Bears

Bears' roster decisions come with complications

Bears' roster decisions come with complications

Some NFL roster decisions are clear; one NFL coach once remarked that he typically had a pretty good idea of who 50 of his final 53 players would be before training camp ever started.

But by the end of training camps, those assumptions can fall prey to circumstances that make final calls far more difficult than simply knowing who your best 53 football players are. For the Bears this weekend, the difficult moments will extend beyond the unpleasant task of a coach needing to inform a young man that he’s been cut.

Start with the general guideline that most coaches like to give their offensive and defensive coordinators 25 slots, plus three for special teams. The trouble with that equation is that injuries or the threat of them within a position group cannot be dismissed, and one side of the football may lose headcount in the interests of the overall.

By the time you’re reading this, most decisions will have been made and some made public. But consider the complications (and you make the calls):

Secondary considerations

The Bears’ three top cornerbacks (Bryce Callahan, Kyle Fuller, Tracy Porter) all have been on the injury list this preseason. That points toward keeping an extra corner, meaning six. But while Sherrick McManis is listed as and has played corner, he is almost exclusively a special-teams fixture.

Do the Bears have the luxury of keeping a sixth cornerback whose value is only on special teams? Because other needs lurk.

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The same problem exists at safety, where starters Adrian Amos and Harold Jones-Quartey are in place, backed up by rookies/draft picks Deon Bush and DeAndre Houston-Carson. Demontre Hurst can work as a reserve nickel corner. But as with the cornerback situation, can the Bears tie up a roster spot with Chris Prosinski, who like McManis is effectively a special-teamer.

The Bears keeping both McManis and Prosinski starts squeezing things elsewhere.

Line-backing

One “benefit” of a 3-4 scheme is that it necessitates more linebackers than a 4-3 based around a Lance Briggs, Hunter Hillenmeyer and Brian Urlacher. Reserve linebackers are axiomatic to good special teams because of the size-speed combination.

But the Bears face a conundrum with Pernell McPhee and the linebacker’s knee, which is expected to keep him down for at least the first several games. If the Bears decide McPhee can contribute sooner than the first half of the season, which placing him on the PUP list would cost, then he is included in the initial 53.

But his unavailability projects to needing an extra linebacker in the meantime. Sam Acho gives the Bears special-teams impact and leadership and can staff an OLB spot.

Can the Bears hold open a spot at outside linebacker for McPhee, given that Leonard Floyd, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young don’t play special teams other than kick-block?

Risky up front

Because the trickle-down effect of all these situations affect each other. The Bears cannot realistically keep an extra cornerback, safety and linebacker without the risk of exposure on the defensive line.

And “risk” is the operative word. The Bears finished 2015 with only one defensive lineman (Will Sutton) who was with them in training camp. A variety of issues left them short-handed, and if that group struggles, so does everything behind it.

The Bears went light with five defensive linemen last year in Week 1, and roster squeezes elsewhere may force that scenario on them again. But which five?

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Cornelius Washington has had a strong preseason but has injury history that includes going on IR after game last season. Can the Bears gamble on Washington’s health, particularly with no depth behind Eddie Goldman at nose tackle? Will Sutton is a coaches’ favorite, can play nose, but is undersized. Ego Ferguson was largely invisible before Thursday, has played both nose and five-technique, but also is coming off season-ending knee surgery.

Throw in the prospect of intense heat in Houston and the risks multiply.

And that’s just defense/special teams.

Easier calls…sorta’

Quarterback is a gimme; Jay Cutler and Brian Hoyer. Running back, too: Ka’Deem Carey, Jeremy Langford, Jacquizz Rodgers and rookie Jordan Howard, who flashed for 107 rushing yards at Cleveland. After that:

Do the Bears stay with both Eddie Royal and Marc Mariani, both solid slot receivers? Cameron Meredith played his way off any bubble, and Josh Bellamy is a special-teamer. With Alshon Jeffery and Kevin White, that’s six wide receivers for an offense that wants to be run-based. And none of them are answers on kickoff return.

