Bears

Which undrafted free agents have the best chance of sticking with the Bears?

Which undrafted free agents have the best chance of sticking with the Bears?

The Bears have had a good amount of success mining the undrafted free agent market in Ryan Pace’s tenure as general manager, which is noteworthy after the team announced its 2019 21-member haul on Thursday. 

In the past, the Bears unearthed Bryce Callahan, who developed into a key contributor on the league’s best defense in 2018 and signed a three-year, $21 million deal with the Denver Broncos earlier this year. Also part of the Bears’ 2015 class of undrafted free agents was wide receiver Cameron Meredith, who led the team in receiving yards in 2016 but had his Bears career cut short by a severe knee injury during 2017’s preseason. Defensive end Roy Robertson-Harris was signed in 2016 and, after a year on the illness/non-football injury list, emerged as a productive rotational piece on the Bears’ defensive line. 

Those are three standouts; depth pieces in tight end Ben Braunecker (2016), outside linebacker Isaiah Irving (2017) and cornerback Kevin Toliver II (2018) have stuck on the roster after being undrafted as well. 

No undrafted free agent — or late-round draft pick — is ever handed a roster spot. Those have to be earned, starting with rookie minicamp and extended through OTAs, training camp and preseason games/practices. Even then, just because an undrafted free agent makes the initial cut doesn’t mean they’ll be on the Week 1 roster, with Pace and his front office scouring the waiver wire on cut-down day for potentially-better options. 

So it’ll be an uphill climb for all 21 of the undrafted free agents who will arrive at Halas Hall for rookie minicamp this weekend. At best, one or two of this bunch will have a chance to stick in Chicago after cut-down weekend. But there are a few players with better opportunities than others to make an impression, and then the Bears’ roster. A few names to keep an eye on:

Tight ends Dax Raymond, Ian Bunting and Ellis Richardson 

The Bears only have three tight ends on their roster after subtracting Daniel Brown in free agency and not drafting anyone last weekend, so there’s likely a need for at least another body or two on the practice squad, if not the roster. The pressing need here is insurance in case Adam Shaheen can’t stay healthy for the third consecutive year, which would leave a hole at the “Y” (in-line) spot. 

Based on traits and outside evaluations, Raymond has the most impressive profile, ranked by the Athletic’s Dane Brugler as the 14th best draft eligible tight end in this year’s class. The 6-foot-4, 255 pound Utah State alum is old for a rookie (24) but has the size and athleticism to potentially be a swing tight end in Matt Nagy’s offense, able to play both the in-line and move positions. 

The 6-foot-6, 247 pound Bunting could get a look at the “Y” spot and ranked 33rd on Brugler’s list. Richardson, a 6-foot-3, 240 pound prospect, played in a triple option offense at Georgia Southern, so his receiving numbers (10 catches, 81 yards in 2018) were low. 

Kicker John Baron II 

In reality, there’s not much separating Baron from Redford Jones, Chris Blewitt and Elliott Fry at the moment, in that none of them have ever kicked in the NFL. (Jones, Blewitt and Fry will be allowed to practice at rookie minicamp this weekend for that reason). Baron hit all five of his field goal attempts from 50 or more yards in 2018, and in his career at San Diego State hit both of his attempts from 50 or more yards when the score was within three points in the fourth quarter. 

The Bears also will bring in four other kickers on a tryout basis for this weekend, when we’ll get our first look at how Nagy and Pace’s unorthodox kicking competition will play out. The full roster of kickers who will be at Halas Hall this weekend: 

Wide receiver Emanuel Hall

The Mizzou speedster was surprisingly available in the pool of undrafted free agents after he expected to be a Day 2 pick, while other analysts had him as a solid mid-round target. A string of injuries that hobbled him throughout his college career — he only played in four games in 2018 — are likely the culprit, though it remains head-scratching that no team took a late-round flier on a guy with good productivity when healthy (56 receptions, 1,334 yards, 13 TDs in 14 games between 2017-2017) and blazing speed (4.39 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine). 

Hall will arrive in Lake Forest this weekend with the most buzz of any undrafted free agent, though he faces an uphill climb to earn a roster spot for two reasons. First, the Bears’ depth chart at receiver is locked into Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, Anthony Miller and Cordarrelle Patterson, and Riley Ridley wasn’t drafted in the fourth round to not make the team. That leaves, at best, one open spot for which Hall, Marvin Hall, Javon Wims and a handful of others will battle. 

The second reason for Hall’s uphill climb: How can he prove he’ll stay healthy in October when it’s only May? His best case would be to force his way onto the Bears’ roster with standout practices in May, June, July and August; if that fails, his goal may need to be putting enough good things on tape during preseason games to get snagged by another team with a more clear opening at receiver. 

