Four positions worth special attention as Bears camp looms


Four positions worth special attention as Bears camp looms

There are no unimportant positions on a football field, regardless of unit. One – quarterback – may be more important, but a glaring weakness elsewhere on offense can compromise that individual. An opponent’s return team absolutely will find the one incompetent member of the coverage unit. A defensive back is too often only as good as what goes on in front of him, and vice versa.

(Any doubts, see: Bears, Chicago; 2014).

Three overarching issues will in large part determine the success of the 2015 Bears, and those will be addressed subsequently by But four specific positions warrant close attention when training camp opens later this month and on through the preseason:

Defensive end

When the Bears signed Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young last offseason, the plan was to add a win-now edge pass rush out of a 4-3 scheme. Now the scheme is changed, Houston and Young have yet to practice following season-ending injuries last season, and Allen’s role or spot on the depth chart is still forming.

But the real question at the position lies at the end positions in the 3-4 scheme, spots that need to staffed by players closer in size and role to defensive tackles, not the speed rushers lined up outside offensive tackles.

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The Bears used a No. 2 pick on Eddie Goldman to staff nose tackle, and they have other options at that spot. What they don’t have are the fits like coordinator Vic Fangio had in San Francisco with Justin Smith (285 pounds) and Ray Collins. Ego Ferguson and Jeremiah Ratliff have been with the No. 1 unit but it is a critical position for the run defense that needs to be stout if Fangio is to have chances to display the creativity that has established him as one of the NFL’s elite coordinators.

“Your heart and soul in any defense, and the 3-4 is no different, the three down linemen to me are the heart and soul of the defense,” Fangio said. “If they're getting pushed around, it doesn't matter what you're in; we're in trouble.”

OL right side

The location of Kyle Long has been an obvious story line through the offseason, and the two-time Pro Bowl lineman has been at both guard and tackle through minicamps and OTA’s. But more is involved than just Long.

Left tackle Jermon Bushrod sat out practices in June, as did right tackle Jordan Mills, the starter at right tackle before a troublesome foot injury week 17 of 2013. The Bears signed guard Vladimir Ducasse from the Minnesota Vikings; the decision on Long can be assumed to factor in whether Ducasse is a better guard than Mills is a tackle.

Left tackle is the marquis position from the standpoint of pass protection to the quarterback’s blind side. But the majority of Hall of Fame defensive ends were left ends, meaning the ones who were bearing down right where the quarterback can see any protection breakdown.

The Bears are making changes to their blocking schemes; those typically always happen anyway with a coaching change. But sorting out the blocking where it’s most visible to quarterback Jay Cutler has to happen, and happen quickly.

“I look at tackles, while they have to be physical, I look at them as ‘skill’ guys,” said line coach Dave Magazu. “They better be able to protect the passer first, and maybe be a run blocker second."

Special teams

Special teams at times over the past two years had the appearance and feel of afterthoughts. Coordinator Joe DeCamillis was forced to deal with constantly changing personnel, rarely working with starting defensive players or top specialists in the coverage arts.

The result was that units that once ranked annually among the NFL’s best slipped into mediocrity. Coach John Fox hired Jeff Rodgers as special-teams coordinator with the Denver Broncos and was able to bring Rodgers to the Bears staff.

“There’s a lot of things to like about guys that make tackles or guys that did a good job with blocks or if they were penalty type guys,” Rodgers said. “You just try to identify those things, educate them on what we’re trying to do and move forward.”

Inside linebacker

So much attention has been on the outside linebackers because of the pass-rush component, that the inside two have been overlooked. They shouldn’t be.

Fangio’s top-10 defenses in San Francisco got sacks from Aldon and Justin Smith. But they had All-Pro’s NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis as their 245-pound inside linebackers.

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The Bears have nothing approaching the Bowman-Willis tandem; no team does. And what they do have are Christian Jones and Shea McClellin lining up as the first unit, plus Mason Foster from Tampa Bay and potentially Jonathan Bostic coming off a back injury.

None of the four have ever started at inside linebacker in a 3-4 defense at the NFL level. Not that they’re intimidated by the challenge, but...

“I feel comfortable,” McClellin said as the offseason practices wrapped up. “I haven't played inside for a long time, but it's starting to come back to me, the instincts to play in there are coming back. Personally I'm feeling good… .It's not where we want to be, but we'll continue to build.”

How the new kickoff rule may impact the Bears

How the new kickoff rule may impact the Bears

NFL owners voted for sweeping changes to the kickoff play Tuesday, a decision that presents a new challenge for Bears special teams coach Chris Tabor.

Player safety was the focus of the rule change. Collisions will be reduced and the play will look more like a punt than the traditional kickoff fans have become used to. Here's a breakdown of what's coming in 2018:

With less contact and physicality in the play, Tabor's game planning will be tested. Kickoffs won't require as many power players like the ones traditionally seen in the wedge block. Skill players like receivers, running backs and tight ends could be viewed as more valuable special teams pieces, as was suggested by NFL Network's Bucky Brooks.

Tarik Cohen could become even more lethal under the new rules. If kick returners end up with more space to navigate, Cohen will improve on the 583 return yards he managed as a rookie. He'll conjure memories of the recently retired Devin Hester.

The ability to contribute on special teams is critically important for players on the roster bubble. It'll be interesting to see if the Bears apply the approach suggested by Brooks. If they do, undrafted players like Matt Fleming and John Franklin III suddenly have more value and a better chance to make the team. 

For a complete breakdown of the new kickoff rule, click here.

Charles Leno dubbed Bears' best-kept secret

Charles Leno dubbed Bears' best-kept secret

Chicago Bears left tackle Charles Leno, Jr. deserves a lot of credit. After starting his career as a seventh-round pick and something of a longshot to ever earn a starting job, he's become an irreplaceable fixture at the most important position along the offensive line.

The four-year, $38 million contract extension he signed last offseason is evidence of that.

Despite his value to the Bears, Leno is still somewhat underrated across league circles. That may be about to change.

Leno was recently named Chicago's best-kept secret.

Leno has consistently improved as a pass protector since he was drafted in the seventh round in 2014 and is now one of the team's top 10 players. If he hit the open market, Leno might be a $60 million player with the way the offensive line market is exploding. Over the next four years, the Bears should save about $20 million on the market price for their starting-caliber left tackle.

Leno has enjoyed steady improvement since his rookie season. His grades from Pro Football Focus reflect that: 53.6 (2014), 56.3 (2015), 71.2 (2016) and 80.4 (2017). 

The Bears' offensive line is poised for a big season in 2018. Leno and Bobby Massie are back as starters at tackle. Rookie second-round pick James Daniels will pair with Kyle Long at guard and third-year pro, Cody Whitehair, will get back to focusing on being the team's starting center.

If Leno's trend of improved play continues, he's a great candidate to go from best-kept secret to league star in 2018.