Matt Barkley endears himself to Bears teammates with gutsy performance

Matt Barkley endears himself to Bears teammates with gutsy performance

Matt Barkley could've been the hero.

In fact, he should've been the hero.

A case of the drops by Bears receivers overshadowed Barkley's career resurgence as the former USC standout rallied his team to the brink in his first career NFL start.

Barkley and the Bears came up just short Sunday against the Tennessee Titans, watching as Deonte Thompson couldn't come up with Barkley's fourth down pass in the back of the endzone.

[RELATED - Bears flip the script with strong second half, but valiant comeback falls short]

Two plays earlier, Barkley hit a wide-open Josh Bellamy in the endzone, but the pass bounced off Bellamy's chest and fell harmlessly to the grass in the endzone for a crucial drop.

That was the fifth recorded drop by Bears receivers in the fourth quarter, but even with that, Barkley still tallied 210 passing yards and two touchdowns in the final nine minutes of the game.

Do the Bears receivers feel like they let him down? 

"Definitely," said Marquess Wilson, who had 125 yards and a touchdown on eight catches, but also dropped an easy TD in the middle of the fourth quarter. "He gave us an opportunity at the end of the game to win. We just gotta make plays."

Barkley never once placed blame on his receivers or threw anyone under the bus. He took the high road again and again in his postgame press conference, pointing to the thumb at himself for mistakes instead of pointing the finger at his teammates.

"I feel like I let him down," Bellamy said. "I feel like I let myself down and my teammates down, but gotta keep going."

After the Bears jumped out to a 7-0 lead behind Barkley's first NFL TD pass, the Titans rattled off 27 unanswered points to set the stage for a nearly-epic comeback.

Barkley had only 106 passing yards in the first three quarters and threw two backbreaking redzone interceptions, including one in the endzone in the middle of the third quarter. Even settling for field goals in that situation could've meant a tie game in the waning minutes instead of the Bears trailing by six with one final drive.

But he flipped a switch in the fourth quarter and had his team just seven short yards away from a victory with under a minute left.

"He's a fighter," Bellamy said. "He will fight to the end and give us everything he's got. He did a great job."

"Matt played his butt off," receiver Cam Meredith said.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

The Bears saw Barkley's confidence growing as the game progressed, winning over his teammates with his heart and grit at a time when half the team's starters are injured or suspended.

"Everything [was impressive]," Thompson said. "Just to rally back like that, with what our team is going through right now with a lot of guys injured and this and that — for him to come back and our team to come back like that in the second half, it's big."

Barkley missed some opportunities early in the game, showing some inaccuracy and rust, but his poise never wavered in the pocket, with teammates raving about his demeanor.

"That guy was cool, calm and collected in the pocket," tackle Charles Leno Jr. said.

With Jay Cutler possibly lost for the season and Brian Hoyer already done for the year with a broken arm, the 26-year-old Barkley will get a chance to continue to show what he's made of over the final five games of the 2016 campaign.

"I was thinking about that [ESPN] guy [Trent Dilfer] with the 'Dropping Dimes,' and I see Matt droppin' dimes all over the place," defensive lineman Akiem Hicks said. "It was awesome to see a young quarterback — well, maybe not too young — getting his opportunity and putting his best foot forward."

Bears roster lacks veteran cut candidate

USA Today

Bears roster lacks veteran cut candidate

The Bears battle for the 53-man roster doesn’t have many contentious positions entering training camp.

Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy brought back largely the same roster from their breakout 2018 season, finding replacements for the few players gone in free agency.

Outside of kicker, the entire starting lineup is pretty much set for Week 1, and the main competitions to stick with the team are at the bottom of the depth chart.

It leaves the roster with no notable veterans that stand out as candidates to be cut. ESPN’s Jeff Dickerson was asked to name one for an article, and he couldn’t come up with any.

He mentioned Taquan Mizzell, who made the move from running back to wide receiver this offseason, but as Dickerson pointed out “Mizzell is hardly a well-known commodity around the league.”

