Bears

Bears Camping Out 2016: OL fits are critical after offseason makeover

Bears Camping Out 2016: OL fits are critical after offseason makeover

The operative Bears word was “competition” throughout the offseason within every position group. With that mantra came turnover, and of the 14 offensive linemen presently on the Bears roster, exactly four were under Bears contract this time last year, and only one of those finished the 2015 season at the position he currently occupies. Of the 14, only one is older than 27, and that one (guard Ted Larsen) just turned 29.

The Bears ran the football more than 46 percent of the time last season, noteworthy if only because 6-10 teams are typically throwing the ball predominantly because they’re behind. New offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains and others within the organization, topped by coach John Fox, have been blunt about their intention to run the football even more, all of which demands an offensive line with command of the line of scrimmage, which the Bears did not have often enough last year.

One case was that the Bears started seven different offensive line combinations in 2015, only one of them for more than three straight games and with only one player – Kyle Long – starting all 16 games at the same position – right tackle. Lest there be too much continuity for a group that requires it more than most, Long is back at right guard, and the other four starters from game one last season are no longer on the roster.

On the plus side, Charles Leno Jr. established himself to the organization’s satisfaction as the starting left tackle, and Hroniss Grasu will start training camp as the No. 1 center after starting eight of the last 12 games in the spot for which he was drafted.

“We got a lot to look forward to, Chicago has a lot to look forward to with,” Long said. “Got a lot of youth and the guys who are ‘older guys’ are not that old, so we're fired up about it and we know that there's a lot ahead for this group.”

Establishing that has been in process all offseason and increases exponentially in training camp, when pads come on for the first time since game 16 last season, in a stretch approaching seven months.

Offseason adjustments

As they did on defense, the Bears were aggressive in free agency and followed that with targeted moves in the draft. GM Ryan Pace signed Larsen and right tackle Bobby Massie, both from Arizona and both from a now-perennial playoff team under coach Bruce Arians.

Both Larsen and Massie were installed as starters, although Larsen, who took a starting job from No. 1 pick Jonathan Cooper late last season, was absent for unspecified reasons late in OTA’s. In his place, Cody Whitehair spent extensive practice team at left guard and acquitted himself as the Bears hoped a No. 2 draft pick would. Whitehair emerging as a starter sooner rather than later might be a mild surprise, although Long and Grasu both started as rookies, albeit because of injury in Grasu’s case.

“The curiosity really is the type of kid he is,” said coordinator Dowell Loggains during spring practices. “We drafted a very high character guy that has played a lot of football. He’s tough. He’s the type of player that coach Fox wants. When you talk about a throwback, old school guy, that’s Cody.”

Depth-charting

RT    Bobby Massie

RG   Kyle Long

C      Hroniss Grasu

LG    Ted Larsen/Cody Whitehair

LT    Charles Leno

The mix

Nick Becton

Adrian Bellard

Nate Chandler

Cornelius Edison

John Kling

Martin Wallace

Jason Weaver

Donovan Williams

3 questions camp will begin to answer…

…how dominant the Bears’ right side can become. Long and Massie are twin-towers: 6-6, 325’ish pounds, and physical, mauling blockers. “We are going to look good on the right side,” said line coach Dave Magazu.

Looking good breaking the huddle will be one thing; the run-based Bears moved Long back to guard and signed Massie to look good standing over opponents, and live sessions in training camp will be about forging these two into the Bruise Brothers.

…whether Hroniss Grasu is physically up to the demands in the middle. He was not as a rookie and was set back by a couple of injuries, and the organization thought the situation dictated signing a veteran, the since-retired Manny Ramirez. The Bears drafted Whitehair in the second round but Grasu is a key to the line.

“I think he got a little bit bigger, a little bit stronger,” Magazu said. “He’s over 300 [pounds]; there were times [last season] when he was under 300. He is a competitor. He’s smart, he’s tough, he loves playing football. He knows what he needs to work on and he takes it very personally.”

…is Cody Whitehair the sleeper of the ’16 draft class? Most No. 2’s hardly qualify as “sleepers” but offensive linemen do not often win jobs outright before the starts of their rookie seasons. Whitehair has had opportunities with Ted Larsen missing time in OTA’s and has impressed. Now that the pads are coming on… ?

“I think we’ve got a really good group,” said quarterback Jay Cutler during OTA sessions last month.  “We don’t have to say much to them. Hroniss in the middle kind of controlling them. You know Kyle, he has let everyone know in Chicago that he is happy to be back at guard and he works out with Bobby so he’s known Bobby forever and Chuck is on the left side and he is kind of consistent every day.

“It’s a really good group. I think we’ve got some depth on the inside. It is just going to be experience with those guys. Like the backfield, there is going to be some growing pains and there is going to be some stuff in preseason that we have to fix. Overall, really happy with how they have progressed through the offseason.”

Bears grades and needs: The clock is ticking on Mitch Trubisky

Bears grades and needs: The clock is ticking on Mitch Trubisky

2018 depth chart

1. Mitch Trubisky
Usage: 14 games, 86.4 percent of offensive snaps
2019 status: $7,917,933 cap hit

The Bears spent last offseason building the best possible structure around Trubisky, from hiring Matt Nagy to signing Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, Trey Burton and Chase Daniel to drafting James Daniels and Anthony Miller. There don’t appear to be many more moves to be made now, outside of finding a solution to a lagging running game. 

