Bears

Bears open 2015 with three straight teams from ’14 playoffs

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Bears open 2015 with three straight teams from ’14 playoffs

The Bears will find out very, very early in their 2015 schedule whether or not they are ready to be included in any discussion of the top teams in the NFL.

The NFL has been good enough to allow its charter franchise to open with two games at home. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the games will be two of the seven the Bears have against 2014 playoff teams: Green Bay, then Arizona. The very bad news is that Week 3 sends the Bears to Seattle for a get-together with the Super Bowl-runner-up Seahawks.

[MORE: Bears' 2015 regular season schedule released]

Meaning: The Bears’ first three opponents had a combined 35-13 record for 2014.

At the end of the schedule, games that the Bears hope will still matter, the Bears have to go on the road for games 14 and 15. Bad news. But at least the games are against two teams with losing 2014 records: Minnesota and Tampa Bay. The ideal would be some momentum-building leading into Game 16 at home against the Detroit Lions.

In between the Bears will be part of history, going to Green Bay for a Thanksgiving Day game that will feature the ceremony marking the retirement of Brett Favre’s uniform No. 4. Going to Green Bay is bad enough, let alone to play a Packers team with a lofty element to the game.

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Of course, the very good news is that the Bears will be there to make absolutely certain that the No. 4 that defeated them 23 of the 36 times they saw it, between Green Bay and Minnesota versions, will finally be in their past.

Duly noted

Pending flex-time changes, which can involve all but two of Bears’ final 12 games, the Bears’ dismal 5-11 finish last year took them largely out of prime time. Last year the Bears were initially ticketed for five prime-time games, not including Thanksgiving at Detroit.

This year the Bears have only Game 3 in Seattle (3:25 p.m.) and their only Monday night game, in San Diego, that are prime time. They again play on Thanksgiving, but this likely has less to do with the Bears than with the Packers and the Favre jersey ceremony.

The prediction problem

The trouble with assessing an NFL team’s schedule is that there is not just one variable — in this case, the Bears — but 14 of them: the Bears and the 13 opponents on the schedule. Even before the upcoming draft, the Bears didn’t stand still this offseason and neither did just about all of their scheduled opponents.

But here’s the one big problem: The Bears have nine of 16 games against teams that had winning records in 2014. The Bears may have been the most under-achieving team in the NFL last year but nine games against good teams make “achieving,” even for a proven turnaround architect like Fox, something of a challenge.

[RELATED: Gruden: Bears should get Cutler replacement in the pipeline]

And of the other seven games, three are against teams that made head-coaching changes, but only one (Oakland, Jack Del Rio) made the change because of true on-field problems. Denver replaced Fox and San Francisco said good-bye to Jim Harbaugh, but neither team was close to doormat status to begin with and have some core talent in place.

The Bears will play three of the only six teams with fewer 2014 victories than their own total of five: Tampa Bay (two), Oakland (three) and Washington (four). They also will play just seven games against teams in the 2014 playoffs: Detroit and Green Bay twice each; Arizona, Denver and Seattle. Four of those seven games (Arizona, Denver, Detroit, Green Bay) will be at home.

With game times after Week 4 subject to flex scheduling:

1. Green Bay Packers (12-4) Sun., Sept. 13, noon

Until the Packers run out of Hall of Fame quarterbacks, beating the NFC North Big Dog remains problematic. Some pieces change — LB A.J. Hawk is gone but WR Randall Cobb is back, along with OT Bryan Bulaga — but not the centerpiece, and Aaron Rodgers is an MVP candidate anytime he puts on a helmet.

Moon’s call: W                                           

2. Arizona Cardinals (11-5) Sun., Sept. 20, noon

The gaffe of failing to secure Bruce Arians is old Bears news, except that Arians brings the Cardinals to Soldier Field off a playoff season and going 21-11 in a very good division. Larry Fitzgerald was deemed still enough at WR to be worth a two-year extension for an Arians offense that restored Carson Palmer’s career but proved it can win almost regardless of quarterback (Palmer, Drew Stanton, Ryan Lindley) short of the playoffs.

Moon’s call: L

3. at Seattle Seahawks (12-4) Sun., Sept. 27, noon

Don’t look for coordinator Adam Gase to call a quick slant with the ball on the one and the game on the line. But the hard part will just be getting into that position against a team that has been to two straight Super Bowls and doesn’t beat itself. The ‘Hawks got RB Marshawn Lynch taken care of, and the trade for New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham takes a good offense up a notch.

