Eddie Goldman

Five Bears with the most to prove in 2018

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USA Today

Five Bears with the most to prove in 2018

The Chicago Bears are entering a season with higher-than-usual expectations. Despite finishing 2017 with an embarrassing 5-11 record and another last-place finish in the NFC North, the Bears have been re-energized by a new coaching staff and an arsenal of young offensive weapons.

The fate of the Bears will mostly rest on the shoulders of Mitch Trubisky, but he's not alone on the list of players who need to have a big season for Chicago to compete for a playoff spot. 

Here are five Bears who have the most to prove if a playoff run is in the cards this season.

Leonard Floyd, OLB

The Bears will never become a truly special defense without a star pass rusher. Floyd is the most capable of being that guy. In fact, that's the reason GM Ryan Pace selected him in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft. Floyd has 11 1/2 sacks through two injury-plagued seasons and is beginning 2018 with questions surrounding a knee injury he suffered in last year's Week 11 game against the Lions. He has to prove he can be a double-digit sack artist in the NFL and it has to happen this season. If he fails, the defense is in serious trouble.

Charles Leno, Jr., OT

Leno was signed to a contract extension in 2017 that ensures he'll be the team's starting left tackle for the next few seasons. That said, his cap number drops to $2.7 million in 2019 giving the Bears wiggle room if he fails to keep Trubisky upright. Leno is being overlooked in terms of the players who are the most critical for a successful 2018. He's proven to be a reliable left tackle for a team without playoff aspirations, but if the Bears want to make a jump into the ranks of Super Bowl contenders, top-tier left tackle play is mandatory. Is Leno that kind of player? He's flirting with that standard, but he's not quite there yet. This season will go a long way in his evaluation.

Allen Robinson, WR

It's easy to forget Robinson's underwhelming 2016 season when highlights from his incredible 1,400-yard, 14-touchdown stat sheet in 2015 flash across the screen. He came crashing down to earth over his last healthy 16 games. That, combined with an ACL injury last September, qualifies Robinson as a player who has to prove he's worth the three-year, $42 million contract the Bears gave him. If he fails to return to that sensational 2015 form, the Bears offense will be fall way short of its preseason expectations. In fact, Robinson may have more pressure than any other player on offense to produce. 

Eddie Goldman, DL

Goldman's rookie season set a high bar for what his career in Chicago was supposed to be. When healthy, he's a force. He played 15 games last year after suiting up for only six in 2016. He has to stack back-to-back healthy seasons together and if he does, he and Akiem Hicks will quickly garner national respect as one of the most fearsome defensive line duos in the league. In fact, Goldman may have already done enough to earn a lucrative contract extension before the season kicks off. Regardless of whether he gets that new deal, he has to step up and have a breakout 2018.

Kyle Long, OG

There's no doubt who the leader of the Bears' offensive line is. Long has been an alpha since his rookie season but he's started only 17 games over the last two years. He needs to stay healthy and take charge up front. Long's offseason calendar has been filled with medical procedures to get him back to good form, and the timing couldn't be better. The offense finally appears ready to challenge defenses on every possession and its ceiling is much higher with Long on the field. If his body fails him again, questions about his long-term future with the Bears will slowly begin.

Sizing up the Bears' defensive depth chart with an eye on the NFL Draft

Sizing up the Bears' defensive depth chart with an eye on the NFL Draft

While most of the focus this offseason has been on the Bears’ re-vamped offense, Vic Fangio's group returns almost all of its starters from last year's group, which ranked 10th in total defense and a respectable 14th in defensive DVOA. But Fangio doesn't want to settle for just a "solid" or "good" defense in 2018, as he explained back in January: 

"We were 5-11," Fangio said. "If we were a great defense we’d have more than five wins. There’s a lot of room for improvement there, a lot, and we need to do that."

The Bears will enter 2018 with a few standouts on this side of the ball, most notably Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman and Kyle Fuller. But those players still have room for improvement, too, as do guys like Leonard Floyd, Eddie Jackson and Jonathan Bullard, among others. 