Former third-round pick Jonathan Bullard hasn’t lived up to his draft status, but the Bears have seemed comfortable keeping him around in a backup role.

The Bears roster has very little fat to trim. The only other player who could potentially qualify is cornerback Sherrick McManis, since the team has so many young players at his position, but he’s been working at safety to increase his value, and he’s one of the team’s best special teams contributors.

The trim down from the 90-man roster shouldn’t have too many significant surprises, which is why so much of the attention this offseason continues to go to the kicker position.

Alex Bars is ready to take his shot with Harry Hiestand and the Bears

USA Today

Alex Bars is ready to take his shot with Harry Hiestand and the Bears

Alex Bars was cleared to practice last week, allowing him his first chance to put on a helmet since tearing his ACL and MCL Sept. 29 while playing for Notre Dame. The undrafted guard was able to participate in veteran minicamp, allowing him to shake off some rust before his real push for a roster spot begins in training camp next month. 

Many speculated Bars would’ve been as high as a mid-round draft pick if not for that devastating knee injury. It didn’t take the 6-foot-6, 312 pound Bars long, though, to decide where he wanted to go after not being picked in April’s draft. Call it the Harry Hiestand effect. 

Bars played under Hiestand’s tutelage at Notre Dame from 2014-2017, and said he always wanted to wind up with the Bears to work with his former coach — just as 2018 top-10 picks Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey hoped to as well. 

“I remember talking about that, because they both wanted to play for him,” Bars said. “They understand where he can take you and how phenomenal a coach he is, so they both wanted that. And I’m just the same way.”

While Nelson transformed the Indianapolis Colts’ playoff-bound offensive line and McGlinchey showed plenty of promise with the San Francisco 49ers, the reunion of Bars and Hiestand carries some intriguing possibilities for the Bears. Bars has always had upside — he was a four-star recruit out of Nashville in 2014 — and getting to work with Hiestand may be the best way to tap into that potential. 

“He knows me very well, I understand his technique very well,” Bars said. “So having that connection, that player-coach connection all four years through college is huge.”

Hiestand called Bars after his injury last fall and offered some words of encouragement, which only furthered Bars' wish to play for his former college coach in the NFL. 

"That meant everything," Bars said. "He cares so much off the field as well as on the field. That’s who he is."  

Bars wasn’t able to participate in OTAs or rookie minicamp, but Hiestand doesn’t see that as putting him in a tough spot to make the Bears' 53-man roster. And there will very much be an opportunity for Bars to make a push during training camp, given 10-year veteran Ted Larsen only has $90,000 in guaranteed money on his one-year contract. 

It may not be the more eye-catching roster battle during training camp, but the Bears hope they can find interior offensive line depth through competition in Bourbonnais. And Bars, now cleared to practice, will get his shot. 

“He’ll have the chance because he’s smart, he understands the technique, he knows what to do,” Hiestand said during OTAs, when Bars hadn’t practiced yet. “He’s learning the offense even though he’s not doing it. But when we put the pads on that’s when you make or don’t make the team.” 

It’s often unfair — yet far too easy — to place high expectations on undrafted free agents. For every Cameron Meredith or Bryce Callahan who gets unearthed, there are dozens of anonymous players who struggle to stick on an NFL practice squad. 

But Bars is among the more important undrafted free agents on the Bears given his connection with Hiestand and the position he plays. While Kyle Long is healthy, he hasn’t played a full season since 2015, underscoring the Bears’ need for depth on the interior of their offensive line in the immediate future. 

And the Bears would save a little over $8 million against their 2020 cap if they were to make the difficult decision to cut Long in a year. If Bars develops into the kind of player plenty in the NFL thought he could be before his knee injury, that would make releasing Long a little easier to swallow at Halas Hall. 

For now, though, Bars is just hoping to make the Bears. Anything else is a long ways away.

“I’m excited to be here, thrilled for this opportunity and it’s all about productivity,” Bars said. “Just need to be productive and prove you belong on this team.”

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