Bears

Not yet time for Bears to 'find out what they have' in Hroniss Grasu

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Not yet time for Bears to 'find out what they have' in Hroniss Grasu

In some unwanted way, some of the latest injury misfortunes to befall the Bears might have forced them into some unwanted decision-making but also delivered some solutions along with the problems.

If there is a problem, it is that none of the solutions cleanly address the center position, for which Matt Slauson is eminently capable but does not address the longer term.

The Bears used a third-round draft choice on Hroniss Grasu, a former Oregon teammate of Kyle Long. And Grasu might qualify as the next-man-up at center, as coach John Fox said, “at some point.”

One temptation could be the “see what they’ve got” approach of inserting Grasu at center between Slauson at left guard and either Vladimir Ducasse or Patrick Omameh at right, operating on the premise that a third-round pick merits an in-depth look. That could happen.

But the Bears have not by any means relegated the 2015 regular season into an extension of training camp and preseason (or if they have, Pernell McPhee obviously didn’t get the memo). General manager Ryan Pace is highly unlikely to step out of character and demand his draft choice be installed, as some in his job have done. And the internal ethic of the NFL is that you earn a job, period, and unless Grasu has won it, simply handing the rookie a job because of draft status is its own mistake.

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Perennial Pro Bowl center Olin Kreutz was the Bears’ third-round pick in the 1998 draft. The Bears also had Casey Wiegmann, who’d won the job during training camp and started 15 games even through that disastrous 4-12 season.

Kreutz started just one game that year, then won the job the following camp and preseason in an extremely uncomfortable (for both players) competition — difficult not due to problems between the two, just that each knew the other deserved to be a starting NFL center, as Kreutz later explained. Both were right; Kreutz went to six Pro Bowls while Wiegmann starred at Kansas City and Denver.

But the reality was that Kreutz, one of the great centers in the history of a franchise with a history of excellent centers, wasn’t ready to win the starting job as a rookie.

Grasu’s size is not an issue; Will Montgomery weighs 304 pounds, and Grasu is in that range. Functional strength is always a question with even college stars transitioning to the NFL. And center involves technique as much as strength.

“Back when we had Taylor Boggs as our backup, he learned how to do it just by watching film of other small-type guys,” Slauson said. “So that's what I told Hroniss to do is just get a lot of tape of smaller, older guys using all their tricks.”

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Elsewhere, the concussion and shoulder miseries for left tackle Jermon Bushrod, on top of his earlier back issues, thrust unheralded Charles Leno into the starting lineup against the Oakland Raiders. Leno, who failed to hold onto the right-tackle opportunity he was presented in preseason, produced evidence that the Bears have at least an interim solution at left tackle (Long being the presumptive longer-term answer).

Line coach Dave Magazu already had pegged Leno through the offseason as a versatile option at virtually any of the line spots. Assuming Bushrod’s return, the Bears discovered an option at one of the most difficult positions on the field.

The loss of Montgomery to a broken leg created an immediate need at center, which was ably filled by two people: Slauson moving over into Montgomery’s spot, and Omameh, signed in September after his release by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, handling left guard.

Omameh’s play raises questions about his possibly supplanting penalty-plagued Ducasse at right guard.

Whatever the solution, “I know people get tired of hearing it, but it is a next-man-up approach,” Fox said. “It happens at a lot of positions in a lot of football games in the National Football League. All your backups ... have to be ready to play in a moment’s notice, particularly in the O-line because it is such a group dynamic.

“It’s five guys knowing exactly what the other guy is doing with line calls, pass-protection alerts. We run some no-huddle, so there’s a lot of checks at the line. I think we had maybe a couple high shotgun snaps — I know we had the one center-quarterback exchange problem that resulted in a turnover. But the good news was our guys overcame it.”

Why coming to the Bears was the right opportunity for Harry Hiestand to leave Notre Dame

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AP

Why coming to the Bears was the right opportunity for Harry Hiestand to leave Notre Dame

There wasn’t a single game Harry Hiestand coached while at Notre Dame — 77 in total — in which he didn’t have a future top-20 pick starting at left tackle. 

Zack Martin (16th overall, 2014) was followed by Ronnie Stanley (6th overall, 2016), who gave way to Mike McGlinchey (9th overall, 2018). Hiestand also developed Quenton Nelson, who went on to be the highest interior offensive lineman drafted (6th overall, 2018) since 1986. Nelson and McGlinchey became the first pair of college offensive line teammates to be drafted in the first 10 picks since 1991, when Tennessee had tackles Charles McRae and Antone Davis go seventh and eighth. 

