Bears

Who's the Bears' best option to replace Kyle Long at right guard?

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USA Today

Who's the Bears' best option to replace Kyle Long at right guard?

The Bears have three options on their roster to start on Sunday against the New Orleans Saints, the first game of — in all likelihood — the post-Kyle Long era in Chicago. Is a guy who’s only played 30 snaps as a guard in his pro or college career really the right choice?

Rashaad Coward may be new to the position, but the Bears like his athleticism, physical edge and work ethic he brings to the offense. Also in the conversation: 10-year veteran Ted Larsen and undrafted rookie Alex Bars. 

Coward has more immediate upside, but Larsen (who's officially questionable with a knee injury, though he practiced in full Friday) is more a you-know-what-you're-getting guy. Coward's upside, though, lies in the athleticism and physicality he showed in limited time against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 4.

“He’s a tough guy, he plays very, very hard,” offensive line coach Harry Hiestand said. “It’s super important to him, he’s very prideful, he’s very determined to keep his guy from making a play and that’s a big part of this.”

That Hiestand has actual game film on which to evaluate and teach Coward is important. And the Bears saw him do some good things in letting his raw talent take over against the Vikings. 

“Going into the game, I was like F it,” Coward said. “It is what it is. It’s either you do it or you don’t.”

Coward said on Monday he practiced with the No. 1 offense, and given Larsen was limited in Wednesday's and Thursday's practices, there's a decent chance Coward will start on Sunday. 

Larsen, though, is the kind of guy who could get the nod on Sunday without getting many reps during mid-week practices. 

Larsen suffered the injury in Week 4, which led to Coward entering the game, and he didn’t travel to London with the Bears in Week 5. But his veteran experience — he’s started 87 games in his career — and flexibility to play guard or center make him a trusted backup.

“I played a lot of football,” Larsen said. “I’m ready whenever they want to use me.”

There is a possibility the Bears rotate Larsen and Coward on a series-to-series basis, as the team did with a veteran (Eric Kush) and a greenhorn (James Daniels) at left guard last year. 

"It’s something that could definitely happen," Nagy said. "I’m not opposed to that. And then you can also balance and see, whether it’s Ted or Rashaad, how are they playing and we can get a feel for that during a game and we feel comfortable with both."

Bars is unlikely to factor this week but does have long-term upside. He turned down an opportunity to join the New England Patriots’ 53-man roster earlier this month because he saw a better opportunity in Chicago. That his college offensive line coach is now his pro offensive line coach certainly played into that decision, too.

Many thought Bars would be a mid-round draft pick prior to his final season at Notre Dame, but a torn ACL and MCL suffered last September knocked him down to being an undrafted free agent. The opportunity to link back up with Hiestand helped bring him to Chicago, where he played well during the preseason — but not well enough to make the Bears’ initial 53-man roster.

“The transition to this level coming off the injury was an adjustment I had to make, still making it every day,” Bars said. “I’m trying to improve and work against really, really good guys.” 

The Bears’ starting right guard for the rest of 2019 will hardly be settled by who starts against the Saints in Week 7. Coward may get the first crack, but if his inexperience overshadows his talent, the Bears may need to call on a safer option in Larsen. And that could open the door for Bars to start, too, if he proves to Hiestand behind the scenes he’s back on the track he was on prior to his collegiate injury.

Whoever plays, though, needs to be better than Long was over his four games prior to going on injured reserve. The Bears made that difficult decision in part to improve at right guard. It’s now on Coward — or Larsen, or Bars — to make good on that promise.

"Between the three of them I think it will be fun for us to kind of work through what decision, where we want to go with that," Nagy said. "And then whoever it is, let's go. There's no looking back."

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NFL and NFLPA reportedly making progress towards new labor agreement

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USA Today

NFL and NFLPA reportedly making progress towards new labor agreement

According to a report by Mark Maske of The Washington Post, the NFL and NFLPA “have made meaningful progress towards a new labor agreement.” 

There is plenty to unpack as negotiations progress, but the most significant tidbit from this news is that there is reportedly a real possibility the eventual agreement will expand the NFL’s regular season schedule to 17 games (while eliminating games from the preseason).

Such an agreement would represent a compromise between the league and the NFLPA. According to Maske, owners had been pushing for an 18-game regular season, but the players union has remained reluctant to budge off the current 16-game schedule. Maske flagged the league’s rookie compensation scale and current marijuana policy as areas in which the owners could give ground in order to persuade the players to agree to an expanded schedule.

The report also lists a 14-team playoff field as a potential inclusion in the agreement.

The current NFL CBA — which was agreed to in 2011 — is valid through the end of the 2020 season, but Maske reports that there is “optimism” a new agreement might be reached by the end of the 2019-20 postseason.

There’s something special going on at the University of Illinois — take it from those who know head football coach Lovie Smith best

There’s something special going on at the University of Illinois — take it from those who know head football coach Lovie Smith best

For the first time in the Lovie Smith era, Illinois is bowl-eligible. 

It’s been a long, strange trip here for Lovie and the Illini. In his first three years at the helm of the program, the team failed to top four wins in a single season, amassing a combined record of 9-27 (4-23 B1G). But something about this 2019 group, which currently sits at 6-4 (4-3 B1G), feels different.

Take it from those who know Lovie best.

“They’ve bought in,” Alex Brown, who played under Smith for six years with the Bears, recently said. “Lovie is changing the culture down there, and he’s getting everybody to believe.”

That belief was on full display in the Illini’s matchup with Michigan State in East Lansing last Saturday — a comeback victory of historic proportions that clinched the program a bowl berth for the first time since 2014. At one point trailing 28-3, the visitors rode a number of big plays, turnovers and big-play turnovers to storm back and snap a 37-34 victory from the jaws of certain defeat.

“When you play for Lovie, everybody is motivated… You’re never out of [a] game,” Matt Forte, five years a student of Smith in Chicago, said. “You can be down, and he knows that one play by anybody can start the turn of events.”

Olin Kreutz was with the Bears for seven of Smith's nine years coaching the team. “It was awesome to see Coach Smith get that win, because you know how hard he works at it,” he said. “And for his team to do it in a way that’s kind of ‘Lovie Ball’... It’s just what you expect from Coach Smith because that’s what he preaches.”

Illinois turned Michigan State over four times on Saturday, including a fourth quarter pick-six that cut the Spartans’ lead to just one point with 4:53 to play. On the season, the Illini lead the FBS in total turnovers (26), defensive touchdowns (6) and are second in turnover margin (1.4). Add those gaudy figures (and a bowl appearance) to a campaign already highlighted by a last-second victory over then-No. 6 Wisconsin, and suddenly, it might be time to start thinking about a full-blown resurgence in Urbana-Champaign.

“The most dangerous thing for that whole conference is a team that has bought into the Lovie system,” Lance Briggs, who spent eight years as a linebacker under Smith in Chicago, said. “The players that are going to come and play at the University of Illinois know now that they’re walking into a team that believes in what they’re doing, and when they believe in what they’re doing, great things are going to continue to happen.”

Smith has certainly proven in the past — and to the people of Chicago, no less — that he’s capable of executing this type of turnaround.

“I’m sure you guys have heard this story about our '05 team and how we started out 1-3, and then all of a sudden. Boom. It just happened,” Brown said. “That is exactly what I see happening with U of I right now.”

All the program has accomplished in 2019 is a great step, but the hope is that even greater things are on the horizon.

“You wait ’til next year. They are going to compete, and they’re gonna beat — I’m calling that right now — they’re gonna beat either Michigan or Ohio State next year,” Brown continued. “They have the people there. More importantly, they have the belief that they can beat ’em.”

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