Bears

Bears bolster front seven, sign DL Akiem Hicks to two-year deal

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Bears bolster front seven, sign DL Akiem Hicks to two-year deal

Money always matters in matters of free agency but it is increasingly apparent that coach John Fox and GM Ryan Pace are nothing if not salesmen.

First it was linebacker Danny Trevathan, who played for Fox in Denver and said that Fox was most definitely a major factor in his decision to choose the Bears on the first day of free agency. Then came Saturday’s signing of former Indianapolis linebacker Jerrell Freeman, whose impression of Fox came from joint Colts-Bears practice last August and carried through talks that concluded with a second new inside linebacker.

Now comes defensive lineman Akiem Hicks, a massive (6-5, 324 pounds) part of a very good New England Patriots defense and whom the Patriots wanted to re-sign. Hicks was drafted in the third round of the 2012 draft by the New Orleans Saints while Pace was with the Saints’ personnel department as director of pro scouting.

[MORE: Bears' free agents arrive with some quirks]

The Patriots understood Hicks’ wish to explore his options in his first opportunity to reach the open market and typically as players in that situation for the chance to match or top any serious offer to the four-year veteran of both 3-4 and 4-3 schemes.

New England was no match, however, for Pace and the Bears, who landed Hicks with a two-year contract that cements in place a critical addition to a defense intent on taking a huge step from year one to two under Fox and coordinator Vic Fangio.

Need trumps best-available in free agency

While the successful drafting is based on securing best players available rather than over-drafting a player based on a need, free agency is precisely the opposite, where need is typically trump.

The Bears were among the NFL’s poorest at stopping the run, ranking 26th by giving up 4.5 yards per carry and 103 rushing first downs, tied for 25th. Part of problem traced to losing anticipated defensive starters Ego Ferguson, Ray McDonald and Jeremiah Ratliff for various reasons (Ferguson to knee surgery), and even rookie Eddie Goldman to injured reserve for game 16.

Accordingly, the Bears made Hicks a priority in their initial wave of targets in free agency. Hicks, No. 2 on CSNChicago.com’s ranking of interior defensive linemen (behind only Jaye Howard, who opted to remain with the Kansas City Chiefs for $6 million per year), was a stout part of a New England Patriots defense ranked ninth against the run.

Hicks, 26, was traded from New Orleans to the Patriots for tight end Michael Hoomanawanui. He is regarded as an ascending player with significant upside after netting three sacks in 13 New England games last season and playing as an end in the 3-4 schemes with New Orleans and New England. His top sack total of 4.5 came in 2013 when the Saints finished 11-5 with the NFL’s No. 4 defense.

Building power base

Where once not all that long ago the Bears had no defensive linemen bigger than Ratliff’s 303 pounds, Hicks at one of the defensive end/tackle spots puts 324 pounds alongside Goldman’s 334. The Bears have Ferguson under contract for two more years in addition to undersized but productive and versatile Will Sutton.

And they have the 2016 draft, widely regarded as one of the best ever for defensive linemen.

The defenses of Lovie Smith utilized smaller defensive linemen tasked with penetration of one gap between two offensive linemen. The 3-4 of John Fox/Fangio is closer to a two-gap base system, anchored by a nose tackle and linemen capable of preventing blockers from reaching linebackers and second levels of the defense.

Like Goldman (4.5 sacks in ’15), Hicks is considered a pocket collapser.

Sports Talk Live Podcast: Should Roquan Smith make his debut against the Broncos?

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USA TODAY

Sports Talk Live Podcast: Should Roquan Smith make his debut against the Broncos?

Seth Gruen, Chris Emma and Matt Zahn join Kap on the panel. Jon Lester pitches like Jon Lester again and the offense does just enough to win in Pittsburgh. Jim Deshaies joins the guys to talk about the Cubs.

 

Should Roquan Smith make his preseason debut in Denver? Plus the Ohio State controversy takes a salacious turn. Will Urban Meyer keep his job when the investigation wraps up Sunday?

 

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Five things to watch for the Bears in Saturday's preseason meeting with the Broncos

Five things to watch for the Bears in Saturday's preseason meeting with the Broncos

DENVER — Expect the Bears’ starters to play deeper into the first half on Saturday in Denver than they did last week in Cincinnati, but their time on the field will still be relatively brief. The real dress rehearsal for the Bears will be next weekend, when they gameplan for and host the Kansas City Chiefs on Aug. 25. 

But Saturday’s game against the Denver Broncos at Mile High Stadium still represents sort of a checkpoint in the buildup to Sept. 9’s season-opening tilt with the Green Bay Packers. It’ll be the last game of the installation phase of the offseason, with coaches turning their focus to gameplanning for the Chiefs next week and then the Packers afterwards. 