Offensive linemen Alex Bars and Sam Mustipher

The hype about Bars being a fourth-round pick if he were healthy — he tore his ACL and MCL in September — is overblown, but he was a solid member of Notre Dame’s offensive lines over the last few years, initially starting his college career as a tackle before kicking inside to guard. 

Mustipher, meanwhile, was a reliable and durable center for the Irish from 2016-2018, though he was ranked as the 17th best player at his position by Brugler. But there’s a common denominator between Bars and Mustipher: Both were recruited and coached by current Bears offensive line coach Harry Hiestand at Notre Dame, who left his post in South Bend after the 2017 season to join Nagy’s staff. That doesn’t mean either will make the Bears’ roster, but the Hiestand effect makes it easy to see why both wanted to come to Chicago to give themselves a shot at a career in the NFL. 

Bars, in particular, could be an interesting talent to stash and develop on the practice squad for a year, especially if he’s not 100 percent recovered by training camp. 

Edge rushers Matt Betts, Dylan Carrol and Chuck Harris

The Bears should have a wide-open competition for roster spots behind Khalil Mack, Leonard Floyd and Aaron Lynch, which went to Irving and Kylie Fitts a year ago. But neither Irving nor Fitts has place on the 53-man roster locked down, opening up an opportunity for any of these undrafted free agents to stick with the Bears. 

Betts comes to Chicago from a college in Montreal, so how he handles the massive step up in competition will be the first thing the Bears will look for. At 6-foot-3, 254 pounds, though, Betts at the least has the size profile of the kind of player the Bears have coveted at outside linebacker. The same goes for Carroll, a 6-foot-4, 245 pounder from Division II Grand Valley State. 

Harris will come to Halas Hall with a fan of his already in his position group, having the Buffalo connection to Mack. That, of course, means little for his ability to make the roster, but he did have four sacks in five games for Buffalo in 2018. 

For everyone else

Like every other NFL team, the Bears will have rabid competition near the bottom of the depth chart during OTAs/minicamps/training camp. Just because there’s not a clear opening for a player right now doesn’t mean someone can’t make a name for himself in the coming months and stick on the Bears’ roster over someone with more name recognition. 

But given that only one or two of the 21 players brought into Halas Hall this weekend will make the Bears’ roster, at best, a difficult path awaits. 

3 things 2020 Bears will need to repeat 2018’s success

3 things 2020 Bears will need to repeat 2018’s success

The first two years of the Matt Nagy era can be boiled down to this: First, a tremendously fun year in which the Bears blew past expectations; and second, a tremendously un-fun year in which the Bears fell short of expectations.

So what will 2020 be closer to: The unbridled joy of 2018 (until the last kick of the wild card round), or the numbing disappointment of 2019 (despite still winning eight games)?

To answer that question, we should start by laying out some expectations for 2020. Broadly: The Bears should compete for a spot in an expanded seven-team playoff field. More narrowly: The Bears’ offense should be, at worst, league-average – about where it was in 2018. And the defense, led by a mauling pass rush, should be one of the best in the NFL even without Eddie Goldman.

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But how do the Bears get 2020 to feel more like 2018 than 2019? Here are three key factors:

The tight end question

Trey Burton did not miss a game in 2018’s regular season, and the Bears’ offense was better because of it. While Burton’s numbers weren’t eye-popping (54 catches, 569 yards, 6 TDs) his steadiness at the “U” tight end spot allowed the Bears’ offense to create mismatches, especially with Tarik Cohen.

Burton never was healthy last year, playing poorly in eight games before landing on injured reserve. The Bears didn’t have quality depth behind Burton, and the “Y” spot was a disaster. The lack of any good tight end play wasn’t the only reason why the Bears’ offense cratered in 2019, but it might’ve been the biggest reason.

The starting point to the Bears’ offense in 2020 is, certainly, figuring out who’s playing quarterback. But the Bears need Jimmy Graham, Cole Kmet and Demetrius Harris to be the fixes their tight end room sorely needs. Just average play from those guys will help the Bears’ offense be closer to what it was in 2018 (which, again, was merely good enough), if not better.

MORE: Where Cole Kmet stands as Bears get to know their rookies

And if the tight end room is a disaster again? It might not matter who starts at quarterback.

Good luck and/or good depth

The 2018 Bears were incredibly lucky in dodging significant injuries early on. Adam Shaheen began the year on IR but returned in November; Kyle Long went on IR after Week 8 and came back Week 17. Depth pieces like Sam Acho and Dion Sims were lost, sure, but the Bears did well to make their absences footnotes to the season.

Even when slot corner Bryce Callahan was injured in Week 14, veteran special teamer Sherrick McManis did incredibly well in his place. Eddie Jackson’s season-ending injury in Week 15 was the most costly, as the Bears missed him in that wild card game against Foles and the Eagles.

