Bears

Bears: Matt Forte situation means looking beyond simple conclusions

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Bears: Matt Forte situation means looking beyond simple conclusions

Something doesn’t feel quite right about the Bears’ decision not to pursue a new contract with Matt Forte. Not suggesting any skullduggery or unseemliness here, just that it is difficult to conclude something like the letting of Forte exit without an offer signaling that the Bears are giving up on 2016 or other impulse conclusion.

Ostensibly, Forte represented a quality, continuity linchpin in a Chicago offense that is transitioning from Adam Gase to Dowell Loggains at offensive coordinator. Forte has the unqualified trust of quarterback Jay Cutler, a proven receiver and pass protector beyond his obvious effectiveness at carrying the football. The Bears cannot afford any slippage in Cutler’s buy-in with the offense under Loggains.

The Fox Factor

The notion of the Bears of John Fox already deciding, before both free agency and the draft, that 2016 will involve acceptable losses, i.e., eschewing playoff aspirations, makes no sense. That has not been Fox’s pattern with Carolina or Denver; why now? Maybe; but I don’t buy it.

For perspective purposes, Fox and the Panthers let go of their top two rushers of 2001 when Fox was hired, and the win total increased by six. They let go their top two again the next year, and the win total went up another four and the team went to the Super Bowl.

[MORE: Replacing Matt Forte? Good luck, Bears]

Fox’s Denver Broncos won 13 games in 2012 with Willis McGahee at age 31 rushing for 4.4 yards per carry and backup Knowshon Moreno averaging 3.7, kind of Jeremy Langford’esque. The next year, McGahee was gone, Moreno netted 1,038 yards and 4.3 per carry, and the Broncos were in the Super Bowl.

No team improves directly because of getting rid of a good football player. But neither does parting with a solid player ensure backsliding.

Money matters

Be careful about simply looking at a hefty amount of money under a salary cap, or that cap increasing, and concluding that it means a team can afford pretty much anything it wants. The reality is that as the cap goes up, contracts escalate proportionately. Agents are nothing if not savvy practitioners of at least one element of Keynesian economics: The more money there is pursuing goods and services, the more the prices go up.

Forte's agent Adisa Bakari secured a better-than-market deal for Forte in 2012. The surprise would be if Forte and his representatives do not already have a read on the market, how much interest in Forte and from whom it will come (start with any of the playoff teams other than Denver).

[SHOP BEARS: Get your Bears gear right here]

Frank Gore last offseason set a market for quality running backs at or approaching age 30. The Indianapolis Colts signed Gore away from San Francisco for a deal based on $6.5 million guaranteed. Chris Johnson at age 30 signed a one-year deal last season for $2 million. Gore failed to average four yards per carry for the first time in his 11 NFL seasons. Johnson fractured a leg but did rush for more than 800 yards.

Simply having the money doesn’t mean automatically spending it.

Offensive adjusting

Neither Langford nor Ka’Deem Carey averaged four yards per carry last season, which Forte did. But the Chicago offense was virtually without a coherent passing component due to the blizzard of injuries that took down, at one time or another, every important receiver in the offense.

The Bears are expected to retain wideout Alshon Jeffery via either franchise tag or multi-year contract. They are also on track to have Kevin White recovered from his stress fracture. With Eddie Royal then able to assume his intended role as No. 3, the question is not whether the stretched field will benefit Langford and Carey, but rather how much.

Best guess is that no one single reason lay behind the Forte decision, which takes out of Chicago one of the true elite, if underrated, talents in the game. The Bears did not get better when they stepped away from Forte; but it is difficult to believe that, under a coach who turned 61 last week, they made a move that they believe makes them worse big-picture.

Three questions for Bears ILBs: What kind of an impact will Roquan Smith make?

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USA TODAY

Three questions for Bears ILBs: What kind of an impact will Roquan Smith make?

Pre-camp depth chart

1. Danny Trevathan
2. John Timu
3. Joel Iyiegbuniwe

1. Roquan Smith
2. Nick Kwiatkoski
3. Jonathan Anderson

1. How good can Roquan Smith be?

Making sweeping observations from shorts-and-helmets practices in OTAs is often a fool’s errand, but Smith looked the part while running around the practice fields of Halas Hall after being drafted in April. His quickness and instinctiveness stood out — as they did at Georgia — and his football intelligence and work ethic were praised by coaches and teammates. 

