Bears

Bears In-Foe: Blake Bortles, 'Allen Brothers' trying to help Jaguars gain traction

Bears In-Foe: Blake Bortles, 'Allen Brothers' trying to help Jaguars gain traction

Patience has been at a premium for head coach Gus Bradley with Jaguars owner Shad Khan, and the former Seahawks defensive coordinator should count himself a lucky man, considering a 12-36 record in his first three seasons. But that pressure for better results figures to be ramped up this season with a bumper crop of talent on both sides of the ball for the University of Illinois-schooled owner who made his fortune supplying auto manufacturers with...yes, bumpers.

Last year, Jacksonville was hanging in there at 4-6 before dropping five of its last six contests. They proceeded to drop their first three this season before beating the Colts, which the Bears just lost to, two Sundays ago in London. But despite Bradley's expertise, it was the offense that showed significant growth a year ago, jumping from 31st overall in 2014 to 18th under the direction of former Bears quarterbacks coach (2003) Greg Olson.

After a carousel of nine starting quarterbacks in ten years, 2014 third overall pick Blake Bortles settled in in his sophomore season to throw for over 4,400 yards, and 35 touchdowns opposite 18 interceptions. That sparked the scoring offense to spike by eight points per game, and the aerial attack to leap from 31st to 10th. Through the first four games this season, though, Bortles has plateaued. While his completion percentage has risen slightly to 61.4, his quarterback rating has slipped by nine points, with seven TDs and six picks. While the 6-foot-5, 240-pounder out of Central Florida had a league-leading 72 completions of 20-plus yards a year ago, there have been just seven games in his career he hasn't turned the ball over (most recently against the Colts).

A huge reason for his success? The "Allen Brothers" (duh...not related) - Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns. Both are 6-foot-3. Both arrived, like Bortles, in 2014; Robinson a second-round pick out of Penn State, Hurns an undrafted free agent out of Miami (Fla). Last season, the two combined for 144 receptions for 2,431 yards and 24 touchdowns. Wow. Of Robinson's 80 catches, 31 went for 20 or more yards. So far, a quarter of the way through this season, each is at roughly the same pace as a year ago (Robinson: 21-238, 3 TDs; Hurns: 15-226, 1 TD), meaning the Bears' cornerbacks had better be ready Sunday on the lakefront. Overshadowed is the other wideout the Jags invested a 2014 second-round pick in, injury-probe Marquise Lee. Former Broncos tight end Julius Thomas got a rich deal two offseasons ago, but settled for 46 receptions last year, with 11 this so far this year, but he's never played a full season. He thinks he'll be ready for the Bears after sitting out the game in London with an elbow injury. The first-round pick from ten years ago, Marcedes Lewis, starts as well in two-tight end sets.

[RELATED: Bears In-Foe: Jags 'D' making small steps after big paydays]

2015 second-rounder T.J. Yeldon had groin and foot injuries his rookie year (740 yards rushing, 36 receptions) and is averaging only 3.2 yards a carry in a rushing offense averaging just 55 yards a game until he gained 97 yards on 18 carries against Indianapolis. Amidst all the Jags' defensive free agent investments, they also signed Pro Bowler and last year's sixth-leading rusher, Chris Ivory, away from a Jets team that had its eyes on Matt Forte. But Ivory was hospitalized suddenly the morning of the season opener, and the reason has been kept under wraps. That sidelined him the first two games, and as he's tried to get back to full strength, he's carried just 20 times for only 43 yards.

That's behind a rather ordinary offensive line that invested 2014 and 2015 third-round picks on the interior (center Brandon Lindner and guard A.J. Cann). But 2013 second overall pick Luke Joeckel had been a disappointment, being moved from tackle to guard. And after not being offered a fifth-year tender, sustained a season-ending left knee injury in London involving two ligaments and a meniscus. Former Bear Patrick Omameh could slide into that position. The tackles are offseason free agent signees the last two years: Kelvin Beachum (Steelers) and Jeremy Parnell (Cowboys). As a unit, the line has allowed 61 and 51 sacks the last two years, respectively, with a dozen so far this season.

So far on third down, the Jaguars rank last in the league (28.3 percent).

NFL Mock Draft: Bears add pass-catching TE in 2nd round

NFL Mock Draft: Bears add pass-catching TE in 2nd round

Get used to the Bears being connected to just about all of the top tight end prospects in the 2020 NFL Draft as the mock-draft season kicks into high gear.

The latest mock draft from the Draft Wire is no exception. In this two-rounder, the Bears snag Washington tight end Hunter Bryant at No. 43 overall.

