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Free agent focus: Which players could the Bears look to keep?

Free agent focus: Which players could the Bears look to keep?

The first decisions general manager Ryan Pace will have to make later this month are on which of his own players from the 2017 season he’d like to try to retain. There are 10 key names here to focus on before negotiations with other teams can begin March 12 and contracts can be finalized March 14.

Dontrelle Inman

Inman brought some much-needed length to the Bears’ receiving corps when Pace traded for him in October, and he caught 13 of 22 targets for 195 yards in his first three games in Chicago. But Inman’s production tailed off, with Mitchell Trubisky targeting him only eight times (with five receptions) for 45 yards and a touchdown in his next four games before Inman finished the season with five catches on 10 targets for 94 yards against the Minnesota Vikings. 

Former offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said in December that Inman’s decrease in usage was because teams quickly figured out that they could take him out of the gameplan by training their focus on him.

“Coverage,” Loggains said. “That’s as simple as it is. Nothing that he’s done or we’re trying to take him out of progressions.”

That’s not surprising — Inman isn’t a No. 1 receiver who can beat that kind of coverage — but the 6-foot-3 former Charger could be an option to return, and would be better suited as a rotational guy or someone who isn’t relied on to be the top target for Trubisky. 

Kendall Wright

The 28-year-old Wright led the Bears in targets (91) receptions (59) and yards (614) and played in all 16 games for the first time since his breakout 2013 season. But the Bears preferred to try to limit Wright’s snaps, as Loggains explained in October: “When he gets to play in that 25-35 range and he’s fresh and can bring the energy and juice,” he said. 

The Bears’ plan for Wright when they signed him a year ago was to have him be a complementary piece to their three top outside targets (Cameron Meredith, Kevin White, Markus Wheaton). With Meredith and White suffering season-ending injuries by the end of Week 1 and Wheaton proving to be a bust, the Bears had to rely on Wright more than they would’ve liked. 

As long as the Bears can better fill out the rest of their receiver depth chart, Wright not only would be a prime candidate to return, but someone who could be a productive part of the 2018 offense. 

Mark Sanchez

Sanchez wasn’t active for any of the Bears’ 16 games but still made a positive impact on the team in 2017. Specifically, the 31-year-old had a strong relationship with Trubisky, and the Bears could aim to keep that relationship intact. 

“He did a good job this year, all the things we value with him, his veteran leadership and his experiences,” Pace said, adding that Sanchez has expressed a desire to return to the Bears. “He’s a free agent, those are all evaluations that are ongoing.”

The bigger question is if the team believes Sanchez could be a viable backup after not dressing for a single game in 2017. There are other options on the free agent market, but it’s worth noting that one of those guys — Chase Daniel, who has connections to Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy — also didn’t throw a pass in 2017 (and has only thrown three since the end of the 2014 season).

Tom Compton

Compton was a steady presence as a reserve when he played and has the flexibility to play both guard and tackle. If Eric Kush is healthy after tearing his ACL last August, Compton could be a candidate to return as a swing tackle, or the Bears could look for someone on the free agent market. Worth noting is Compton’s relatively frequent presence on the Bears’ weekly injury reports last season. 

Zach Miller

Miller, unfortunately, doesn’t seem likely to play football again after dislocating his knee and tearing his popliteal artery against the New Orleans Saints, which nearly led to his leg being amputated. If Miller’s playing career is over, it’s a shame given he was one of the most well-liked players to pass through Halas Hall in recent memory. 

Kyle Fuller

If Pace were to use the franchise tag on Fuller, it likely would be a bridge to a long-term contract extension instead of using it to keep the cornerback under control for another year at $15 million. Fuller was one of four cornerbacks to break up 20 or more passes in 2017, but his inconsistent play in 2014 and 2015, as well as the injury that cost him the entire 2016 season, does present some risk. 

