Bears

With 'tampering' period at hand, Bears have targets identified

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With 'tampering' period at hand, Bears have targets identified

The NFL’s period of actual free agency starts this Wednesday, Mar. 9. But the “real” free agency opens at noon on Monday when teams may legally begin talking to prospective free agents still under contract to their current teams, according to this memo from the league to its teams and obtained by ProFootballTalk's Mike Florio. Here is the nub of the deal:

“During the two-day negotiating period, all clubs may negotiate all aspects of an NFL Player Contract with the certified agent of any prospective UFA. However, a new club may not execute an NFL Player Contract with a prospective UFA until 4:00 p.m., New York time, on March 9, when the player’s 2015 contract expires.”

Of course, myriad teams have already had exploratory talks with agents for players; that’s what the Scouting Combine and telephones are for. The talking time was cut from three days to two since everyone knew by two what the deals were going to be anyway.

Regardless of when the de facto window for talks and deals opens, and irrespective of how good or bad the pending market may be, the Bears have had their targets identified long ago. GM Ryan Pace is a veteran of the pro personnel side of the game (beginning with the New Orleans Saints), meaning it has long been his job to have scouted current NFL players for game-planning as well as free agency purposes.

Put another way: Pace, his staff and by extension the Bears coaching staff knew before the end of last season who would look very good in Bears uniforms.

But from the dozens of current NFL players poised to become available, several make more sense than others at the specific need areas within the Bears’ roster.

Note: Because of the Bears’ intent to reshape the roster down age-wise, free agent rankings stayed generally sub-30.

Inside linebacker

Pace and coaches believe Shea McClellin’s arrow is still pointing up but Christian Jones, others were not answers.

1. Brandon Marshall, Denver, restricted free agent: Broncos could match offer; No. 2 in Broncos tackles.

2. Jerrell Freeman, Indianapolis: No. 2-ranked ILB by ProFootballFocus.com.

3. Danny Trevathan, Denver: Led Broncos in tackles, got lineup break from John Fox.

LB/DE edge rusher

Bears have Lamarr Houston in place with hefty contract plus Pernell McPhee but want – and need – more from short list.

1. Oliver Vernon, Miami: Dolphins transitioned him so they can match offer, but 29 sacks over 4 years...

2. Bruce Irvin, Seattle: Bears targeted him in ’12 draft before Seattle picked; solid if unspectacular.

Defensive line

Eddie Goldman is youth at NT but the DE/5-technique role is wide open. Jarvis Jenkins would be a quality re-sign.

1. Jaye Howard, Kansas City: Mauled Bears early in ’15 meeting with Hroniss Grasu; low mileage, high upside.

2. Akiem Hicks, New England: Massive (6-foot-5, 345 pounds) anchor alongside Goldman; drafted by Saints while Pace in New Orleans

3. Malik Jackson, Denver: Do Bears really want to get into this bidding war?

Guard

Matt Slauson is a fixture now but RG suffered when Kyle Long moved and Slauson gives flexibility. Bears see Charles Leno at LT.

1. Kelechi Osemele, Baltimore: Best OL on market can play guard or tackle.

2. Alex Boone, San Francisco: Nobody looks too good after 49ers’ 2015 but Boone is a two-time Pro Bowl alternate who can play tackle.

3. Jeff Allen, Kansas City: Quality blocker with versatility at age 26.

4. Brandon Brooks, Houston: Huge (335 pounds) mauler has started 30 games.

Cornerback

Bears hit with Tracy Porter, missed with Alan Ball, need to settle a key spot opposite Kyle Fuller, whom Bears control for 3 more yrs.

1. Janoris Jenkins, Los Angeles: Elite corner money could cost Bears needs elsewhere; how aggressive will Pace be?

2. Sean Smith, Kansas City: At 6-3, 210, may be best UFA corner, and KC may need too much money for others on good defense.

3. Casey Hayward, Green Bay: Notches below top two but solid; luring a Packer of of Green Bay never bad thing.

Tight end

Martellus Bennett situation throws TE situation into turmoil. Zach Miller a good re-sign but injury history means more needed.

1. Dwayne Allen, Coby Fleener, Indianapolis: Colts not expected to have money to keep both. Both with upside, Allen better blocker but some injuries, Fleener a better receiver.

2. Ladarius Green, San Diego: Big upside to understudy to Antonio Gates, if Chargers let him walk.

Safety

Bears hit on Adrian Amos via draft but Antrel Rolle age, health now are issues.

1. Tashaun Gipson, Cleveland: Some ankle issues in ’15 but ball-hawk’er has 14 INT’s in 4 yrs., including 1 of Jay Cutler.

