Bears

Where do the Bears stand at wide receiver heading into the second half of 2017?

Where do the Bears stand at wide receiver heading into the second half of 2017?

This will come as no surprise: The Bears are last in the NFL with 1,404 passing yards, and are second-to-last with 13 passing plays of 20 or more yards (only the Baltimore Ravens, with 10, have a lower total). 

Of the seven Bears players with double-digit targets, one is on injured reserve (Zach Miller, 35), one is on the Buffalo Bills (Deonte Thompson, 18) and one hasn’t been targeted since the last time the Bears played the Green Bay Packers (Josh Bellamy, 17). Two are running backs (Tarik Cohen, 39; Jordan Howard, 21), and then there’s one consistently-used receiver in that group (Kendall Wright, 34). 

So change is coming to this group of pass-catchers. And with it is a sort of budding confidence that the group hope pays off on Sunday against the Green Bay Packers. 

“It’s the most full-strength (group) that we’ve had so far,” wide receiver Tre McBride said. “And outside of Kevin (White) and Cam (Meredith) returning, this is as healthy as it’s going to get right here. So that’s good. That’s all we need. Obviously we love our boys and our teammates, but we’re confident that we can get it done with our group that’s playing right now.” 

A look at where these receivers stand heading into the second half of the season:

Dontrelle Inman

The 6-foot-3 Inman brings a size component to the Bears’ offense it hasn’t had since Meredith (6-foot-3) and White (also 6-foot-3) suffered season-ending injuries. Coaches have raved about Inman’s work ethic since arriving at Halas Hall two weeks ago — “he's the guy who is in my office at 6:30 in the morning and wanting to go through plays,” offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said — and he’s lined up to make his Bears debut Sunday against the Green Bay Packers. 

Inman averaged about six targets and 3 1/2 catches per game last year; those numbers will probably be lower in these final eight games of 2017 given the Bears probably won’t throw as much as the Chargers did. But if Inman quickly develops a chemistry with Mitchell Trubisky, he’ll be part of the mix to make an impact starting Sunday. 

Markus Wheaton

Wheaton was a full participant in practice on Thursday and looks set to play for the first time since he suffered a groin injury in practice in mid-October. 

“We’re trying to figure out still where exactly he is, what exactly he’s good at,” Loggains said. “We have to rely a lot on the 2015 tape when you evaluate him because he missed some time in 2016.”

Wheaton has the speed to be a deep play threat, but until he and Trubisky can link up for some big chunks of yardage, defenses may not respect what he can do. And Wheaton knows for Loggains to call for some of those deep shots, he needs to prove he can execute those plays. 

“We gotta keep attacking,” Wheaton said. “We gotta build confidence in them (coaches) upstairs to continue to attack. And that comes here, on the practice field every day, in the meeting room, watching film, we just gotta continue to grow as individuals and that’ll continue to carry over.” 

If Wheaton (or Inman, or anyone else) can execute some downfield plays, it will greatly help alleviate the pressure at the line of scrimmage faced by Howard, and in turn should lead to a decrease in negative runs for the Bears' offense. 

Tre McBride

McBride is coming off the best game of his career (three catches, 92 yards) and succeeded when he was schemed into open space via stack/bunch formations. He’s a player the Bears liked when they claimed him off waivers after cut-down day in early September but took a little while to assimilate into the offense. He and Trubisky had a good rapport against New Orleans, and McBride said he’s confident that chemistry will continue to grow going forward. 

“It’s reps — not even scripted practice reps, but real, live game reps where you got people flying at you trying to hurt you,” McBride said. “That is what’s going to bring the passing game together as a whole. A lot of it’s going to be done on the fly, and that’s just how it is, the profession that they pay us to do.” 

Kendall Wright

Wright is not only the most established receiver in this group, but he could stand to benefit the most from the addition of Inman, the return of Wheaton and the progress of McBride. It was tough for the Bears to get Wright — who is viewed primarily as a slot receiver — into games without a pair of reliable outside receivers, but if two of the Inman/Wheaton/McBride trio play well, it could lead to Wright being on the field more. That’d be good news for Trubisky, especially on third down, when Wright’s savvy ability to get open past the chains can come in handy. 

Josh Bellamy

Despite not being targeted in over a month, Bellamy plays a key role on special teams and is likely to be active on Sunday and beyond because of it. 

Tanner Gentry

Gentry may be the odd man out and wind up inactive against Green Bay assuming Inman and Wheaton are active. He’s played no fewer than 86 percent of the Bears’ offensive snaps in the three games he was active in October, but only has one catch on three targets in those games. 

