Bears

The Braves now have an Upton monopoly

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The Braves now have an Upton monopoly

From Comcast SportsNetPHOENIX (AP) -- Justin Upton is having a family reunion in Atlanta.Arizona traded its star right fielder to the Braves on Thursday in a seven-player deal that sent former All-Star infielder Martin Prado to the Diamondbacks.For the first time since he was a high school freshman, Upton will have older brother B.J. Upton as a teammate.The brothers combine with Jason Heyward, who won a Gold Glove in 2012, in an outfield potentially packed with power and speed."If we push ourselves to the next level, I feel with the extra push from each other there's no question we can be the best outfield in baseball," Justin Upton said in a telephone interview. "I'm not going to give us that label until we prove it."The Braves, who also get third baseman Chris Johnson, are giving up one of their top pitching prospects, Randall Delgado, and three minor leaguers in the deal.They are right-hander Zeke Spruill, shortstop Nick Ahmed and first baseman Brandon Drury.Prado, projected to play third base for the Diamondbacks, can become a free agent after this season, but Arizona general manager Kevin Towers said he already was working with Prado's agent on a long-term deal.B.J. Upton, 28, signed a five-year, 75.25 million contract with Atlanta in November.Justin Upton, who has five full seasons in the majors but is just 25, said he already got tips from his brother from afar. Now there will be more chances for the two to help each other."I think from that standpoint it will be good, but I think more than anything being able to show up at the ballpark genuinely excited every day and have that energy," he said. "The more energy you can bring from the start every day, it makes you a better player."Braves general manager Frank Wren said he expects the brothers will push each other."I do think it will drive them," Wren said. "We've been looking for that young dynamic, right-handed, power-hitting outfielder that can hit in the middle of the lineup and makes that other team think a little bit."The younger Upton, who has three years and 38.5 million left on his contract, had been the subject of trade speculation throughout the offseason and vetoed a trade to the Seattle Mariners.Upton had his ups and downs in Arizona, and Towers believes the change of scenery will benefit the young player, who was just 19 when he came to the majors."The expectations were through the roof on him," Towers said. "When the team struggled, it seemed like it was always because of Justin. That's hard. We're human beings. It's hard to take when you're a young individual trying to establish yourself."Now, Towers said, Upton has "an opportunity to go to a different place to where he's going to fit in with some star players over there, where he's just kind of a piece of the puzzle versus kind of the centerpiece and the big piece of the puzzle."I think some pressure will be off of him."Arizona manager Kurt Gibson, his left arm in a sling after shoulder surgery, said he sent Upton a long text wishing him the best."I said, You must be ecstatic to be able to play with your brother.' I could certainly understand that. It's got to be a great thrill for him."Gibson said Upton reminded him of himself as a player."I had some things that happened with my manager Sparky Anderson over the years where maybe we butted heads a little bit and I didn't agree with him," Gibson said, "but when it was all said and done it all made sense and it was for me to become a better person and a better ballplayer. I would say similar things have happened with me and Justin throughout our association. I know he respects me and I respect him."Prado, who joins fellow Venezuelan Miguel Montero in Arizona, made the All-Star team in 2010 as a second baseman and played mostly in left field last season. Prado was projected to move to third base for the Braves this season to replace the retired Chipper Jones.Arizona had accumulated a glut of outfielders, signing Cody Ross as a free agent last month. Upton, an All-Star pick in 2009 and 2011, was the most marketable.Upton, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft, has played five full major league seasons. Last season, he hit .280 with 17 home runs and 67 RBIs and a career-high 107 runs.In 2011, while helping Arizona win the NL West, Upton hit .289 with career-best totals of 31 home runs and 88 RBIs and finished fourth in NL MVP voting. Overall, he's a career .278 hitter with 108 home runs, 739 hits, 147 doubles and 80 stolen bases.Upton said he hopes to become a more consistent player in Atlanta."I've had a couple good years where I put up good numbers and my goal all along has been to put those years up consistently," he said. "I think now I'm in a position with Atlanta ... we can really feed off each other throughout that lineup to try to get everybody to that consistent production rate."Delgado, a 23-year-old right-hander, had been expected to challenge for a spot in the Braves rotation. His acquisition bolsters the young pitching depth in Arizona depleted by the trade of Trevor Bauer. Delgado was 4-9 with a 4.37 ERA in 18 appearances, 17 as a starter, for the Braves. Rated Atlanta's No. 3 prospect by Baseball America the past two years, he was 4-3 with a 4.06 ERA with Triple-A Gwinnett last season.The trade leaves Arizona with three veteran outfielders -- Ross, Jason Kubel and Gerardo Parra -- along with two youngsters the team feels are ready for the majors -- Adam Eaton and A.J. Pollock. Towers projects Eaton as a center fielder and a prototypical leadoff hitter.Towers said the addition of Ross and a top contact hitter in Prado changes the character of the club."I would say we're going to be a little different club," he said. "I think we can still hit home runs, but I think the last couple of years we've relied too much on the long ball. If you look at our record, those days that we didn't homer, we usually didn't win."

