Bears roster moves offer lineup clues moving forward


Bears roster moves offer lineup clues moving forward

After a game in which they lost their starting center and linchpin member of the secondary, the Bears undertook a cluster of roster moves late Tuesday that, based on what did and didn't happen, suggest implications beyond the specific individuals involved.

What did not happen was the signing of a veteran to step in for Will Montgomery, placed on injured reserve after the veteran center suffered a broken leg on the third play of the Bears’ win Sunday over the Oakland Raiders. The indication then is that the Bears see Montgomery’s replacement already on their roster, presumably leaving guard Matt Slauson where he performed ably in Montgomery’s stead on Sunday. The other option is rookie Hroniss Grasu, who has been inactive for the first four games and likely to be active but not dropped into the starting lineup.

What did happen was the signing of safety Sherrod Martin, an indication that safety Antrel Rolle is a longshot to be back from an ankle injury that knocked him out of the Oakland game. Martin, who was with the Bears through training camp, appeared in 72 games with 38 starts over five seasons with Carolina (2009-12), the first two seasons playing for coach John Fox, and Jacksonville (2014).

Martin’s contract was terminated to make roster room for safety Harold Jones-Quartey, who stepped in and performed well vs. Oakland after Rolle’s injury. Martin also represents an addition to special teams; he recorded five defensive tackles, an interception and two special teams tackles during the Bears’ preseason.

[MORE BEARS: Not yet time for Bears to 'find out what they have' in Hroniss Grasu]

The Bears also waived punter Spencer Lanning, a sign that Pat O’Donnell is likely back from the knee injury that sidelined him for the Oakland game. The Bears cleared additional roster space with the release of linebacker John Timu, who flashed late in preseason and was added to the roster for special teams but failed to grace the stat sheet on defense or special teams in any category through four games.

What also transpired on Tuesday was the Bears moving tackle Nick Becton from the practice squad to the active roster. Whether that relates to the health of left tackle Jermon Bushrod remains to play out. Bushrod has been hampered by a back strain and missed the Oakland game with concussion and shoulder problems.

Becton has been on the Bears practice squad for the first four weeks of the regular season. He has appeared in one NFL game with San Diego in 2013, also spending time on the practice squads of the Chargers (2013) and Giants (2014) and the Saints active roster (2014). He entered the NFL with San Diego in 2013 as an undrafted free agent out of Virginia Tech.

The Bears did enlist some depth at center with the addition of former Alabama and St. Louis Rams center Barrett Jones. Jones, a member of a Crimson Tide line that included 2012 first-round picks Chance Warmack (No. 10, Tennessee Titans) and D.J. Fluker (No. 11, San Diego Chargers), was taken by the Rams in the 2013 fourth round but has never started a game in the NFL.

Charles Leno says 'it's just gonna suck' without Kyle Long around

Charles Leno says 'it's just gonna suck' without Kyle Long around

Chicago Bears left tackle Charles Leno, Jr. has a fond place in his heart for right guard Kyle Long. He's probably not alone in the Bears locker room with his feelings for the seven-year pro and three-time Pro Bowler.

Since being selected in the first round of the 2013 NFL draft, Long has ascended into a leadership role with the Bears both on and off the field. And while his play in recent seasons has been negatively impacted by a variety of injuries (Long's been limited to just 29 games over the last four years), he still offered an experienced voice in the huddle and an enforcer's mentality after the snap.

But we may have seen the last of Long in a Bears uniform after the team officially placed him on season-ending injured reserve Monday (hip). It was news that Leno struggled to embrace.

“It’s the tale of the league for you,” Leno said from Halas Hall. “He’s been through the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, and that’s just how the league goes. You never know when that time is going to come. His happened so fast. So abrupt. It’s like, ‘Damn. He’s not going to be here.’ So it just sucks. That’s how I look at it — it’s just gonna suck.”

Long hasn't been great this season. His play was progressively getting worse, too. He has the lowest Pro Football Focus grade of any player on Chicago's offense (38.0) and played his worst two games of the year in Weeks 3 and 5 (he missed Week 4 with the hip injury).