That being said, the NFL Draft later this month will likely see the Bears add a number of players to Fangio's defense. So with that in mind, what does the current depth chart look like, and does that provide any clues about the direction in which Ryan Pace will go come late April?

Defensive end

1. Akiem Hicks
2. Roy Roberston-Harris

1. Jonathan Bullard

As things stand, the Bears at least need one more reserve defensive lineman to slide behind and/or compete with Bullard, the team’s 2016 third-round pick who showed flashes of starting to “get it” in Fangio’s defense last year. Mitch Unrein’s departure to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was somewhat surprising, given how highly Fangio and defensive line coach Jay Rodgers spoke of his play.

But let’s not confuse a defensive end opposite Hicks as a major “need,” given that Bullard in Year 3 should be better and, for as well-regarded as Unrein was, he only played 48 percent of the Bears’ defensive snaps in 2017. Using a mid- or late-round pick on a defensive end may make sense later this month. 

Defesive tackle

1. Eddie Goldman
2. Rashaad Coward

Perhaps the Bears look to add a backup beyond Coward, who only played in one game last year, though John Jenkins — Goldman’s primary backup — was inactive for half of the season. 

But the biggest question here is when Goldman and the Bears will agree to a contract extension. The Bears have the cap space to sign Goldman to a second contract, and his pairing with Akiem Hicks was the top strength of Fangio’s defense in 2017. There’s no reason to think that partnership will be anything but excellent again going forward. 

“We haven’t got to that yet,” Pace said when asked about an extension for Goldman. “We’re aware of it, but we haven’t gotten to that yet.”

Outside linebacker

1. Leonard Floyd
2. Isaiah Irving

1. Aaron Lynch
2. Sam Acho

No position is a bigger red-line need than outside linebacker. There’s plenty of boom-or-bust potential here: If Floyd can stay healthy and take a step forward in his third year in the NFL, and if Lynch seizes his opportunity on a prove-it contract in a familiar defense, the Bears could have a solid pass rush in 2018. But those are two massive ifs. 

Floyd has missed 10 games his first two years in the league, and even when he’s been healthy he’s averaging one sack every 97 snaps (for some context, Vic Beasley is averaging one sack per 69 snaps in his three-year career; Pernell McPhee averaged one sack per 81 snaps from 2011-2017). The Bears drafted Floyd to be a pass rushing difference-maker; so far, he hasn’t been that. 

Lynch notched six sacks his rookie year in Fangio’s San Francisco 49ers defense, and followed that up with 6 1/2 sacks in 2015. But a substance abuse suspension and an ankle injury limited Lynch to just seven games in 2016, with only 1 1/2 sacks to his name. His 2017 wasn’t much better, with one sack in seven games as he had some conditioning and weight issues. 

“This free agency we didn't feel like there was a ton of outside linebackers but Aaron Lynch stood out in a number of ways,” Pace said. “He definitely has the traits to be a very productive pass rusher, you see signs of it and he's very comfortable in Vic's scheme. Vic knows him inside and out so to get him here on kind of a one-year contract kind of in a motivated state, we're excited about that. We think there's a lot of upside in that transaction.”

The Bears will need to draft at least one edge rusher, maybe multiple to try to fill out this position. Acho provides solid depth and leadership, hitting on a productive outside linebacker in the draft is a must for this group. 

Inside linebacker

1. Danny Trevathan
2. John Timu

1. Nick Kwiatkoski
2. Jonathan Anderson

Christian Jones’ departure to the Detroit Lions felt sort of like Unrein’s to Tampa, as he too was a solid piece appreciate by the coaching staff and front office. That leaves, for now, Kwiatkoski to be the starter next to Trevathan. The Bears could certainly do worse, though Kwiatkoski missed two games in 2016 and five in 2017, and Trevathan hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2013. 