There’s still plenty to be learned on Saturday, though. A few things to watch:

1. Will the first-team offense actually produce?

Mitch Trubisky this week bristled at the notion preseason games didn’t matter — “They don’t matter?” he said. “Then why do you guys talk about them so much?” — which fits with the attitude of a guy who was fairly frustrated with his and his teammates’ performance against the Cincinnati Bengals last week. Trubisky wasn’t happy with offense’s sloppy and ineffective play during the two drives he quarterbacked, and wasn’t willing to write it off as “just” a preseason game. 

“No matter what it is, if it’s on the practice field, if I’m in the backyard by myself, if it’s a preseason game, we’re trying to get better and we’re trying to move the football,” Trubisky said. “That’s what great players do. That’s what great teams do. We’re trying to get some momentum and everybody do our job and execute the offense.”

Still, because the Bears aren’t doing much in the way of gameplanning for the Broncos, any production or lack thereof won’t tell us much about the direction in which this offense is headed. More important will be how successful this group is next week against the Chiefs. 

But Trubisky’s competitiveness means he’s not going to let a poor performance slide, even if it’s only for a few series in a game that doesn’t count. He and the Bears hope that translates into some first downs and points on Saturday. 

2. Some notable debuts

Helping Trubisky’s cause will be the 2018 preseason debuts of running back Jordan Howard and wide receiver Allen Robinson, as well as running back Tarik Cohen — who only played one snap against Cincinnati — perhaps being used more. 

The Bears’ offense will not be at full strength, with wide receiver Taylor Gabriel (foot) and tight end Dion Sims (concussion) still out. But for Trubisky, it’ll be a good opportunity for him to see how all the work he and Robinson put in to develop a chemistry in the last few weeks translates to the field.

“We continue to create that chemistry in practice and my job is just to get the ball to the playmakers,” Trubisky said. “The more playmakers we have on the field, just continue to get them the ball and let them do what they do and we just need to roll as an offense, be on the same page, everyone continue to do their job, lock in and go out there and have fun an execute. It’ll be nice to see those guys with the ball in their hands this weekend.”

3. What about Roquan?

It wouldn’t be surprising to see Smith in full uniform going through pregame warmups, but it would qualify as a minor surprise if he actually played on Saturday. 

The benefit to Smith playing would be working to accelerate his development with an eye on Week 1, even if it’s only for a few snaps. But does the risk of him getting injured outweigh whatever benefit playing him would provide?

It’s a question the Bears surely are debating. But coaches and trainers made sure to not push Smith too hard in this week’s joint practices against the Broncos, and it would be risky to put him in Saturday but tell him to not play at full speed. 

It’s not out of the realm of possibility for Smith to play on Saturday, but more likely would be No. 58 making his preseason debut against the Chiefs with another week of practice under his belt. 

4. Snap decisions

James Daniels felt like he was a little sloppy last week against the Bengals, specifically with his hand placement but more broadly because the intensity of things was increased. 

“I think that’s when my technique gets sloppy is when you’re out there and playing against somebody else, you’re really playing,” Daniels said. 

This week’s joint practices, then, were beneficial for Daniels to focus on keeping his technique sound in a more intense setting. And he had the opportunity to do that all while still playing center, not left guard, where he had been working up until last week. How Bears coaches evaluate Daniels' week of practice — which certainly wasn't perfect — will be important, especially in the context of...

... Cody Whitehair going through a snapping “slump” over the last week or so, starting with that preseason game in Cincinnati. If those low/high snaps crop up again Saturday, and Daniels is able to put in a solid day of work with the second-team offensive line, it may nudge the Bears toward moving Whitehair to guard and inserting the second-round Iowa product into the starting lineup. 

The Bears haven’t considered that move yet, though, and the plan all along has been to keep Whitehair at center. A lot has to happen for that plan to change: If Whitehair can’t consistently get snaps to Trubisky, if Daniels proves he’s one of the team’s best five offensive linemen, and then if Daniels proves he’s a better option at center than Whitehair. So far, the Bears haven’t arrived at any of those conclusions, but Saturday’s game could have a significant impact on what those conclusions wind up being. 

5. Down-the-depth-chart position battles

Plenty of players fighting for a spot on the Week 1 53-man roster will get an extended opportunity to put more good — or bad — things on film on Saturday. 

Near the top of the depth chart, Adam Shaheen will have another opportunity to keep his arrow pointing up at the “Y” tight end spot with Sims still out. Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris will continue their competition for the final starting spot on the defensive line, with Bullard still likely the slight favorite. Nick Kwiatkoski can help his case to hold off Smith with another solid showing in what’s been a solid preseason. 

An all-hands-on-deck competition to be the Bears’ reserve outside corner is developing, and with Prince Amukamara (groin) not practicing this week, everyone from that group will get a chance to help their case of making the Week 1 roster. Marcus Cooper needs to have a better game than he did against Cincinnati, while 2017 practice squad’er Doran Grant should get plenty of opportunities, too. For undrafted rookies Kevin Toliver, Michael Joseph and John Franklin III, it’s a big opportunity, too, to turn a longshot bid for a roster spot into something more realistic.