So that puts the Bears’ necessary offensive growth squarely on Trubisky. His overall 2018 numbers were fine, completing two-thirds of his passes for 3,223 yards with 24 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and a passer rating of 95.4. Those made him roughly an average quarterback league-wide, with his rushing ability (68 carries, 421 yards) a sneaky asset. 

The optimistic view is Trubisky’s 2018 season — his first running Nagy’s offense — built a solid foundation on which he can build. Teammates noted Trubisky’s mastery of the “football 101” concepts by the end of the season, which should allow Nagy to move on to more advanced facets of his scheme. Having a full year of OTAs and training camp to build on that baseline knowledge, likely, will be beneficial for Trubisky and the entire offense. 

“I think it was just good to see the natural growth just in the offensive scheme as he gains more comfort and also more comfort with the players that are around him, that chemistry that developed,” general manager Ryan Pace said last month. “I was just talking to Mitch today about that, just the excitement about going into an offseason with the pieces in place around him and then year two in the same offensive scheme and how much growth can take place. So I just felt like you saw him playing more with his instincts because he was more comfortable in the system.”

The Bears are confident that growth will take place, but the team doesn’t have years upon years for him to develop — it has to be soon. His cap hit of just under $8 million in 2019, followed by about $9.2 million in 2020, means the Bears’ best window to win will be in the next two years. If the Bears pick up Trubisky’s fifth-year option for 2021, he’d likely cost somewhere in the range of $22 million, depending on what various extensions look like for the league’s top quarterbacks over the next two years (Jameis Winston’s fifth-year option for 2019 will cost the Buccaneers $20.922 million). 

The point is this: The Bears only have two years left of a cheap Trubisky before he gets expensive (or, if things go poorly, the Bears have to start over at the position). If Trubisky were to earn a salary around $22 million in 2021, he and Khalil Mack could combine to take up a rough estimate of 20 percent of the team’s salary cap. That doesn’t mean the Bears’ window to win will close after the 2020 season — it’ll stay open as long as Trubisky develops into the player the team thinks he can be. 

“Last year, he was so focused in on what do we do on offense,” Nagy said. “… Now he knows. He knows it all. And now he can take that next step of figuring out, okay, here they come. They have got a saw blitz, cover zero, now I know what to do or I know how to check to (a) protection, all that. That's going to be the big one for him.”

2. Chase Daniel
Usage: 5 games, 13.8 percent of offensive snaps
2019 status: $6 million cap hit

Daniel deftly quarterbacked the Bears past the Lions on Thanksgiving but was sloppy in an overtime loss to the Giants a week later, leaving him with a 1-1 record in the two games he started in place of Trubisky. Those games, combined with his extensive knowledge of Nagy’s offense and a good relationship with Trubisky, were likely enough to earn him a spot on the 2019 roster. It’s unlikely the Bears could find a better fit in a backup quarterback for less than the $3 million in cap space they’d save by releasing Daniel. 

“That’s why we have Chase,” Nagy said, tellingly, after Daniel led the Bears to that win over the Lions. 

3. Tyler Bray
Usage: 0 games, 0 percent of offensive snaps
2019 status: Unrestricted free agent

Bray fit with the Bears in 2018 as an additional voice with knowledge of Nagy’s offense, having spent an injury-plagued career in Kansas City prior to coming to Chicago. The Bears could look to retain him as a practice squad player and for depth in case of an injury, but perhaps Pace will explore bringing in an undrafted free agent or even a late-round quarterback as a third-stringer. 

2019 level of need (1-11, with 11 being the highest): 2

The only thing that matters is Trubisky’s development in 2019. That’s the Bears’ all-in bet for this year; if Trubisky makes the kind of improvement the Bears need to get back to the playoffs, they’ll be set. If not, serious questions will need to be asked a year from now about if Trubisky truly is worthy of being the Bears’ franchise quarterback of the future. 

Bears scouts keeping a close eye on new Alliance of American Football league

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USA TODAY

Bears scouts keeping a close eye on new Alliance of American Football league

The new Alliance of American Football league is giving fans more of what they love on the weekend, even if it isn’t quite NFL quality on the field.

As you might expect, the Bears are tuning in too, to get another look at some of the talent available that could be headed back to the big league.

“Our pro scouts are all over that,” Bears general manager Ryan Pace told ChicagoBears.com. “We had pro scouts at their training camps that we sent down there. It’s really too early to say how many players are going to come out of there, but we’re going to be looking closely at it like we do every league.”

Pace and his scouts should already be familiar with quite a few players in the AAF who spent at least a little time in Chicago.

Former draft picks Evan Rodriguez and Will Sutton might be the biggest names among the former Bears, but plenty of UDFAs from the past are suiting up again for the next eight weeks.

Wide receiver Rashad Ross was one of the AAF’s leading receivers after the first week, and he spent part of the 2014 season with the Bears.

On the other side of the ball, cornerback De’Vante Bausby had a strong debut, just over two years since leaving Chicago in 2016.

Other top names in the AAF include former third-overall pick Trent Richardson and former Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg.

And of course, Hall of Fame Bears linebacker Mike Singletary is the head coach of the Memphis Express.