So there’s a need here for at least a backup, and potentially a starting-caliber player. Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds and Georgia’s Roquan Smith both could be options with the eighth overall pick, as could drafting an inside linebacker with the Bears’ second-round pick. Or the Bears could opt for more of a reserve player profile and draft an inside linebacker in the fourth round (where Kwiatkoski was picked in 2016) or the fifth round. Inside linebacker is in a better position depth-wise than outside linebacker, but there’s still a need here. 

Outside cornerback

1. Kyle Fuller
2. Marcus Cooper

1. Prince Amukamara
2. Jonathan Mincy

Nickel cornerback

1. Bryce Callahan
2. Cre’von LeBlanc

The Bears reportedly have hosted or will host Ohio State’s Denzel Ward and Iowa’s Josh Jackson for pre-draft visits, but don’t read too much into those. While the Bears guaranteed Fuller and Amukamara a combined $36 million in free agency (and will almost certainly wind up committing at least $37.5 million against the cap for Fuller over the next three years), they’d be foolish to not use their allocated pre-draft visits on two of the best cornerbacks in this year’s draft class. Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick, who could be a corner or a safety, will also reportedly be hosted by the Bears for a visit. 

While Amukamara and Fuller proved to be a solid cornerback tandem in 2017, they only combined for two interceptions, both of which were Fuller’s and came in the final month of the season. Drafting a playmaking cornerback would be a surprise — Fitzpatrick makes the most sense out of that group given he can play anywhere in the secondary — but it wouldn’t be totally out of left field, either. 

Maintaining the status quo of Amukamara and Fuller, with Cooper the backup and then a cornerback drafted maybe with a mid-round pick would make plenty of sense, though. Callahan remains a restricted free agent, but seems likely to return in 2018. 

“To have continuity at the two starting corner positions you know is important, and the safety position really too,” Pace said. “(For a) top 10 defense to maintain that continuity in the secondary was huge for us and it's really two separate moves. Independently getting Prince back and getting Kyle back, we feel good about our secondary. I don't think you can ever have enough corners, or enough pass rushers, but we feel good about that starting lineup for sure.”

Safety

1. Adrian Amos
2. DeAndre Houston-Carson

1. Eddie Jackson
2. Deon Bush

Pace’s quote above applies here — for the first time in a long time, the Bears can confidently say they’re comfortable with continuity at the safety position. Amos and Jackson played well off each other last year, and the loss of Quintin Demps to a season-ending injury in Week 3 didn’t negatively impact this unit. DeAndre Houston-Carson and Deon Bush are both mainstays on special teams — Houston-Carson played 64 percent of the Bears’ special teams snaps last year, while Bush played 53 percent of them. 

Perhaps there’s room for a safety to be a late-round pick, but that would be just for depth or special teams contributions. 

Special teams

Placekicker: Cody Parkey
Punter: Pat O’Donnell
Long snapper: Patrick Scales
Captain: Sherrick McManis

The Bears only guarantee O’Donnell $500,000 of his one-year, $1.5 million deal, according to Spotrac, suggesting they could look to bring in some competition for him via a late-round draft pick or an undrafted free agent. Scales was brought back after missing 2017 with a torn ACL. McManis was an important player to re-sign, and will be back for his seventh year in Chicago. 

“He’s one of our best special teams player,” Pace said. “He’s a valuable depth player on defense. But then also from a very critical standpoint, the intangibles he brings and the leadership he brings on a relatively young team. He’s a guy who has some skins on the wall, is a productive special teams player but also has excellent makeup.”

Bears expected to make major strikes early at multiple positions when free agency opens next week

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USA TODAY

Bears expected to make major strikes early at multiple positions when free agency opens next week

This is the time of NFL year when every rumor is true, and every rumor is absurd BS, with the “truth” only becoming set when signings or draft selections are announced.

Still, beginning with Kansas City general manager Brett Veach reminding listeners at the NFL Scouting Combine that new Bears coach and former KC offensive coordinator Matt Nagy had a working knowledge of Chiefs wide receiver Albert Wilson, connections have been made. Those will continue, if only because general managers like Ryan Pace do their due diligence and evaluations of multiple options on the market. The Bears may ultimately be all-in on perhaps two wide receivers, for instance, but they will have made inquiries and explored numbers on quite a few more than two.