A run-based offense uses tight ends and, in the Bears case, a fullback for now. The Bears used three-tight-end packages this preseason, although whether they have three workables among Zach Miller, Tony Moeaki, Greg Scruggs, Khari Lee and Rob Housler won’t be totally clear until the group starts trying to block Texans.

All of which trickles down, as it does on defense, to the line. The Bears have seven linemen active on game days. They have rostered as many as 10 offensive linemen, nine is preferable, but with squeezes elsewhere, one scenario is a reserve contingent of Mike Adams or Garry Williams (tackle), Amini Silatolu (guard) and Cornelius Edison (center). Edison is a young stopgap, and Adams and Silatolu are coming off major injuries.

Now, you make the calls.

Bears could develop “twin towers” personnel package at WR with Robinson, White

Bears could develop “twin towers” personnel package at WR with Robinson, White

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. – Coaches are loath to give away competitive information, which can cover just about anything from play design to flavor of Gatorade dispensed by the training staff. But Matt Nagy offered an intriguing what-if personnel grouping that his offense could confront defenses with in 2018. It’s one that has been overlooked so far, for a variety of reasons.


The what-if personnel pairing is Allen Robinson and Kevin White as the outside receivers, a tandem that would put two 6-foot-3 wide receivers at the disposal of quarterback Mitch Trubisky. The Bears have not had a tandem of effective big receivers since Alshon Jeffery (6-3) and Brandon Marshall (6-4) averaged a combined 159 catches per year from 2012-14.


White’s injury history has relegated him to found-money status in many evaluations, and he has typically been running at Robinson’s spot while the latter was rehabbing this offseason from season-ending knee injury.


But Nagy on Wednesday cited Robinson’s ability to play multiple positions and clearly raised the prospect of his two of his biggest receivers being on the field at the same time.


“The one thing you’ll see here in this offense is that we have guys all over the place in different spots,” said Nagy, who credited GM Ryan Pace with stocking the roster with options at wide receiver. “Ryan did a great job of looking at these certain free agents that we went after, some of these draft picks that we went after and getting guys that are football smart, they have a high football IQ and they’re able to play multiple positions.


“When you can do that, that helps you out as an offensive playcaller to be able to move guys around. Is it going to happen to every single receiver that comes into this offense? No. But we do a pretty job I feel like at balancing of where they’re at position wise, what they can and can’t handle, and then we try to fit them into the process.”


The organization and locker room can be excused for a collective breath-holding on White, who has gone through his third straight positive offseason but whose last two seasons ended abruptly with injuries in the fourth and first games of the 2016 and 2017 seasons.


White was leading the Bears in with 19 receptions through less than four full games in 2016, then was lost with a fractured fibula suffered against Detroit. The injury was all the crueler coming in a game in which White already had been targeted nine times in 41 snaps and had caught six of those Brian Hoyer passes.


White’s roster status has been open to some question with the signings of Robinson and Taylor Gabriel together with the drafting of Anthony Miller. All represent bigger deep threats in terms of average yards per catch than White (9.2 ypc.) at this point: Robinson, 14.1.; Gabriel, 15.1; and Miller, 13.8 (college stats).


But Trubisky’s budding chemistry with White was evident throughout the offseason. And the second-year quarterback has studied what Robinson has been and seen some of what he can be.


“We know he has great hands, he’ll go up and get it,” Trubisky said. “Explosive route-runner. The more reps we get, it’s all about repetitions for us, continue to build that chemistry. Just going against our great defense in practice is going to allow us to compete and get better.”


Folding in the expectations for an expanded presence at tight end (Trey Burton), “targets” will be spread around the offense. How often the Bears go with a Robinson-White “twin towers” look clearly depends in large measure on White’s improvement as well as his availability.


Opportunities will be there. The Kansas City Chiefs ran 51 percent of their 2018 snaps, with Nagy as offensive coordinator, in “11” personnel (one back, one tight end, three receivers, according to Pro Football Focus. Whether White earns his way into that core nickel-wideout package opposite Robinson is part of what training camp and preseason will determine.


