Interesting reading between the lines as free agency opens


Interesting reading between the lines as free agency opens

Free agency is always good for a spate of surprises regardless of how distinguished (or not) the guest list is. So reading between the lines or peeking behind the curtain on some of the moves so far is more than a little intriguing:

Matt Forte

The Bears told Forte last month that they would be continuing their Super Bowl quest without him. Not a complete surprise after the Bears politely declined his offer to restructure his 2015 contract into something more cap-friendly. The reason there was that restructures involve added years and the Bears clearly weren’t thinking past this contract.

But Forte also found out this week that quite a few other NFL teams didn’t disagree with the Bears’ take on one of the truly great running backs in the history of the NFL’s charter franchise.

Forte landed with the New York Jets as free agency officially opened, filling a void created when running back Chris Ivory left the Jets for the Jacksonville Jaguars and $32.5 million over five years.

[RELATED: Where the top 2016 free agents have signed]

Which is curious. Forte opted for a team that has an unsettled quarterback situation, Ryan Fitzpatrick haggling over a new deal with them. The Miami Dolphins, who lost running back Lamar Miller to Houston, were in talks with Forte, but the tailback did not follow coach Adam Gase south.

Nor did he listen to former teammate Julius Peppers on the merits of the Green Bay Packers, who have a Hall of Fame quarterback (Aaron Rodgers) and a too-fat running back (Eddie Lacy). New England Patriots? Never happened, and now Forte will play against Bill Belichick and that bunch twice a year.

Whether there was real Forte love in Green Bay is vague, but for Forte, the choice of the Jets had to involve more than just wanting to play with Brandon Marshall again. (That’s a joke, by the way. Forte gigged Marshall last August for No. 15 not holding himself accountable sometimes, as Marshall criticized Jay Cutler).

Brock Osweiler

Since he’s now on the Bears’ 2016 schedule – Chicago plays at Houston this year – the Texans’ grab of Osweiler for $72 million over four years becomes relevant. And curious.

For one thing, there are zero Hall of Fame quarterbacks with names beginning with the letter “O.” (That’s another joke, by the way. But it’s actually true.)

But the Texans popped for the $18-million-per deal on a quarterback with precisely seven NFL starts. If this sounds vaguely familiar, the Detroit Lions once signed a quarterback named Scott Mitchell in the first year of free agency (1993), the hot QB name after starting exactly seven games (3-4 W-L mark) in relief of Dan Marino with the Miami Dolphins.

The Denver Broncos were 5-2 in Osweiler starts last season, more a testament to the NFL’s best defense than a quarterback who couldn’t hold onto the job over Peyton Manning in the latter’s diminished condition.

But the fact that the Broncos did not think enough of Osweiler to lock him up says something between the lines. The Bears, who lost a close game to Osweiler’s team last season, will get another shot at him later this year.

Maurice Jones-Drew ranks Jordan Howard in NFL's top-10 RBs

Maurice Jones-Drew ranks Jordan Howard in NFL's top-10 RBs

Chicago Bears RB Jordan Howard is entering an interesting season. He has just as good a chance of leading the NFL in rushing as he appears to have at losing reps to Tarik Cohen, a player some analysts feel is a better fit for coach Matt Nagy's system.

It's unfortunate that Howard isn't receiving the kind of praise a player like him deserves. He set the Bears' rookie rushing record with 1,313 yards in 2016. In 2017, he became the first running back in franchise history to start a career with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons.

Howard's production suggests he should be the feature back in Chicago's ground game. In fact, according to NFL Network's Maurice Jones-Drew, it's a no-brainer. He recently ranked Howard in the NFL's top-10 running backs.

7. Jordan Howard (Bears)

Even with the plethora of offensive weapons thanks to some offseason additions, the Bears' offense still must run through Howard. After rushing for at least 1,100 yards in each of his first two seasons, Howard will be a key piece for first-year head coach Matt Nagy and will have to carry Chicago late in the season if the squad is going to make a playoff push.

Howard will be given every chance to prove he can thrive in Nagy's system early in the season. If he can prove reliable as a receiver, he could match Kareem Hunt's league-leading 1,327 yards last season. He'll have to be effective as a pass-catcher to keep Cohen from threatening for more touches.

Howard deserves this kind of respect for what he's done through two seasons as a pro. He may not be in the NFL's elite class just yet, but if he surpasses 1,200-plus rushing yards and threatens for 10 or more touchdowns again, it'll be an undeniable fact that Howard is a true franchise back.


Bears' Nick Kwiatkoski was a top-5 inside linebacker in 2017

Bears' Nick Kwiatkoski was a top-5 inside linebacker in 2017

The Chicago Bears selected inside linebacker Roquan Smith in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft with the expectation that he'll become an immediate starter and impact player on defense. But, was there a need at inside linebacker?

According to Pro Football Focus, Nick Kwiatkoski, who Chicago selected in the fourth round of 2016's draft, was a standout performer last season. He ranked third in the NFL among inside linebackers in run-stop percentage and was fourth-best in pass-rush productivity.

Kwiatkoski also wasn’t tagged for a missed tackle against the run all season. He still has to share time on the field with Danny Trevathan and newly-drafted Roquan Smith, but should be able to capitalize on a great sophomore year after being drafted in the fourth round from West Virginia in 2016. Overall, Kwiatoski was graded as the NFL’s 12th best inside linebacker, higher than both Spaight and Hitchens.

His 21.0 pass-rush productivity ranked fourth and came on the heels of his rookie season in which he ranked 10th in the same category in 2016.

Kwiatkoski didn't receive much fanfare last season but the analytics speak for themselves. He started six games (appeared in 11) and registered career highs in tackles (34) and sacks (two). He's an ascending player but his growth is likely to be stunted by Smith's presence. 

Chicago could view Kwiatkoski as the heir to Danny Trevathan's starting job. The Bears can move on from Trevathan with little consequence at season's end. His dead cap number drops to just $1.25 million in 2019. Kwiatkoski will be in the final year of his contract that season (2019), and if he hasn't earned a starting job by then, he's a near lock to sign elsewhere when his rookie contract expires. 

Kwiatkoski has proven he can produce when given a chance to play, something 31 other teams have certainly taken notice of.