Bears

Bears free-agency analysis: Better does not necessarily mean good

Bears free-agency analysis: Better does not necessarily mean good

This is the last in a series analyzing the Bears' decision-making during the 2017 free-agency period.

From 3/13: Bears free agency analysis: Alshon Jeffery non-deal left an understandable void

From 3/14: Bears free-agency analysis: Offseason OL pattern holds with Tom Compton

From 3/15: Bears free-agency analysis: Ryan Pace overhauls secondary

As the first and second waves of free agency recede, a handful of observations as to the effects the Bears' spate of signings will have on the bigger, 2017 picture, with the overall conclusion that the Bears are better than a year ago, although "better" does not equate to "good," which the Bears need more than a few signings to be.

It would be difficult for the Bears not to emerge from the signing period any worse off than they finished the 2016 season. And while the dozen signings did not carry the splash factor of a handful of others (cornerback Stephon Gilmore to the New England Patriots, defensive lineman Calais Campbell to the Jacksonville Jaguars, wide receiver Alshon Jeffery to the Philadelphia Eagles), at the very least the Bears upgraded themselves, if not as much as they or their fan base might've preferred.

But the reality is that at the positions of need, the Bears got incrementally better over where they were in 2016, like the additions or not.

Quarterback: Mike Glennon for Jay Cutler/Brian Hoyer? Cutler and Hoyer are career mid-level NFL quarterbacks at best. Until Glennon proves something, he's not there yet. The Bears are gambling that he has upside that none of their incumbent options had; until then...       +/-? Minus

Defensive line: The Bears defense suffered when nose tackle Eddie Goldman was down with an ankle injury. Opponents averaged 3.8 yards per carry in the six games Goldman played, 4.8 in the 10 he missed, replaced by chiefly by Will Sutton. Bears signed former New Orleans Saints/Seattle Seahawks nose tackle John Jenkins on Friday. Jenkins or Sutton? +/-? Plus

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Cornerback: Prince Amukamara and Marcus Cooper will not make Chicago forget Charles Tillman anytime soon. And they did not rate on a par with Gilmore, A.J. Bouye or Logan Ryan. But the Bears started Jacoby Glenn, Bryce Callahan, Cre'Von LeBlanc and Johnthan Banks at the corner opposite Tracy Porter. Callahan has upside but the signings are steps up from the 2016 collage. +/-? Plus

Safety: Quintin Demps at 32 is a de facto bridge rather than long-term solution. And with two picks in the first 36, the Bears will be in position to add a top-shelf safety via the draft. In the meantime, Demps or Harold Jones-Quartey? Or Adrian Amos? +/-? Plus

Receiver: Losing Jeffery created a void in the passing offense, taking away a wideout with 304 catches over the past five years. The Bears expect Cam Meredith and Kevin White to provide size on the outside, and went for speed in signings of Markus Wheaton and Kendall Wright, who combined for 387 catches over those same five years. +/-? Minus

Tight end: Zach Miller is the usual known unknown, coming back from IR. The Bears already re-signed Daniel Brown. Logan Paulsen among the NFL's most-penalized tight ends, with more infractions (6) than pass receptions (3), including none over the final eight games. Dion Sims graded out as a better blocker and had 26 receptions, including four games with as many or more as Paulsen had all season. +/-? Plus

Offensve line: The offense changed starting offensive lines five times last season, primarily because of injuries at guard (Kyle Long, Josh Sitton). Tackles Charles Leno and Bobby Massie accounted for a combined 31 of 32 starts, with Mike Adams stepping in at right tackle for one game (New York Gaints). Signing Tom Compton creates competition for Massie in particular, but also puts a proven swing tackle behind the starters. +/-? Plus

How can the Bears make Khalil Mack even better in 2019?

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USA Today

How can the Bears make Khalil Mack even better in 2019?

In the midst of Khalil Mack’s All-Pro debut season with the Bears, then-outside linebackers coach Brandon Staley offered a thought of how his star pupil could be even better in 2019. With the benefit of a full offseason of OTAs and training camp, the Bears would be able to move Mack around more within their defense, which would present tougher challenges for opposing coaching staffs trying to gameplan for him. 

Staley left for the Denver Broncos along with Vic Fangio back in January. But a new coaching staff has the same thought: There’s more to what Mack can do than we saw in 2018. And 2018 was pretty impressive. 

“There will be opportunities for him to do a variety of things from a variety of different alignments,” senior defensive assistant/outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino said. “Freedom, he has a little bit. But variety he has plenty. There’s plenty of things that we’re going to try to use him for and to do with him that allow him to showcase the things he does well.”

The No. 1 thing Mack does well, to boil it down, is wreck a game. Every head coach and offensive coordinator around the league has to develop a plan for limiting those game-wrecking abilities. It meant quick throws, the kind that leave the quarterback’s hand before Mack can even set up a pass-rushing move, for some teams. For others, it meant offering extra pass protection support through committing a tight end, running back or both to slowing him down. Mack still found a way to total 12 1/2 sacks and 73 total pressures, all while an ankle injury effectively wiped out four games in the middle of the season. 

“You’ve got a phenomenal, phenomenal athlete, all that stuff” defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. “He’s a great football player, but he’s a better teammate. And he’s a better person. He doesn’t say much, but actions speak louder than words. Again, he’s a great worker. He’s a smart guy. He picks things up. Not gonna say much, but out here on the football field he’s going to lead by example.” 

