Bears

Bears continue shakeup in secondary with release of CB Tracy Porter

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USA TODAY

Bears continue shakeup in secondary with release of CB Tracy Porter

In a move with likely implications for the upcoming 2017 draft and foreshadowed when the Bears moved in free agency to sign presumed starting cornerbacks Prince Amukamara and Marcus Cooper, the Bears on Monday waived veteran cornerback Tracy Porter.

The Bears already had targeted the secondary aggressively in free agency with a one-year deal for Amukamara, 27, and a three-year contract with Cooper, both starters at Jacksonville and Arizona, respectively. And the 2017 draft is informally rated as one of the best ever for defensive backs, cornerbacks in particular.

Various outlets have posited the Bears selecting Ohio State cornerback Marshon Lattimore with the No. 3 pick overall, although analysts have predicted that starter-grade cornerbacks will be available as late as the fourth round.

Porter, the senior member of the secondary and its acknowledged group leader (members met at Porter’s house every Thursday during the season to talk football and watch film together), had been a second-round pick of the New Orleans Saints in 2008 while Bears GM Ryan Pace was a member of the New Orleans personnel department. After single seasons in Denver, Oakland and Washington, Porter came to the Bears in 2015 on a one-year contract and was re-signed last offseason to a three-year deal with $4.25 million guaranteed out of a $12 million package.

Porter, who turns 31 in August, was due to make $3.5 million in 2017. But he was also part of a secondary that produced historically low takeaways the past two seasons, although Porter was perhaps as close to a bright spot as the secondary had. He collected 48 tackles, two interceptions, 13 pass breakups and one forced fumble last season. In his two seasons with the Bears, Porter led the club in pass breakups (35), while also posting his top two single-season career marks in the same category (22 in 2015 and 13 in 2016).

Porter has started 88-of-98 career contests, posting 374 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 13 interceptions, 77 pass breakups, seven forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, 17 tackles for a loss and three defensive scores. He has also appeared in six postseason games (six starts), totaling 32 tackles, two interceptions – including one returned for a touchdown – three pass breakups, two tackles for a loss and one forced fumble.

J.P. Holtz provides spark Bears have been missing at tight end

J.P. Holtz provides spark Bears have been missing at tight end

Trey Burton's nagging injuries and Adam Shaheen's lack of development created a tight end crisis for the Bears through the first half of the 2019 season, but with Burton on injured reserve and Shaheen seemingly no longer in the team's plans, someone had to rise from the ashes and take over the starting job.

Enter J.P. Holtz, the 26-year-old unknown commodity whose under-the-radar signing with the Bears was hardly noticed by the fanbase. GM Ryan Pace claimed Holtz off waivers on Sept. 11 after a brief stint with the Washington Redskins, where he spent 2018 and the start of 2019 bouncing between the practice squad and active roster.

Holtz initially entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent out of Pittsburgh. He signed with the Browns in May 2016 and spent the end of that season on Cleveland's practice squad. 

Needless to say, Holtz's journey to the Bears' starting lineup has been anything but traditional. But in Week 14's game against the Dallas Cowboys, he provided the Bears' offense with its first legitimately productive game at tight end. Holtz finished Thursday's game with three catches for 56 yards and had the longest catch of any Bears receiver (30 yards). He was the highest-graded player on Chicago's offense, per Pro Football Focus. His 79.2 grade was better than Burton's top mark in 2019 (67.6) and would've qualified as Burton's third-best game of 2018, too. 

Holtz out-snapped fellow tight end Jesper Horsted, 37-31, and appears to have taken a slight lead over Horsted for reps moving forward. That said, both players have surprisingly looked like better fits for what Matt Nagy wants to do in his offense than either Burton or Shaheen. Horsted had four catches for 36 yards on Thursday.

Holtz and Horsted combined for seven catches and 92 yards. That's more yards in one game than Burton managed in the eight games he played, total.

It would be unfair to expect similar production from Holtz from here on out considering he was never a pass-catcher at any point in his career. In college, Holtz never topped more than 24 catches in a season and recorded a career-high 350 yards his senior year. But we've seen players' roles change once they get to the NFL before. Take 49ers superstar George Kittle, for example. His career-high in receiving yards at Iowa was just 314. We know what kind of weapon he's turned into as a pro.

No, Holtz isn't the next Kittle. But he doesn't have to be. He just has to be the guy we saw Thursday night who made plays for an offense desperate for a playmaking tight end.

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Eddy Piñeiro is quietly finding his form again, a sign he's cut out for this

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USA Today

Eddy Piñeiro is quietly finding his form again, a sign he's cut out for this

As a large group of TV cameras gathered around Charles Leno Jr.’s space in the Bears’ locker room, Eddy Piñeiro quickly finished getting dressed in the shadows to Leno’s left. The kicker has stayed out of the spotlight since losing the trust of his head coach on a nationally-televised game three weeks ago, but he’s played as well as anyone during the Bears’ three-game return to relevance. 

“Yeah, I would definitely say I’m more confident,” he said after the Bears’ 31-24 win on Thursday night. “There’s just good rhythm – good snap, good hold.” 

He hasn’t had to attempt a kick over 40 yards (!!) over the three games, but Piñeiro’s accuracy issues, at least for now, seem at bay. He hit all five of his kicks against the Cowboys – four extra points and one 36-yard field goal. The kicker hasn’t missed a field goal (5-5) since LA, and has gone 9-10 on extra points. More importantly, they haven’t lost since either. 

“It feels great,” Piñeiro said. “Everyone in the locker room is super excited and happy. Everybody’s in a good mood. When you win, everybody’s in a good mood.” 

He hasn’t been physically tested much over the last month, but just ask Aldrick Rosas or Brett Maher how easy kicking at Soldier Field is, even in nice conditions. The Bears have always loved Piñeiro’s response to adversity and it’s starting to look like he’s rewarded them again. 

“Just gaining experience, honestly,” he said. “I think the biggest thing for me has just been gaining experience. Playing the game, I obviously don’t have the most experience, but I think trying to gain that experience has been the biggest thing for me.” 

Piñeiro mentioned that he’s still getting used to the adjustments that come with kicking in colder temperatures – which may help explain some of his more recent lackluster kickoffs. It’s easy to see how a nationally-televised game in unusually pleasant conditions could have been a trap for a young player who’s maybe pressing a bit, but after getting the full Bears Kicker Experience stuffed into half a season, Piñeiro knows better. 

“In my opinion, you’ve got to play well in every single game,” he said. “[it’s] not like just because you’re on national TV, you’ve got to play better. It felt good to get out there and hit a couple kicks.” 

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