Moon’s call: L

4. Oakland Raiders (3-13) Sun., Oct. 4, noon

Jack Del Rio goes from DC in Denver to Raiders head coach, tasked with rebuilding a team that was 32nd in points allowed and 31st in points scored. WR Michael Crabtree from San Francisco should help the latter, giving emerging QB Derek Carr a weapon on the outside.

Moon’s call: W

5. at Kansas City Chiefs (9-7) Sun., Oct. 11, noon

Andy Reid has produced winning seasons in his first two with the Chiefs (20-12 overall) and gotten Alex Smith to another level. Underachieving WR Dwayne Bowe is on to Cleveland, the OL improves with the trade for G Ben Grubbs, and the Chiefs were No. 2 in scoring “D” last season.

Moon’s call: L

6. at Detroit Lions (11-5) Sun., Oct. 18, noon

The Bears hope John Fox can do with their roster what Jim Caldwell did with the Lions’ last year. Caldwell will have some challenges. The Lions traded for Haloti Ngata, which anchors the defensive interior, but that doesn’t entirely make up for losing Ndamukong Suh to Miami and Nick Fairley to St. Louis.

Moon’s call: L

7. BYE WEEK

8. Minnesota Vikings (7-9) Sun., Nov. 1, noon

Adrian Peterson issues (knee, off-field) have loomed over the organization for the past several seasons. In the meantime, the Vikings upgraded at WR by replacing Greg Jennings with Mike Wallace from Miami, and newly acquired safety Taylor Mays played for coach Mike Zimmer in Cincinnati.

Moon’s call: W

9. at San Diego Chargers (9-7) Mon., Nov. 9, 7:30 p.m.

The last time the Bears saw the Chargers, they lost Jay Cutler to a broken wrist after an interception. John Fox should know something about defending the Chargers offense, with or without Philip Rivers, and Fox’s Broncos won six of the last seven vs. San Diego.

Moon’s call: L

10. at St. Louis Rams (6-10) Sun., Nov. 15, noon

Coach Jeff Fisher keeps stockpiling linemen for an already solid defense (Nick Fairley from Detroit), and the Rams become an intriguing team with Nick Foles taking over at quarterback for injury plagued Sam Bradford. The Rams have the No. 10 draft pick and St. Louis has had a run of landing impact players with their top picks (Robert Quinn, Aaron Donald, Tavon Austin, Michael Brockers).

Moon’s call: W

11. Denver Broncos (12-4) Sun., Nov. 22, noon

The Broncos had four playoff seasons under John Fox and turned to John Elway’s old backup, Gary Kubiak, to reach higher under Elway’s overall stewardship. But losing Fox and offensive coordinator Adam Gase to Chicago, OT Orlando Franklin to San Diego, TE Julius Thomas to Jacksonville and DT Terrance Knighton to Washington create first-level gaps.

Moon’s call: W

12. at Green Bay (12-4) Thurs., Nov. 26, Thanksgiving, 7:30 p.m.

Moon’s call: L

13. San Francisco 49ers (8-8) Sun., Dec. 6, noon

Few teams (other than the Bears) took more of a surprising tumble in ’14 than the 49ers and whether their turmoil is settled remains to be seen. New coach Jim Tomsula takes over after Adam Gase opted for Chicago over the Bay Area and Vic Fangio is heading up the Bears defense after a stretch of making the 49ers elite.

Moon’s call: W

14. Washington Redskins (4-12) Sun., Dec. 13, noon

The circus of the Mike Shanahan era ended with his firing after a 3-13 record in 2013 but was only slightly better under Jay Gruden, with the Robert Griffin III situation still not fully resolved, certainly not in approach to playing the QB position or possibly health, either. Washington has won more than six games just once in six years, Griffin’s rookie year (2012) and the only time the team has been in the top 20 in scoring over that period. Ex-Bear Stephen Paea and Terrance Knighton should help the D-line.

Moon’s call: W

15. at Minnesota Vikings (7-9)

Moon’s call: W

16. at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-14)

Whom Lovie Smith elects to start at quarterback will be THE Bucs’ predominant story line, right on through at least the No. 1 overall pick of the draft. Smith rapidly reversed the Bears’ course after a down first season and he has a lot of work to do to fix a team that was among the worst on both offense and defense. The Bucs will win more than 2 games this season. Just not this one.

