Hroniss Grasu injury hurts Bears hard on multiple levels

Hroniss Grasu injury hurts Bears hard on multiple levels

BOURBONNAIS — When center Hroniss Grasu went down Saturday with what is expected to be a season-ending right-knee injury, a shock wave went through the Bears organization.

The immediate concern was — and is — for Grasu, already a core member of a young offensive line coming together for what the Bears have planned on being a long-term part of their foundation. No one had worked harder than the young lineman from Oregon at his craft, at his physical development, at settling into an offense necessarily changing from exactly what it had been last year when Grasu started eight games after an injury to another center, Will Montgomery.

“Last year, he was very reserved and almost a little understated, I would say,” right guard Kyle Long said of Grasu as camp opened. “He was afraid to kind of ruffle some feathers. I think Hroniss has done a great job of getting back to who he is. You move all the football stuff aside, he’s a great guy, he’s got a great personality, he gets along with everybody, he’s funny, he works hard, he’s a blue-collar guy. But then you put in that learning curve with football and you’re going to see a guy who’s on the ascent here for a long time in Chicago.”

That is the overarching loss, at least until Grasu is back. And “getting back” should be the assumption until circumstances prove otherwise. Roberto Garza gave the Bears a decade of superb play, first at guard, then at center, without an anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.

But the Bears invested a third-round pick in the 2015 draft on Grasu — the same round the Bears drafted long-time centers Jerry Fontenot and Olin Kreutz — and he represents a key part of philosophy within the organization: building through the draft. That plan just took a harsh hit, for at least one year.

And the significance of one year should not be understated. One line of camp is how losing last year to a stress fracture has given wide receiver Kevin White some catching up to do. And Charles Leno went from a seventh-round pick playing only as a sixth offensive lineman in 2014 to a starting left tackle by mid-2015. One year.

The ripple effect on the 2016 Bears is difficult to quantify at this juncture. General manager Ryan Pace aggressively added players this offseason to upgrade competition, but that approach had the added benefit of upgrading depth, as well. Ted Larsen was on course to become a starter-grade swing man at all three interior-line positions; now he is potentially the No. 1 center with Grasu down, meaning the Bears now have a question at depth at center. (Larsen also needs to take a quantum step up in discipline to dial back the number of fights starting in his vicinity. Those are notable in practice; they are catastrophic in games when penalties and suspensions can result.)

How much can that center depth matter? Ask Jay Cutler, who managed things through three different centers last season. That would not be the kind of “versatility” any team seeks.

For the time being at least, the Bears are not as good on the offensive line. Larsen was not starting over Grasu because he wasn’t viewed by the coaches as the player giving the Bears the best chance to win.

Options remain to sort out. Larsen has played center in the past and in camp; he is one. So is moving ascending rookie Cody Whitehair from starting at left guard to filling in at center. That involves changing two positions, never a preferred solution. The Bears have gotten good work out of Cornelius Edison, who spent part of last season on the Bears' practice squad. And Pace signed Amini Silatolu, a former second-round pick of the Carolina Panthers (2012). But Silatolu was available in large part because he’d finished the 2013 season on IR with a torn right ACL and 2015 with a torn left ACL.

The NFL operates on a principle of “next man up” when a player is lost to injury. The Bears do have “next men,” but Grasu was one of those next men last year. Replacing him even in the short term was not part of the 2016 plan.

Matt Nagy is winning over his players by being himself

USA Today Sports Images

Matt Nagy is winning over his players by being himself

Despite losing 34 of his 48 games as the Bears’ head coach, John Fox’s players generally liked him and were disappointed to see him fired on New Year’s Day. That’s not to say they were blindsided by it — losing leads to people losing their jobs, even if the culture at Halas Hall had changed for the better following the disastrous end of the Marc Trestman-Phil Emery era. 

It was with that backdrop that Matt Nagy was offered and accepted the position of Bears head coach a week after Fox’s firing. Four and a half months later, Nagy has seemingly made a strong first impression on his new team, with one reason standing out among many: He’s genuine in who he is and what he does.

“I would say Nagy can be stern, and he can be playful also,” cornerback Prince Amukamara said. “I think when you’re a first-year coach, you want to win (over) your guys, and you want to be firm, and he’s doing that. You can’t really tell he’s a rookie coach or whatever. I feel like he was born for this, and he’s doing a great job.”

Granted, no player is going to publicly blast their new boss — especially not before he’s even coached a game yet. But veteran players also aren’t oblivious to who can and cannot work out as a head coach, and there haven’t been any “damning with faint praise” types of comments that were more common five years ago at the beginning of the Trestman era.

Will this win Nagy any games come September? No. But consider this sort of like team chemistry: It won't win a team anything, but if a team doesn't have it, it can be costly. 

“He’s a cool coach, man,” linebacker Danny Trevathan — who played for Fox in both Denver and Chicago — said. “He’s always giving us little details and smiling but we know he’s a hard worker just like we are. He’s up there working just like we are. He’s always putting us in the right position and he takes care of us. On the back end, where I come from, you take care of coaches like that. You go out and make plays for those coaches.”

From an observational standpoint, Nagy comes across as genuinely excited not just to be a head coach, but the head coach of the Bears. Players respect that approach — he's not coming in acting like a hired gun, and he's shown through these OTAs and practices that he cares about them, even if they haven't spent much time together yet. And he's also not strutting into Halas Hall every day with an over-inflated ego based on his promotion. That resonates, too. 

“I like the way he came in,” Trevathan said. “He came in humble but he was hungry. He came anxious, moving around in the meetings. I like that. That gets me fired up. I feel like we’ve got a good leader up here in the head coach.”

Anthony Miller sports Bears uniform at NFLPA Rookie Premiere

Anthony Miller sports Bears uniform at NFLPA Rookie Premiere

Anthony Miller has quickly become a fan favorite on social media. He has the confidence and swagger found in most top wide receivers and it comes through on his Twitter and Instagram accounts.

Miller was one of 40 players in attendance at the 2018 NFLPA Rookie Premiere where he not only learned about the business and marketing side of football, but also suited up in his Bears gameday uniform for the first time. Of course, he shared the moment on Twitter:

Panini America, a sports collectible company, snapped a picture of Miller with fellow rookie receiver Calvin Ridley (Falcons) and quarterback Mason Rudolph (Steelers):

Miller has become something of a standout for the Bears despite not playing a single snap. He's expected to have a big role in an offense that has several new pieces and roles that are up for grabs.

Miller will compete with former first-round pick Kevin White and free-agent addition Taylor Gabriel for reps opposite Allen Robinson. Miller has the necessary skill set to play as both an outside receiver and in the slot which should give him an even greater opportunity to be on the field quite a bit.

The Bears first three draft picks are all vying for starting jobs in 2018. Roquan Smith (first round) is a lock to start next to Danny Trevathan and James Daniels (second round) will start at guard. Miller should make it three-for-three in a draft class that could end up the best of Ryan Pace's tenure.