The Bears could opt to not use the franchise tag on Fuller and let him hit the open market and still have the confidence that they could re-sign him. To start: This year’s free agent cornerback class is headlined by Trumaine Johnson, Malcolm Butler, Bashaud Breeland and E.J. Gaines. Fuller would be entering a deep pool of cornerbacks, which Pace pointed out on Tuesday. 

“I would say cornerback this year in free agency and the draft is a good position, so that’s beneficial to us,” Pace said. 

It could be beneficial to the Bears specifically with Fuller, as a super-rich contract might not materialize if those go to Johnson and Butler. The Bears should be able to pitch Fuller, too, on the consistency in their defensive coaching staff — specifically, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and defensive backs coach Ed Donatell — as being the best option for the former first-round pick to continue to develop as a player. 

But too, if the Bears were lose Fuller to free agency, they could replace him with a couple of free agents or a free agent and a high draft pick. As Pace said, the depth of the cornerbacks available over the next two months is beneficial to the Bears. 

Prince Amukamara

Amukamara was a solid enough cornerback at times, but he didn’t record an interception and was penalized seven times for 99 yards, the most of any Bears defensive player in 2017 (Fuller, for comparison, was penalized three times for 21 yards). Amukamara turns 29 in June and is coming off back-to-back one-year deals. Would he take another one? And would the Bears want him back regardless? Again, the deep free agent market/draft pool could help the Bears find an upgrade over Amukamara. 

If the Bears do keep Amukamara, they very well could still draft a cornerback with an early round pick in April. 

Christian Jones

Jones totaled 57 tackles with two pass break-ups, one forced fumble and two sacks while playing well as a reserve next to Danny Trevathan. He’s played three years in Vic Fangio’s defense and seems like a likely candidate to return. 

Mitch Unrein

Unrein was not only a favorite of former coach John Fox but is a favorite of defense line coach Jay Rodgers. Re-signing him and then having 2016 third-round pick Jonathan Bullard compete with him for playing time could be a productive path. 

One thing Rodgers liked about Unrein last year was that helped the rest of the defensive line — standouts Eddie Goldman and Akiem Hicks — play faster. 

“Mitch is the glue that kind of holds it all together,” Rodgers said. “Very versatile player, he’s played every position on the front during the course of his career. He knows me, he knows what the expectation is, he knows how to communicate, he knows what’s coming, run game, pass game, he puts it all together. And when he’s out there on the field with those guys, he allows those guys to play fast. And if they know what’s coming their way, then they can play even faster. And I think his demand in the room of knowing what to do, when to do it and how to do it, raises the elevation of the other guys in the room. And he holds them accountable to knowing their stuff.” 

Lamarr Houston

The Bears parted ways with Houston before the 2017 season, then brought him back in late November after injuries sapped the team’s depth at outside linebacker. Houston notched four sacks in five games after returning to the Bears, and without many more productive edge rushers who could potentially hit the free market, Houston could be a candidate to return to help fill out the team’s pass rushing depth. 

Bears grades: No rookie 'freebies' for Trubisky, mid-game lulls reflect poorly on coaches

Bears grades: No rookie 'freebies' for Trubisky, mid-game lulls reflect poorly on coaches

QUARTERBACKS: B-

Mitchell Trubisky’s final stat line was fine, and merely "fine:" 18/30 (60 percent) for 179 yards and a touchdown, and six rushes for 53 yards and a lost fumble (that turned into a Detroit Lions touchdown). There were some outstanding throws and decisions made by the rookie, like his touchdown toss to Adam Shaheen and his athletic, instinctive 19-yard scramble on fourth and 13 in the dying embers of the fourth quarter. But there were too many poor decisions and missed throws — for example, two incompletions were the result of low, inaccurate passes (to Benny Cunningham near the goal line in the first quarter and to Daniel Brown on third and six midway through the third). Trubisky was only sacked once after being dropped 16 times in his previous five games, which was an encouraging improvement. He did some good things but admitted after the game he has to be better, and being a first-year starter isn’t an excuse: “You don’t get a freebie because you’re a rookie,” Trubisky said. 

