Bears

What should be on Ryan Pace's offseason to-do list?

What should be on Ryan Pace's offseason to-do list?

For the first time as Bears general manager, Ryan Pace will enter an offseason with his team coming off a winning record. The Bears don’t have the kind of massive, glaring needs they did in years past. These next few months will be about improving an NFC North-winning roster, either shrewdly or boldly. 

But from this week, when preparations for the NFL Draft begin in earnest at the Senior Bowl, to a day before the regular season starts in September, Pace will still have an important to-do list to accomplish. The Bears’ resources will be limited — about $25 million in cap space after Dion Sims is released, and no first- or second-round picks.

Today, we’ll look at the biggest items on a list aimed at making sure the Bears not only retain their division title, but get over the hump and become a legitimate Super Bowl contender a year from now: 

1. Find a new kicker.

Cody Parkey missed 10 kicks in the regular season before his infamous double-doink put an end to the Bears’ first playoff appearance in eight years. His appearance on “TODAY” just five days after the Bears’ season ended made his release a matter of “when” and not “if.” 

Robbie Gould, whose critical missed field goals in 2015 sparked three years of sub-optimal placekicking in Chicago, will be a free agent. He and his family still live in the area, and he’s only missed three of his 85 field goal attempts since the Bears released him prior to the 2016 season. 

A reunion seems like a natural fit for both sides, even if the cost of signing Gould may not be ideal given Cody Parkey’s 2019 cap hit of a little over $4 million. But there would be no criticizing or second-guessing Pace if he brought back the 36-year-old Gould to replace Parkey. 

The San Francisco 49ers, though, could opt to place the franchise tag on Gould and keep him around for somewhere between $4 million to $5 million. If that happens, or Pace isn’t interested in spending that much on a kicker, or Gould doesn’t want to come back to Chicago, then the Bears’ best option would be to sign a free agent and bring in competition via a draft pick or undrafted free agent. 

The Jets’ Jason Myers (91.7 percent field goal success rate) and the Jaguars’ Josh Lambo (90.5 percent) may be the two best unrestricted free agent options, while the Buccaneers’ Cairo Santos (77.8 percent) and the Vikings’ Dan Bailey (75 percent) will also be available. We’ll say the Bears won’t be in the market for the Patriots’ Stephen Gostkowski, the Colts’ Adam Vinatieri or the Seahawks’ Sebastian Janikowski — if they’re going to spend, most likely it would be for Gould. 

WalterFootball.com ranks this year’s two best draft-eligible kickers as LSU’s Cole Tracy (87.9 percent in 2018) and Oklahoma’s Austin Seibert (89.5 percent in 2018), both of whom could require a mid-round pick to acquire, though (the Bears met with Tracy at the Senior Bowl, per Pro Football Weekly's Eric Edholm). Someone like Notre Dame’s Justin Yoon (80.8 percent in four years) could be an option as an undrafted free agent. 

2. Improve the personnel at running back. 

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported over the weekend that former Kansas City Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt, who was filmed shoving and kicking a woman and also is under investigation by the NFL for two other separate alleged violent incidents, could sign with a team sooner rather than later, with multiple teams interested in him. Neither Pace nor Matt Nagy, who was Hunt’s offensive coordinator in 2017, were willing to close the door on signing Hunt earlier this month. 

Hunt is on the commissioner’s exempt list and is expected to be suspended for six games or more when the NFL’s investigation concludes. If the NFL does not count Hunt’s missed time in 2018 — he didn’t play in the final five games of the season after the Chiefs cut him for not being truthful about the violent incident with a woman outside his Cleveland apartment captured on video and published by TMZ — he wouldn’t be eligible for the majority, perhaps all, of the first half of the 2019 season. 

So even if Pace were to sign Hunt — and the McCaskey family were to okay the move — he wouldn’t be guaranteed to be an immediate solution to the Bears’ problem. 

We know Tarik Cohen will be back as one of Nagy’s favorite, versatile, explosive weapons (Nagy bristled, twice, at the notion he didn’t try to get Cohen the ball enough in the Bears’ wild card loss to the Philadelphia Eagles). Jordan Howard’s future is less clear — he averaged about 16 carries and 58 yards per game (3.7 yards/carry) in 2018 while catching 20 passes for 145 yards. Credit Howard with greatly improving his hands in an attempt to better fit Nagy’s offense, but the Bears need a more dynamic pass-catching running back who can also be more consistently effective on the ground. 

That doesn’t mean the Bears will necessarily cut ties with Howard, who still has one year left on his cheap rookie contract. The Bears could try to trade him, but otherwise he’ll still be around for training camp, when he could be competing against a draft pick. 

