Bears

Bears sign standout WR Tanner Gentry, 13 undrafted free agents

Bears sign standout WR Tanner Gentry, 13 undrafted free agents

The Bears have found success in the undrafted free agent market with the likes of wide receiver Cameron Meredith, linebacker Christian Jones and safety Harold Jones-Quartey among others during GM Ryan Pace's tenure with the club. 

Pace and the Bears hope to continue that trend and uncover some hidden gems in this year's crop of undrafted free agents.

Ahead of rookie minicamp this weekend, the Bears announced on Thursday they have signed 13 undrafted free agents.

Here's a look at some of the notable UDFA's the Bears signed:

Tanner Gentry (WR), Wyoming: The 6-foot-2 wideout ran a 4.40-yard dash at his Pro Day and had 72 catches for 1,326 yards with 14 touchdowns for the Cowboys last season. Gentry also led the country in deep targets (49) last season.

Dieugot Joseph (OT), Florida International: After a switch from defensive end to the offensive line, Joseph became a stalwart at left tackle for the Panthers. Joseph was named honorable mention All-Conference USA in 2016.

Andy Phillips (K), Utah: A former member of the United States National Ski Team, Phillips walked on to the Utah football team in 2012. As the Utes starting kicker from 2013-16, Phillips converted 84 percent of field goals and missed just one extra point.

Freddie Stevenson (FB), Florida State: For three seasons Stevenson served as the lead blocker for All-American running back Dalvin Cook. A former four-star recruit as a linebacker, Stevenson had 292 total yards and seven touchdowns with the Seminoles.

Kermit Whitfield (WR), Florida State: One of the most explosive athletes in the country, Whitfield accumulated 2,386 yards as a kick returner at Florida State. Whitfield broke the ACC record for yards per return (36.4) during his freshman season.

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Jhajuan Seales (WR), Oklahoma State: Seales has the ability to climb the ladder and make the contested catches with a 41.5-inch vertical leap. After subpar sophomore and junior seasons, Seales rebounded as a senior with 37 receptions for 615 yards and four touchdowns.

Franko House (TE), Ball State: House was a standout basketball player for the Cardinals. House will use his 6-foot-6, 247-pound frame to make the transition to the gridiron after not playing the sport since his senior year of high school.

Joel Bouagnon (RB), Northern Illinois: The ex-Huskies running back couldn't quite replicate his junior year numbers, but still posted a respectable 4.9 yards per carry with nine total touchdowns in 2016.

Rashaad Coward (DL), Old Dominion: Coward was a second-team All Conference USA selection last season, finishing with 50 tackles, 7.5 tackles for a loss and 1.5 sacks. Coward fits the Bears 3-4 base defense as somebody who could rotate either inside or outside on the defensive line.

Mitchell Kirsch (OL), James Madison: Kirsch was the starter at right tackle for the Dukes since 2014, and was named an FCS All-American last year.

Hendrick Ekpe (LB), Minnesota: Ekpe started 11 games for the Gophers and notched 28 tackles, 7.5 tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks. Ekpe played defensive end at Minnesota, but with his size (6-foot3, 245 pounds) he'll play outside linebacker for the Bears.

Isaiah Irving (LB), San Jose State: The 6-foot-3, 255 pound Irving led San Jose State with seven sacks as a senior.

Alex Searce (LB), Coastal Carolina: Searce was a finalist for the Buck Buchanan National Defensive Player of the Year Award. He had eight sacks for the Chanticleers in 2016.

Below are some standout players who have been invited to rookie minicamp:

Denard Robinson (RB): The artist formerly known as "Shoelace" from his days as a quarterback at Michigan is one several veterans that will try to impress the Bears' brass at rookie minicamp this weekend. Robinson was used as an "offensive weapon" during his four years with the Jacksonville Jaguars (2013-2016) and accumulated 1,058 rushing yards, 310 receiving yards and five total touchdowns.

Tyler Gaffney (RB): The former Stanford star will be at rookie minicamp for the Bears after he was released by the New England Patriots in March. Gaffney, originally a sixth-round selection by the Patriots in 2014, spent the majority of the last three seasons on injured reserve. During his season year at Stanford, Gaffney started 14 games and had 1,709 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns.