RUNNING BACKS: A

Jordan Howard sparked a big day with a 50-yard run in the first quarter, and averaged a staggering 8.3 yards per carry (15 attempts, 125 yards). Outside of that explosive run, Howard was efficient and effective, averaging 5.4 yards per carry and getting in the end zone on a well-blocked and well-executed 12-yard run. Tarik Cohen played 31 snaps — he played 31 snaps combined against the New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers — and was effective both with the ball in his hands and as a decoy to draw coverage toward him on others. His 15-yard touchdown run and subsequent leap into the end zone tied the game in the fourth quarter, and he caught four of six targets for 44 yards. 

WIDE RECEIVERS: D+

There weren’t any egregious mistakes from this group, but Dontrelle Inman, Kendall Wright, Tre McBride and Markus Wheaton combined for 13 targets, seven receptions and 82 yards. That fewer than half of Trubisky’s pass attempts were intended for his wide receivers is disappointing, yet it's not surprising given the struggles this group has had all year. Inman ran a good in-cut route and connected with Trubisky on it to set up Connor Barth’s missed game-tying field goal, which was the highlight of the day for this unit. 

TIGHT ENDS: B+

Shaheen caught all four of his targets for 41 yards and a touchdown, and displayed some impressive chemistry with Trubisky, his roommate when he arrived in Chicago in the offseason. The Bears need to continue to involve their second-round pick more in the offense — him not being on the field during that last-ditch drive in the fourth quarter was strange given his production, and the wide receivers' lack of production, in the game — and he blocked up Howard’s 12-yard touchdown run well. Daniel Brown caught two of his five targets for 23 yards, including a 13-yard catch on third and 10 that sprung the Bears’ opening-possession scoring drive in the first quarter. 

OFFENSIVE LINE: B+

This group kept Trubisky upright, allowing only that one sack and scattering four pressures on Trubisky’s 30 pass attempts. But it was the run blocking from this group that stood out: Beyond the explosive ground gains it set up, the Bears only had two negative running plays on Sunday. Dinging the grade here are two penalties on Kyle Long, especially an unnecessary roughness flag that negated a 15-yard Trubisky scramble right before he lost that fumble for a touchdown. 

DEFENSIVE LINE: B

Detroit wasn’t able to run the ball, with Theo Riddick, Ameer Abdullah and Jamal Agnew combining for 62 yards on 21 carries (a shade under three yards per carry). But the defensive line didn’t do enough to disrupt Matthew Stafford’s rhythm, with Mitch Unrein recording the only sack and one of two hurries (Eddie Goldman had the other) from this unit. 

LINEBACKERS: B

Nick Kwiatkoski made the biggest play of the day for the Bears’ defense with his sack-strip of Stafford in the first quarter, and Christian Jones chipped in with a sack as well (Jones’ sack was key in that it forced the Lions to kick a field goal, keeping the Bears’ deficit within one possession in the fourth quarter). Both inside linebackers played well, the outside guys didn’t make as big of an impact: Leonard Floyd had four tackles, two hurries and one tackle for a loss, Pernell McPhee had three tackles and Sam Acho had one tackle and one hurry. The lack of a pass rush from the guys expected to be pass rushers kept Stafford comfortable in the pocket, allowing him to pick apart a Bears’ secondary that didn’t have its best day on Sunday. 

DEFENSIVE BACKS: D-

Kyle Fuller missed a tackle on Detroit’s first drive and was benched for Marcus Cooper in the second quarter. Cooper struggled mightily, though, playing too soft of coverage on T.J. Jones on a third-and-15, allowing a conversion that sparked a Lions scoring drive that ended with Marvin Jones burning Cooper with a double move for a 28-yard touchdown. Prince Amukamara was flagged for a pass interference penalty for the second consecutive week, too (last week’s against Green Bay was a questionable penalty at best, to be fair). Fuller re-entered the game and dropped an interception, too. The lack of game-breaking plays and the 120.2 passer rating compiled by Stafford combine to earn this unit the lowest mark on the team from Sunday. 