“It wasn’t surprising because the kind of guys they are, they absolutely did everything the right way, the way they took care of themselves, the way they trained, the teammates that they are and were,” Hiestand said. “They just did it all the way you wanted them to do it. So it was. It was a good moment.”

Hiestand said he had a sense of pride after seeing his two former players be drafted so high, even if he wasn't able to re-unite with either of them. The Bears, of course, didn’t have a chance to draft Nelson, and had conviction on using the eighth overall pick on linebacker Roquan Smith (as well as having tackles Charles Leno and Bobby Massie in place for the 2018 season). 

Anecdotally, one former Notre Dame player said (maybe half-jokingly) that Nelson and McGlinchey were fighting each other to see who could get drafted by the Bears to play with Hiestand again.

“There’s nobody that I’ve been around in this game that’s more passionate about what he does,” McGlinchey, now with the San Francisco 49ers, said of Hiestand at Notre Dame’s pro day in March. “There’s really only two things that are important to him, and that’s his family and then his offensive linemen. There’s a lot to be said for that. 

“In this game, everybody’s always trying to work an angle to up their own career — he doesn’t want to do anything but coach O-line, and that’s what really sticks out to us as players. He cares for us like we’re his own. Obviously he coaches extremely hard and is very demanding of his players, which I loved — he pushed me to be the player that I am.

“I’m standing in front of all you guys because of Harry Hiestand. But the amount of passion and care that he has not only for his job but his teaching abilities and his players is what sets him apart.”

Hiestand could’ve stayed as long as he wanted at Notre Dame, presumably, given how much success he had recruiting and developing players there. But six years at one spot is a long time for a position coach, especially at the college level, where the grind of recruiting is so vital to the success of a program. It’s also not like every one of the blue-chip prospects Hiestand recruited to South Bend panned out, either. 

So Hiestand knew he wanted to get back to the NFL after coaching with the Bears under Lovie Smith from 2005-2009. It’s a new challenge for him now, not only to develop second-round pick James Daniels but to continue the growth of Cody Whitehair and Leno while getting the most out of Kyle Long, Massie and the rest of the group (back during his first stint with the Bears, Hiestand had the luxury of coaching experienced, more ready-made offensive lines). 

As one of the more highly-regarded offensive line coaches in the country, though, Hiestand could’ve jumped back into the NFL whenever, and nearly wherever, he wanted. And for him, coming back to the Bears was the perfect fit. 

“That’s an awesome, awesome place, a great franchise,” Hiestand said. “It was something, I always wanted to go back, I didn’t know where I would get the opportunity. So I’m just very fortunate it just happened to be back at the same place that I was before. There are a lot of things that are different but there’s also a lot that’s the same. 

“But it’s one of the — it is the greatest organization. Historically, this is where it all began, and being part of it — and the other thing, and I told those guys when I got here, when we get it done here, you guys are going to see this city like you’ve never seen it. And I remember that. That’s what we’re after.” 

On a scale of 1-10, Tarik Cohen says his dangerous level is 12

On a scale of 1-10, Tarik Cohen says his dangerous level is 12

Don't be fooled by Tarik Cohen's height. He has towering confidence and he's setting up to have a big role in coach Matt Nagy's offense in 2018.

“On a scale of 1-10, the dangerous level is probably 12,” Cohen said Wednesday at Halas Hall about the impact he can have in the Bears' new system. “Because in backyard football, it’s really anything goes, and it’s really whoever gets tired first, that’s who’s going to lose. I’m running around pretty good out here, so I feel like I’m doing a good job.”

Cohen proved last season he can thrive in space. He made an impact as a runner, receiver and return man and will have a chance at an even bigger workload this fall, assuming he can handle it.

With Jordan Howard established as the starting running back, Cohen knows his touches will come in a variety of ways.

“It might not necessarily be rushes,” he said. “But it’s going to be all over the field, and that’s what I like to do. Any way I can get the ball or make a play for my team, that’s what I’m looking forward to doing.”

Cohen averaged 4.3 yards-per-carry as a rookie and led all NFL running backs in the percentage of carries that went for at least 15 yards. He's a big play waiting to happen.