I had an interesting chat with the Comcast SportsNet Bears Pre/Postgame Live crew and the subject was “building blocks,” and whom the Bears have that fit that critical distinction. Because at 6-9, positives aren’t just lying around everywhere.
These are not simply players who will be Bears in 2016, but ones with both the impact talent and at the positions around which offenses and defenses are structured.
Meaning: The key is not simply who are the Bears’ best players, but where those players play. For example, Lovie Smith prioritized building blocks on defense as three-technique defensive lineman and weak-side linebacker. He had both in Chicago with Tommie Harris and Lance Briggs. Brian Urlacher was the bonus to form “elite,” and when you throw in an Alex Brown and Charles Tillman, now you’ve got something. But the building blocks at the pivotal positions are where it starts.
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And so it is with the Bears. All clichéd talent-bashing notwithstanding, the Bears in fact DO have core pieces in-house. Most important, they in fact do sit in those key positions, and they are young, many from GM Ryan Pace’s first draft.
Not all are the obvious ones, though.
No slight of Jarvis Jenkins or Ego Ferguson or Will Sutton or anyone else, but the Bears now are a 3-4 team, which builds from a base at nose tackle. A question before this season, the one true building block emerging from this year, in that linchpin position, is Goldman. A dominant nose tackle is to a 3-4 what a disruptive three-tech is to a single-gap 4-3, and Goldman became a force who had pieces of five different sacks and 13 other quarterback hits.
The second spot of absolutes is pass rusher. The Bears have issues at inside linebacker, but that is less of a must-have building block than pass rushers in the John Fox/Vic Fangio scheme. McPhee was signed to be that signature sack guy, and his leadership character has emerged. He’ll have surgery to clean up a balky knee this offseason but McPhee was Pace’s biggest signing, at a bedrock position, and McPhee’s play before his knee betrayed him was building-block stuff.
But the third building block on defense is one that ironically didn’t see himself as one in this system when 2015 started.
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Willie Young may not like being called or thought of as a linebacker, but if he’s playing like he has the second half of this season, Fangio can call him whatever he pleases. Someone who nets 6.5 sacks despite barely seeing the field the first half of the season is pure platinum, regardless of scheme, and Young is a core piece of the critically important nickel package.
And Young has emerged as a true leader, respected for performance, work ethic and personality.
“I think it goes to show you the kind of guys it takes to play in this league,” said Fox. “He came off a season-ending injury; that’s never easy, a lot of work that goes into rehabbing an Achilles injury just like any surgically repaired injury, learning a new defense, fitting into a completely different scheme – it’s not easy.”
Lamarr Houston, idle much of the early season, has come on with six sacks and established himself as an impact part of the Fox/Fangio defensive concept. But Houston has cap hits just short of $7 million in 2016 and 2017, and $8 million in 2018. The Bears have a decision to make on Houston and with McPhee and Young set, Houston is simply too expensive for a spot-player.
Adrian Amos at safety has been a steal as a fifth-round pick. But for safeties to be franchise building blocks, think Ronnie Lott, John Lynch, Troy Polamalu, Ed Reed. Not sure Amos is quite that. And Kyle Fuller did little to play up to his hoped-for standard as a foundation piece at cornerback. The building blocks are up in front of those guys.
Offense skill set’ers
Offensively the key building blocks are in place and obvious. Cutler became a different quarterback in 2015 under Adam Gase and Dowell Loggains. And Langford has a place at the grown-ups’ table. Now.
The offensive line has its questions but also has two set-it-and-forget-it’s. Unless a tackle drops into the Bears’ lap this offseason, Long will be a tackle with more than seven days to prepare for his next opening-day start. “I would take 10 of him if there were 10 available,” Fox said. “I would take 10 Kyle Longs.”
Matt Slauson is set, at either center or guard. A ruptured chest muscle cost Slauson most of 2014 but also gave the rest of him a year away from NFL abuse.
“I feel better this year than I’ve ever felt,” Slauson told CSNChicago.com. “I’m stronger, in better shape than I’ve ever been. It did give me extra time [to heal].”
He added with a smile: “But I would have much rather been on the field.”
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And Slauson is the savviest all-around lineman on the roster. “If I’m called on to move over [to center], I’m happy to do it,” he said. “Now that I’ve gotten a lot of snaps there this year, I am a lot more comfortable with that move.”
Alshon Jeffery will be a marquee free agent and is expected to be in Chicago in 2016, possibly on a multi-year deal if the guaranteed money is palatable. But for a pivotal building block: White. He was drafted to be the centerpiece and a de facto hedge against losing Jeffery. He is the future.
Indeed, the prospect of pairing White with Jeffery won’t keep Gase from turning down a head-coaching job if one is offered. But having those two together should lessen a little of the sting if one isn’t, or if the ones offered are “no-way’s.”
“As far as our core guys that have been out there with us the entire time,” Gase said, “they have done a good job of progressing in the offense.”