With linchpin DL Akiem Hicks to IR, Bears D faces real challenge to stay at elite level

With linchpin DL Akiem Hicks to IR, Bears D faces real challenge to stay at elite level

With apologies to Khalil Mack, the Bears defense on Tuesday officially lost the player it could arguably least afford to lose when defensive lineman Akiem Hicks was placed on injured reserve with the elbow injury suffered early in the loss to the Oakland Raiders in London.

Perhaps “lost” isn’t entirely accurate, since “he’s going to be with us in meetings and for game-planning and on the sidelines on game days,” said defensive line coach Jay Rodgers. “You’re going to feel his presence. But we’ve got a good group with guys who can step into that role and play well.

“He’ll be a voice on the sideline, the classroom, everything we do. His personality will still be here… . He’s part of us, the Bears family, this organization.”

But great units are a combination of personalities as well as talents, and Hicks has been a defining presence both on and off the football field since he was signed as a free agent in 2016.

Hicks has been a vital influence with young players. Hicks and veteran defensive end Willie Young began a weekly dinner out with then-rookie Leonard Floyd. When the Bears landed a late-round gem in defensive lineman Bilal Nichols in the 2018 draft, Hicks was again a presence.

“He pretty much molded me into the young player I am,” Nichols said. “It just hurt to see him go through that and catch those types of breaks because I know how hard he worked.”

But the absence of Hicks projects to have its obviously most serious impact on the field, at a time when the Bears are struggling to stay within hailing distance of leaders in both the NFC North as well as the NFC in general.

The absence of any consistent offensive play underscores the importance of the defense remaining among the NFL’s best.

Linchpin figure

In a league where the margin between division leader and missing the playoffs is sometimes alarmingly thin, the Bears will be wary of players feeling some need to break their assignment integrity and take out-of-scheme risks to make a play because of missing Hicks.

“I remember last year when we lost Khalil Mack for the Buffalo game and Jets game, and we had some guys who came in and filled in those shoes and did pretty well,” Rodgers said. “We expect the thing. The ‘next guy up’ mentality is real. There’s a reason why we build the roster the way we build it.

“We didn’t have Akiem for the Minnesota game and I thought we played pretty well in that game. It’s all about understanding what your job is and what your role is, how to execute and execute under pressure, and do what we do. We’re not asking anybody to go outside the framework of the defense or do anything extra special. We’re asking you to do your job because you’re one of 11 in the defense.”

It is Rodgers’ task to help players modulate and avoid trying to do too much. The proverbial “take your game to another level,” which is hugely insulting because it presumes a player wasn’t giving the max previously.

