Bears NFL Draft Preview: Is running back a priority?

Bears NFL Draft Preview: Is running back a priority? Bears Insider John "Moon" Mullin goes position by position as the Bears approach the 2016 Draft, taking a look at what the Bears have, what they might need and what draft days and after could have in store.

Bears pre-draft situation

Matt Forte approached the Bears last offseason with an offer to rework the final year of his contract and its $9.2 million cap hit. The Bears passed, not only then, but also after the 2016 season when Forte made no secret of his desire to re-sign in Chicago after. The Bears instead informed the veteran running back that they wouldn’t be offering him a new contract.

Forte went on the open market and settled with the New York Jets on a three-year deal calling for $9 million guaranteed. The Bears were not going to be thinking anywhere in that range for a 30-year-old running back, even with his distinguished history with the franchise.

That left Jeremy Langford the presumptive starter and Ka’Deem Carey as first-alternate, representing a total of three NFL starts, plus Jacquizz Rodgers, re-signed after a season-ending elbow injury in Game 5.

Langford was the Bears’ fourth-round pick last draft, rushed for six touchdowns plus one on an 83-yard catch-and-run at St. Louis, and totaled 142 and 182 combined yards in the consecutive San Diego and St. Louis games.

“I saw great maturity and then I thought he had good production for us at a young age,” coach John Fox said.

“As you piece together your roster for the next season, we feel good about him. We feel good about him taking the next step next year.”

The obvious problem: pure production.

Langford, Carey and Rodgers rushed for a combined 737 yards; Forte gained 898 in his 13 starts. The three backups totaled 205 carries; Forte, 218. Pass receptions by the three: 26; Forte, 44.

More concerning, the three residents on the depth chart averaged 3.6 yards per carry; Forte, 4.1.

Fox and GM Ryan Pace have made “competition” akin to a mantra. The Bears don’t have enough at the proven level, a statement they made with the offer to C.J. Anderson last month.

Insiders tell that the Bears under new coordinator Dowell Loggains will run the ball even more than the 45.7 percent they did last year. Carey and Langford have a combined total of 227 NFL carries. Forte averaged 254 carries per season for eight years.

Bears draft priority: Moderate

That the Bears made a concerted run at Denver tailback Anderson - making an offer to the restricted free agent who’d played for Fox in Denver - was a succinct statement that the Bears may like what they have in Carey, Langford and Rodgers, but they are not satisfied enough to take down the Help Wanted sign from the position group.

Pace in New Orleans (Reggie Bush, Mark Ingram No. 1’s) and Fox in Carolina (DeShaun Foster, Eric Shelton, No. 2’s; DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, No. 1’s) were parts of organizations aggressive in drafting running backs. Denver with Fox used a 2012 No. 3 on Ronnie Hillman and 2013 No. 2 on Montee Ball.

Their histories point to the Pace procuring another running back for Fox and new O-coordinator Dowell Loggains. The Bears hold nine picks in this draft, including two each in the fourth and sixth rounds. Those are prime locales for finding backs: of the 23 running backs selected in the 2015 draft, 15 were picked in the fourth round or later.

Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott is the consensus top-rated running back in this draft, the only lock-first-rounder per Pro Football Weekly’s Draft Guide. The Bears had meetings with Elliott at the Combine in addition a private get-together, but Elliott is a very, very long-shot to be the name on the card sent to the Commissioner at No. 11 on the 28th. Expect at least one pick and some undrafted free agents (which Anderson was in 2013) to be Bears by Sunday night that weekend.

Keep an eye on ...

Marshaun Coprich, Illinois State: Undersized but ultra-productive in a smaller program and is on probation from marijuana incident, but ran 4.38 at the Combine and put up 5,201 yards and 60 rushing TDs.

Paul Perkins, UCLA: Had 28 starts for a top PAC-12 program with good production rushing and receiving (621 carries, 80 receptions over past 3 seasons).

Dan Vitale, Northwestern: Bears don’t roster a true fullback but two-back team may grab freakish Vitale, who ran 4.6 and bench’ed 225 lbs 30 times at Combine; can catch and play special teams.