“He’s learning well,” Trevathan said. “He’s doing a good job of learning. He’s learning the little things that you need to learn in this defense. Now it’s all about putting on a show and going out there and rocking.”

And that’s what’s going to be fun to watch in Bourbonnais: How does Smith play with the pads on? Chances are, the answer to that question will be “well,” setting the eighth overall pick on a path to being a mainstay of this defense for years to come. 

That’s not to say Smith doesn’t have plenty on which to work during training camp. But he left Georgia as a sort of “safe bet” in the draft, and nothing he’s done to this point has changed the view of him that he’s likely going to be a good one. 

2. Can Danny Trevathan stay healthy?

In terms of size and athleticism, Trevathan and Smith profile similar to NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis, the inside linebacking tandem that was the spine of the San Francisco 49ers defense during Fangio’s time there. But for Trevathan and Smith to reach that lofty bar — or even to come close to it — Trevathan needs to be more available than he was his first two years with the Bears.

This isn’t questioning Trevathan’s toughness — far from it. That he returned for Week 1 of the 2017 season 10 months after rupturing his patellar tending (an injury that can be a career-ender) was impressive, and that he was immediately productive upon returning was even more extraordinary. But Trevathan missed three games in November due to a strained calf, and coupled with a one-game suspension and the seven games he missed in 2016, the 28-year-old has only played in 21 of 32 games since signing with the Bears. 

Trevathan is confident he can improve his production in 2018, given he wasn’t able to participate in last year’s offseason program practices. He’s entering his third year in Fangio’s defense and feels better prepared after going through OTAs and minicamps this year. It’s just now about him staying on the field to make sure that work pays off.

“I’m more comfortable with this defense, I’m more comfortable with the guys and the calls that we make,” Trevathan said. “I take pride in being correct and working my tail off and making the defense better. And the more that I can be out there — which I plan on being out there a lot — it’s going to help us tremendously.” 

3. How big a role will Nick Kwiatkoski have?

The Bears didn’t draft Smith because they felt like they absolutely needed to upgrade over Kwiatkoski, who’s acquitted himself well in 25 games since being picked in the fourth round of the 2016 draft. But Kwiatkoski has dealt with some injury issues, and for as solid a player as he may be, the Bears’ defense needed (and still needs) more great players. Drafting Smith gave the Bears a shot at adding a great player.

It also leaves Kwiatkoski in the same spot he was in a year ago, when the Bears entered the 2017 season with Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman as their unquestioned starting inside linebackers. Smith still has to earn that starting spot, but the safe bet is he will, relegating Kwiatkoski again to reserve duties.

And that’s a positive for the overall health of this defense, having a player good enough to start ready to play if needed. But it also raises this question: What do the Bears do with Kwiatkoski if he’s one of their four best linebackers, but isn’t one of their two best inside linebackers? 

So for the purposes of watching training camp practices, seeing if Kwiatkoski gets any reps at outside linebacker will be an interesting storyline to follow. 

Bears shutout in poll of NFL's best starters under 25

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USA Today

Bears shutout in poll of NFL's best starters under 25

Maybe this is what happens when a team is coming off a 5-11 season and has won only 14 games over three years. Maybe it's just another example of the Chicago Bears being overlooked and underrated. Regardless of the 'why,' a recent poll of NFL experts has provided more fuel for the Bears in 2018.

ESPN's Field Yates asked 43 insiders and former players for their list of the top under-25-year-old starters in the NFL and not a single Chicago Bear made the cut.

No Jordan Howard. No Mitchell Trubisky. No Allen Robinson.

Not a single Bear.

The most shocking omission is Howard, who finished second in the NFL in rushing in 2016 and sixth last year despite facing defenses that focused their entire game plan on stopping him every single week. At only 23 years old, he's clearly one of the top young running backs in the NFL and warranted a spot on this list. 

Instead, the Rams' Todd Gurley, Cowboys' Ezekiel Elliott and Giants rookie Saquon Barkley got the nod.

Howard has more rushing yards than Gurley over the last two seasons and trails Elliott by only 179. Barkley has yet to take a snap in the NFL.

The Bears were recently named the most underrated team in the league heading into 2018 and this is just another piece of evidence justifying that claim. A winning season will change the national perception of players like Howard, who with another year of high-end production should find himself at or near the top of many of these lists next offseason.