With that in mind, and with the beginning next Monday of the period for negotiating contracts with other teams’ pending free agents, a number of Bears scenarios are in play. And Pace’s history points to the Bears striking early and very, very hard sooner in free agency rather than later.

Cornerback

Applying the transition tag to Kyle Fuller is only one part of the Bears’ efforts to (again) shore up a tipping-point position in their defense. The Bears were expected to be in the mix for Richard Sherman, but he agreed to terms with the San Francisco 49ers quickly after the Seahawks released him, so Ryan Pace will have to look elsewhere to enhance a secondary also featuring young safeties Adrian Amos and Eddie Jackson.

The Bears have been exploring a contract extension for Amos, who like Fuller delivered a breakout season in 2017.

Wide receiver

The given is that the Bears will make a preemptive strike at wideout. The questions are how many (one or two?) and exactly for whom?

Wilson is considered to be bordering on a fait accompli. Wilson was a central figure in the offense that Nagy directed in Kansas City and was a likely Bears suspect even before Veach’s Combine comments.

Assuming Wilson has been targeted by Pace in response to what Nagy and offensive assistant Brad Childress, also from Kansas City, are insisting upon, the “other shoe” becomes intriguing. Wilson at 5-foot-9 was effective both in the slot and on the outside. The Bears are desperate for production at wide receiver irrespective of who lines up where, which has them linked them to Jacksonville’s Allen Robinson, the latter coming off a torn ACL. Injuries at wide receiver may be a deal-killer after the injury issues that came in with Markus Wheaton from Pittsburgh last offseason, and which the Bears already have in place with Cameron Meredith and Kevin White.

Signing guys is easy, though. Signing “right” guys is a whole ‘nother matter altogether.

Pace appeared to have given his roster both depth and talent last offseason, only to see it devolve into one of the NFL’s worst. Consider that before last training camp, Pace signed Victor Cruz, Reuben Randle, Deonte Thompson, Markus Wheaton and Kendall Wright. And that’s with Meredith and White in place.

Wright proved to be worth the effort, but decisions were to stay with Wheaton over Thompson, who was released by the Bears on Oct. 11, after which he went to the Buffalo Bills and caught 27 passes for an average of nearly 16 yards per reception — more catches than any Bears wideout other than Wright and for an average gain greater than any Bear other than Wheaton and Tre McBride, total non-factors in the season.

The 2018 offseason needs to be exponentially more productive for the Bears. It’s not so simple.

Keeping their own

Just about every NFL team genuflects in the direction of building through the draft, with some pretty noteworthy exceptions — maybe the 1970s George Allen Washington Redskins, or the 2006 Bears, with most of the offense coming via free agency: Ruben Brown, Dez Clark, Roberto Garcia, Thomas Jones, Muhsin Muhammad, Fred Miller, John Tait. But those teams lost in their Super Bowls, so ... 

Still, even with the usual spate of aftershocks from the Scouting Combine, the true focus of the NFL is on the real-life game of fantasy football playing out now and over the next couple weeks. The draft simply cannot fill more than a small handful of needs; indeed, a draft that produces more than three starters was an anomaly before the Ryan Pace tenure, which has produced Amos and Eddie Goldman in 2015; Leonard Floyd, Cody Whitehair, Jonathan Bullard, Nick Kwiatkowski and Jordan Howard in 2016; and Mitch Trubisky, Eddie Jackson and Tarik Cohen last year.

Too infrequently the Bears have had no real reason to fashion a second contract for one of their own. Matt Forte and Kyle Long stand out as draft-hit exceptions worth new paper; Akiem Hicks and Willie Young were re-upped but were somebody else’s draft choices.

Information continues to bubble to the surface that the Bears are close on a multi-year extension for Goldman, who has emerged as one of the NFL’s best young defensive tackles.