Three reasons why the Bears' offense should have success against the Patriots' defense

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Three reasons why the Bears' offense should have success against the Patriots' defense

Every team will try to scheme against what its opponent does best. Not every team does it as well as Bill Belichick consistently has in his Hall of Fame tenure as the coach of the New England Patriots. 
This is what Belichick is famous for, beyond the five Super Bowl trophies and historic partnership with Tom Brady. That thing your team’s offense does best? He’s going to take it away. 
That can create a mental challenge for an opposing coach during the week. Do you focus on doing something other than what your offense does best because Belichick is going to identify and scheme against it, or do you try to accentuate what you do best so it can’t be taken away? 
“That’s that whole chasing the cat’s tail thing,” Bears coach Matt Nagy said. “All of the sudden you start out-thinking to yourself, ‘What the heck?’ That’s the mystique, and that’s what they do. They’ve earned that over time because of the success they’ve had. 
“When you don’t go too crazy with that and balance it and control what you can control. Then in the end, win, lose or draw, no matter what, you at least feel good you approached it the right way, and you weren’t, ‘Oh shoot, I should have done this. Shoulda, coulda, woulda.’”
When Taylor Gabriel and the Atlanta Falcons faced the Patriots in Super Bowl LI, everybody on that team knew Belichick would do what he could to take Julio Jones out of the game. But that didn’t make preparations any easier. 
“We knew he was going to take away Julio, but we didn’t know how he was going to do it,” Gabriel said. “So it’s just just something you kind of have to adjust to when you get in the game.”
Jones only had four catches in that game, and the Falcons were able to quickly adjust to how he was taken away — though it wasn’t enough to keep them from a historic collapse and ultimate overtime loss. 
Tight end Dion Sims played New England eight times during his four years with the Miami Dolphins, and came away with a healthy respect for the scheme and the players on that defense. 
“They’re fundamentally sound, they got good coaching over there, a good staff,” Sims said. “You gotta be prepared because they come out and they play their ass off.” 
But what should give the Bears confidence they can mentally and physically beat New England’s defense?
1. The Patriots’ defense isn’t what it once was
The way Bears coaches and players have talked about New England’s defense this week has been with reverence and respect. But lately, the Patriots’ defense production hasn’t quite equalled its reputation. 
Maybe it started with Nagy’s Kansas City Chiefs launching 42 points and over 500 yards of offense against New England in 2017’s nationally-televised season opener. Maybe Super Bowl LII, in which the Philadelphia Eagles ripped off 41 points with a backup quarterback, was another turning point. Or maybe the Patriots’ 43-40 win over the Chiefs on Sunday night, which looked more like a Big 12 game than an NFL game, further chipped away at that mystique. 
New England’s defense heads to Chicago ranked 18th in points allowed (24.7) and has allowed 400 or more yards of offense in four of six games this year. They’re 19th in defensive DVOA, though Pro Football Focus’ grades do peg this group fourth, behind only the Bears, Rams and Eagles. 
What this defense does well is take the ball away, with eight interceptions and four fumble recoveries critical in propping up a defense that isn’t good on third down (44 percent conversion rate, 25th) or in the red zone (68 percent, 26th). But as long as the Bears' ball security is better than its two-turnovers-inside-the-five-yard-line showing in Miami on Sunday, an offense that scored 48 and 28 points in its last two games should be in good shape. 
2. Multiple weapons
How Belichick schemes against a Bears offense that’s been explosive and productive in its last two weeks will be fascinating to see on Sunday. Maybe it’ll be Tarik Cohen, who Belichick said is “a special player that you gotta know where he is at all times.” Maybe it’ll be making sure Taylor Gabriel doesn’t beat them deep (“The execution on that was like 99 out of 100,” Belichick said of Mitch Trubisky’s 54-yard deep ball to Gabriel against Miami). Or maybe it’ll be dropping seven or eight guys into coverage, spying Trubisky and forcing the second-year Bears quarterback to make good decisions and fit passes into tight windows. Or maybe it’ll be something else entirely. 
This goes back to the guessing game, though, and it’s one the Bears can’t allow themselves to play. 