As for the non-receivers in the Bears' passing game:

Dion Sims

Sims has missed back-to-back practices this week with an illness, which could put his status for Sunday in jeopardy. He hasn’t been much of a factor in the passing game this year, but did catch a touchdown against Baltimore and might be in line for an uptick in targets without Miller. Sims’ potential absence, though, will be felt mostly in the run game, to the point where coach John Fox floated the possibility an offensive lineman could line up at tight end some on Sunday. 

Daniel Brown

Brown may see the biggest increase in snaps with Miller out, given he best fits the injured tight end’s pass-catching mold. The Bears liked Brown’s pass-catching ability when they added him from the Ravens last year, and he caught 16 passes for 124 yards in six games in 2016. 

Adam Shaheen

While Shaheen hasn’t lived up to the second-round expectations placed on him this year, he can expect to play more than 50 percent of the Bears’ offensive snaps for the first time this year, especially if Sims is inactive Sunday. Even if Brown gets some more targets, Shaheen should too. 

Ben Braunecker

Braunecker contributed on special teams last year and should be in the mix to fill Brown’s role there after being promoted from the practice squad on Tuesday. 

Tarik Cohen

Cohen’s pass game usage declined from September (29 targets, 24 catches, 150 yards, 1 TD) to October (10 targets, four receptions, 89 yards), but the rookie said he doesn’t feel like he’s hit a wall. 

“I feel like I’m good,” Cohen said. “I’m refreshed. The bye week came at a perfect time. But even before the bye week I didn’t necessarily feel like I was getting sluggish or running into any type of wall.”

Opposing defensive coordinators quickly schemed to mute Cohen’s production after his explosive debut, but the Bears still can find ways to get the ball in his hands — like on his 70-yard reception against the Carolina Panthers. 

Jordan Howard

While Howard’s catch percentage is up from last year (58 percent in 2016, 67 percent in 2017), he’s dropped two likely touchdowns against Atlanta in Week 1 and New Orleans in Week 8. The next time one of those throws goes Howard’s way, they’ll need their best offensive player to catch the ball. 

Bears, Matt Nagy working at work-rest balance equation to pull back from annual injury abyss

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USA TODAY

Bears, Matt Nagy working at work-rest balance equation to pull back from annual injury abyss

The Bears are at rest right now. The weeks between the end of the final minicamp and the start of the “season” that runs from the start of training camp through the final game represent the last time most if not all players will be truly 100 percent until early 2019.

In not too many days the Bears will begin their training camp, upshifting the pace, depth and urgency of formation of the 2018 team. Along with that comes the annual dilemma, not unique to the Bears, of balancing practice and strength training to achieve the football maximum while simultaneously staying within a plan calculated to minimize what has become a Bears curse since the departure of the Lovie Smith staff:

Injuries.

Injuries not confined to camp and practices, but also to creating a landscape that results in minimizing injuries throughout the season. And it is a complex equation that the Bears are trying to balance, one that reaches beyond football and involves complicated factors.

Matt Nagy is putting a small fingerprint of his own, instituting an 8:15 a.m. start time for the vast majority of Bourbonnais practices, “to keep guys out of the heat for the most part,” Nagy said.

Practice limitations have been mandated by virtue of collective bargaining agreements. The quirk for the Bears has been that as practice intensity has been legislated downward, injury totals (using players on IR as an apples-to-apples measure) have risen. The debate then has gone to whether lessened practices in fact saves players or ironically results in more injuries in games because players have not been sufficiently hardened for the intensity spike that games are.

Along with that is the need to truly learn schemes and plays in live action.

“I think football is a game, like many games, that you have to get calloused to,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said during minicamp. “It’s like when we go out the first day of training camp with pads on, and guys are hitting a little bit. You’re going to be taken aback and get mad that the guy just hit you too hard. But then by a week or two later, you’re getting hit like that and don’t even realize it. You gotta get calloused.

“So I do believe, even though you couldn’t prove it objectively or quantify it, I do believe that it’s a problem.”

Do the Bears need to rest more?

Nagy has seen the value of rest. Andy Reid, the head coach when Nagy worked in Philadelphia and Kansas City, is a lofty 16-3 in games after off-weeks during his coaching career. Last year his Chiefs did lose a road game post-bye, but Reid was 4-0 in Kansas City’s other games coming off more than the normal six days between games.

