Bears

Fire trigger option on Grazzini

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Fire trigger option on Grazzini

For the short term, at least, the Fire will be without Argentine midfielder Sebastian Grazzini for Friday night's road match against Sporting Kansas City.

"He won't make the trip to this one," Fire coach Frank Klopas said after Thursday's training session in Bridgeview. "He hasn't trained. Hopefully he'll be ready for the next one."

That would be Tuesday at Houston.

Grazzini's future with the Fire has been clouded the past few weeks, but Javier Leon, managing director of Andell Sports Group, cleared up some of the mystery on Thursday. Andell Sports Group operates the club for owner Andrew Hauptman.

The Fire signed Grazzini to a one-year contract midway through last season. That contract carried with it the club's option to keep him through the end of this season. In a weird series of developments, Grazzini told reporters two weeks ago that he wanted to stay with the team after his contract expires on Sunday but that he wanted a more lucrative deal. The Major League Soccer Players Association says he is being paid 50,000 for this season, which makes him one of the lowest-paid players on the club.

A week later, after discussions with Grazzini, his representatives and Andell staffers, Grazzini admitted that he didn't understand the terms of his contract. He played well in a 59-minute stint during the club's 2-1 win over Columbus on Saturday, then showed a t-shirt saying "Thanks, Chicago" as he left the field. Some took that to mean he was bidding the club a fond farewell.

That apparently wasn't the case. Grazzini practiced with the Fire on Thursday but cordially declined a media interview afterwards. Leon and Klopas did all the talking on the matter.

"The Grazzini option has been triggered," Leon said, "and we expect him to be with us at least until the end of the year - and hopefully further than that."

Leon and Klopas insisted that the Fire always planned to exercise the club's option on Grazzini's services, which was part of a contract proposed by the players' representatives.

No announcement was made until Thursday, however, and the Fire signed well-regarded Brazilian midfielder Alex a month ago - an indication that a replacement for Grazzini was in place. Alex joined the Fire for training two weeks ago and will be eligible to play for the first time at Kansas City. Klopas said Alex will make the trip and that "he's an option" to take Grazzini's role in the first XI.

Leon acknowledged that the Fire's failure to make an announcement on exercising the option on Grazzini created speculation but blamed that on Grazzini.

"A month ago he came to us and said there were family issues he wanted to address and maybe he could go back to Argentina," said Leon. "So, we have been working with him to make him understand the commitment he's made to us. In our minds (exercising the option) was a done deal, but he asked us to explore the possibilities. That's why we didn't make an announcement. It was more semantics than anything else. There never was an issue about us picking up his option."

He also admitted that there were talks about the terms of Grazzini's contract, but Leon said, "We explained that we never negotiate a contract during the season." The existing pact expires after this season.

Leon wouldn't elaborate on Grazzini's "family issues" but the player did miss two days of training this week - the reason Klopas cited for leaving him off the travel roster. Leon said the family issue is "evolving."

"When you're dealing with family situations, there's always some difficulties," Leon said. "We want a Grazzini that is 100 percent. We're hoping the issues will be resolved and he'll be a happy player. We explained to him that he has to be 100 percent in."

Meanwhile, the club trimmed its roster in anticipation of picking up a player or two now that the international transfer window has opened. Kheli Dube, a forward acquired from the New England Revolution in this year's re-entry draft, was released and defender Kwame Watson-Siriboe was traded to Real Salt Lake for a 2014 draft pick. Neither Dube nor Watson-Siriboe appeared in a first team match this season.

The new players brought in at the start of this season have been only mildly successful. There have been reports that Uruguayan forward Federico Puppo, who has also been slow in adjusting to a new team, is furthered hampered by an ankle problem now and that Rafael Robayo, a backup midfielder, wants to return to his Colombian club.

Leon disputed the latter report.

"Robayo is interesting," he said. "He had a tremendous career in Colombia and wants to play more here."

There is no indication that will happen any time soon, though Klopas has not named a replacement for Grazzini at Kansas City. Klopas is hoping another forward, or perhaps a midfielder, can be added to the roster soon. Two names that have been mentioned are Andriy Shevchenko, the 35-year old Ukrainian striker who is hoping to move to Major League Soccer, and Dutch striker Sherjill MacDonald.

Leon is not expecting "major changes" and is leery about bringing in established stars after the bad experiences with Freddie Ljungberg and Nery Castillo two seasons ago. Both were brought in as Designated Players, which allows MLS teams to sign international players that put the team over the salary cap; neither stayed with the Fire after that campaign ended.