“I think you can spend too much time on that,” Nagy said. “I look at that and I think I've said it before, it can be kind of like chasing the cat's tail. You've got to be careful of that and when you just start worrying about what you do — and of course here or there you might so something a little bit different — but if you just start doing things different because of one coach, now you've stopped worrying about just controlling what you can control and I haven't found too much success with that.”
The good news for the Bears, though, is they seem to have the multitude of weapons necessary to have success against a Belichick defense. Kansas City showed it on Sunday — when the Patriots took away Kelce, Kareem Hunt racked up 185 yards from scrimmage, while Tyreek Hill gouged New England for 142 yards on seven catches with three touchdowns.
So if the plan is to take away Cohen, that could lead to opportunities for Gabriel, or vice versa. Or if the plan is to drop seven or eight into coverage, that would give Jordan Howard an opportunity to carve out yards on the ground.  
“They utilize all their players, the backs, the tight ends, the receivers, the quarterback, they all have production, so if you take one away, they just go to the next guy, and that’s hard to defend,” Belichick said. “There are a lot of options on some of those plays, which guy is going to end up with the ball based on a quarterback’s decision, if it’s a check-with me type of play, bubbles and look passes and RPOs and things like that, it’s up to the quarterback to make the right decision and Trubisky’s done a good job of that. I think all those things, they keep getting better and they’re hard to defend.”
3. History repeating itself
In Nagy’s only meeting with New England as Kansas City’s offensive coordinator, his offense scored 42 points — and that’s a number that has resonated in the Bears’ locker room and practice fields this week.  
“You have to go into this game with confidence and know that we’re playing against a great group of guys who’ve been there, been to the Super Bowl and then they also have Tom Brady on the other side,” Sims said. “It’s important that we capitalize on everything and try to be mistake-free.” 
“What the defense is giving you is what the offense will take — what good offenses will do,” Gabriel said. “I feel like we have those type of minds up there in the booth and on the field with us to figure out what those guys are doing and how we want to attack it.”
The Bears’ offense is young, from the coach to offensive coordinator to most of the players that populate it. Beating New England, even if its defense isn’t what it used to be, would send a message around the league that the Bears are for real. Until the Patriots are dethroned in consecutive years, or even finish a season with fewer than, say, 12 wins, they’re still the Patriots.  
But while this team is young, it does have a handful of guys who’ve competed against New England on some of the NFL’s biggest stages. So expect guys like Gabriel, Burton and even Nagy to not allow this team to let facing the Patriots become daunting on Sunday. 
“It’s not difficult at all,” Gabriel said of avoiding thinking about that mystique. “Just like this team, we have the weapons to take advantage of those one-on-one matchups. I don’t care what defense you are, you’re going to have a one-on-one matchup somewhere unless you’re dropping everybody. So as long as you’re staying the pace and being confident in what you’re doing, I feel like we’ll be okay.” 

Bears return to Soldier Field as home underdogs against the Patriots

Bears return to Soldier Field as home underdogs against the Patriots

The Bears were getting used to life in the big chair. Chicago was favored in each of their last four games, but it all came crashing down at the hands of Brock Osweiler in overtime last week.

The Miami Dolphins pulled off the upset, and now the Bears return home to take on one of the best teams in the league.

Even if they had won in Miami, Chicago likely still would have been underdogs to the New England Patriots on Sunday, but as it stands, Bill Belichick and company are favored by three on most major sportsbooks, according to Vegas Insider.

The line initially opened at Patriots by 2.5, but it would seem that money placed on New England pushed the spread a little more in the Bears’ favor.

Vegas is expecting another higher-scoring game for both teams, with the over/under sitting at 49. Given that the Patriots have scored at least 38 points in each of their last three games, the Bears’ defense may have some trouble keeping this game low on the scoreboard.

In Week 6, home underdogs went 4-1 against the spread and 3-2 straight up. According to Bet America, home underdogs have covered in 20 of their 30 games this season, which bodes well for a Bears team facing a tough task at Soldier Field.