Bears

Jay Cutler is one more massive blow to Bears' real evaluation plan

Jay Cutler is one more massive blow to Bears' real evaluation plan

The shoulder injury to Jay Cutler in the New York Giants game did more than end the quarterback’s season. It landed yet another injury blow to the 2016 season, another in a succession of blows with implications for the Bears stretching beyond the point when the calendar mercifully turns over a new year.

The ripple effect of those blows might be spun into some sort of positive around the development of young players. That would be making the best of a bad situation, but it is anything but positive in the more important long term.

The Bears began this season needing to see what they have in foundation/starter pieces, NOT backups. The Bears did not need to find out what they have in Matt Barkley as much as they needed to fully find out what they had in Jay Cutler. That was a prime directive coming into this season. The thumb injury that cost him five games was a huge setback in the process; the shoulder issue finished it, and not the way coaches and personnel staff wanted it to resolve.

And Cutler was not alone.

Cutler. Alshon Jeffery. Kevin White. Kyle Fuller. Hroniss Grasu. Those were A-list see-what-they-have questions. The closest thing the Bears have to clear answers on just that handful of one-time projected starters is Cutler, whose poor play and injury history conspire to make one aspect of the Bears’ decision for them. The Bears will end this season short of clear answers on them and others as they go into the 2017 draft and free agency.

A clichéd mantra throughout the injury travails of the Bears’ injury riddled season is that all those injuries have created opportunities for the Bears to really see what they have in some alternative players, ranging from wide receiver Cam Meredith to a seemingly weekly carousel of young cornerbacks to Barkley most recently. Evaluations obviously are more meaningful when they’re based on actual game experience, with the Barkleys, Merediths and others are certainly getting.

But it is also exactly the kind of see-what-they-have opportunities that the Bears do NOT need and in fact are at risk of making critically important offseason decisions more difficult, if not bordering on the impossible.

Including Fuller, coach John Fox and staff came out of the Tennessee game with fully 11 actual or anticipated opening-day starters out due to injury or suspension.

What the Bears are getting from what at times feels like an extended preseason is a better look at their depth chart. Eric Kush has emerged as a solid guard. Meredith has looked like an NFL receiver, last Sunday’s drops notwithstanding. Barkley will be worth a meaningful look in a training camp.

But those are not the evaluations that a franchise looking at the next step in its plan desperately, unequivocally needed. As in:

Quarterback

If Barkley emerges from his opportunity as a serviceable NFL quarterback, that’s good. But this year was about Cutler, a prove-it year for a quarterback with a favorable contract going forward. But while thumb and shoulder injuries gave looks to Barkley and Brian Hoyer, those weren’t what the franchise needed. Cutler’s truncated body of work (is the “real” Cutler the Minnesota Jay or the Tampa Bay Jay?) didn’t “prove” anything the Bears needed proven at their most critical position.

It would be speculation to muse on whether Cutler might have played his way into the plan with five good games to finish the season. Even if not, Cutler may have played his way into possibly some trade value. A 33-year-old QB finishing a two-injury season on IR has little, if any. The Bears do not need to make a final roster decision until the first game Sunday in September, at which point Cutler’s $12.5 million base salary would become guaranteed, although Cutler still being a Bear at that point is the longest of shots.

Wide receiver

Kevin White has caught 19 passes and played in just four games in the two seasons since the Bears made him the No. 7 pick overall in 2015. Meredith or Marquess Wilson may be nuggets, but White’s broken leg left the Bears and the young man in limbo.

The Bears don’t know what they have in White. They know a little about what they have in Jeffery, but his four-game suspension hits in a season with him on pace for his lowest totals since his rookie season. The Jeffery issue has not been resolved, and progress by Meredith or Wilson, while positives, do not project into a tipping point in this position group.

Cornerback

How sold the new coaching has been on Fuller as a starting corner is unclear. He hadn’t missed a game in his two seasons and played 99 percent of opponents’ snaps last year. But defensive coordinator Vic Fangio called Fuller out early in the 2015 season and Fuller was benched for some of the Arizona game. Fuller rebounded to a level of respectability and finished fifth in tackles (56) and led the Bears with two interceptions.

Fuller has been out since mid-August when he needed knee surgery. His absence has given extended looks and some starts to Jacoby Glenn, Bryce Callahan and Cre’Von LeBlanc.

But the Bears needed to achieve clarity with Fuller. They will face an extensive decision on whether to pick up the fifth-year option on his rookie contract. The Falcons paid $8 million on the option for 2013 first-round cornerback Desmond Trufant, the 22nd pick of that draft. If Fuller manages to practice his way onto the active roster this Sunday, it will still give the Bears just five games to make a decision on Fuller, the 14th pick of the 2014 draft.

Charles Leno says 'it's just gonna suck' without Kyle Long around

Charles Leno says 'it's just gonna suck' without Kyle Long around

Chicago Bears left tackle Charles Leno, Jr. has a fond place in his heart for right guard Kyle Long. He's probably not alone in the Bears locker room with his feelings for the seven-year pro and three-time Pro Bowler.