Moon’s call: W

17. Detroit Lions (11-5) Sun., Jan. 3, noon

Moon’s call: W

Washington QB Jacob Eason has the confidence Bears need

Washington QB Jacob Eason has the confidence Bears need

General manager Ryan Pace made it clear Tuesday from the NFL Combine that the Chicago Bears will add competition to the quarterback room this offseason. They'll have a chance to accomplish that goal in the 2020 NFL Draft, especially in the second round where Washington's strong-armed gunslinger Jacob Eason is expected to come off the board.

Eason is considered one of the more naturally gifted passers in the 2020 class with an arm that ranks alongside Oregon's Justin Herbert, who's projected to be picked in the first seven selections. So why is Eason more likely to be a second-rounder?

“There are little nitpickers here and there," Eason said Tuesday from Indianapolis. "They nitpick about [my] speed and the pocket awareness, footwork, all of those things. There are things [I] need to work on and there’s always room to improve.”

One thing about Eason's game that there's no debate on is his right arm, which will instantly be one of the strongest in the NFL in 2020. He models his game after another big-armed quarterback who spent nearly two decades haunting Bears fans.

“A guy like Brett Favre. A guy like Peyton Manning. They are both big inspirations,” Eason said. “I like the way they play the game. Their toughness and competitiveness; those are the guys I modeled my game after.”

There's no doubt Eason would offer the Bears more of a pure passer's skill set; there's no comparing his arm talent to Mitch Trubisky, who routinely struggled to place the ball on target on deep throws in 2019. Eason would instantly expand Matt Nagy's playbook and make downfield chunk plays more realistic.

Confidence is important too. Eason, who said he's stressing the confidence he has in his arm during team meetings at the Combine, isn't afraid to take shots downfield. Trubisky, on the other hand, doesn't play with that killer's instinct. And as we saw last season, it impacts the overall effectiveness of Nagy's system.

This Eason discussion assumes, of course, that he's on the board at No. 43 overall. A big week in Indianapolis could skyrocket his draft stock into the first round; there's been some speculation that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could even take him at No. 14.

Adding a player like Eason would create one heck of a storyline for training camp and a quarterback battle that would likely end with the rookie as the victor.

Ryan Pace says Bears are 'exploring every avenue' to upgrade tight end

Ryan Pace says Bears are 'exploring every avenue' to upgrade tight end

Bears general manager Ryan Pace didn't come across as a guy willing to go down in flames with his decision to sign tight end Trey Burton back in 2018 when he met with the media at the NFL Combine on Tuesday. Instead, he confirmed the Bears will be heavily invested in the tight end market this offseason, both in free agency and the 2020 NFL draft.

"We’re looking at it in free agency and the draft," Pace said of this year's available tight ends. "It’s deep in different areas. That’s an area of focus for us, I don’t think that’s a secret. This offense, a lot of it goes through the tight end, so we’re exploring every avenue."

It's hard to envision a scenario where Pace would be willing to travel down the big-money free-agent path again, but Falcons pass-catcher Austin Hooper could be too tempting to pass up.

Atlanta confirmed on Tuesday Hooper will be allowed to test the open market, and if he ranks high enough on Pace's wish list, we could be setting up to see a $10 million per year offer. It may seem like a waste of resources to tie that much money up in the tight end position (he and Burton would cost the Bears close to $20 million in 2020), but they experienced just how limited Matt Nagy's offense is without a capable playmaker at the position. Hooper would fix that.

The cheaper alternative for Pace to upgrade at tight end would be the draft, where several quality prospects will be on the board when the Bears pick at No. 43 and No. 50 overall. Players like Purdue's Brycen Hopkins, FAU's Harrison Bryant and Notre Dame's Cole Kmet could all be available when the Bears are on the clock, and all three of them would represent a marked uptick in talent for the depth chart.

Pace is being logical and rational when it comes to his evaluation of the tight end group. It's especially impressive considering the top two options currently on the roster -- Burton and Adam Shaheen -- were hand-picked by him and cost Chicago a top-of-the-market free-agent deal and a high draft pick (second round, 2017). 

Pace has a great opportunity to right his wrongs at tight end over the next couple of months.