Dontrelle Inman

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: Which units escape an 'F' after blowout loss in Philadelphia?

Bears grades: Which units escape an 'F' after blowout loss in Philadelphia?

QUARTERBACKS: F

Mitchell Trubisky completed 17 of 33 passes (51.5 percent), with some significant accuracy issues contributing to that poor completion percentage. He threw two interceptions and fumbled twice (though none of those fumbles were lost), and his 38.3 rating was a career low. “I didn’t play the game I set out to play or the game I’m capable of,” Trubisky said. The Bears averaged 2.9 yards per play, gained 140 total yards and had eight first downs on Sunday. And while the Eagles clearly have the better team, there’s not a curve for a last-place team facing a first-place team. 

RUNNING BACKS: F

The Eagles have one of the very best run defenses in the NFL, and Jordan Howard (seven carries, six yards), Tarik Cohen (two carries, -11 yards) and Benny Cunningham (one carry, minus-one yard) combined for 10 carries for minus-six yards, good for an average loss (not gain) of 0.6 yards per carry. On the bright side, Howard and Cohen each had two catches on two targets, but there was no way the Bears’ offense was going to have any success with its running backs averaging a loss every time they carried the ball. 

WIDE RECEIVERS: F

Dontrelle Inman caught four of his nine targets for 64 yards but had a couple of drops, while Tre McBride and Kendall Wright combined for four catches and 35 yards on 11 targets. Some of this had to do with Trubisky’s accuracy issues, but his receivers weren’t doing enough to make his Sunday easier. 

TIGHT ENDS: F

Adam Shaheen missed a run block early and only played 17 of the Bears’ 55 snaps, and caught his one target for one yard. Dion Sims returned from an illness and played 20 snaps, so it’s not like Sims was taking snaps away from Shaheen. Daniel Brown, though, played 30 snaps, which was more of a function of the Bears having to run their two-minute offense for most of the game. 

OFFENSIVE LINE: F

This group did do a halfway decent job protecting Trubisky (two sacks, five hurries) against an Eagles defense that was able to pin its ears back and do quite a bit of pass rushing against a Bears offense that had to pass quite a bit. But the six rushing yards the Bears managed are the second-lowest total in franchise history, and there’s no getting around that. 

DEFENSIVE LINE: D+

Akiem Hicks (two TFLs) and Eddie Goldman (four tackles, one hurry) both were solid at times, while Jonathan Bullard had his most disruptive game of the season (one sack, two hurries, one TFL). A depleted and ineffective linebacker corps was the bigger culprit for Philadelphia’s average of 5.3 yards per carry, but this unit didn’t have enough big, game-changing plays to prop up the rest of the defense. Worth noting: Hicks played 69.2 percent of the Bears' defensive snaps, with his only lower percentaged (69 percent) coming in that Week 2 blowout loss at Tampa. Hicks has been a workhorse on the defensive line this season, but given he was limited in practice last week, perhaps the Bears will manage his snaps a little more now that they won't be playing meaningful games in December. 

LINEBACKERS: D-

Pernell McPhee was largely invisible, only recording two sacks with no hurries, though Sam Acho had a solid game with four tackles and two hurries. Christian Jones had one pass break-up and five tackles, and Nick Kwiatkoski only had one tackle while playing 62.8 percent of the Bears’ snaps. Isaiah Irving recorded one tackle with no hurries or sacks in his first extended un in the Bears’ defense. This unit sorely missed Danny Trevathan and Leonard Floyd, to say the least. 

DEFENSIVE BACKS: D

There was a lot of bad from this group, with Eddie Jackson struggling against the pass and run and dropping an interception in the second half. Adrian Amos allowed Zach Ertz to burst free for a 17-yard touchdown in the first quarter, Philadelphia’s first of the game. Prince Amukamara committed two penalties, and Kyle Fuller had an uneven game, with the lowlight him falling down on a first down conversion to Alshon Jeffery in the first quarter. But give this group credit for Amukamara and Cre’Von LeBlanc both forcing fumbles (Amukamara was officially credited with it, though Amos, no pun intended, had a hand in it as well), while that pair each had two pass break-ups as well. And overall for the defense, no unit gets an "F" here because there were players from each unit (Goldman, Acho, LeBlanc in particular) who had decent games. It's harder to identify those guys on offense. 