It was time to shut him down. Maybe for good.

“This is his words — he said he’s a Bear for life,” Leno said of his conversation with Long. “[Those are] the words I remember him saying. That’s how he wanted to end things.”

That certainly doesn't sound like a player who expects to ever wear a Bears jersey again. It's a shame, but it's also the reality of professional football for an offensive lineman. No position absorbs as much wear and tear as the big uglies up front, and Long is a perfect example. He was once considered the most promising young interior offensive lineman in the NFL just a few years ago. Now, it's anyone's guess if he'll ever play another snap.

“When he was healthy and he was on, he was a dominant football player," Leno said. "I told him plenty of times, ‘Get back to that [2013, 2014, 2015] self.’ It just sucks because so many times he would try to get back to it and had to take a step back. When injuries compile, it’s just really [unfortunate].”

The Bears will look to fill Long's starting role with either Rashaad Coward, Ted Larsen or rookie Alex Bars. And while one (or all) of them will provide an upgrade on the field, none will be able to replace Long's larger-than-life presence everywhere else.

The Bears are getting key contributors Bilal Nichols and Taylor Gabriel back sooner than later

USA Today

The Bears are getting key contributors Bilal Nichols and Taylor Gabriel back sooner than later

The Bears returned to Halas Hall with a flurry of injury updates, most notably involving Kyle Long and Mitch Trubisky

And while the starting quarterback for Sunday's game against New Orleans is still TBD, wide reciever Taylor Gabriel will be back out there. Gabriel technically announced his return via Instagram on Sunday night, but confirmed to reporters on Monday that he's been cleared to play. 

"It’s just good to be back, to be around the guys," he said. "To be on the sideline just watching what’s been going on, I’ve been hungry to get back on the field... I probably practiced the hardest I’ve ever practiced in my life. I just had fun, and am glad I’m back." 

Gabriel suffered a concussion in the second half of the Bears' win in D.C., and dealt with the lingering effects of it up until last week. 

"I just woke up and I felt like myself," he said. "It was just a blessing. You always hear about concussions and all the crazy things. The athletic trainer, they did a great job with the whole process. I’m glad that I’m back."

Gabriel was coming off the best game of his Bears tenure: a six-catch, 75 yard performance that included three first-half touchdowns. The third touchdown – a 36-yarder featuring a highlight-reel catch – showcased the type of wrinkle that the Trubisky-Gabriel connection can bring to the offense. 

"The one thing that Taylor brings is he has that one element of downfield speed that helps out," Matt Nagy said. "So you’re able to take the top off of some defenses with him. And then he’s one of those wide receivers for us, like Allen Robinson, he’s got experience. So there’s a calming in the huddle that you understand that he knows what to do versus certain coverages. He’s coming off a pretty good game in Washington, and unfortunately got hurt, but there’s a calming element to him and then being able to take the top off.”

The Bears also had good news regarding second-year defensive tackle Bilal Nichols. Nichols returned to practice for the first time since breaking his hand during the Week 2 win in Denver. It's especially good news considering the team expects to be without Akiem Hicks sidelined for the foreseeable future. 

"[I] felt good today," Nichols said. "Just trying to continue to keep moving in the right direction and we'll see where it goes." 

Nichols wouldn't commit to playing on Sunday, and plans to see how he feels after a full week of practice. Nagy indicated that, at this point in his recovery, it's more about getting back into playing shape. 

"He’s been out a couple weeks, so now it’s just the ability for him to show probably more conditioning than anything," he said. "He has that cast on him, but he has the fingers that he’s able to use. Again, if you’re able to be out there and you’re able to suit up and go out there, then to me, let’s go.”

If Nichols is able to play against New Orleans, he'll do so wearing a club for extra protection. This was the first hand injury he's ever suffered, and Nichols admitted that playing with the cast takes some getting used to. Leonard Floyd wore the same type of club during the first half of last season, and has talked with Nichols about how to deal with it. 

"He's giving me a lot of insight and what to expect," Nichols said. "And things that he did that helped him out a lot. You know, we'll see. I'm going to try some things out."