Bears

Bears In-foe: Bay window to .500?

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Bears In-foe: Bay window to .500?

Five starters. Less than three years. 

Through injury, free agency, disciplinary issues and retirements, that's all that's left from the opening lineup the 49ers trotted out to begin Super Bowl XLVII against the Baltimore Ravens (who are encountering issues of their own).

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That doesn't even account for the coaching staff. Jim Harbaugh's shelf life ran out with management and many players. Rather than bring in a fresh face like Adam Gase or elevate their impactful defensive coordinator Vic Fangio (whom Harbaugh brought with him from Stanford), they went with the solid, dutiful, yet non-charismatic eight-year defensive line coach, Jim Tomsula, who seemed in over his head from the opening press conference. As the Bears take their second swing in three weeks at getting back to .500 at Soldier Field, they get a squad that's gone 0-5 on the road, but has a win versus Atlanta and two gritty losses to Seattle and Arizona the past two weeks. 

Offense

San Francisco was one of the pit stops on the Gase Head Coach Interview Tour, but as ex-play-caller Greg Roman departed for Buffalo, Tomsula was promoted from within.

Geep Chryst, the former director of research and quality control with the Bears under Mike Ditka and Dave Wannstedt (via UW-Platteville) got his first NFL O.C. gig since 2000 (for the 1-15 San Diego Chargers) with the Niners this year. Previously the quarterbacks coach that couldn't raise Colin Kaepernick's game, Chryst's unit ranks last in points per game and total offense and 30th in passing. But since Kaepernick's season-ending torn labrum a couple of weeks ago, Blaine Gabbert's been better than the former franchise QB. The ex-10th overall pick who washed out in Jacksonville has completed 65 percent of his passes with a 91 rating. He tossed for over 300 yards in Sunday's 19-13 loss to the Cardinals.

Both of Gabbert's touchdown passes in the two losses he's started have gone to tight end Vance McDonald, who has 10 receptions for 136 yards in those games after escaping the shadow of the traded Vernon Davis. Garrett Celek was also being utilized until his ankle injury Sunday, but their third tight end, former Oklahoma quarterback Blake Bell, slid in to grab three passes for 67 yards.

Outside of that group, Gabbert's been targeting brief 2014 Bear Shaun Draughn and Canton contender Anquan Boldin. Draughn's caught 17 passes and run for 146 yards (3.4 ypc) after Carlos Hyde (stress foot fracture), Reggie Bush (knee, IR) and Mike Davis (hand) hit the trainer's room. The 35-year-old Boldin (44-558, two TD's) continues carrying the wide receiver load. Gabbert found him eight times for 93 yards against the Cards, moving him into 13th on the all-time receptions list (past Randy Moss) and within 125 yards of Steve Largent for 17th on the NFL's  career receiving yards list.

Letting road-grater guard Mike Iupati depart in free agency (to division-rival Arizona) and the apparently temporary retirement of tackle Anthony Davis has weakened the offense's front. Four-time Pro Bowl tackle Joe Staley and guard Alex Boone (two of the five Super Bowl starters referenced above) remain, but center-to-right tackle has experienced either growing pains or mediocrity. The Niners have allowed 32 sacks (seventh-most in the league).

Defense

Justin Smith. Aldon Smith. Patrick Willis. Chris Borland. Chris Culliver. Perish Cox. Oh, and Ray McDonald. Those were seven key pieces Fangio had to play with that are now gone, part of a unit that had Top 5 finishes during his four years there with Harbaugh. They come to town ranked 29th in total defense, but had to be doing something good to hold Arizona to just two touchdowns Sunday.

This past offseason marked the second straight year the Niners lost both starting cornerbacks in free agency. Tramaine Brock dropped an easy end zone interception Sunday that would've been his fourth. Opposite corner Kenneth Acker also has three, but was benched for a while versus Arizona. Veteran safety Antoine Bethea is done for the season due to injury, but former Northern Illinois star Jimmie Ward remains the nickel back with the solid Eric Reid remaining a fixture at strong safety while second-round rookie Jaquiski Tartt has moved in for Bethea.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

NoVorro Bowman is as good as ever and a Comeback Player of the Year candidate following his gruesome knee injury two Januarys ago in the NFC title game. His 105 tackles ranks second in the league, while Ahmad Brooks has four sacks and 92 tackles while stepping outside the shadows of his role in the McDonald sexual assault fiasco. And while Willis and Borland retired, the linebacking corps has rebounded courtesy of 2014 fifth rounder Aaron Lynch (6'6, 270) who has 6.5 sacks in following up his six as a rookie. And Michael Wilhoite, an undrafted free agent five years ago from the Division II Washburn Ichabods, is just outside the NFL's Top 10 in tackles.