It’s too simple to say it’s “easy” to find a running back in the mid-to-late rounds of the NFL Draft, though. Three of the top five rushing rookie running backs in 2018 were drafted in the first or second round (Saquon Barkley, Sony Michel, Kerryon Johnson) while the seven running backs taken in rounds 3-5 averaged 52 carries, 274 yards, 22 receptions and 129 yards in their respective rookie seasons. 

If the Bears are able to find the next Hunt or Alvin Kamara in the third round, they’ll take him. But the Bears aren’t going to be the only team looking for a versatile, explosive running back in the middle rounds of the draft. As Pace, Nagy and Bears scouts dive into potential targets at the Senior Bowl this week and then into the NFL Combine next month, they’ll certainly be looking to find that ideal scheme fit. And identifying, and then drafting, that player could be critical in helping unlock Mitch Trubisky’s complete potential in Nagy’s offense. 

But again, it’s not a given that player exists, and that the Bears will be able to draft him. 

3. See if a big-ticket player is available, and would be a fit. 

With a limited amount of cap space and no first-round picks to offer, the Bears’ options will be limited in looking to add impact players the way the Los Angeles Rams did a year ago — when they signed defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (on a one-year, $14 million deal) and traded for wide receiver Brandin Cooks (for a first-round pick), cornerback Aqib Talib (for a fifth-round pick) and cornerback Marcus Peters (for second, fourth- and sixth-round picks). 

Granted, the Rams had plenty of roster turnover after surprisingly winning the NFC West in 2017, losing wide receiver Sammy Watkins and cornerback Trumaine Johnson to free agency. The Bears made their big splash move when they traded two first-round picks to the Oakland Raiders for Khalil Mack, then signed him to the largest contract ever given to a defensive player. It’s, obviously, more than okay that the Bears cashed in their chips for Mack. 

It’s unlikely the Bears have the ability to make the best offer to the Pittsburgh Steelers for wide receiver Antonio Brown, who could be headed for a trade. Brown’s $22.165 million cap hit would be difficult to fit into a team that already has over $23 million tied up in wide receivers in 2019. Plus, Brown wouldn’t seem to fit a culture in which the head coach values “we” over “me.”

But different players become available for different reasons, and Pace has consistently shown to be aggressive when he identifies a player in whom he has conviction. As we learned with Mack, never discount Pace’s willingness and ability to strike when an opportunity presents itself. 

4. Figure out what to do with four key free agents (Bryce Callahan, Bobby Massie, Adrian Amos, Pat O’Donnell).

“You're either getting better or you're getting worse,” Pace said earlier this month. “We need to make sure we're getting better.”

Still, there’s something to be said for continuity if the situation calls for it. 

Callahan would seem the most likely top target to be retained. As a slot corner, Callahan played 64 percent of the Bears’ snaps in 2018 — and that was with missing the final three and a half games of the season. With most teams’ “base” defense becoming a nickel package, having a player of Callahan’s caliber is critical. The 27-year-old had two interceptions, five pass break-ups, two sacks and 13 total pressures, showing the kind of playmaking knack that fits in any coordinator’s scheme. 

But Callahan has been banged up in the four years since he broke through as an undrafted free agent with the Bears, missing those three games in 2018 and another four in 2017. The Bears will have a keen understanding of where he is in his recovery from his season-ending foot injury, and those health issues could drive his price down and allow Pace to confidently bring him back for a reasonable deal. 

Massie and Amos are trickier propositions. Massie played every non-garbage-time snap for the Bears in 2018 and was a critical part of a unit that ranked second by Pro Football Focus in pass blocking. No offensive line allowed fewer pressures than the Bears’ 117, and only the Baltimore Ravens’ offensive line was credited with fewer sacks than the Bears’ 11. Massie, though, was also part of an offensive line that wasn’t consistent enough in blocking for a lagging run game. 

But the Bears know what they have in Rashaad Coward, the converted defensive linemen who stuck on the active roster last season while learning how to play right tackle under the tutelage of Harry Hiestand. If the Bears feel like Coward is ready to compete for a starting job (after a year of going against Mack in practice), they could move on from Massie and draft a tackle, opening up a competition to see if they can get similar or better production while saving, perhaps, around $5 million in the process. 

We covered the Bears’ decision on Amos last week, but a loaded safety free agent market could knock his price tag down and allow the Bears to keep him on a deal that fits with their limited cap space budget. Alternatively, this year’s deep safety class could allow the Bears to target a veteran on a short-term deal while drafting someone to compete for playing time, and perhaps eventually take over that safety spot long-term. 

