Bears

High risk lurks in rush-LB draft class for Bears, others

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High risk lurks in rush-LB draft class for Bears, others

The expectation at the outset of the 2015 offseason that new Bears general manager Ryan Pace and coach John Fox would eventually target one of a strong class of edge pass rushers early in this year’s draft, presumably with the No. 7 pick of the first round.

And the 2015 draft’s first round that will play out this Thursday is rated as “strong” in this particular position group.

With the work already done in free agency to stock the linebacker spot in the planned-on 3-4 scheme — adding Pernell McPhee, Mason Foster and Sam Acho — the urgency is dialed back, if only slightly. The growing expectation is that the Bears will grab one of the top wide receivers if the chance presents itself.

“We’re going to target anybody that makes us better in the draft,” Fox said. “I think Ryan has the approach, which I am on board with, which is taking the best available player.”

[MORE: Bears QB Draft Preview: Beyond Jay Cutler...?]

If that player is judged to be one of the edge rushers, it will be a target with some considerable risk.

Someone, or two, from among Vic Beasley, Alvin Dupree, Dante Fowler, Eric Kendricks, Randy Gregory, Shane Ray and a couple others can be expected to emerge as an impact NFL player.

But not every team is convinced.

“It's interesting, because I've had a bunch of teams asking me about what I call the ‘edge’ class,” NFL draft analyst Mike Mayock said in a recent conference call. “I think a month ago our perception was that there were going to be at least four guys going in the first eight picks. And now the perception is couple of those guys are probably sliding down a little bit.”

Indeed, while pass-rushing linebackers may appear less risky than quarterbacks, for instance, first-round picks in general have a roughly 50-percent success rate. Indeed, part of the Bears’ defensive difficulties of the past couple years trace in a small measure to one of those misses.

Examples: 2011 vs. 2012

The 2011 draft proved rich in the kind of rush-linebacker/end that the Bears and other 3-4 teams covet: Von Miller (to Fox and the Denver Broncos), Aldon Smith (to Vic Fangio and the San Francisco 49ers), J.J. Watt, Ryan Kerrigan, Adrian Clayborn, Cameron Jordan (to Pace and the New Orleans Saints).

All went within the first 24 picks of the draft and all but Clayborn already have been selected for at least one Pro Bowl.

[MORE: Bears CB Draft Preview: Competition coming for Tim Jennings]

But in 2012, another year with a supposed cluster of elite edge rushers, the results were distinctly less glittering. The run on them started at No. 15 with the Seattle Seahawks:

Bruce Irvin. Quinton Coples. Melvin Ingram. Shea McClellin. Chandler Jones. Whitney Mercilus. Dont’a Hightower. Nick Perry. All in the first round. Within the first six picks of the second round: Courtney Upshaw. Andre Branch.

Not one has been to a Pro Bowl.

Jones has been the class of the class, with seasons of 6-11.5-6 sacks. Irvin and Coples each has 16.5 sacks over their three seasons. Irvin and Jones have Super Bowl rings.

But McClellin, Perry, Branch and Upshaw have been major disappointments for teams that made them priority picks expressly to upgrade pass rushes. The Bears are not expected to pick up the fifth-year option on McClellin’s rookie contract, nor are the Packers with Perry’s.

Make no mistake…

The best linebackers in the 2012 draft class were inside linebackers: Luke Kuechly to Carolina, Bobby Wagner to Seattle, both Pro Bowl honorees.

But most edge linebackers chosen with No. 1 picks have a hierarchy of skill sets, and the 2015 group will be measured by it as well:

“Pass rush is the first thing that comes to mind,” Pace said. “Edge speed. The ability to hit the quarterback. And then also the ability to set the edge and get off a block. But pass rush is the number one priority.”

[NBC SHOP: Gear up for the draft, Bears fans!]

The Denver Broncos chose a front-seven defensive player in with their first pick in the first three drafts while Fox was their head coach and a cornerback last year. As to whether he sees that pattern continuing in Chicago, Fox deadpanned at last month’s NFL owner’s meetings:

 “I think we’ll let you know in late April.” 

Why what 'Run DMC' does catching passes in training camp will be a big clue for how good the Bears' offense will be

Why what 'Run DMC' does catching passes in training camp will be a big clue for how good the Bears' offense will be


How much better Mitch Trubisky will be is the defining question for the 2019 Bears. But we won’t begin to know the answer to that question until September — it’s not something that’ll be easily discernible during training camp practices in Bourbonnais or a handful of snaps in preseason games. Those can sometimes produce false positives and false negatives.

The Bears believe in Trubiskiy, of course, and you’ll likely hear Matt Nagy and players laud their quarterback’s growth over the coming weeks. But belief is one thing; tangible production is another. And we won’t truly get to see that growth until the night of Sept. 5 at Soldier Field. 