"One of the lessons we learned from the past is that it's not about one player. It's about the team," Leon said. "But we'll evaluate everything."

"You're always hoping a guy can come in and have an immediate impact," Klopas said, "but you've got to be realistic. The history of our club shows that it takes some time. There's an adjustment period for players coming in."

In addition to Grazzini and the injured Puppo, the Fire will be without defender Gonzalo Segares on Friday. He will serve a one-game suspension for the red card he drew in the Columbus match.

Bears' Nick Kwiatkoski was a top-5 inside linebacker in 2017

Bears' Nick Kwiatkoski was a top-5 inside linebacker in 2017

The Chicago Bears selected inside linebacker Roquan Smith in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft with the expectation that he'll become an immediate starter and impact player on defense. But, was there a need at inside linebacker?

According to Pro Football Focus, Nick Kwiatkoski, who Chicago selected in the fourth round of 2016's draft, was a standout performer last season. He ranked third in the NFL among inside linebackers in run-stop percentage and was fourth-best in pass-rush productivity.

Kwiatkoski also wasn’t tagged for a missed tackle against the run all season. He still has to share time on the field with Danny Trevathan and newly-drafted Roquan Smith, but should be able to capitalize on a great sophomore year after being drafted in the fourth round from West Virginia in 2016. Overall, Kwiatoski was graded as the NFL’s 12th best inside linebacker, higher than both Spaight and Hitchens.

His 21.0 pass-rush productivity ranked fourth and came on the heels of his rookie season in which he ranked 10th in the same category in 2016.

Kwiatkoski didn't receive much fanfare last season but the analytics speak for themselves. He started six games (appeared in 11) and registered career highs in tackles (34) and sacks (two). He's an ascending player but his growth is likely to be stunted by Smith's presence. 

Chicago could view Kwiatkoski as the heir to Danny Trevathan's starting job. The Bears can move on from Trevathan with little consequence at season's end. His dead cap number drops to just $1.25 million in 2019. Kwiatkoski will be in the final year of his contract that season (2019), and if he hasn't earned a starting job by then, he's a near lock to sign elsewhere when his rookie contract expires. 

Kwiatkoski has proven he can produce when given a chance to play, something 31 other teams have certainly taken notice of.

Pro Football Focus: Bears rank near bottom-third of NFL in pass protection

Pro Football Focus: Bears rank near bottom-third of NFL in pass protection

If the Chicago Bears want to make a real run at the playoffs in 2018, the offensive line will have to do its part by keeping QB Mitch Trubisky upright. The offense is expected to be more pass-heavy under coach Matt Nagy and will depend on Trubisky having time in the pocket to go through his progressions and find the open target.

New offensive line coach Harry Hiestand should help that cause. He's universally praised as one of the best offensive line coaches in the sport and will be charged with getting a better effort from a unit that ended last season ranked in the bottom-third of pass protection, according to Pro Football Focus.

19. CHICAGO BEARS

2017 pass-blocking efficiency: 77.9

Best individual PBE: Josh Sitton, 97.4

Because of several crippling injuries, nine different players saw at least 100 pass-block snaps for the Bears in 2017. They gave up 152 pressures on 536 passing plays. The top performance came from left tackle Charles Leno Jr., who enjoyed the best season of his career and allowed just 24 pressures all season. Heading into the 2018 campaign, rookie guard James Daniels is penciled in to fill the shoes of the recently departed pass-blocking star Josh Sitton. Daniels performed well in pass protection during his final college season, allowing just 10 pressures on 371 pass-blocking snaps at Iowa.

The Bears will be without last season's top pass-protector, Josh Sitton, who was let go by GM Ryan Pace this offseason and signed with the Dolphins. 

Pass protection was once all about the play of the offensive tackles, but with the NFL's interior defensive linemen evolving into disruptive forces up the middle, guard play will be nearly as important. A healthy Kyle Long is critical. Chicago can't afford growing pains from James Daniels, either. Cody Whitehair returns to full-time center duties, a role he excelled at during his rookie season. 

Charles Leno should provide reliable play at left tackle. Bobby Massie remains a wildcard, but with little depth behind him, the Bears can do nothing more than hope his bad reps are limited in 2018.

With Hiestand in the fold and a healthy Long ready to compete at a high level again, the Bears' offensive line should be much improved this season.