As the 2018 season progressed, the Bears felt more comfortable with having Mack play on the left and right during games, not one spot exclusively (in the season’s first four weeks, 166 of Mack’s snaps came on the left and 25 came on the right, per Pro Football Focus). By the playoffs, the Bears were able to strategically use Mack on either side of their defense to try to counter-act the scheming done by Eagles coach Doug Pederson (Mack played 26 snaps on the left and 26 on the right in that game, per Pro Football Focus). 

But both the previous and current coaching staffs envision Mack being able to do more than just line up on either side of the formation. And Monachino has experience in figuring out the best way to create that variety he talked about, too: He was Terrell Suggs’ position coach in 2011 when the Baltimore Ravens edge rusher won defensive player of the year honors (also: That was the lone year in which Pagano was the Ravens’ defensive coordinator). 

Suggs primarily rushed from various defensive line positions (end/outside linebacker, as designated by Pro Football Focus), but lined up off the ball on a little under 20 percent of his snaps in 2011. An NFL.com article described him as playing a “hybrid-linebacker” position, which sounds about right. 

Suggs finished 2011 with 14 sacks, seven forced fumbles and two interceptions. 

It’s only May, which means it’s far too early to predict how the Bears will use Mack. Coaches don’t even know the specifics yet. But it’s fair to expect a few different wrinkles for how Mack’s game-wrecking ability is deployed in the Bears’ defense with a full complement of offseason practices — and, too, the coaching minds of Monachino and Pagano. 

“With a player like this, you don’t even have to sit in the offense’s meeting rooms on the other side to know that they have to tend to him on every snap,” Monachino said, referencing Suggs. “They have to know where (former Pittsburgh Steelers safety) Troy Polamalu is on every snap. You gotta know where (Houston Texans edge rusher) JJ Watt is on every snap. This is a guy that you have to do that with. So with Khalil, being able to predict that they’re going to talk about, how do we tend to Khalil Mack on every snap, and then being able to move him into different spots and then to show him in different ways and to do different things with him, it’s going to be really valuable for the defense.”

The Bears are getting a different type of nickel cornerback in Buster Skrine

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USA Today

The Bears are getting a different type of nickel cornerback in Buster Skrine

When the Bears’ defense takes the field against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers on Opening Night, they’ll be returning 9 of the 11 starters that were part of a 2018 squad that was one of the best in Bears’ history. 

One of the few new faces that figure to be among the starting 11 is cornerback Buster Skrine. Gone is Bryce Callahan, who left for Vic Fangio’s Denver team after spending the first four years of his career in Chicago. Though Bears’ scouts have had their eye on Skrine for a few seasons now, it was his more palatable three-year, $16.5 million contract -- compared to Callahan’s three-year, $21 million contract -- that finally got him in house. 

“Me and Buster came out the exact same year, and I’ve watched him,” Prince Amukamara said after OTAs on Wednesday afternoon. “He actually played with my best friend and he would always talk about how fast Buster is -- especially when Buster played gunner. 

“I’ve always watched him, and I feel like he’s very similar to Bryce [Callahan] by being quick and being active. I’m definitely happy with the pick up.” 

Once considered a spot to place the third-best, less-athletic cornerback, no position has seen it's value increase so dramatically over the last decade. Offenses are changing dramatically; no team saw more three receiver sets in 2018 than the Bears’ defense. Per Sharp Stats, opposing offenses lined up in 11 personnel against Chicago 78% of the time. The next closest was the Chiefs at 71%, and the NFL average is 65%. 

“I think nickel is a different ball game,” Amukamara added. “I would say it can be one of the hardest positions on the field, just because you’re on an island, but the receiver has so much room to work with. Plus, it’s a lot of mental gymnastics, so you’ve got to know when you’re blitzing, know when you’re running, and so we put a lot on our nickel.” 

Despite not being considered part of a what teams have traditionally considered base defense, the pass-happy nature of this era in the NFL has all but mandated that nickel corners are on the field for most of the defensive snaps. It’s no coincidence that before breaking his foot against the Rams in Week 12, Callahan was on pace to set a career-high in snap percentage. 

“Nowadays, you see a lot more sub packages,” Bears defensive backs coach Deshea Townsend said. “You’re probably playing 70% in sub during a game now… Otherwise, it hasn’t really changed - he just plays more. That’s the thing - he is technically a starter. He’s probably going to run on the field first in a lot of games, and by rule that’s a starter.

“One thing about the nickel position is that you’ve got to do a little bit of both. You can’t just go out on 3rd down and cover and run the option routes. Now they’re going to hand off the ball and find out where you’re at and you’re going to have to make a tackle. That’s the difference in the position now - it’s a first and second down type of guy that has to be able to do it all.”

While Skrine isn’t considered as good a cover corner as Callahan, Skrine’s pass rush and run defense looks pretty similar. Per Pro Football Focus, Skrine’s run defense graded out significantly higher (80.7) than Callahan’s (57.8). 

“With Buster, it’s about his playing experience,” Townsend added. “He’s a guy who will mix it up in the run. He can blitz, and he’s reliable. He’s tough.”