SPECIAL TEAMS: D

Barth’s missed 46-yard game-tying field goal wiped out some good things Jeff Rodgers’ special teams units did on Sunday. Explosive Lions punt returner Jamal Agnew returned three of Pat O’Donnell’s four punts for only 23 yards, and he averaged 18 1/2 yards on four kick returns. But the Bears, as a team, couldn’t overcome Barth’s miss — and at the start of that drive, Cohen probably should’ve taken a knee in the end zone instead of returning the kickoff from five yards deep in his own end zone to the Bears’ 17-yard line. 

COACHING: D+

Dowell Loggains opened up the playbook for Trubisky (and Cohen), and the result was the Bears’ best offensive effort of the year. At times, this looked like a completely different offense than the one the Bears’ ran in the first 10 weeks of the season, with some zone reads, plenty of shotgun snaps and well-designed plays to spring a 24-point effort. But as John Fox said after the game, the Bears are still susceptible to “siestas,” with those mid-game lulls proving difficult to overcome. The Bears have played 10 games in 2017, and not one of them has been a complete, four-quarter effort. That bigger-picture look falls on the coaching staff, and has greater implications than some questionable personnel decisions (like why Shaheen/Howard/Cohen weren’t on the field for the two-minute drill in the fourth quarter). 
 

Bears grades: Straight A's for the defense, not so much for the offense

Bears grades: Straight A's for the defense, not so much for the offense

QUARTERBACKS: D-

Mitchell Trubisky summed up his day with this line: “I thought I played really poor.” He thought he could’ve led Tarik Cohen better on that 70-yard completion — had he, in his mind, it could’ve been a touchdown. He took a sack for a loss of nine yards on third down in the first quarter that pushed the Bears back to the Carolina 34, leading to Connor Barth’s missed 52-yard field goal. Trubisky made a poor decision trying to fit a pass to Zach Miller into a window that wasn’t there to begin the third quarter. It was Trubisky’s first start without a turnover, though, which was more indicative of how little the Bears asked him to do. Eventually, the Bears are going to have to ask Trubisky to try to open things up assuming opposing defenses continue to find success loading the box to stop the run. But with an early 14-point lead, that wasn’t part of the gameplan for Trubisky on Sunday. 

RUNNING BACKS: C-

There wasn’t much there for Jordan Howard, who faced eight or more defenders in the box on 57 percent of his runs but averaged only 2.3 seconds behind the line of scrimmage, the lowest average among running backs in Week 7 so far. Howard wasn’t able to punch the ball into the end zone when the Bears got to the one-yard line in the second quarter, and Taquan Mizzell wasn’t able to get open in the end zone on third down, leading to Trubisky scrambling for the pylon and winding up just short. Tarik Cohen had a clear drop and bobbled a back-shoulder pass out of bounds (it looked like he might've turned too late, or the ball was there too early), but his 70-yard reception was the Bears’ most explosive pass play of the season. 

WIDE RECEIVERS: F

Tanner Gentry was the only receiver to be targeted on Sunday, catching that single pass for an eight-yard gain on third and long. The Bears weren’t going to force anything up by two touchdowns, but Gentry and Tre McBride struggled to get open and give the Bears at least an option of taking the lid off the passing game a little more. Kendall Wright only played eight snaps with the Bears lining up in plenty of two- and three-tight end formations. The deficiencies in this group are clear, and opposing defenses would be smart to do more of what Carolina did — make the receivers beat you — than dropping into coverage like Pittsburgh and Baltimore. 