There's opportunity for the Bears' ground game to get untracked because new coordinator Eric Mangini's front no longer has Justin Smith, or McDonald and now Glenn Dorsey, who tore his ACL on the openings series two weeks ago. That leaves nose tackle Ian Williams working with third-year man Quinton Dial. But highly-touted 17th overall pick Arik Armstead had only seen spot duty before Dorsey's injury.

Special teams

Bruce Ellington is the kickoff and punt returner on units that rank 20th and 17th, respectively. 40-year-old Phil Dawson is still kicking younger than his age, hitting all 18 field goal attempts since his first of the season was blocked. The Niners invested a fifth-round pick in punter Bradley Pinion, but he and his coverage unit rank just 25th in gross average, 20th in net after trading three-time Pro Bowler Andy Lee.

Is Jordan Howard underrated in fantasy football?

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USA Today

Is Jordan Howard underrated in fantasy football?

Jordan Howard has accomplished some pretty amazing things to start his career. Most notably, he's the only running back in Chicago Bears franchise history to finish his first two seasons with more than 1,000 rushing yards, including 1,313 yards as a rookie, good for a team rookie record.

Still, Howard has been the target of criticism this offseason because of his questionable set of hands. He was plagued by a case of the drops last season and he's been labeled as a guy who can't catch the ball heading into 2018. Combine that with the player nipping at his heels -- Tarik Cohen -- and the overwhelming theory advanced by analysts is that he'll give way to Cohen on passing downs.

This presumption has made its way into the world of fantasy football, too. Howard is rarely if ever mentioned as one of the first running backs that should be drafted this summer and in a recent player vs. player showdown on Pro Football Focus, 49ers starter Jerick McKinnon was selected as a more appealing fantasy starter in 2018.

It’s close, but I give the nod to Jerick McKinnon. Howard’s troubles in the passing game are very real and it’s clear the Bears want to focus on that more this year. Meanwhile, McKinnon was handed a fat contract and has little competition when it comes to carries.

McKinnon, a career backup, was signed by San Franciso to be Kyle Shanahan's feature running back. He has a real chance to be a stud in fantasy circles, but should he be valued over a guy like Howard who's proven to be a contender for the NFL's rushing crown?

All of this offseason chatter will serve as great motivation for Howard who has to prove, first and foremost, that he can be a three-down back for coach Matt Nagy in the Bears' new offense. If he has a consistent training camp as a receiver and carries that momentum into the preseason and regular season, those fantasy players who draft McKinnon or another less-proven player over Howard will long for a redo.

15 Most Important Bears of 2018: No. 8 - Eddie Goldman

15 Most Important Bears of 2018: No. 8 - Eddie Goldman

Eddie Goldman is entering the final year of his contract this season and in order to cash in on a big payday, he'll need to stay healthy and make good on his top-tier potential. 

If he does, he'll become a very wealthy man and the Bears defense will have an even better year than its top-10 finish a season ago.

Goldman, 24, came to Chicago via the second round of the 2015 NFL draft and quickly became a household name among Bears fans. He started 12 games that season and finished with a surprising 4 1/2 sacks, a total that was more productive than his college scouting report predicted. He was pegged as a breakout star for 2016, but injuries ultimately derailed his second season. He played only six games that year (started five) but still flashed a surprisingly productive set of pass-rush traits; he finished 2016 with 2 1/2 sacks.

This past season represented something of a mixed bag for Goldman. He started 15 games and quieted some of the injury concerns that started bubbling around him, but his production dipped. He managed only 1 1/2 sacks. That said, he set a career-high with 27 tackles, nearly doubling his output as a rookie.

Still, Goldman wasn't a dominant force in 2017. He finished the year ranked 69th among interior defenders with a 76.3 grade from Pro Football Focus. Despite being healthy and available, it was the lowest season grade of his career from PFF.

Nose tackle is arguably the most critical position for any defense running a 3-4 scheme. It's no exception in Chicago. Goldman will set the table for linebackers Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith and the more bodies he can consume or attention he can draw from offensive lines, the more room second-level defenders will have to work. It's not just about filling up the stat sheet for Goldman. If he clogs running lanes and collapses the pocket consistently, he'll be worth every penny of a big contract extension despite lacking numbers.

The Bears need Goldman to bring his A-game in 2018, especially as a pass rusher. Chicago resides in arguably the most talented quarterback division in the NFL and for the defense to make those quarterbacks uncomfortable, Goldman has to apply pressure up the middle. He's proven he can do it, as evidenced by his rookie year production. But he's been on a steady decline in this area of his game since then and there's no room for more regression in 2018.

Players entering contract years tend to bring extra motivation to the field and there's no reason to expect anything less from Goldman. If he can combine his rookie year production with last season's availability, he could end up with the most well-rounded year of his career en route to leading the Bears' defensive line on a late-season playoff push.