Moon: How the Bears will win 10 games in 2016

Moon: How the Bears will win 10 games in 2016

When the final pieces of the 2016 Bears schedule clicked into place (last-place opponents for a last-place NFC North team), and directions were becoming apparent based on personnel changes, this reporter posited a 10-6 forecast for a team that had the misfortune of being in the same division with the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings. Now after a second full offseason, training camp and (this year, lurching) preseason under coach John Fox, that prediction is under intense scrutiny.

For many and good reasons.

One disclosure: This reporter considers predictions between 7-9 and 9-7 to be little better than going with the chalk in every race. My cat Bailey could make that prediction, and that’s even after I’d had to put the little guy down three weeks ago.

Just looking at the past five seasons, fractionally more than one-third of the NFL finishes between 7-9 and 9-7. Bold. Like picking the New England Patriots to win the AFC East.

And if your humble and faithful narrator was in fact sure that the Bears would finish in the great mosh pit of the NFL, he would so predict.

But he doesn’t. And here’s why:

Every year a small segment of the NFL population vastly under-achieves. In 2014 that group included the Bears after standing 8-6 late in 2013. Last year the Indianapolis Colts were prohibitive favorites to win the perennially weak AFC South and missed the playoffs at 8-8. That sort of thing.

And some go far, far beyond their typecasting. No one saw the Carolina Panthers going 15-1. (That’s not the same thing as “overachieving,” because there is no such thing as overachieving. But that’s for another discussion.)

The Bears will be one of those latter teams in 2016, because:

- Their schedule is nothing like last year’s, which started with Green Bay, Arizona and Seattle and which put them against five playoff teams in their first seven games. The Bears may represent a winnable game for every one of their opponents, but the reverse is equally true.

- Whether the Bears are “good” or “bad” is a meaningless discussion. The NFL grades on a curve — are you better than the Packers/Vikings/Cowboys/Eagles/etc. or not? — so the question is not necessarily “who are the Bears’ playmakers?” so much as, who are everybody else’s you face? The Bears had just four games decided by more than one score last season. The Bears were closer to 8-8 than to 4-12.

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- The Bears made major upgrades to their defense; major, including two starting linebackers and a defensive lineman, plus investing No. 1 and 3 draft picks on defense. Defense travels, and the Bears of John Fox already were good on the road (5-3 in 2015). Before this season is over, the Bears will contend with the Vikings for the NFC North’s No. 1 defense.

All of which brings us to this point: I expect the Bears to win nine games. But picking 9-7 is simply too boring. Therefore the 2016 Bears will be: 10-6.

As for the rest of the NFL divisions and playoffs:

NFC North: Green Bay Packers

NFC East: New York Giants

NFC South: Carolina Panthers

NFC West: Arizona Cardinals

Wild cards: Seattle Seahawks, Bears.

Conference champion: Cardinals

AFC North: Pittsburgh Steelers

AFC East: New England Patriots

AFC South: Indianapolis Colts

AFC West: Kansas City Chiefs

Wild cards: Denver Broncos, Cincinnati Bengals

Conference champion: Steelers

Super Bowl LI champion: Cardinals

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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