Titus Davis (WR): Davis, a standout wide receiver at Wheaton South High School, is the older brother of Tennessee Titans' 2017 first-round selection Corey Davis. Titus Davis played at Central Michigan from 2011-2014 and registered 204 receptions for 3,700 yards and 37 touchdowns. 

D.J. Johnson (TE), Kansas State: Johnson joins House as one of two college basketball players the Bears will have in rookie minicamp. Johnson averaged 11.3 points and 5.7 rebounds per game with the Wildcats in 2016-17 and helped the team to an appearance in the NCAA Tournament. Johnson was an All-Conference defensive end and tight end at Parkway North High School in St. Louis.

Mark Spelman (OL), Illinois State: Spelman was one of the key members of the Redbirds offensive line last season and garnered third-team All-American honors.

D'Nerius Antoine (S), Southern Mississippi: A two-year starter for the Golden Eagles, Antoine had 189 tackles, 10.5 tackles for a loss, 2 interceptions and 10 passes defended. Antoine also has experience as a returner.

DeSean Smith (TE), LSU: Smith wasn't often utlized in the Tigers passing game, ending his collegiate career with 19 receptions for 346 yards and one touchdown.

Lance Lenoir (WR), Western Illinois: Lenoir, a high school teammate of 2016 Minnesota Vikings first-round pick Laquon Treadwell at Crete Monee, finished his Leathernecks career as the school's all-time leader in receptions (273), yards (3,796) and touchdowns (28).

3 things 2020 Bears will need to repeat 2018’s success

3 things 2020 Bears will need to repeat 2018’s success

The first two years of the Matt Nagy era can be boiled down to this: First, a tremendously fun year in which the Bears blew past expectations; and second, a tremendously un-fun year in which the Bears fell short of expectations.

So what will 2020 be closer to: The unbridled joy of 2018 (until the last kick of the wild card round), or the numbing disappointment of 2019 (despite still winning eight games)?

To answer that question, we should start by laying out some expectations for 2020. Broadly: The Bears should compete for a spot in an expanded seven-team playoff field. More narrowly: The Bears’ offense should be, at worst, league-average – about where it was in 2018. And the defense, led by a mauling pass rush, should be one of the best in the NFL even without Eddie Goldman.

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But how do the Bears get 2020 to feel more like 2018 than 2019? Here are three key factors:

The tight end question

Trey Burton did not miss a game in 2018’s regular season, and the Bears’ offense was better because of it. While Burton’s numbers weren’t eye-popping (54 catches, 569 yards, 6 TDs) his steadiness at the “U” tight end spot allowed the Bears’ offense to create mismatches, especially with Tarik Cohen.

Burton never was healthy last year, playing poorly in eight games before landing on injured reserve. The Bears didn’t have quality depth behind Burton, and the “Y” spot was a disaster. The lack of any good tight end play wasn’t the only reason why the Bears’ offense cratered in 2019, but it might’ve been the biggest reason.

The starting point to the Bears’ offense in 2020 is, certainly, figuring out who’s playing quarterback. But the Bears need Jimmy Graham, Cole Kmet and Demetrius Harris to be the fixes their tight end room sorely needs. Just average play from those guys will help the Bears’ offense be closer to what it was in 2018 (which, again, was merely good enough), if not better.

MORE: Where Cole Kmet stands as Bears get to know their rookies

And if the tight end room is a disaster again? It might not matter who starts at quarterback.

Good luck and/or good depth

The 2018 Bears were incredibly lucky in dodging significant injuries early on. Adam Shaheen began the year on IR but returned in November; Kyle Long went on IR after Week 8 and came back Week 17. Depth pieces like Sam Acho and Dion Sims were lost, sure, but the Bears did well to make their absences footnotes to the season.

Even when slot corner Bryce Callahan was injured in Week 14, veteran special teamer Sherrick McManis did incredibly well in his place. Eddie Jackson’s season-ending injury in Week 15 was the most costly, as the Bears missed him in that wild card game against Foles and the Eagles.

But overall, the Bears were both lucky in terms of staying healthy and good in terms of replacing those injured guys in 2018.

The Bears saw some depth shine in 2019 – specifically defensive lineman Nick Williams and inside linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski – but even still, the defense struggled to dominate without Hicks on the field. And the aforementioned tight end position was a disaster without a healthy Burton. Long never was right, and the offensive line without him (or veteran backup Ted Larsen) never was either. Taylor Gabriel’s off-and-on availability due to multiple concussions hampered the offense, too.