And Rodgers is correct, that the Bears without Hicks allowed their season-low points (6) and second-lowest yardage total (222) of the season in the win over Minnesota. That game was one of only two in which the Vikings (4-2) failed to score 28 or more points, and whether the Bears could throttle Kirk Cousins, Dalvin Cook and that offense again so thoroughly without Hicks would be questionable.

But the fact remains that Hicks rates as the central figure on a very good defense. Without Hicks for most of the Oakland game, the Bears allowed their highest point (24) and yardage (398) totals of the season and allowed more rushing yards (169) than in any other two 2019 games combined.

The Bears were a top-10 defense before Mack arrived at the start of last season. With Hicks missing all of one game (Minnesota), most of another (Oakland) and playing less than half the snaps in a third with a knee injury (Washington), they rank sixth in yards and third in points allowed.

The Bears ranked a dismal 20th in both points and yards allowed in 2015, the year before the Hicks signing. They immediately improved to 15th in scoring defense in 2016, then into the top 10 in both points and yards allowed in 2017.

The NFL then took notice last season, with Hicks selected to his first Pro Bowl and being given the fourth-highest rating among defensive linemen by Pro Football Focus.

One player CAN make that much difference

That the Bears performed well without all or part of Hicks vs. Washington and Minnesota does suggest encouragement, particularly if Nichols can play well with a hand injury that cost him the last three games.

The Oakland game points in an entirely opposite direction. It falls to the Bears collectively to keep the Hicks loss from having the kind of devastating effect that a handful of season-ending injuries had on past Bears defenses:

DT Henry Melton, 2013

The 2013 Bears broke fast (3-0) under new coach Marc Trestman and defensive coordinator Mel Tucker. The defense and a portion of the season collapsed when Melton, voted to the Pro Bowl in 2012 and franchise-tagged by the Bears in 2013, was lost for the season with a knee injury suffered in game three against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

A defense that included Lance Briggs, Julius Peppers, Charles Tillman allowed 24.7 ppg and 330 ypg for the three games Melton played. Over the final 13 games those indicators ballooned to 31.1 ppg. and 409 yards.

MLB Brian Urlacher, 2009

The Bears lost their Hall of Fame middle linebacker and linchpin at the end of the first half of the first game, in Green Bay. The defense still had Lance Briggs, Alex Brown, Tommie Harris and Charles Tillman, but Brown said after the season that the unit never made up for the loss of both the performance and leadership levels 54 represented.

From 2005-2012, Urlacher’s missed season was one of only two in which the Bears finished sub-.500.

DL Dan Hampton, 1989

The Bears opened 4-0. Hampton suffered a season-ending knee injury, and the team that had reached the 1988 NFC Championship game and still had Richard Dent, Steve McMichael, William Perry, Mike Singletary and Donnell Woolford proceeded to go 2-10 the rest of the way.

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Illinois AP football rankings: Week 7

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NBC Sports Chicago

Illinois AP football rankings: Week 7

The Illlinois high school football AP polls are out. Here are the latest rankings of Illinois high school football teams in each class, according to an Associated Press panel of sportswriters:

Class 8A

No. Team W-L Pts Prv
1. Lincoln-Way East (10) 7-0 100 1
2. Loyola 5-2 75 3
3. Warren 7-0 73 2
4. Notre Dame (Niles) 7-0 70 4
5.  Homewood-Flossmoor 6-1 51 6
T-6. Hinsdale Central 7-0 47 5
T-6. Neuqua Valley 6-1 47 7
8. Minooka 7-0 33 8
9. Oswego 7-0 19 9
10. Bolingbrook 6-1 15 10

Others receiving votes: St. Charles East 10, South Elgin 5, Huntley 3, Maine South 2.

Class 7A

No. Team W-L Pts Prv
1. (Chicago) Mt. Carmel (9) 7-0 99 1
2. Nazareth (1) 6-1 85 2
3. Glenbard West 7-0 79 3
4.  Hersey 7-0 65 5
5.  Phillips 6-1 56 6
6. Rolling Meadows 7-0 48 T-7
7.  Batavia 5-2 41 4
8. Benet 6-1 22 T-7
9. Willowbrook 6-1 21 NR
10. Normal Community 6-1 15 NR

Others receiving votes: Andrew 5, DeKalb 4, Glenbard East 4, Grant 3, Conant 2, Brother Rice 1.