Other than the Bears, the five teams with the greatest number of schedule-created off days in the 2017 season appeared to put the time to good use:

Team Off days 2017 record (*playoffs)
Kansas City 12 10-6*
Buffalo 8 9-7*
Chicago 8 5-11
San Diego 8 9-7
Philadelphia 7 13-3*

A case can be made that recovery days are often as important as the effort days, that athletes perform better after their bodies have had even a brief window to heal. Coaches, too. As one Tour de France cyclist told this writer, people go too hard on the easy days, so they don’t fully recover, and too easy on the hard days.

Two-a-day, padded full-go practices were once the norm. Now consecutive padded practices don’t happen in-season, and even in camp, the objective is not as it once was, to weed out, but to develop. “I think back in the day you could say that it was ‘super-hard,’” Nagy said. “Now I’m not sure you’d consider it ‘super-hard.’”

The correlation between rest and results is far from exact. Marc Trestman was adamant about players getting off their feet after practices, and yet few teams sustained the level of injury, particularly on defense, that his Bears did. Lovie Smith’s practices were in the heat of the days, camp and other, with occasional night practices as prep for night games.

Year Coach Camp practice Year-end IR
2012 Lovie Smith 2/2:30 p.m., 7 p.m. (three) 6
2013-14 Marc Trestman 9 a.m., 3:15 p.m. (three) 6, 10
2015-17 John Fox 9:35/11:15 a.m. 12, 21, 19

Apart from any empirical or other scientific information, anecdotal evidence suggests that rest is a significant factor in influencing outcomes. The most elementary casual indicator is the importance teams, coaches and players universally assign to in-season off-weeks. The break period is utilized for self-scouting, which is going on constantly anyway, but also for getting healthy.

If the cluster of a few days off (players are routinely given the off-weekend plus the preceding day or two to themselves) has some demonstrable physical benefits, then any structuring of normal weeks to build in recovery time stands to reason as a step toward healing during a 17-week stretch that leaves no one completely healthy.

But it’s not that simple, particularly in-season. “They’ll have off on Monday, then be back on Tuesday,” Nagy said. “And with the game-planning, you have to build that in, obviously.”

Positive offseason

At the risk of installing a jinx here, the Bears came through the offseason program without apparent severe injuries, and with key players (Leonard Floyd, Kyle Long, Allen Robinson) being brought along conservatively in their returns from ’17 season-ending injuries. At the same time, the requisite work was put in installing a new offense and reigniting a returning defense.

Training camp and preseason now are next-level intensity, and the Bears lost offensive linemen Eric Kush and Jordan Morgan, receiver Cam Meredith and long snapper Pat Scales in the time frame between the start of camp and the start of the regular season.

The objective moves to another level of managing the balance between preserving bodies for when it matters and getting done the work that has to be covered. Some of that was accomplished with some understandings of historical perspectives.

“I told the guys the analogy the other day, the history of training camp in the NFL where there was no such thing as OTA’s years ago,” Fangio said. “But years ago there were six preseason games and two-a-days for all that time. Then it went down to four preseason games and two-a-day’s. And when I say ‘two-a-days,’ they were two-a-days several days in a row.

“Now we’re to one-a-day’s with some legislated days off in there. These [offseason] practices are those practices that we’re missing that teams from the past had gotten. We view them as very, very important, and our guys have had good focus. So we’re working on the same stuff we always have, but I try to tell them that this isn’t an ‘OTA practice;’ this is a training camp for the guys of yesteryear without pads on.”

Tarik Cohen named to NFL.com's All-Under-25 Team

Tarik Cohen named to NFL.com's All-Under-25 Team

The Chicago Bears are entering 2018 with one of the best young backfields in the NFL. The combination of Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen will give defenses nightmares all season long, especially when both players are on the field at the same time. Howard brings a physical and grinding running style while Cohen can take it the distance from anywhere on the field.

Cohen's field-flipping ability makes him especially dangerous in the return game. He's so dangerous, in fact, that he was named to NFL.com's All-Under-25 Team as a returner.

Cohen contributed in every which way for the Bears in 2017, bringing an explosive element to Chicago's run game, pass game and return game. He finished in the top 10 in punt-return and kick-return average.

Cohen ended his rookie season with 87 carries for 370 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. He added 53 catches for 353 yards and one touchdown as a receiver. He gained 272 yards and a touchdown on punt returns and 583 more on kick returns, bringing his season totals to 1,583 all-purpose yards and four touchdowns.

First-year coach Matt Nagy has been smitten with Cohen since the offseason workouts began. He's expected to use the second-year back a lot more than John Fox and Dowell Loggains did in 2017 which should give the 'human joystick' even more opportunities to make the kind of plays that will make him one of the NFL's most feared offensive weapons.