Bears’ quest for LB help will create difficult draft decisions


Bears’ quest for LB help will create difficult draft decisions

INDIANAPOLIS – With the 11th pick overall in the 2016 draft the Bears would typically be in excellent position to add a defensive playmaker, among the top objectives of GM Ryan Pace and coach John Fox this offseason.

Based on information from the NFL Scouting Combine and myriad sources, the consensus area of greatest need – admittedly not the first factor in determining a draft selection – has been linebacker, ostensibly inside linebacker, where the Bears went through five different starters in the course of 2015.

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The Bears will not take an inside linebacker based solely on need. But even though several linebackers in the upcoming draft are projected to have talent grades justifying that 11th pick, complicating factors abound:

Myles Jack, UCLA: Missing most of ’15 with a knee injury meant being probed and twisted and everything else at the Combine, but the “problem” for the Bears is that he may be (pun intended) jack-of-all-trades, master of necessarily one at the NFL level. “I’ve heard safety, ‘Mike,’ ‘Sam,’ ‘Will,’ inside ‘backer. Some teams joked about running back… . I’ve heard it all, pretty much, in the back seven.”

Reggie Ragland, Alabama: Ragland ran an official 4.72 seconds in his 40-yard dash, not elite-level time (Ray Lewis ran 4.58, Brian Urlacher 4.57 and Patrick Willis 4.51, by comparison). But teams at the Combine, which include the Bears, generally project Ragland in the spot those Pro Bowl’ers filled in various 4-3 and 3-4 schemes. “They see me as a Mike and making the calls,” Ragland said. “A lot of teams like me playing off the edge but they’d love to see me being a true Mike and making all the calls.”

Jaylon Smith, Notre Dame: His knee injury in the Fiesta Bowl game compromises everything. One report that he was walking at the Combine without a brace was not furthered by medical evaluations that suggested he will not play at all in 2016. But MMQB's Peter King spoke with one NFL GM who said of Smith,“ No chance he won’t play at some point, and play well." Trumping that, however, is Smith himself stating in his media session, I’ll be back 100 percent. We just don’t know when.”

Khalil Mack appears set to play Sunday with Tom Brady, Patriots looming

Khalil Mack appears set to play Sunday with Tom Brady, Patriots looming

Khalil Mack appears in line to play Sunday with Tom Brady, Patriots looming

Khalil Mack participated in the Bears’ final practice of the week on Friday, clearing the way for the edge rusher to play Sunday against the New England Patriots. 

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported earlier Friday that the Bears expected Mack, who hasn’t missed a game in his career, to play after suffering an ankle injury early in Week 6’s 31-28 loss to the Miami Dolphins. Mack is officially questionable for Sunday’s game at Soldier Field. 

Mack had little interest in discussing his ankle with the media on Friday, passing on answering questions about his readiness for New England. Coach Matt Nagy, though, said he thought Mack “looked pretty good” during practice on Friday. 

Mack didn’t record a sack against Miami and was held to just one pressure, per Pro Football Focus. The Dolphins’ gameplan was to commit plenty of resources to stopping Mack, but he wasn’t effective even when he had one-on-one pass rushing opportunities as the game went on. 

“He was (affected),” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “I can't put a percentage on it, but he definitely was.”

Having Mack available — even if he’s not full strength — will be critical for the Bears’ defense to have a chance at keeping Tom Brady from lighting up the scoreboard. The key for the Bears will be to generate pressure on the 41-year-old quarterback without blitzing, which is something Fangio’s defense was successful at prior to Sunday’s wacky loss to the Dolphins. 

Brady’s passer rating is 138.4 when he’s blitzed, per Pro Football Focus, while when under pressure his rating is 87.2. That’s still pretty good, but it’s worth noting that all of the six interceptions he’s thrown this year have come when he hasn’t been blitzed. And only one of the eight sacks he’s taken has come when he’s been blitzed. 

The point being: If the Bears feel like they have to start blitzing to generate pressure, they can expect Brady to pick them apart.  

“You could say all of that but ultimately (Brady’s) a gamer,” Mack said. “He’s going to take those hits, and you gotta be able to deliver them but also have coverage over the top. It’s going to be real important for us.” 

The good news for the Bears, perhaps, is that New England’s tackles have struggled at times this year. Left tackle Trent Brown has allowed 17 pressures in 234 pass blocking snaps, per Pro Football Focus (about one in every 14 snaps). And starting right tackle Marcus Cannon is out with a concussion, giving way for backup La’Adrian Waddle, who’s allowed eight pressures in 78 pass blocking snaps (about one in every 10). 

So the opportunities will be there for Mack, Leonard Floyd, Akiem Hicks and the Bears’ pass rush to affect Brady on Sunday.

A bigger injury concern?

While cornerback Prince Amukamara (hamstring) was a full participant in Friday’s practice and will play Sunday, slot corner Bryce Callahan suffered an ankle injury during Thursday’s practice and did not participate Friday. He’s officially questionable for Sunday. 

Callahan “did his ankle,” Nagy said, toward the end of Thursday’s practice, and he felt worse as the day went on. Nagy characterized Callahan’s absence from Friday’s practice as “precautionary.”

Callahan’s availability may be more of a pressing concern than Mack’s, given how well the Patriots’ offense has played since slot receiver Julian Edelman returned from a four-game suspension to begin the season. While his numbers aren’t eye-popping (11 catches on 16 targets, 111 yards, 1 TD), New England’s offense has scored 38 and 43 points in his two games back. 

“Brady has always had a guy in the slot that he’s comfortable with; whether it be (Wes) Welker, (Danny) Amendola or Edelman,” Fangio said. “It’s a big part of their offense. They haven’t missed a beat, but I really think it’s helped their offense and played a big part in them basically averaging 40 points in the last three weeks. I really appreciate and respect how good of a player he is and has been.”

If Callahan isn’t available, Sherrick McManis could be the next man up at slot corner. 

The Way We Hear It: Khalil Mack will probably play after all

USA Today

The Way We Hear It: Khalil Mack will probably play after all

The Bears are back in Chicago and Tom Brady and the Patriots are in town! With a week of practice wrapping up today, here's what's been happening in the lead up to Sunday's Bears-Pats matchup: