Bears

Emery backing Cutler as 'franchise' quarterback

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Emery backing Cutler as 'franchise' quarterback

Even as coach Lovie Smith was being fired as head coach for failures of the Bears offenses under him, quarterback Jay Cutler was being given another vote of confidence as a franchise quarterback in Chicago.

At least for one more year.

Jays won a lot of games, GM Phil Emery said on Tuesday. I think the important thing is we continue to build around him. That to me is part of the equation.

And as to whether Cutler is the long-term answer for the Bears, that answer is going to come as we move forward with a new head coach, said Emery, whose fate as a general manager now rests very heavily on Cutlers success. Am I convinced that Jay has the talent to be that? Yes, I am.

Ill say the same thing that I said this summer: I see Jay as a franchise quarterback. Weve got to build around him. Thats been the goal from the beginning, to build around Jay and to build our team towards championships.

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Emery did stop short of stating that the new Bears coach will be handcuffed to Cutler the way Emery was for a year with Smith. But any candidate who does not see in Cutler what Emery does will need to be very, very convincing in his job interview.

Im not saying that the new coach has to buy in on Cutler, Emery said. Im saying that Im looking for a head coach that can take all the unique talents that we have and bring them together toward winning championships.

The future in the middle

Emery refused to commit to a contract extension for middle linebacker Brian Urlacher back before the season, with Urlacher coming off a knee injury. But while doubters focused on what Urlacher wasnt (the same as he was a decade ago), Emery was seeing significant progress through the season before Urlacher went down with a hamstring injury in the loss to Seattle.

Urlacher looked a little rusty early in the year, Emery said, which Urlacher himself admitted. By the Seattle game Urlacher had speed and burst back. And Emery was satisfied with how Urlacher also functioned in pass drops.

What makes Urlachers return difficult to gauge is how the new head coach will value Urlachers leadership and fit into possibly a new scheme.

The things that are very difficult to replace for Brian and would be to replace for Brian, if we were ever to move in a different direction, is the leadership that he has and the knowledge base that he has with our system, Emery said.

The three-technique

Smiths defensive scheme relied heavily on a defensive tackle capable of consistently winning against single blocking and generating an inside pass rush. He had that with Tommie Harris.

Henry Melton provided some of that last season and was voted a starter in the Pro Bowl despite a chest injury that took him out for a couple of games.

But Melton is a free agent at one of the NFLs most expensive positions and is coming off seasons of seven and six sacks. Re-signing him will be a priority.

Henry had a good year, Emery said. I know he was probably disappointed because he didnt get to finish as well as he wanted because he had a chest injury. He was productive and got better as a run player.

Offensive line

Emery adamantly defended his offseason actions as far as improving the offensive line but conceded that pass protection needed to be improved. The process last offseason was to look at a thin market for unrestricted free agent tackles (several possibilities were not available) and the decision was made in the draft to add to the pass rush with Shea McClellin and add to the stable of playmakers on offense with wide receiver Alshon Jeffery.

My though process was, before we went into the draft, to analyze with our coaches and with our staff, weve got two tackles and we had determined that was our greatest need, Emery said. That area will be looked at closely again this offseason.

Emery also stated that tight end Kellen Davis had a rough year as a receiver. Indications are that efforts will be made for an upgrade at the position, with input from the new head coach.

Three questions for Bears ILBs: What kind of an impact will Roquan Smith make?

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USA TODAY

Three questions for Bears ILBs: What kind of an impact will Roquan Smith make?

Pre-camp depth chart

1. Danny Trevathan
2. John Timu
3. Joel Iyiegbuniwe

1. Roquan Smith
2. Nick Kwiatkoski
3. Jonathan Anderson

1. How good can Roquan Smith be?

Making sweeping observations from shorts-and-helmets practices in OTAs is often a fool’s errand, but Smith looked the part while running around the practice fields of Halas Hall after being drafted in April. His quickness and instinctiveness stood out — as they did at Georgia — and his football intelligence and work ethic were praised by coaches and teammates. 

“He’s learning well,” Trevathan said. “He’s doing a good job of learning. He’s learning the little things that you need to learn in this defense. Now it’s all about putting on a show and going out there and rocking.”

