kicking competition was "close," from what we’ve seen, it’s that way because neither Pineiro nor Fry has separated himself. 

The Bears were interested in acquiring Kaare Vedvik, the kicker/punter dealt from the Baltimore Ravens to Minnesota Vikings earlier this week. But the Bears probably weren’t in a position to beat the Vikings’ offer of a fifth-round draft pick; they do not have a first, third or fourth-round pick, and their fifth-round pick could reasonably be expected to be a few spots lower than that of the Vikings. 

Plus, dealing a fifth-round pick would mean the Bears would go into next year’s draft with two second-round picks and then selections in the sixth and seventh rounds (that could change if Jordan Howard meets certain performance requirements to turn the Philadelphia Eagles’ pick from a sixth-rounder to a fifth-rounder, though the Bears shouldn’t count on that happening).  

Additionally: Trading a fifth-round pick, when the team has found Adrian Amos, Howard and Bilal Nichols in that round, for a kicker who hasn’t played in a regular season game yet might be a little too aggressive, even for a need as glaring as the Bears have. As the Bears begin to pay guys like Cody Whitehair, Eddie Jackson and Mitch Trubisky more money in the coming years, hitting on more mid-round picks will be important to sustaining the success the team found in 2018. 

The Bears could wait and try to snag a kicker on waivers instead of trading a draft pick (or a player), but that may not be a sure thing. 

The kicker-starved New York Jets — who saw Chandler Cantanzaro retire and replacement Taylor Bertolet miss two PATs in a preseason game this week — have a higher waiver priority than the Bears. So do the Green Bay Packers, in case they aren’t comfortable with incumbent Mason Crosby or undrafted challenger Sam Ficken going into the season. The Packers were reportedly interested in Vedvik, too, before he was dealt to the Vikings. 

The Bears, then, may need to make a trade — instead of waiting for waivers — if they identify a kicker they believe can be a solution. Because right now, that solution hasn’t emerged on their roster with time running out between now and a decision needing to be made by Labor Day weekend. 

“There’s still two games left,” Pineiro said. “Anything could happen in the next two games.” 

Bears Free Agent Focus: Eric Ebron

Bears Free Agent Focus: Eric Ebron

Stop me if you've heard this one before: The Bears need a tight end.

It's a narrative that started bubbling since the middle of the 2019 regular season when it became apparent that neither Trey Burton nor Adam Shaheen was the answer at the position for the Bears. Coach Matt Nagy was forced to turn to undrafted rookie Jesper Horsted and little-known veteran J.P. Holtz to find production for his offense. It was a big problem for Nagy, whose system calls for a playmaking tight end like Travis Kelce to hit its maximum potential.

To be fair, there's only a few at that level (Kelce, George Kittle and Zach Ertz) in the league right now. But the Bears have to do their due diligence this offseason to try and find a 'lite' version of that guy. One player in free agency who has a resume of recent production as a pass-catcher to maybe be 'that guy' is Eric Ebron, who's coming off of a down year with the Colts.

Ebron appeared in just 11 games last season and finished with 31 catches for 375 yards and three touchdowns. It was a stark contrast from 2018 when he scored 13 touchdowns and was one of the NFL's best playmakers at the position.

RELATED: Bears Free Agent Focus: Case Keenum

The problem with Ebron as a viable target for Chicago is that his tenure in the league produced more seasons like 2019 than 2018, but his pedigree as a former top-10 pick with high-end athletic traits warrants at least a look for a possible one-year prove-it deal.

At 26 years old, Ebron still has a lot of good football left in his legs. His market value should come in lower than Burton's $8 million per season; according to Spotrac, Ebron's expected contract this offseason will pay him around $7.5 million per year. Compared to the likely cost for players like Austin Hooper (Falcons) and Hunter Henry (Chargers), Ebron will be a bargain.

Ryan Pace will be bargain shopping in March, and Ebron may end up on the discount rack after the first wave of free agency concludes. Teams will be hesitant to offer him the kind of multi-year deal he's going to seek, which will give the Bears a chance to swoop in and lure him with the prove-it theory. He's young enough to earn a lucrative contract in 2021 if he posts big-time numbers in 2020, which Nagy's offense will give him the chance to do if he stays healthy.

Even the worst version of Ebron is better than the best of what Chicago has on its roster right now. He should rank highly on their offseason wish list, assuming his market remains where it logically should.

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Bears Free Agent Focus: Case Keenum

Bears Free Agent Focus: Case Keenum

The Bears have been connected to all of the big-name free agent quarterbacks this offseason. General manager Ryan Pace is expected to add competition for the starting job in free agency or the 2020 NFL draft after incumbent and former second overall pick, Mitch Trubisky, regressed mightily in his third season last year.

But rather than focus on players like Tom Brady, Philip Rivers and even Marcus Mariota, it makes more sense to pay close attention to the next tier of free agent passers who could offer a potential upgrade from Trubisky while not necessarily creating shockwaves through Halas Hall upon signing.

One quarterback who fits that description perfectly is Case Keenum, the journeyman starter who's entering his 10th season in the league. 

Keenum is coming off of back-to-back forgettable seasons with the Broncos and Redskins, but it wasn't long ago when he was one of the better storylines in the NFL after leading the Vikings to 11 wins in 14 starts in 2017. He threw for 3,547 yards, 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions that year and earned himself a respectable two-year, $36 million contract with Denver in 2018. His tenure as a Bronco lasted just one season (he finished 2018 with a 6-10 record) and his time as the Redskins starter was short-lived in 2019. He started just eight games for Washington.

For his career, Keenum's completed 62.4% of his passes and has thrown 75 touchdowns compared to 47 interceptions.

Keenum's resume isn't overly impressive, which is why he's a great fit for what Pace should try to accomplish over the next two months. He has to find a competent starter who can take advantage of everything else the Bears have going for them (namely, a championship-caliber defense) and who can be aggressive enough on offense to score enough points to win the close games. Keenum proved in 2017 that he can do that, especially when he has a good supporting case around him.

Keenum also qualifies as a solid bridge quarterback in the event Trubisky crashes and burns in 2020. At 32 years old, he's young enough to keep the starting job for a couple of seasons while Chicago attempts to find a younger long-term answer under center. 

Last but not least, he's going to be cheap. He didn't have a good year in 2019, and he was making just $3.5 million with the Redskins. There will be a limited market for his services this March, which means the Bears should be able to land him at a backup's salary despite his starter's upside. And that matters, especially for a team that's trying to free up salary cap space for other positions of need along the offensive line and secondary.

Keenum won't move the needle much for Bears fans in March, but landing a player of his caliber could ultimately be the difference between the Bears missing the playoffs for the second consecutive season and making a deep playoff run.