Since being selected in the first round of the 2013 NFL draft, Long has ascended into a leadership role with the Bears both on and off the field. And while his play in recent seasons has been negatively impacted by a variety of injuries (Long's been limited to just 29 games over the last four years), he still offered an experienced voice in the huddle and an enforcer's mentality after the snap.

But we may have seen the last of Long in a Bears uniform after the team officially placed him on season-ending injured reserve Monday (hip). It was news that Leno struggled to embrace.

“It’s the tale of the league for you,” Leno said from Halas Hall. “He’s been through the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, and that’s just how the league goes. You never know when that time is going to come. His happened so fast. So abrupt. It’s like, ‘Damn. He’s not going to be here.’ So it just sucks. That’s how I look at it — it’s just gonna suck.”

Long hasn't been great this season. His play was progressively getting worse, too. He has the lowest Pro Football Focus grade of any player on Chicago's offense (38.0) and played his worst two games of the year in Weeks 3 and 5 (he missed Week 4 with the hip injury).

It was time to shut him down. Maybe for good.

“This is his words — he said he’s a Bear for life,” Leno said of his conversation with Long. “[Those are] the words I remember him saying. That’s how he wanted to end things.”

That certainly doesn't sound like a player who expects to ever wear a Bears jersey again. It's a shame, but it's also the reality of professional football for an offensive lineman. No position absorbs as much wear and tear as the big uglies up front, and Long is a perfect example. He was once considered the most promising young interior offensive lineman in the NFL just a few years ago. Now, it's anyone's guess if he'll ever play another snap.

“When he was healthy and he was on, he was a dominant football player," Leno said. "I told him plenty of times, ‘Get back to that [2013, 2014, 2015] self.’ It just sucks because so many times he would try to get back to it and had to take a step back. When injuries compile, it’s just really [unfortunate].”

The Bears will look to fill Long's starting role with either Rashaad Coward, Ted Larsen or rookie Alex Bars. And while one (or all) of them will provide an upgrade on the field, none will be able to replace Long's larger-than-life presence everywhere else.

The Bears are getting key contributors Bilal Nichols and Taylor Gabriel back sooner than later

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USA Today

The Bears are getting key contributors Bilal Nichols and Taylor Gabriel back sooner than later

The Bears returned to Halas Hall with a flurry of injury updates, most notably involving Kyle Long and Mitch Trubisky

And while the starting quarterback for Sunday's game against New Orleans is still TBD, wide reciever Taylor Gabriel will be back out there. Gabriel technically announced his return via Instagram on Sunday night, but confirmed to reporters on Monday that he's been cleared to play. 

"It’s just good to be back, to be around the guys," he said. "To be on the sideline just watching what’s been going on, I’ve been hungry to get back on the field... I probably practiced the hardest I’ve ever practiced in my life. I just had fun, and am glad I’m back." 

Gabriel suffered a concussion in the second half of the Bears' win in D.C., and dealt with the lingering effects of it up until last week. 

"I just woke up and I felt like myself," he said. "It was just a blessing. You always hear about concussions and all the crazy things. The athletic trainer, they did a great job with the whole process. I’m glad that I’m back."

Gabriel was coming off the best game of his Bears tenure: a six-catch, 75 yard performance that included three first-half touchdowns. The third touchdown – a 36-yarder featuring a highlight-reel catch – showcased the type of wrinkle that the Trubisky-Gabriel connection can bring to the offense. 

"The one thing that Taylor brings is he has that one element of downfield speed that helps out," Matt Nagy said. "So you’re able to take the top off of some defenses with him. And then he’s one of those wide receivers for us, like Allen Robinson, he’s got experience. So there’s a calming in the huddle that you understand that he knows what to do versus certain coverages. He’s coming off a pretty good game in Washington, and unfortunately got hurt, but there’s a calming element to him and then being able to take the top off.”

The Bears also had good news regarding second-year defensive tackle Bilal Nichols. Nichols returned to practice for the first time since breaking his hand during the Week 2 win in Denver. It's especially good news considering the team expects to be without Akiem Hicks sidelined for the foreseeable future. 

"[I] felt good today," Nichols said. "Just trying to continue to keep moving in the right direction and we'll see where it goes." 

Nichols wouldn't commit to playing on Sunday, and plans to see how he feels after a full week of practice. Nagy indicated that, at this point in his recovery, it's more about getting back into playing shape. 

"He’s been out a couple weeks, so now it’s just the ability for him to show probably more conditioning than anything," he said. "He has that cast on him, but he has the fingers that he’s able to use. Again, if you’re able to be out there and you’re able to suit up and go out there, then to me, let’s go.”

If Nichols is able to play against New Orleans, he'll do so wearing a club for extra protection. This was the first hand injury he's ever suffered, and Nichols admitted that playing with the cast takes some getting used to. Leonard Floyd wore the same type of club during the first half of last season, and has talked with Nichols about how to deal with it. 

"He's giving me a lot of insight and what to expect," Nichols said. "And things that he did that helped him out a lot. You know, we'll see. I'm going to try some things out."