And that’s what’s going to be fun to watch in Bourbonnais: How does Smith play with the pads on? Chances are, the answer to that question will be “well,” setting the eighth overall pick on a path to being a mainstay of this defense for years to come. 

That’s not to say Smith doesn’t have plenty on which to work during training camp. But he left Georgia as a sort of “safe bet” in the draft, and nothing he’s done to this point has changed the view of him that he’s likely going to be a good one. 

2. Can Danny Trevathan stay healthy?

In terms of size and athleticism, Trevathan and Smith profile similar to NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis, the inside linebacking tandem that was the spine of the San Francisco 49ers defense during Fangio’s time there. But for Trevathan and Smith to reach that lofty bar — or even to come close to it — Trevathan needs to be more available than he was his first two years with the Bears.

This isn’t questioning Trevathan’s toughness — far from it. That he returned for Week 1 of the 2017 season 10 months after rupturing his patellar tending (an injury that can be a career-ender) was impressive, and that he was immediately productive upon returning was even more extraordinary. But Trevathan missed three games in November due to a strained calf, and coupled with a one-game suspension and the seven games he missed in 2016, the 28-year-old has only played in 21 of 32 games since signing with the Bears. 

Trevathan is confident he can improve his production in 2018, given he wasn’t able to participate in last year’s offseason program practices. He’s entering his third year in Fangio’s defense and feels better prepared after going through OTAs and minicamps this year. It’s just now about him staying on the field to make sure that work pays off.

“I’m more comfortable with this defense, I’m more comfortable with the guys and the calls that we make,” Trevathan said. “I take pride in being correct and working my tail off and making the defense better. And the more that I can be out there — which I plan on being out there a lot — it’s going to help us tremendously.” 

3. How big a role will Nick Kwiatkoski have?

The Bears didn’t draft Smith because they felt like they absolutely needed to upgrade over Kwiatkoski, who’s acquitted himself well in 25 games since being picked in the fourth round of the 2016 draft. But Kwiatkoski has dealt with some injury issues, and for as solid a player as he may be, the Bears’ defense needed (and still needs) more great players. Drafting Smith gave the Bears a shot at adding a great player.

It also leaves Kwiatkoski in the same spot he was in a year ago, when the Bears entered the 2017 season with Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman as their unquestioned starting inside linebackers. Smith still has to earn that starting spot, but the safe bet is he will, relegating Kwiatkoski again to reserve duties.

And that’s a positive for the overall health of this defense, having a player good enough to start ready to play if needed. But it also raises this question: What do the Bears do with Kwiatkoski if he’s one of their four best linebackers, but isn’t one of their two best inside linebackers? 

So for the purposes of watching training camp practices, seeing if Kwiatkoski gets any reps at outside linebacker will be an interesting storyline to follow. 

Bears shutout in poll of NFL's best starters under 25

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USA Today

Bears shutout in poll of NFL's best starters under 25

Maybe this is what happens when a team is coming off a 5-11 season and has won only 14 games over three years. Maybe it's just another example of the Chicago Bears being overlooked and underrated. Regardless of the 'why,' a recent poll of NFL experts has provided more fuel for the Bears in 2018.

ESPN's Field Yates asked 43 insiders and former players for their list of the top under-25-year-old starters in the NFL and not a single Chicago Bear made the cut.

No Jordan Howard. No Mitchell Trubisky. No Allen Robinson.

Not a single Bear.

The most shocking omission is Howard, who finished second in the NFL in rushing in 2016 and sixth last year despite facing defenses that focused their entire game plan on stopping him every single week. At only 23 years old, he's clearly one of the top young running backs in the NFL and warranted a spot on this list. 

Instead, the Rams' Todd Gurley, Cowboys' Ezekiel Elliott and Giants rookie Saquon Barkley got the nod.

Howard has more rushing yards than Gurley over the last two seasons and trails Elliott by only 179. Barkley has yet to take a snap in the NFL.

The Bears were recently named the most underrated team in the league heading into 2018 and this is just another piece of evidence justifying that claim. A winning season will change the national perception of players like Howard, who with another year of high-end production should find himself at or near the top of many of these lists next offseason.