As for O’Donnell, he had a decent year punting — one with which special teams coordinator Chris Tabor seemed pleased — but his shanked punt that set up the Philadelphia Eagles’ go-ahead scoring drive may leave a bad taste in the Bears’ mouth. One bad punt won’t lose O’Donnell his job, but the Bears didn’t commit to him a year ago beyond a one-year, $1.5 million deal. Pace may look to go the undrafted free agent route to save cap space for more pressing needs. 

5. Improve depth across the board. 

Outside linebacker Aaron Lynch will become a free agent, and provided solid, important depth when he was healthy. But he was a Vic Fangio guy dating back to their days in San Francisco, and coupled with Sam Acho’s early season-ending pectoral injury the Bears were left to rely on Isaiah Irving and Kylie Fitts behind Mack and Leonard Floyd at times (including the Wild Card playoff game against the Eagles). There’s no such thing as too much edge rushing depth, and while the Bears could bring Acho back (perhaps on a restructured deal), they’ll need to address the depth chart behind Mack and Floyd via free agency and the draft. 

The same goes for cornerback. Undrafted free agent Kevin Toliver II has projectable length and athleticism, while Sherrick McManis played well while filling in for Callahan late in the season. Perhaps this depth can be addressed through Toliver, McManis and someone who was on the practice squad in 2018 (like local product Michael Joseph). But the Bears haven’t drafted a cornerback since taking Deiondre’ Hall in 2016, and even then, he was moved to safety. Bringing in some competition for Toliver via the draft would be a good play by Pace, as would adding a free agent or two to this group to add a veteran presence to what’ll shape up to be a training camp competition. 

The Bears look to have good depth at wide receiver, defensive line and inside linebacker, but Pace has shown a willingness to draft players based on conviction more than need. 

6. Hammer out an extension for Cody Whitehair. 

Whitehair was a late addition to the NFC Pro Bowl roster this week, and his durability, solid play and close relationship with Trubisky make him worthy of a contract extension. Whitehair was the only Bears player to play all 1,075 offensive snaps in 2018, and previously he played 99.8 and 97.6 percent of the Bears’ snaps in 2016 and 2017. 

According to Pro Football Focus, Whitehair was not responsible for allowing a sack or a quarterback hit in 2018, though his grade of 70.4 ranked 10th among centers, for what it’s worth. Perhaps a three or four-year deal with an average annual value of around $10 million would be fair for Whitehair, which would be a little more than what Justin Britt received from the Seattle Seahawks as his rookie contract was coming up two years ago. 

Whatever the Bears do with Whitehair will likely be the last thing Pace does before the season starts. The Bears announced Eddie Goldman’s contract extension two days before the 2018 season began, and signed Akiem Hicks and Charles Leno to extensions in the weeks leading up to the 2017 season. 

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Can the Bears' get a spark from a worse-than-expected schedule?

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USA Today

Can the Bears' get a spark from a worse-than-expected schedule?

Matt Nagy last week mentioned the upcoming stretch of the NFL season will see the league's good teams separate from the not-so-good teams. The Bears are 3-3; there’s a strong chance we’ll know for sure if this team is a viable playoff contender by the time they take off from LAX after playing the Rams in mid-November. 

Going a little further into the Bears' schedule, though, it doesn't look as difficult as it did before the season started:

The Los Angeles Chargers and Philadelphia Eagles are not the Super Bowl contenders many predicted they'd be two months ago. The Chargers are 2-5, while the 3-4 Eagles are dealing with a horrendous defense and a volatile locker room

Are the Detroit Lions good? They’ve been competitive, and were a few yards and a few atrocious officiating decisions away from beating legitimate Super Bowl contenders in the Kansas City Chiefs and Green Bay Packers. But they're a team trending toward separating to the bottom of the league. 

The Rams have been a mess recently, even with their blowout win over the full-fledged tire fire that is the 2019 Atlanta Falcons. The New York Giants? They’re not good, though they get Saquon Barkley back this week. And the Dallas Cowboys are less than two weeks removed from losing to the New York Jets. 

But aren’t those six teams looking at the Bears and saying “hey, they’re not as good as we thought” too?

Nagy believes one victory can be a spark, the kind of thing that could set off a 10-game winning streak — a belief based on his experience with the 2015 Kansas City Chiefs starting 1-5 before ripping off 11 wins in a row, including in the playoffs. 