“[White] has had a good offseason and just like our team, he needs to carry that momentum into camp,” Pace said. “He’s playing with a lot of confidence right now, he’s very focused. The real expectation, just be the best he can be. Focus on himself, which is what he’s been doing.”

Bears starting secondary returns intact for ’18 – but is that a good thing?

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USA TODAY

Bears starting secondary returns intact for ’18 – but is that a good thing?

The coach of a woeful college basketball team was asked in a postseason media session if the fact that he had all five of his starters returning was cause for optimism. “The kids tried hard,” the coach pointed out, “but we won two games last year. So having everybody back isn’t necessarily a good thing.”

The Bears approach the 2018 season and training camp returning their entire starting secondary – cornerbacks Prince Amukamara and Kyle Fuller on new, multi-year contracts, safeties Adrian Amos and Eddie Jackson now being touted as one of the NFL’s top safety tandems.

And continuity is unquestionably a prized element, particularly with offensive lines and defensive backfields. Having the four principle starters back should be a good thing.

The problem is, the Bears tied for 29th in the NFL with eight interceptions, matching a franchise-low for the third straight season. The starting DBs four accounted for just five total interceptions, suggesting that for all the supposed continuity, the whole was somewhat less the some of the parts where the critical turnover ratio is concerned.

The last time the Bears intercepted more passes (19) than their opponents (13) was 2013 – the last time the Bears saw .500.

The importance of one statistic can be overstated, but turnovers, particularly interceptions, are the one measurable with the greatest correlation to winning. The top 11 and 13 of the 14 teams with positive turnover ratios all posted winning records in 2017 (the Bears were 15th, with a zero net differential). And while fumble recoveries obviously also count as takeaways, interceptions are key: The top 10 teams in interceptions all posted positive records and all 14 of the turnover-ratio leaders intercepted more balls than they recovered.

Of the takeaways by those top 14 in turnover ratio, 65.8 percent of their takeaways came on interceptions. The Bears and the bottom half of the NFL turnover gatherers picked up only 55.7 percent of their takeaways on interceptions.

“Well, we hope we’re going to improve there,” said defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. “That takes 11 guys doing it, but we’ll see. That’s obviously going to be an emphasis for us.”

Creating a different mindset

Individual Bears defensive backs had flash moments: Jackson became the first rookie in NFL history with multiple 75-yard defensive touchdowns in a season; Amos returned an interception 90 yards for a score; Fuller was one of only two NFL players with at least 65 tackles and 20 passes defensed.

The Bears self-scouted enough to understand those for what they were – exceptions, bordering the fluke-ish, given the overall. The result was that even during minicamps and OTA’s, there was an edge to the play of the secondary. Mitch Trubisky and his quiver of weapons will have to earn things, beginning against their own teammates.

“We’ve been getting the receivers and the running backs a little mad, but they know that we’re just trying to get better at [takeaways],” Amukamara said. “And just catching the ones that the quarterback throws to you. But if we keep making the most of our opportunities we know that those numbers will go up.”

The numbers could scarcely go anywhere but up.

Amos, who was languishing on the bench and a possible roster bubble before Quintin Demps suffered a forearm fracture in week three, went 2,638 career snaps before collecting his lone career interception last season on a ball deflected to him seven yards away.

Amukamara was signed to a new three-year contract with $18 million of its $27 million guaranteed – this despite a dubious streak that has reached 2,340 snaps and more than two full seasons since his last interception.

The goal is to change that by “just getting to the ball, everybody,” Amos said. “Everybody is making efforts at the ball during camp. It’s just something that we just are emphasizing every day trying to create more takeaways.”

Pro Football Focus rated the Bears’ secondary No. 30 going into the 2017 season, factoring in veteran safety Quintin Demps signed coming off his best NFL season and Fuller coming off a season missed with a knee injury.

That is not a given. Pass defense begins with a pass rush, but roster losses have cost the Bears more than one-third (14.5) of their 2017 sack total (42).