SPECIAL TEAMS: F

Pat O’Donnell had some uncharacteristic struggles, with his first punt going only 34 yards to the Bears’ 44, which preceded the Eagles’ first touchdown of the game (he did rebound to have his next punt stick Philadelphia inside its own 10-yard line, and had a 58-yarder later in the game). Cairo Santos was put in a tough situation on his 54-yard field goal — his first field goal attempt since Week 3 and his subsequent groin injury — but did connect on a 38-yard field goal that ensured the Bears wouldn’t get shut out. Both Marcus Cooper and Jonathan Anderson were flagged for penalties on returns that led to the Bears starting first-half drives inside their own 10-yard line. 

COACHING: F

We’ll start here: About five and a half minutes into the second quarter, the Bears mistakenly began to send their punt team into the field on third down, then had to call timeout because only 10 men were on the field. Having Santos attempt that 54-yard field goal on fourth and four was a questionable decision — why not let Trubisky have a crack at converting a first down? The Bears were woefully undisciplined, and ended the first half with more penalty yards (36) than offensive yards (34). That the Eagles were actually the more heavily penalized team (11 for 70 yards for Philadelphia, nine for 56 for the Bears) doesn’t absolve this group, and in fact makes it look worse that the Bears managed to lose by four touchdowns against a talented, yet sloppy, opponent.

Why the Bears have so much confidence in Mitchell Trubisky, even as the losses mount

Why the Bears have so much confidence in Mitchell Trubisky, even as the losses mount

The Bears are hurtling toward another last-place finish in the NFC North, and Mitchell Trubisky is 2-4 as the team’s starting quarterback after Sunday’s 27-24 loss to the Detroit Lions. But talk to any of Trubisky’s teammates and it's clear they believe there’s a light at the end of the tunnel for this team, and it’s because of the bright future their quarterback has.

“He’s still young right now, a little green,” offensive lineman Bobby Massie said. "But he’s getting better every week, man.”

Explained fellow offensive lineman Kyle Long: “Just his poise and sense of urgency, at the end of the game to have the wherewithal to make the throws he’s making. Obviously it’s not all perfect — he’s a young quarterback in this league — but he has the confidence and trust of the guys around him. And that’s a rare thing in this league to have.”

Massie, like Long, also used the word “rare” in describing Trubisky, a guy who’s only started 20 games since leaving Mentor High School in 2013 (13 games at North Carolina, one in the preseason and six in the regular season). Massie, Long and the rest of the Bears’ locker room know how good Trubisky can be — or maybe, the way they’re thinking, will be — despite some uneven games this year.

The flashes of what the No. 2 overall pick can do keep on showing up, like that 18-yard jump pass to Kendall Wright that set up Connor Barth’s game-winning field goal in Week 6 against the Baltimore Ravens, or his instinctive 19-yard scramble on fourth-and-13 on Sunday that set up a game-tying 46-yard field-goal attempt that Barth missed.

“That’s his mentality — y’all got to see his mentality,” running back Tarik Cohen said. “That situation, fourth and 13, he’s not going down, not taking a sack, not throwing the ball away — he’s going to find a way to make a play, and he’s going to lead us to where we need to be.”

On the other hand, there were still some missed throws and reads for Trubisky (like not connecting with Benny Cunningham on a check-down five yards from the end zone in the first quarter) that serve as a reminder of his greenhorn status.

But it’s what Trubisky has done before and after those highlight or lowlight-reel plays that’s building a groundswell of confidence in him among his teammates.

The Bears got the ball on their own 17-yard line with 91 seconds left in the fourth quarter needing a field goal to tie the Lions on Sunday. When Trubisky entered the huddle, he was calm and confident — same as he was in the first quarter of the game, when the stakes weren't so high.

“He came to huddle and told everybody, 'Calm down, we’re going to win this game,'" wide receiver Dontrelle Inman said. “And that’s what the greats do. There’s no up and down with the emotional level when it comes time to actually go win the game. That’s a plus for him.

“He’s a competitor, and you see it week in and week out. He’s never going to give up. That’s the quarterback you want to be with you and throwing you the ball.”

That Trubisky’s teammates have so much confidence in him — despite the Bears’ 3-7 record — is a significant positive for his long-term development (that he’s only thrown one interception in his last 120 pass attempts is another positive). On Sunday, coach John Fox and offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains seemed to have more confidence in Trubisky, too, with the pair opening up the playbook and leading to the Bears having their best offensive game of the season.

That trust might not lead to a lot of wins this year. It might not be enough to keep the current coaching staff in place. But the way Trubisky’s teammates talk about him, they don’t see any hurdles the rookie can’t clear on his way to becoming a legit franchise quarterback.

“It’s rare and it’s the start of something special that we get to see,” Massie said. “Hopefully — I can’t predict the f***ing future — but from this point on, it looks like he’s going to be a special player.”