2020 inevitably will be a year of attrition not only for the Bears, but for the entire NFL. In addition to avoiding football injuries before and during the season, teams will have to avoid COVID-19 outbreaks in their facilities. Training and personal responsibility can go a long way in avoiding injuries and illness, but it’ll take a lot of luck, too, for teams to stay mostly healthy.

MORE: Fragility of 2020 season constantly on Bears players' minds

The teams with the best depth will have the best chance of making the playoffs. Will the Bears be among that group? Maybe. But a shortage of draft picks in recent years might be costly. We’ll see.

Betting on pressure

The Bears had one of the best defenses of the last decade in 2018 because of, first and foremost, outstanding coverage from its secondary. The ability of Fuller/Jackson/Callahan/Adrian Amos/Prince Amukamara to disguise their coverages confused most opposing offenses, who by the way also had to deal with Hicks pushing the pocket and Mack marauding off the edge. Hicks and Goldman opened up gaps for Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith to snuff out any attempt at establishing the run. It was a perfect formula.

The 2019 Bears’ defense took a step back not only because Vic Fangio (and defensive backs coach Ed Donatell) left for Denver, but because of player attrition, too. Last year’s defense was good, but not great.

The formula for the 2020 Bears’ defense won’t be the same as it was in 2018, though. The signing of Robert Quinn, coupled with jettisoning Leonard Floyd, hints at a defense predicated on a dominant pass rush. Holes in the secondary were addressed on the cheap, be it with Jaylon Johnson or Tashaun Gipson.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. A trio of Mack/Hicks/Quinn seems impossible to contain. If the Bears’ defense re-emerges as one of the best in the NFL, it’ll be because those three guys lead the way in putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks.  

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Mtich Trubisky, of course, was dubbed Bears' biggest liability in 2020

Mtich Trubisky, of course, was dubbed Bears' biggest liability in 2020

Mitch Trubisky's tenure in Chicago since being the second overall pick of the 2017 NFL draft hasn't been great. It hasn't been terrible, either. It's been a blend of good and bad which has led to an incomplete picture of who he is as a quarterback entering his fourth year in the league. It's the main reason why the Bears traded for Nick Foles; Trubisky can't be trusted (yet) to be the unquestioned starter for a team that on paper has playoff potential.

The fact that Trubisky can't be trusted contributes to the narrative that he's the team's biggest liability. Even if he wins the Bears' quarterback competition, will he really have the unconditional confidence of his coaches and teammates? Will Bears fans have the kind of faith in Trubisky that fans of other contenders have in their quarterbacks? Probably not. There's no reason why they should. Trubisky hasn't been consistent enough through nearly three seasons as a starter to deserve that level of trust.

According to a recent breakdown of every team's biggest liability, it was Trubisky, of course, who took the title for the Bears.

If new Chicago Bears quarterback Nick Foles can beat out Mitchell Trubisky and play well in 2020, the Bears might be a playoff team. If he cannot, Chicago might be looking at a lost season.

While the Bears roster is very talented, Trubisky has been anything but a steady presence under center. He has struggled to push the ball down the field—he averaged just 6.1 yards per attempt in 2019—and has limited what head coach Matt Nagy is able—or perhaps, willing—to do on offense.

Chicago ranked 29th in passing yardage last year and declined Trubisky's fifth-year option this offseason.

If the Bears are again one-dimensional, they're going to find it difficult to be relevant in the tough NFC North.

I ran a poll on Twitter that asked Bears fans who they prefer as the starting quarterback with just over one month to go before the season kicks off. The results were predictably close, but the nod went to Foles (56%). It feels safe to assume a big reason why fans hope Foles ends up QB1 is because of his proven track record in big moments. Even if he's a boring player with a limited regular-season ceiling, he has ice in his veins during the game's biggest moments. He's steady. He's consistent. He's pretty much the anti-Trubisky.

Is it fair to say Trubisky is a liability? Of course, it is. If he fails, the Bears will be set back for several seasons. Even if Foles salvages the team's short-term outlook, the long-term success of the franchise depends on Trubisky living up to his scouting report and becoming a franchise quarterback. And there just isn't enough evidence to prove he's capable of doing that.

If we don't know by now whether Trubisky can turn the corner and be a top-tier starting quarterback in the NFL, it's probably safe to say he can't. 

 

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