Dan Skuta

Without Lamarr Houston, Bears have a problem

Without Lamarr Houston, Bears have a problem

On the first day of training camp, before the Bears even took the field for practice in Bourbonnais, Pernell McPhee was placed on the physically unable to perform list. Just two days later, we learned the self-proclaimed “violent” outside linebacker who was supposed to be the prized free agent signing of Ryan Pace’s first offseason as Bears GM, had arthroscopic surgery to “clean out” whatever had built up in his right knee between reporting day and minicamp in June. That came after offseason labrum surgery. Which came after surgery on his left knee last offseason.

A presumably healthier McPhee was coming back, stud edge rusher of the future Leonard Floyd was expected to make a leap in his second season, and Willie Young and his 24 sacks in three years with the Bears were returning.  So some believed Lamarr Houston and his nearly $7 million cap figure, which jumps to almost $9 million in the fifth and final season of his deal in 2018, were expendable. After the McPhee news this week, sometimes the best move is the one you don’t make. The Bears weren’t pushed against the salary cap, so they didn’t have to cut him loose. Good thing they didn’t. Houston heard the rumors and speculation, but didn’t pay much attention.

“No, I’m not worried about that,” the seven-year veteran said after Friday’s practice in Bourbonnais. “In the NFL, there’s 31 other teams. If it doesn’t work out for one team, I’m sure there’s something else that’ll happen.”

Houston’s been in Chicago for three years. The second was great, with eight sacks readjusting to outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme, which he had a taste of with the Oakland Raiders. The first and third seasons with the Bears were lousy, tearing an ACL in both knees, limiting him to just ten games, including only two last season. Those knee injuries added to the thinking his time at Halas Hall wouldn’t last much longer.

“It was rough but adversity breeds success in my mind so I believe it was all for the better," Houston said.

Houston blocked out the noise as he went through a long rehab for the second time in three years.

“This is a competitive league and anytime you get hurt, there’s always the 'next man up' theory," Houston said. "So you can’t really focus on whether it’s about you being missed. It’s more about the team being successful.”

Now the Bears have to consider themselves lucky to have Houston. And hope the injury bug doesn't bite him again, or Floyd, or Young, or Dan Skuta or Sam Acho before the games start to count. Houston was brought in by former Bears GM Phil Emery in 2014 after an 8-8 season under Marc Trestman. His first ACL injury on his first Bears sack during a blowout road loss to the New England Patriots was almost emblematic of that chaotic, at times embarrassing, season.

“It’s much different now,” Houston says entering year three under John Fox, despite the 9-23 record. “We have a more cohesive locker room. Guys are excited to be here, they want to play football, they want to win. You can feel the vibe around the building. Everybody’s really into what we’re doing and how we’re doing it, and I think that’s going to make us a much better football team."

Houston now looks to flash back, performance-wise, to 2015, in his first season under Vic Fangio, and most of a defensive staff that seems to have the minds and architects in place. Now it’s a matter of having the right talent, and keeping it as healthy as possible, despite the ominous start with McPhee.

“We have to put in the work to show our identity and what we want that to be. Right now (it’s early) we don’t have an identity," Houston said. "We’re working and we’re going to find one before camp is out. I think we’re all excited about that and putting our best foot forward doing it. I think that’s something we have to earn. We have to work to build it and we’re going to keep on punching away.

“Thankfully we have the same defense and same coaches so I can get right back in this defense and get rolling again. Just to be around practice, be around the guys, the coaches, I’m very grateful for it and very excited about it. I’m not really worried about proving what I can do. I’ve got the same coaches, they know what I can do. Right now I’m thinking of getting thru the process, making steady progress and getting back out on the field and playing hard."

Early look at 2017 Bears depth chart

Early look at 2017 Bears depth chart

After a 3-13 season, Bears GM Ryan Pace left no stone unturned trying to upgrade the franchise during this past offseason.

With an abundance new faces at several key positions, the Bears will head into training camp this summer with some key positional battles to keep an eye on.  

Here's an early look at the 2017 Bears depth chart in order of positional ranking:

OFFENSE

QB

Mike Glennon
Mark Sanchez
Mitch Trubisky
Connor Shaw

It would be shocking to see the Bears come out of the Soldier Field tunnel in Week 1 with anybody but Mike Glennon leading out the starters. Even after an impressive rookie minicamp, Mitch Trubisky is still a work in progress that the Bears coaching staff will need to handle with care if they want him to succeed in being the long-term quarterback of the future. Mark Sanchez's veteran presence gives him a leg up on Connor Shaw to make the final 53-man roster come September.

RB

Jordan Howard
Benny Cunningham
Jeremy Langford
Tarik Cohen
Ka'Deem Carey
Joel Bouagnon

Coming off a Pro Bowl rookie season, Howard is entrenched as the Bears' starter heading into the 2017 season. The Bears added a sorely needed speed dimension to the group with Darren Sproles clone in rookie running back Tarik Cohen. The Bears also brought in veteran Benny Cunningham who could unseat Jeremy Langford as Howard's backup. 

WR

Cameron Meredith
Kevin White
Markus Wheaton
Kendall Wright
Josh Bellamy
Deonte Thompson
Daniel Braverman
Rueben Randle
Tanner Gentry
Titus Davis
Jhajuan Seales

It won't be easy for the Bears to replace Alshon Jeffery's production, but Pace added depth to the group with the signings of Kendall Wright and Markus Wheaton. If Kevin White can bounce back from injury and show flashed of why he was a Top 10 pick in 2015, and either Wheaton or Wright emerges as a solid No. 3, the Bears could have a formidable group behind last year's breakout star Cameron Meredith.