Class 6A

No. Team W-L Pts Prv
1. Chatham Glenwood (9) 7-0 108 1
2.  Crete-Monee (1) 7-0 95 2
3.  Simeon (1) 5-1 81 3
4. Cary-Grove 6-1 68 4
5. Richards 6-1 62 5
6. Prairie Ridge 6-1 57 6
7. Antioch 6-1 41 8
8. Providence 5-2 34 9
9. Yorkville 6-1 22 7
10.  Lemont 6-1 15 NR


Others receiving votes: Normal West 10, Kaneland 9, Peoria Central 3.

Class 5A

No. Team W-L Pts Prv
1. East St. Louis (12) 7-0 120 1
2. Sterling 7-0 102 2
T-3. Hillcrest 6-1 81 4
T-3.  Boylan Catholic 7-0 81 3
5.  Montini 5-2 65 5
6.  Sycamore 6-1 62 2
7. Marion 7-0 46 7
8. St. Rita 4-3 34 8
9.  Kankakee 6-1 29 9
10.  Carbondale 6-1 17 10

Others receiving votes: Dunlap 8, Cahokia 6, Joliet Catholic 6, St. Laurence 3.

Class 4A

No. Team W-L Pts Prv
1. IC Catholic (11) 7-0 119 1
2. Rochester 7-0 106 2
3. Coal City (1) 7-0 99 3
4. Richmond-Burton 7-0 80 4
5. Stillman Valley 7-0 64 5
6.  Mt. Zion 7-0 52 6
7.  Effingham 7-0 39 8
8. Columbia 7-0 35 7
9. Genoa-Kingston 7-0 23 10
10.  St. Francis 6-1 19 9

Others receiving votes: Illinois Valley Central 16, Bishop McNamara 5, Benton 2, Fairbury Prairie Central 1.

Class 3A

No. Team W-L Pts Prv
1. Wilmington (9) 7-0 124 1
2. Williamsville (4) 7-0 121 2
3. Byron 6-1 93 3
4. Beardstown 7-0 85 4
5. Vandalia 7-0 72 5
6. Nashville 7-0 62 6
7. Fairfield 7-0 50 7
8. Pana 7-0 43 8
9. Princeton 6-1 33 9
10. Eureka 6-1 18 10

Others receiving votes: DuQuoin 9, Breese Mater Dei, 3, Mt. Carmel 2.

Class 2A

No. Team W-L Pts Prv
1. Fieldcrest (7) 7-0 122 1
2. Clifton Central (5) 7-0 116 2
3. Maroa-Forsyth (1) 6-1 100 3
4. Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley 6-1 90 4
5.  St. Teresa 6-1 73 5
6.  Knoxville 7-0 67 6
7. Newman Central Catholic 6-1 58 7
8. Bismarck-Henning 6-1 46 8
9. Auburn 5-2 24 9
10. West Carroll 5-2 15 10

Others receiving votes: Flora 2, Orr 2.

Class 1A

No. Team W-L Pts Prv
1. Lena-Winslow (11) 7-0 119 1
2.  Moweaqua Central A&M 7-0 103 3
3. Annawan-Wethersfield 7-0 88 4
4.  Morrison 7-0 78 5
5.  Ottawa Marquette 7-0 64 6
6. Forreston 6-1 55 2
7. Aquin 7-0 53 7
8. Hope Academy (1) 6-1 44 10
9. Camp Point Central 6-1 31 8
10. Athens 5-2 7 9

Others receiving votes: Tuscola 6, Carrollton 5, Fulton 2, Arcola 2, Kirkland Hiawatha 2, Princeville 1.