But the Eagles or Rams or Chargers or Lions believe the same thing, and can reasonably view a worse-than-expected Bears team as an ideal opponent for that spark. Nagy is leaning on the culture built inside Halas Hall to make sure the Bears are the one to harness that energy, and not those other underperforming teams. 

The Bears can hope for that spark, but there’s also evidence the separation between 2019’s contenders and the Bears has already begun. 

The Bears are 18th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, ahead of two future opponents (the Chargers at 22, the Giants at 27) but behind the Eagles (15), Lions (13) and Rams (11). The Bears’ final four opponents are all currently ranked in the top six by DVOA: Dallas (4), Green Bay (5), Kansas City (3) and Minnesota (6). 

"There are a bunch of teams in the NFL going through struggles right now and the expectations are high because of everything we did last year," quarterback Mitch Trubisky said. "But reality is we’re in the same spot – 3-3 – we were in that spot last year." 

This is different than last year, when the Bears were in DVOA’s top 10 after a Week 7 loss to the New England Patriots dropped them to 3-3. That team had the luxury of facing teams that had already separated themselves into the non-contender pool in the New York Jets, Buffalo Bills and Lions. Their final four games came against a bad Giants team, a Packers team that’d just fired its coach, an even worse 49ers team and then a listless Vikings team. 

“Last year we were 3-3 and went 12-4,” wide receiver Taylor Gabriel said. “So that's just us thinking positive, going throughout this week, being positive, grinding and even working harder, I feel like we'll be OK.”

Maybe all the Bears need is to beat the Chargers and Eagles to jump-start this season and navigate an easier-than-expected schedule through the end of November. But maybe all the Chargers and Eagles need is to beat a worse-than-expected Bears team to jump-start their seasons, too. 

Because the time for separation is near in the NFL, and that may not be a good thing for the Bears. 

“The message that we’ve had is get tighter, believe in one another, keep trusting, right, and bond together and then when you get that one win, it just sparks,” Nagy said, snapping his fingers. “It’s crazy. It’s just absolutely crazy how that works. So we gotta do that.” 

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Top Bears Moments: 30-21

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NBC SPORTS CHICAGO

Top Bears Moments: 30-21

The Chicago Bears, one of the two remaining charter franchises of the National Football League, have put together an impressive century – nine NFL championships and a league-high 28 players inducted into the NFL’s Hall of Fame. Within that history have been signature moments spanning every era.

NBC Sports Chicago has identified the 100 greatest Bears moments, the “Hallowed Hundred” which are etched in memories throughout the history of the organization that started it all.

Some of those moments have been individual games with defining overall significance. Some have been specific plays within those games. And some of those moments have occurred away from any one game.

Pivotal games rate edges over individual performances. Fair or not, games since Thanksgiving Day 1934, the date of the first Bears game broadcast nationally, on NBC radio, and since the NFL crashed into national consciousness in 1958 with “The Greatest Game Ever Played” get a touch more weight simply because the Bears have been seen and heard more with the growth of football on the air. Put simply, games that are seen or heard are going to be arguably more memorable than ones only read about in the newspapers of the time.

30. Dennis Green’s rant (Oct. 16, 2006)

The anniversary of this epic rant just passed, and while the game itself will be addressed soon in this space, Denny Green’s meltdown at the podium after his Cardinals squandered a Monday night game against the Bears will be replayed for all eternity. Classic lines like, “The Bears are who we thought they were!”, and “If you wanna crown them, then crown their @$$!” are now cemented in Bears lore, and the entire rant was the perfect capper to a miraculous night in Phoenix.

29. Urlacher vs. Arizona Cardinals (Oct. 16, 2006)

More from the 2006 escape in the desert… Brian Urlacher played perhaps the best game of his Hall of Fame career that night at University of Phoenix Stadium. The official box score gives Urlacher 19 tackles, while the Bears credited him with 25, but regardless of whose stat-keeping you believe, Urlacher was an unstoppable force against the Cardinals. Whether it was flying around to stifle Edgerrin James and the run game or forcing a key fumble that was returned for a touchdown, Urlacher made this his signature effort as his defense single-handedly dragged the team back from a massive halftime deficit. Fittingly, highlights of this game were plentiful when #54 was inducted into Canton last summer.

28. 44-0 (Nov. 17, 1985)

The statement game of the legendary 1985 team. The Bears dealt the Cowboys & Mike Ditka’s mentor Tom Landry the worst defeat in their franchise’s history, winning in Dallas 44-0. The Cowboys, who entered the game at 7-3 and tied for first in the NFC East, did not advance the ball past the Bears’ 38-yard line and turned the ball over five times while suffering six sacks. The Bears’ first two touchdowns came off interception returns, and they rang up the easy victory to move to 11-0 and clinch the NFC Central division without QB Jim McMahon, who was recovering from shoulder tendinitis.