Here's how Bryant's game profiles, via The Draft Network's scouting report:

Hunter Bryant should be a dynamic receiving threat at the NFL level. Bryant brings excellent quickness, run after catch skills and versatility to a flex tight end role. Plugging Bryant into a traditional inline role will water down his receiving skills — he's best working off the LOS or as a flexed slot receiver who can serve as a H/W/S mismatch for opposing defenders. If Bryant it put in such a flex role, look for early production and long-term starter status in the pros. 

Sure sounds like the kind of player the Bears could use in the passing game, where the entire tight end depth chart combined for just 44 catches last season. Trey Burton led the way with 14. It was a brutal year at the position.

Naturally, adding a playmaker who can expand Matt Nagy's playcalling toolbox is a critical 'must' for Ryan Pace this offseason, and a prospect like Bryant could be an ideal fit.

In Round 2 of this mock draft, the Bears add Ohio State linebacker Malik Harrison. Like tight end, linebacker will be an area of need depending on what happens with free agents Danny Trevathan and Nick Kwiatkoski. It's likely that one of them will return, but even with Trevathan or Kwiatkoski back in the fold, the Bears have to add depth behind the starters. Will they address that need as early as the second round? Probably not, especially with pressing needs along the offensive line and in the defensive backfield.

If, however, Harrison does end up being the pick, the Bears would be getting a strong run defender who doesn't project as an every-down player at this point in his evaluation. He's likely to slide into the third round, if not later.

Should the NFL’s playoff changes mean the Bears should be more aggressive in a quarterback trade or free agent signing?

Should the NFL’s playoff changes mean the Bears should be more aggressive in a quarterback trade or free agent signing?

If the NFL’s proposed collective bargaining agreement is ratified, seven teams from each conference will make the playoffs in 2020— a change that will immediately alter the league's player movement landscape in the coming weeks and months.

Under the proposed structure, the Los Angeles Rams would’ve been the NFC’s No. 7 seed in 2019, with the 8-8 Bears finishing one game out of a playoff spot (really, two games, given they lost to the Rams). But as the Tennessee Titans showed last year, just getting into the dance can spark an underdog run to a conference title game. The vast majority of the NFL — those not in full-on tank mode — should view the potential for a seventh playoff spot as a license to be more aggressive in the free agent and trade market as soon as a few weeks from now.

So, should the Bears look at this new CBA as reason to be more aggressive in pushing to acquire one of the big-name quarterbacks who will, or could, be available this year? After all, merely slightly better quarterback play could’ve leapfrogged the Bears past the Rams and into the playoffs a year ago.

The prospect of Teddy Bridgewater or Derek Carr or Andy Dalton representing that upgrade feels tantalizing on the surface, right?

But the CBA’s addition of a seventh playoff team does not, as far as we know, also include an addition of significantly more cap space available to teams in 2020, even if the salary cap has increased 40 percent over the last five years. An extra $25 million is not walking through that door to add to the roughly $14 million the Bears currently have in cap space, per the NFLPA’s public salary cap report.

So that means every reason we laid out why the Bears should not make a splash move at quarterback remains valid, even with the NFL lowering its postseason barrier to entry.

The Bears’ best bet in 2020 remains signing a cheaper quarterback like Case Keenum or Marcus Mariota (who shares an agent with Mitch Trubisky, potentially complicating things) and banking on roster improvements being the thing that gets them back into the playoffs. Adding a quarterback for $17 million — Dalton’s price — or more would hamstring the Bears’ ability to address critical needs at tight end, right guard, inside linebacker and safety, thus giving the Bears a worse roster around a quarterback who’s no sure bet to be good enough to cover for the holes his cap hit would create.

Does it feel like a good bet? No, and maybe feels worse if it’s easier to get in the playoffs in 2020. But a Trubisky-Keenum pairing, complete with a new starting right guard to help the run game and more than just Demetrius Harris to upgrade the tight end room, is a better bet than Dalton or Bridgewater and a worse roster around them.

Also: This new playoff structure will tilt the balance of power significantly toward the No. 1 seeds in each conference. The last time a team made the Super Bowl without the benefit of a first-round bye was after the 2012 season, when the No. 4 seed Baltimore Ravens won the title. Otherwise, every Super Bowl participant since hasn't played on wild card weekend. 

So while the Bears may become closer to the playoffs if the new CBA is ratified, they won’t be closer to getting a No. 1 seed. And that holds true even if they were to find a way to sign Tom Brady.

Getting in the playoffs can spark something special. But the Bears’ best path back to meaningful January football still involves an inexpensive approach to addressing their blaring need for better quarterback play. 
Is it ideal? No.

But it’s far less ideal to be in this situation three years after taking the first quarterback off the board with 2017’s No. 2 overall pick. 

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