Bears

Bears hire Tulane HC Curtis Johnson to coach wide receivers

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Bears hire Tulane HC Curtis Johnson to coach wide receivers

The Bears filled a key vacancy on their coaching staff on Monday, hiring Curtis Johnson to replace Mike Groh as wide receivers coach in addition to adding Ben McDaniels as offensive assistant.

Johnson, who was Tulane head coach from 2012-15, was wide receivers coach for the New Orleans Saints from 2006-11 while Bears GM Ryan Pace was Saints director of pro scouting. During that stretch the Saints led the NFL in gross passing yards (28,749), completion percentage (67.6) and passing touchdowns (202). The Saints had 42 100-yard receiving performances by wide receivers during those six seasons. The Saints made four playoff appearances, won three division titles and won Super Bowl XLIV following the 2009 season while Johnson was with the team. In 2011, New Orleans established an NFL record for gross passing yards (5,505; now second in NFL history).

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Johnson was the position coach for wideout Marques Colston, drafted in the 2006 seventh round by the Saints. Prior to the NFL, Johnson coached at Miami where his players included future NFL Pro Bowlers Andre Johnson, Santana Moss and Reggie Wayne.

Johnson replaces Groh, who left to become receivers coach and passing-game coordinator for the Los Angeles Rams after the Bears named Dowell Loggains to replace Adam Gase as offensive coordinator.

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McDaniels is the brother of former Denver Broncos head coach and current New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. Ben McDaniels coached the past two seasons at Rutgers, last year serving as offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach. Prior to his time at Rutgers, McDaniels spent two seasons (2012-13) as an offensive assistant with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. From 2009-10, McDaniels worked on the staff of the Denver Broncos, overseeing the quarterbacks in 2010 after starting as an offensive assistant in 2009.

The Bears also promoted Pierre Ngo to assistant strength and conditioning coach.

Three questions for Bears OL: What kind of an impact will Harry Hiestand make?

Three questions for Bears OL: What kind of an impact will Harry Hiestand make?

Pre-camp depth chart
LT
1. Charles Leno
2. Bradley Sowell
3. Matt McCants

LG
1. Eric Kush
2. James Daniels
3. Jordan Morgan
4. Will Pericak

C
1. Cody Whitehair
2. James Daniels
3. Hroniss Grasu

RG
1. Kyle Long
2. Earl Watford
3. Brandon Greene
4. Jeremi Hall

RT
1. Bobby Massie
2. Bradley Sowell
3. Dejon Allen

1. Can Kyle Long get and stay healthy?

The expectation is that Long will be cleared to practice for the beginning of training camp, paving the way for him to be part of the Bears’ Week 1 starting lineup (Matt Nagy said in June that Long will be “good to go” for camp, for what it’s worth). Long has played less than 50 percent of the Bears’ offensive snaps in the last two years due to a string of injuries, and the 29-year-old underwent procedures on his shoulder, elbow and neck after his season ended. 

Long’s toughness isn’t in question — that he still started nine games last year despite never being 100 percent is a testament to that — but the Bears need him to play more for their offensive line to be at its best. Long’s health, and if he gets any planned rest days, will be a daily storyline in Bourbonnais. 

The good news, though, is Long already impressed his new offensive line coach during OTAs and minicamp despite not being able to do much on the field. 

“He really wants to be good,” Harry Hiestand said. “He’s fun to be around, he comes in the meeting room every day with a smile on his face, looking forward to working. He’s very interested in helping the other guys. I didn’t know that about him. But after I’ll say something, the meeting will break and they’ll be walking out to get a break and he’ll be like, you know what coach was talking about there to the young guys. So that part’s been really good about him.” 

2. Where will James Daniels wind up?

The snap assumption — pun intended — when the Bears drafted Daniels in the second round was that he’d play center and Cody Whitehair would shift over to left guard, where he played in college. But the Bears quickly quashed that theory, with Ryan Pace telling the media shortly after drafting Daniels that the Iowa product would begin his pro career practicing as a guard and cross-training at center. 