2. George Iloka, Cincinnati: Overshadowed by Reggie Nelson, has size (6-4, 225); out of Boise State with McClellin.

3. Rodney McLeod, Los Angeles: Smallish but a proven hitter from physical program.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Can the Bears pull off an upset at home against Tom Brady and the Patriots?

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SportsTalk Live Podcast: Can the Bears pull off an upset at home against Tom Brady and the Patriots?

Chris Emma, Matt Zahn and Gabe Ramirez join David Kaplan on the panel.

0:00- NBC Sports National NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh joins the panel to discuss the Bulls’ terrible defensive performance as well as Zach LaVine’s impressive season debut.

11:35- Khalil Mack is listed as questionable for Sunday’s game against the Patriots. Can the Bears pull off the upset against Tom Brady?

23:50- NBC Sports Boston Patriots insider Tom E. Curran joins Kap to talk about how New England views the Bears and discuss how Matt Nagy’s team can exploit the Patriots’ weaknesses.

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below.

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Khalil Mack appears set to play Sunday with Tom Brady, Patriots looming

Khalil Mack appears set to play Sunday with Tom Brady, Patriots looming

Khalil Mack appears in line to play Sunday with Tom Brady, Patriots looming

Khalil Mack participated in the Bears’ final practice of the week on Friday, clearing the way for the edge rusher to play Sunday against the New England Patriots. 

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported earlier Friday that the Bears expected Mack, who hasn’t missed a game in his career, to play after suffering an ankle injury early in Week 6’s 31-28 loss to the Miami Dolphins. Mack is officially questionable for Sunday’s game at Soldier Field. 

Mack had little interest in discussing his ankle with the media on Friday, passing on answering questions about his readiness for New England. Coach Matt Nagy, though, said he thought Mack “looked pretty good” during practice on Friday. 

Mack didn’t record a sack against Miami and was held to just one pressure, per Pro Football Focus. The Dolphins’ gameplan was to commit plenty of resources to stopping Mack, but he wasn’t effective even when he had one-on-one pass rushing opportunities as the game went on. 

“He was (affected),” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “I can't put a percentage on it, but he definitely was.”

Having Mack available — even if he’s not full strength — will be critical for the Bears’ defense to have a chance at keeping Tom Brady from lighting up the scoreboard. The key for the Bears will be to generate pressure on the 41-year-old quarterback without blitzing, which is something Fangio’s defense was successful at prior to Sunday’s wacky loss to the Dolphins. 

Brady’s passer rating is 138.4 when he’s blitzed, per Pro Football Focus, while when under pressure his rating is 87.2. That’s still pretty good, but it’s worth noting that all of the six interceptions he’s thrown this year have come when he hasn’t been blitzed. And only one of the eight sacks he’s taken has come when he’s been blitzed. 

The point being: If the Bears feel like they have to start blitzing to generate pressure, they can expect Brady to pick them apart.  

“You could say all of that but ultimately (Brady’s) a gamer,” Mack said. “He’s going to take those hits, and you gotta be able to deliver them but also have coverage over the top. It’s going to be real important for us.” 

The good news for the Bears, perhaps, is that New England’s tackles have struggled at times this year. Left tackle Trent Brown has allowed 17 pressures in 234 pass blocking snaps, per Pro Football Focus (about one in every 14 snaps). And starting right tackle Marcus Cannon is out with a concussion, giving way for backup La’Adrian Waddle, who’s allowed eight pressures in 78 pass blocking snaps (about one in every 10). 

So the opportunities will be there for Mack, Leonard Floyd, Akiem Hicks and the Bears’ pass rush to affect Brady on Sunday.

A bigger injury concern?

While cornerback Prince Amukamara (hamstring) was a full participant in Friday’s practice and will play Sunday, slot corner Bryce Callahan suffered an ankle injury during Thursday’s practice and did not participate Friday. He’s officially questionable for Sunday. 

Callahan “did his ankle,” Nagy said, toward the end of Thursday’s practice, and he felt worse as the day went on. Nagy characterized Callahan’s absence from Friday’s practice as “precautionary.”

Callahan’s availability may be more of a pressing concern than Mack’s, given how well the Patriots’ offense has played since slot receiver Julian Edelman returned from a four-game suspension to begin the season. While his numbers aren’t eye-popping (11 catches on 16 targets, 111 yards, 1 TD), New England’s offense has scored 38 and 43 points in his two games back. 

“Brady has always had a guy in the slot that he’s comfortable with; whether it be (Wes) Welker, (Danny) Amendola or Edelman,” Fangio said. “It’s a big part of their offense. They haven’t missed a beat, but I really think it’s helped their offense and played a big part in them basically averaging 40 points in the last three weeks. I really appreciate and respect how good of a player he is and has been.”

If Callahan isn’t available, Sherrick McManis could be the next man up at slot corner.