27. Halas outruns Jim Thorpe (Nov. 4, 1923)

Legendary founder George Halas is known more as a coach and founder of the league, but he had quite a few notable moments on the field as well. In the Bears’ 4th season and just the 2nd while known by that moniker, Halas got the best of the legendary Jim Thorpe on November 4, 1923 at what was then as Cubs Park, now better known as Wrigley Field. During a rainy game against the Oorang Indians, Halas picked up a Thorpe fumble and outraced Hall of Fame running back 98 yards for the game’s final touchdown in a 26-0 Bears win. The 98-yard return set an NFL record that would stand for 49 seasons until it was broken in 1972.

26. Hiring Matt Nagy (Jan. 8, 2018)

Coming off the rough Marc Trestman/John Fox period, the Bears badly needed to hit on their next head coach, and they appear to have with Matt Nagy. The former Kansas City offensive coordinator came over from the Andy Reid coaching tree, and immediately instilled a new sense of purpose and culture within Halas Hall. His first season went about as well as could possibly be expected, with his Bears finishing 12-4 and Nagy picking up Coach of the Year honors. The only blemish was the bitter end to the season in the Wild Card round against the Eagles, and while the 2019 season has not gone according to plan thus far, there’s no doubt that hiring Nagy helped shake the franchise out of its previous doldrums and pointed them toward better days.

25. Devin Hester’s Super Bowl KOR TD (Feb. 4, 2007)

One of the most electrifying moments not only in franchise history, but league annals as well. Hester returning Adam Vinatieri’s opening kick-off of Super Bowl 41 92 yards for a touchdown was the first such play to ever open a Super Bowl, and was the quickest score in the Super Bowl history until the Seahawks recorded a safety 12 seconds into Super Bowl 48. For the entire two weeks prior, pundits wondered whether Tony Dungy’s Colts would kick to the dangerous Hester at all, and Indianapolis paid for their decision to do so immediately. Fans will always have fond memories of Hester looking at himself on the video board as he crossed the goal line, but unfortunately the rest of the game did not go nearly as well, with Peyton Manning’s Colts emerging victorious, 29-17. 

24. The Fog Bowl (Dec. 31, 1988)

One of the most memorable sights in franchise history was a game where not much could be seen at all. In a Wild Card playoff game against the Eagles on New Year’s Eve 1988, a massive fog bank rolled over Soldier Field during the 2nd quarter, cutting visibility down to mere yards. Players couldn’t see the sidelines or first-down markers, and both fans and television cameras in the stands couldn’t see anything. The Bears won, 20-12, despite Eagles QB Randall Cunningham throwing for 407 yards. In an interesting subplot, the head coaching matchup featured Mike Ditka getting the best of his former defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, who left for the Eagles job after the Super Bowl 20 triumph.

23. The first NFL championship (Dec. 17, 1933).

During the back-and-forth NFL Championship game, the first such scheduled game in league history, the Bears were driving against the Giants with little time remaining. Down 21-16, Bears fullback Bronko Nagurski faked a run into the line, then threw a jump pass to Bill Hewitt, who ran before lateraling the football to Bill Karr, who scored the winning touchdown.

22. Bears keep Buddy Ryan (1982)

The architect of the ‘46’ defense was Neill Armstrong’s defensive coordinator when Armstrong was fired after the ’81 season and Mike Ditka was hired. The entire defense signed a letter to George Halas imploring him to keep Ryan on staff. Halas did, the defense reached epic heights and Ryan’s relationship with Ditka became the stuff of legend.

21. Walter Payton sets all-time rushing mark (Oct. 7, 1984)

In the weeks leading up to the 7th game of the 1984 season against the Saints, Walter Payton admitted he was feeling a lot of pressure as he approached Jim Brown’s all-time rushing yards record. That pressure dissipated in the third quarter when he finally surpassed Brown’s 12,312 yards, ending the day with an even 12,400 after his 154-yard effort against New Orleans. Payton ended his career with 16,726 rushing yards, and held the all-time record until Emmitt Smith broke it in October 2002. There are now ten men ahead of Brown on the all-time list, but Walter stands alone in 2nd, his legacy secure as one of the greatest rushers in league history.

If you’ve missed any of our previous installments, check them out below:

100-91    90-81    80-71    70-61    60-51    50-41    40-31

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