Daniels, indeed, worked at both positions during OTAs and minicamp, and trying to read any tea leaves from non-padded practices for offensive linemen can be a bit of a stretch. So we’ll get a good idea of where the Bears envision Daniels’ long-term position during training camp practices and then, more importantly, in preseason games. 

Wherever the 20-year-old Daniels winds up, though, the Bears are confident they added a solid piece to protect Mitch Trubisky and pave the way for Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen. 

“The benefit of having a guy like James Daniels, he’s versatile, he can play different positions,” Nagy said in May. “So (we’re) able to let him come in here and play guard and see what he can do, learn from the other guys, let Harry teach these guys the technique.”

3. Can Charles Leno keep growing under Harry Hiestand?

Pro Football Focus ranked Leno as the 15th best tackle in the NFL in 2017, while Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 rankings slotted him 20th among left tackles. Somewhere in that range probably seems right — Leno is a solid player but not among the best tackles in the league.

And here’s the thing: That’s fine. Leno’s four-year contract carries an average annual salary of $9.25 million, which ranks 16th among tackles. Ryan Pace believed in Leno’s upside when he signed him to that deal last August, and if Hiestand — who never coached a game without a future first-round pick at left tackle in six years at Notre Dame — can help Leno realize that potential, the Bears will have an absolute bargain at left tackle for years to come. 

“He’s going to push us,” Leno said. “He’s going to make sure we’re working every single day. Everybody’s coming to work every single day grinding, trying to get better at something, whether it’s putting your hands inside, or hands up, whatever it may be, you’re getting better at something. He’s pushing us to do that. so that just makes us better.”

Even if Leno doesn’t hit that upside and maintains being “solid” or “fine” or whatever you want to call it, that won’t necessarily be a deterrent to the Bears’ success. Ten of the top 20 tackles in Pro Football Focus’ rankings played for a team that didn’t make the playoffs in 2017 — and while, of course, having an elite left tackle is preferable, the Bears can still be competitive with Leno manning that position in 2018.

15 Most Important Bears of 2018: No. 9 - Charles Leno, Jr.

15 Most Important Bears of 2018: No. 9 - Charles Leno, Jr.

All the high-flying receivers and the playmaking tight end that GM Ryan Pace added to the Chicago Bears this offseason will be rendered powerless if Mitch Trubisky doesn't have time to throw, making left tackle Charles Leno, Jr. one of the most important players on the roster this season.

The good news is Leno has already proven he's a solid starting tackle. He was the 15th-best offensive tackle in the NFL last season on Pro Football Focus' grading scale, earning an 80.4 (the highest grade of his career). Dig a little deeper into PFF's stats, however, and Leno ranked 20th in pass protection, suggesting he's in the bottom half of NFL starters in the aspect of his game the Bears need him to be reliable at. As a run blocker, Leno ranked 11th.

Still, Leno has steadily improved in each year of his career. The analytics show that. Here are his grades since his rookie season from PFF: 53.5 (2014); 56.3 (2015); 71.2 (2016); 80.4 (2017). His improvement should continue in 2018, especially with new offensive line coach Harry Hiestand fine-tuning his game. 

Leno has enjoyed an unexpected rise from seventh-round pick to a player who signed a four-year, $38 million extension at the start of last season. If his development continues, the Bears have a salary-cap bargain with Leno, whose average annual salary ranks 14th among left tackles at the start of 2018.

Chicago invested big money in Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Trey Burton as well as draft capital in Anthony Miller, who they selected in the second round this year by trading away a second-round pick next year to move up and grab him. The only way they'll get a return on that investment is if Leno establishes, early in the season, that Trubisky can trust him. That trust is critically important not only for an effective offense this year but also for Trubisky's overall development. If he starts seeing ghosts in the pocket because of constant pressure from his blindside, Chicago's long-term plan can easily get derailed.

Leno will benefit from Trubisky's mobility and coach Matt Nagy's creativity. He doesn't have to be a perfect left tackle. But there will be a devastating ripple effect on the rest of the offense if he struggles, making him one of the Bears' most critical players in 2018.