TIGHT ENDS: D+

There were some highlights here, like Zach Miller’s 24-yard catch — and Adam Shaheen’s crushing downfield block on Jarius Byrd. Dion Sims leveled Panthers safety Mike Adams on Cohen’s 70-yard reception and had a few solid blocks in the run game. But when Carolina was stacking the box as much as they did, the Bears could’ve used more of a push from their tight ends, those (as you’ll see below) this was a difficult assignment.  

OFFENSIVE LINE: D+

Carolina stacked the box on more than half of Howard’s 21 runs, and the Bears struggled to maintain a push for their running game. But it’s worth noting that Carolina entered Sunday with the sixth-best run defense in the NFL, per Football Outsiders’ DVOA. Even without star linebacker Luke Kuechly, this was a tough assignment. Trubisky being sacked four times doesn’t reflect well on the offensive line, even if he took some of those in lieu of forcing a semi-dangerous throw. On Trubisky’s deep ball to Cohen, though, the offensive line provided excellent protection. 

DEFENSIVE LINE: A

Akiem Hicks continued his dominant 2017 with five tackles, one sack, one hurry and two tackles for a loss as he bullied a banged-up Panthers offensive line. Eddie Goldman had another strong game, too, with six tackles, half a sack and a hurry — but his impact was felt more in the muted stat lines of Christian McCaffrey (seven carries, 10 yards) and Jonathan Stewart (14 carries, 48 yards). Jonathan Bullard and Mitch Unrein also contributed with Vic Fangio deploying a handful of fronts with four down linemen. 

LINEBACKERS: A

Danny Trevathan stuffed the box score with four tackles, one sack, two hurries, one tackle for a loss, two pass break-ups and an interception. Christian Jones led the Bears with 11 tackles and was rock-solid in run support. Leonard Floyd had a sack and two hurries, while Pernell McPhee was particularly disruptive late in the game, notching a sack and a hurry on back-to-back plays in the fourth quarter. 

DEFENSIVE BACKS: A

Eddie Jackson’s two touchdowns stand out, with the rookie flashing his playmaking ability on 75- and 76-yard scores. Both Prince Amukamara and Kyle Fuller had solid games, with Amukamara’s breakup on a Kelvin Benjamin slant route leading to Jackson’s pick-six. Fuller locked down in coverage and was a sure tackler in the open field. When Fuller had to leave the game for a brief spell late in the second quarter, Amukamara and Marcus Cooper provided solid coverage on third-and-10 from the Bears’ 18, forcing an incomplete pass and a field goal that accounted for Carolina’s only points of the game. Adrian Amos had a fine break-up of a pass to tight end Ed Dickson in the fourth quarter, too. 

SPECIAL TEAMS: B-

Connor Barth missed 52-yard field goal in the second quarter, with his kick appearing to get tipped at the line of scrimmage. But other than that, this unit didn’t have the kind of calamitous mistakes that marred last week’s game against the Baltimore Ravens — the team’s punt and kick coverage units both did well, and Carolina began eight of their 11 drives at or inside their own 25-yard line. Pat O’Donnell in particular punted well as the Bears’ offense stalled in the fourth quarter, including a 66-yarder from his own 10-yard line and a 35-yarder that pinned Carolina at its own 11. 

COACHING: B

Eventually, the Bears are going to have to lengthen the leash on Trubisky, but the John Fox and Dowell Loggains’ plan worked on Sunday in the form of a two-touchdown win. A thought here: The Bears perhaps would've opened things up on offense if Carolina had scored a touchdown, but weren't going to do that as long as the defense kept the Panthers out of the end zone. Fangio deserves a ton of credit for a gameplan that not only kept almost everything in front of the defense — Newton only had three completions that went 15 or more yards in the air — but also one that registered five sacks, two interceptions and two touchdowns. The coaching staff’s emphasis on cleaner play, too, paid off for the second straight week, with the Bears being penalized five times. It wasn’t completely clean, but it was much better than the flag-laden games of Weeks 2-5.