TE

Zach Miller
Dion Sims
Adam Shaheen
Daniel Brown
Ben Braunecker
MyCole Pruitt
Franko House

The Bears got much stronger at tight end with the signing of Dion Sims and the selection of "Baby Gronk" Adam Shaheen in the second round of last month's draft. It will be a crowded group in Bourbonnais, and if Zach Miller can stay healthy, the Bears have the personnel that can cause major mismatches for opposing defenses. 

FB 

Freddie Stevenson

Undrafted free agent Freddie Stevenson is the lone wolf at fullback after Paul Lasike was waived. Stevenson served as the lead blocker for All-American running back Dalvin Cook. He had 292 total yards and seven touchdowns with the Seminoles.

RT

Bobby Massie
Tom Compton
Mitchell Kirsch

RG

Kyle Long
Cyril Richardson

C

Cody Whitehair
Hroniss Grasu
Taylor Boggs

LG

Josh Sitton
Eric Kush
Jordan Morgan

LT

Charles Leno Jr.
Bradley Sowell
William Pohels
Joseph Dieugot

If the Bears are fortunate enough to make it through preseason without any key injuries, they will go into Week 1 with all but one — Cody Whithair took over for Ted Larsen in Week 4 — of the same starters that they began 2016 with against the Houston Texans. The Bears have reliable backups in Eric Kush, who could play both guard positions, and veteran Tom Compton. The wildcard on the offensive line is third-year pro and former third-round pick Hroniss Grasu who missed all of 2016 with a torn ACL.

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DEFENSE

DE

Akiem Hicks
Jaye Howard
Mitch Unrein
Jonathan Bullard
C.J. Wilson
Kapron Lewis-Moore
Rashaad Coward

If free agent signing Jaye Howard can rebound from a hip flexor injury that cut his 2016 season short, the Bears could have lethal end duo in Howard and Akiem Hicks (7 sacks in 2016). The Bears also have quality depth in veteran Mitch Unrein and 2016 third-round pick Jonathan Bullard.

DT

Eddie Goldman
John Jenkins

When healthy, Goldman has been a dominating presence on the interior of the Bears defensive line. If Goldman were to miss any time, the Bears have mammoth nose tackle John Jenkins (6-foot-3, 359 pounds), lurking in the background. 

OLB

Pernell McPhee
Leonard Floyd
Willie Young
Lamarr Houston
Sam Acho
Dan Skuta
Roy Robertson-Harris
Hendrick Ekpe
Isaiah Irving

Injuries aside, Leonard Floyd looked every bit the part of a Top 10 pick with seven sacks in his rookie season. Health questions remain, but the Bears have a deep stable of outside linebackers behind Floyd in Pernell McPhee, Willie Young and Lamarr Houston. The final spot on the 53-man roster could come down to a three-way battle between veterans' Sam Acho and Dan Skuta, and second-year pro Roy Robertson-Harris.

ILB

Jerrell Freeman
Danny Trevathan
Nick Kwiatkoski
Christian Jones
Jonathan Anderson
John Timu
Alex Scearce

Jerrell Freeman, and his No. 1 Pro Football Focus grade, return to anchor the Bears' inside linebacker group. Danny Trevathan's ruptured patellar tendon could cause result in missing the start of training camp. If Trevathan misses any time during the regular season, he'll be replaced in the starting lineup by Nick Kwiatkoski who showed promise in his rookie season. Christian Jones has the edge for a roster spot over Jonathan Anderson and John Timu due to his ability to impact the game on special teams.

CB

Prince Amukamara
Marcus Cooper
​Cre'Von LeBlanc
Kyle Fuller
Bryce Callahan
Sherrick McManis
Johnthan Banks
Rashaad Reynolds
B.W. Webb

The Bears will likely have two new starting cornerbacks in 2017 with free agent acquisitions' Prince Amukamara and Marcus Cooper. Both Cre'Von LeBlanc and Bryce Callahan showed growth in 2016 and could battle it out for the starting nickel corner job. Unless he has a big preseason, former Phil Emery first round pick Kyle Fuller could be the odd man out in the secondary.

FS

Adrian Amos
Eddie Jackson
Deiondre' Hall
DeAndre Houston-Carson

Adrian Amos took a step back in 2016 and will be challenged by fourth-round pick Eddie Jackson for the team's starting free safety position. One intriguing player to watch will be Deiondre' Hall, who is expected to make the switch to safety after playing cornerback during his four years at Northern Iowa and in his rookie season with the Bears.

SS

Quintin Demps
Harold Jones-Quartey
Chris Prosinski
Deon Bush

Free agent signing Quintin Demps will provide a dose of veteran leadership in the Bears secondary. Demps, who turns 32 later this summer, should serve as a stopgap until the Bears find a long-term solution at strong safety. 

SPECIAL TEAMS

K

Andy Phillips
Connor Barth

P

Pat O'Donnell

LS

Patrick Scales

Connor Barth recovered after a shaky start to his Bears career in 2016, but he'll be challenged in camp by undrafted free agent kicker Andy Phillips. A former member of the United States National Ski Team, Phillips converted 84 percent of field goals and missed just one extra point during his time at Utah. If he performs well in preseason, there's a good chance he'll dethrone Barth as the Bears starting kicker due to his age and contract status. As of now, neither Pat O'Donnell nor Patrick Scales have any roster competition to worry about.