Hroniss Grasu impressing veterans as Bears approach decision point


Hroniss Grasu impressing veterans as Bears approach decision point

After 11 NFL seasons and a cluster of Pro Bowls, Jeremiah Ratliff doesn’t impress easily. After spending some of Thursday’s practice against rookie center Hroniss Grasu, the Bears veteran defensive lineman was impressed.

And not only by what Ratliff saw when the two faced each other occasionally in practice, but also afterwards, when the rookie sought advice from not only coaches and fellow offensive linemen, but also a long-time top defensive lineman.

“The thing you can’t measure is the fight in a man’s heart and he has that,” Ratliff said. “He has that willingness to learn, always asking questions, wanting to succeed, and really wants to do well.

“As far as his size, I’m not worried about that. As long as he’s working the way he’s working, he’ll get it done.”

[MORE BEARS: Hroniss Grasu, Matt Slauson share reps with 1's but no decision on starter]

With swing lineman Patrick Omameh sitting out a second day of practice with an ankle injury, Grasu’s chances of beginning his NFL career as the Bears starting center next Sunday in Kansas City have taken two steps toward reality.

Omameh has been in meetings but neither he nor left tackle Jermon Bushrod attended practice Wednesday or Thursday. Charles Leno is the presumptive starter at left tackle if Bushrod remains out with a concussion.

Ratliff and the Bears do not appear concerned if Grasu opens at center against the Chiefs. Coach John Fox started Ryan Kalil for three games as a rookie center while in Carolina and Kalil, 299 pounds out of USC, another Pac-12 program, went on to earn four Pro Bowls and one All-Pro designation.

“I think he’s athletic, he gets to the second level, he’s smart, he’s played in a winning program [Oregon],” said Fox. “We liked a lot of his football character. To name a few. He’s not deficient in any area. As far as what offense they’re playing in college, it doesn’t really matter. They have to come in and how they adapt to what we’re doing.”

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

One key is the comfort level of quarterback Jay Cutler with Grasu, since the two rarely worked together through the offseason, training camp or preseason. With his time at Oregon, Grasu has worked extensively with snapping in the shotgun but considerably less in the direct-snap world of the NFL. That said, the Bears ran 47 of their 75 plays in the Oakland game from a shotgun set.

“With Hroniss you just know that there are going to be some mistakes out there,” Cutler said, adding quickly, “with ‘Slau’ though, too. There are going to be some things that they just haven’t seen. They’re going to experience it. But I know those guys are going to give me everything they’ve got and that’s all I can ask for.

Grasu would be the youngest center Cutler has ever played with, going back to veterans Tom Nalen and Casey Wiegmann in Denver, then Olin Kreutz, Roberto Garza, and then Will Montgomery in Chicago.

“I’ve always had older centers who make your life a little bit easier,” Cutler said. “So Hroniss would be the youngest guy, but it’s fine. He’s going to go out there and he’s going to play his butt off. If we go with Slau, we already have one game under our belt.”

Is Jordan Howard underrated in fantasy football?

USA Today

Is Jordan Howard underrated in fantasy football?

Jordan Howard has accomplished some pretty amazing things to start his career. Most notably, he's the only running back in Chicago Bears franchise history to finish his first two seasons with more than 1,000 rushing yards, including 1,313 yards as a rookie, good for a team rookie record.

Still, Howard has been the target of criticism this offseason because of his questionable set of hands. He was plagued by a case of the drops last season and he's been labeled as a guy who can't catch the ball heading into 2018. Combine that with the player nipping at his heels -- Tarik Cohen -- and the overwhelming theory advanced by analysts is that he'll give way to Cohen on passing downs.

This presumption has made its way into the world of fantasy football, too. Howard is rarely if ever mentioned as one of the first running backs that should be drafted this summer and in a recent player vs. player showdown on Pro Football Focus, 49ers starter Jerick McKinnon was selected as a more appealing fantasy starter in 2018.

It’s close, but I give the nod to Jerick McKinnon. Howard’s troubles in the passing game are very real and it’s clear the Bears want to focus on that more this year. Meanwhile, McKinnon was handed a fat contract and has little competition when it comes to carries.

McKinnon, a career backup, was signed by San Franciso to be Kyle Shanahan's feature running back. He has a real chance to be a stud in fantasy circles, but should he be valued over a guy like Howard who's proven to be a contender for the NFL's rushing crown?

All of this offseason chatter will serve as great motivation for Howard who has to prove, first and foremost, that he can be a three-down back for coach Matt Nagy in the Bears' new offense. If he has a consistent training camp as a receiver and carries that momentum into the preseason and regular season, those fantasy players who draft McKinnon or another less-proven player over Howard will long for a redo.

15 Most Important Bears of 2018: No. 8 - Eddie Goldman

15 Most Important Bears of 2018: No. 8 - Eddie Goldman

Eddie Goldman is entering the final year of his contract this season and in order to cash in on a big payday, he'll need to stay healthy and make good on his top-tier potential. 

If he does, he'll become a very wealthy man and the Bears defense will have an even better year than its top-10 finish a season ago.

Goldman, 24, came to Chicago via the second round of the 2015 NFL draft and quickly became a household name among Bears fans. He started 12 games that season and finished with a surprising 4 1/2 sacks, a total that was more productive than his college scouting report predicted. He was pegged as a breakout star for 2016, but injuries ultimately derailed his second season. He played only six games that year (started five) but still flashed a surprisingly productive set of pass-rush traits; he finished 2016 with 2 1/2 sacks.

This past season represented something of a mixed bag for Goldman. He started 15 games and quieted some of the injury concerns that started bubbling around him, but his production dipped. He managed only 1 1/2 sacks. That said, he set a career-high with 27 tackles, nearly doubling his output as a rookie.

Still, Goldman wasn't a dominant force in 2017. He finished the year ranked 69th among interior defenders with a 76.3 grade from Pro Football Focus. Despite being healthy and available, it was the lowest season grade of his career from PFF.

Nose tackle is arguably the most critical position for any defense running a 3-4 scheme. It's no exception in Chicago. Goldman will set the table for linebackers Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith and the more bodies he can consume or attention he can draw from offensive lines, the more room second-level defenders will have to work. It's not just about filling up the stat sheet for Goldman. If he clogs running lanes and collapses the pocket consistently, he'll be worth every penny of a big contract extension despite lacking numbers.

The Bears need Goldman to bring his A-game in 2018, especially as a pass rusher. Chicago resides in arguably the most talented quarterback division in the NFL and for the defense to make those quarterbacks uncomfortable, Goldman has to apply pressure up the middle. He's proven he can do it, as evidenced by his rookie year production. But he's been on a steady decline in this area of his game since then and there's no room for more regression in 2018.

Players entering contract years tend to bring extra motivation to the field and there's no reason to expect anything less from Goldman. If he can combine his rookie year production with last season's availability, he could end up with the most well-rounded year of his career en route to leading the Bears' defensive line on a late-season playoff push.