But overall, the Bears were both lucky in terms of staying healthy and good in terms of replacing those injured guys in 2018.

The Bears saw some depth shine in 2019 – specifically defensive lineman Nick Williams and inside linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski – but even still, the defense struggled to dominate without Hicks on the field. And the aforementioned tight end position was a disaster without a healthy Burton. Long never was right, and the offensive line without him (or veteran backup Ted Larsen) never was either. Taylor Gabriel’s off-and-on availability due to multiple concussions hampered the offense, too.

2020 inevitably will be a year of attrition not only for the Bears, but for the entire NFL. In addition to avoiding football injuries before and during the season, teams will have to avoid COVID-19 outbreaks in their facilities. Training and personal responsibility can go a long way in avoiding injuries and illness, but it’ll take a lot of luck, too, for teams to stay mostly healthy.

MORE: Fragility of 2020 season constantly on Bears players' minds

The teams with the best depth will have the best chance of making the playoffs. Will the Bears be among that group? Maybe. But a shortage of draft picks in recent years might be costly. We’ll see.

Betting on pressure

The Bears had one of the best defenses of the last decade in 2018 because of, first and foremost, outstanding coverage from its secondary. The ability of Fuller/Jackson/Callahan/Adrian Amos/Prince Amukamara to disguise their coverages confused most opposing offenses, who by the way also had to deal with Hicks pushing the pocket and Mack marauding off the edge. Hicks and Goldman opened up gaps for Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith to snuff out any attempt at establishing the run. It was a perfect formula.

The 2019 Bears’ defense took a step back not only because Vic Fangio (and defensive backs coach Ed Donatell) left for Denver, but because of player attrition, too. Last year’s defense was good, but not great.

The formula for the 2020 Bears’ defense won’t be the same as it was in 2018, though. The signing of Robert Quinn, coupled with jettisoning Leonard Floyd, hints at a defense predicated on a dominant pass rush. Holes in the secondary were addressed on the cheap, be it with Jaylon Johnson or Tashaun Gipson.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. A trio of Mack/Hicks/Quinn seems impossible to contain. If the Bears’ defense re-emerges as one of the best in the NFL, it’ll be because those three guys lead the way in putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks.  

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Mitch Trubisky, of course, was dubbed Bears' biggest liability in 2020

Mitch Trubisky, of course, was dubbed Bears' biggest liability in 2020

Mitch Trubisky's tenure in Chicago since being the second overall pick of the 2017 NFL draft hasn't been great. It hasn't been terrible, either. It's been a blend of good and bad which has led to an incomplete picture of who he is as a quarterback entering his fourth year in the league. It's the main reason why the Bears traded for Nick Foles; Trubisky can't be trusted (yet) to be the unquestioned starter for a team that on paper has playoff potential.

The fact that Trubisky can't be trusted contributes to the narrative that he's the team's biggest liability. Even if he wins the Bears' quarterback competition, will he really have the unconditional confidence of his coaches and teammates? Will Bears fans have the kind of faith in Trubisky that fans of other contenders have in their quarterbacks? Probably not. There's no reason why they should. Trubisky hasn't been consistent enough through nearly three seasons as a starter to deserve that level of trust.

According to a recent breakdown of every team's biggest liability, it was Trubisky, of course, who took the title for the Bears.

If new Chicago Bears quarterback Nick Foles can beat out Mitchell Trubisky and play well in 2020, the Bears might be a playoff team. If he cannot, Chicago might be looking at a lost season.

While the Bears roster is very talented, Trubisky has been anything but a steady presence under center. He has struggled to push the ball down the field—he averaged just 6.1 yards per attempt in 2019—and has limited what head coach Matt Nagy is able—or perhaps, willing—to do on offense.

Chicago ranked 29th in passing yardage last year and declined Trubisky's fifth-year option this offseason.

If the Bears are again one-dimensional, they're going to find it difficult to be relevant in the tough NFC North.

I ran a poll on Twitter that asked Bears fans who they prefer as the starting quarterback with just over one month to go before the season kicks off. The results were predictably close, but the nod went to Foles (56%). It feels safe to assume a big reason why fans hope Foles ends up QB1 is because of his proven track record in big moments. Even if he's a boring player with a limited regular-season ceiling, he has ice in his veins during the game's biggest moments. He's steady. He's consistent. He's pretty much the anti-Trubisky.

Is it fair to say Trubisky is a liability? Of course, it is. If he fails, the Bears will be set back for several seasons. Even if Foles salvages the team's short-term outlook, the long-term success of the franchise depends on Trubisky living up to his scouting report and becoming a franchise quarterback. And there just isn't enough evidence to prove he's capable of doing that.

If we don't know by now whether Trubisky can turn the corner and be a top-tier starting quarterback in the NFL, it's probably safe to say he can't. 

 

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