But there are a few things to look for in Bourbonnais that could clue us in that a big-time leap is coming for No. 10. We’ll begin this mini-series leading up to the start of training camp next week with this: Better success from running backs catching passes on first down. 

It’s a narrowly specific angle, but one that carries plenty of weight. Consider this excerpt from Warren Sharp’s 2019 Football Preview:

“First down has long been perceived as a running down. In 2017, the league-wide average run-pass split on first down was 47-53. It was 50-50 last season, but that was still well below the 59-41 league-wide split on all downs. Yet passing to running backs on first down is significantly more effective.

“In 2018, there were 6,248 running back rushing attempts on first down. They averaged 4.5 yards per carry, minus-0.01 Expected Points Added per attempt, and a positive play rate of 41.3%. When teams threw to running backs on first down, they averaged 6.02 yards per target, 7.8 yards per receptions. 0.08 EPA per attempt — slightly more efficient than the average of all passes regardless of down at 0.05 EPA — and a positive play rate of 52.3%.”

The larger point here (especially if your eyes glazed over some of those numbers — which, we promise, make sense) is this: Scheming more throws to running backs on first down is an area in which almost every team in the NFL can improve. It's worth noting the Kansas City Chiefs' most effective play on first-and-long in 2018, per Sharp, was a pass to Kareem Hunt. 

And the good news is the Bears re-worked their running back room in a way that could optimize their success throwing the ball to David Montgomery, Mike Davis and Tarik Cohen on first down. 

The 2018 Bears simply didn’t have the personnel to do that regularly or successfully.

Jordan Howard was only targeted nine times on first-and-10, catching five passes for 42 yards. All nine of those targets were short throws, either to the left (two), middle (one) or right (six), and Trubisky had a passer rating of 83 on those attempts. Meanwhile, Howard carried the ball 128 times on first-and-10, averaging 3.7 yards per carry and only generating nine first downs (the NFL average for rushing attempts on first-and-10 in 2018 was 4.7 yards per carry). 

Cohen was, roughly, the inverse of Howard’s numbers: He caught 30 of 37 targets for 241 yards (6.5 yards per target) and generated seven first downs through the air, but averaged just 3.2 yards on his 46 rushing attempts with four first downs. Neither player was particularly balanced in these scenarios: Howard was mildly ineffective running the ball and not a threat catching it; Cohen was largely ineffective running the ball but was a threat catching it. 

And for the crowd who still believes Nagy wasn’t willing to establish the run: The combined rushing attempts on first-and-10 of Howard, Cohen, Benny Cunningham and Taquan Mizzell totaled 182; the combined pass attempts by Trubisky and Chase Daniel in that down-and-distance was 176, per Pro Football Reference’s play index. 

The Bears, in 2018, averaged 5.5 yards per play on first-and-10, tied for 24th in the NFL. Yet only three teams — the New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts — averaged fewer yards-to-go on third down than the Bears’ mark of 6.9. That’s a sign of Nagy’s playcalling prowess and the talent on this offense, and it’s not a stretch to argue an improvement of first-and-10 success will have a significant impact on the overall success of the Bears’ offense. 

So back to the initial point about passes to running backs in these situations: The Bears believe both Montgomery and Davis have some untapped potential as pass-catching running backs. Montgomery caught 71 passes in college at Iowa State, while Davis was targeted the most by the Seattle Seahawks in 2018 on first down (17 of 42 targets). Cohen, of course, is already an accomplished pass-catcher. 

The “Run DMC” backfield needs to have more success carrying the ball on first-and-10 than last year’s group did, of course. But if you’re in Bourbonnais or watching a preseason game, keep an eye out for how effective the Bears are at passing to their running backs — especially if those passes travel beyond the line of scrimmage (another inefficiency noted by Warren Sharp's 2019 Football Preview). 

If you start seeing Montgomery making defenders miss after catching a pass, or Davis looking fluid with the ball in his hands, or Cohen breaking off some explosive gains — those will be significant reasons to believe in Trubisky and the Bears' offense in 2019. 

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Under Center Podcast: State of the Bears: Defense

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USA TODAY

Under Center Podcast: State of the Bears: Defense

JJ Stankevitz, Cam Ellis and Paul Aspan are back with their training camp preview of the Bears' defense, looking at if it's fair to expect this group to take a step back without Vic Fangio (2:00) or if it's possible to repeat as the league's No. 1 defense (10:00). Plus, the guys look at which players the Bears need to improve to remain one of the NFL's best defenses (15:15), debate if Leonard Floyd can be better (20:00) and look at the future of the defense as a salary cap crunch looms after 2019 (25:00). 

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below: