Mitch Unrein

Three questions for Bears D-line: Does Akiem Hicks have another gear?

Three questions for Bears D-line: Does Akiem Hicks have another gear?

Pre-camp depth chart

DE
1. Akiem Hicks
2. Bilal Nichols
3. Bunmi Rotimi

1. Jonathan Bullard
2. Roy Robertson-Harris
3. Cavon Walker

NT
1. Eddie Goldman
2. John Jenkins
3. Nick Williams

1. Does Akiem Hicks have another gear?

Hicks led the Bears with 8 1/2 sacks last year, and combined with his excellent work against the run probably should’ve been enough to get him to the Pro Bowl (it wasn’t). Still, 2017 was a feel-good year for Hicks, who signed a four-year contract extension a day before the season started and then turned in career-best production.

With the Bears’ pass rush having the most questions of any segment of this team coming into training camp, Vic Fangio will have to hope Hicks not only doesn’t take a step back in 2018, but improves off what he did a year ago. 

Defensive line coach Jay Rodgers said he wants to see Hicks play with greater consistency in 2018 — and if he does that, it would allow him to find that extra gear in his play. 

“Consistency with technique, consistency with production,” Rodgers said. “More opportunities to get in on tackles. I think his solo tackles were really high as compared to previous years, I’d like to see his assists go up, which means that he’s finding ways to get to the ball even faster. All those things you take into consideration when you’re evaluating a guy and seeing a guy if he gets better from Year 1 to Year 2 to Year 3.” 

2. When will Eddie Goldman get his second contract?

Goldman’s place in the Bears’ defensive line isn’t in question, even if his surface-level numbers (27 tackles, 1 1/2 sacks) aren’t exactly eye-popping. What Goldman primarily succeeds at — pushing back two interior offensive linemen weighing about 600 pounds — doesn’t show up in a box score, but it certainly doesn’t go unnoticed by his coaches and teammates. 

“He’s a beast, man,” linebacker Danny Trevathan said. “I’m glad to have him in front of me. He’s not a guy who’s rah-rah, but when he’s out there, he’s out there making plays. It doesn’t show up on film but he’s the key, he’s a vital part of this defense. He’s wrecking stuff in there. As a linebacker, that’s my best friend. 

“The more he can wreck, the more I can make plays and we all can make plays. It shows to us, and probably not to the public as much, but to us we know what his game is and we know what he brings to this defense. He’s definitely making us better.”

Goldman and Hicks played off each other well last year, and with Hicks (and Fangio) sticking around for a while, it would only make sense for Goldman — who’s entering the final year of his rookie contract — to be Ryan Pace’s top priority to sign to an extension during training camp. It seems like a matter of when, not if, that deal will be reached. 

“I don’t know about you all, but I don’t put any of the highlight reels on (that are on) national television,” Rodgers said. “I have a highlight reel in my room. And if I see him knock people back and make a play, or knock another guy back on his way to the quarterback that affects the pocket, that’s a highlight in my mind.”

3. Who emerges opposite Hicks as the starting DE?

While the consistency achieved across Fangio’s defense has been a point of praise for the Bears, at least inside Halas Hall, the impact of the departure of defensive end Mitch Unrein may have flown under the radar. Coaches and teammates praised how well Unrein fit a role on the Bears’ defensive front last year, with his consistency and knowledge allowing Hicks and Goldman to play faster. Consider what Rodgers said about Unrein last fall:

“Mitch is the glue that kind of holds it all together,” Rodgers said. “…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.”

Unrein signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in March, and the Bears didn’t make a move to replace him in free agency. So that means there will be a relatively open competition for the third starting spot on the defensive line come training camp between, primarily, Jonathan Bullard, Roy Robertson-Harris and Bilal Nichols. 

Each player has his own strengths and weaknesses. Bullard, a 2016 third-round pick, showed flashes at times last year but only has two sacks and 33 tackles in 30 career games. The Bears believe Robertson-Harris is an ascending player with pass rushing potential, but he’s only entering his second year playing 3-4 defensive end and would need to make significant strides in training camp. Nichols is a fifth-round pick who the Bears see as having some pass-rushing potential, too, but expecting a guy who played defensive tackle at Delaware to step into a primary role on an NFL defensive line is a little lofty.

One other note here, though: Even if the Bears have a true “starter,” expect there to be plenty of rotating with the spot(s) opposite Hicks and Goldman. For all the praise Unrein received last year, he didn’t even play half of the Bears’ defensive snaps, so having at least two other defensive linemen emerge as viable options would be beneficial for this group. 

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. 

View from the Moon: The dangers of anyone-but-Fox hysteria

1127_john_fox.jpg
AP

View from the Moon: The dangers of anyone-but-Fox hysteria

Picking through the still-smoldering embers from the Bears' loss to the Philadelphia Eagles:

Complicating any evaluation of what the Bears were, are or will be is that the zombie apocalypse that managed zero first downs, 33 yards of offense versus 36 yards lost to penalties and 24 unanswered first-half points in Philadelphia is generally the same team that stood 3-4 after seeming turnaround wins behind Mitch Trubisky over the Carolina Panthers and the Baltimore Ravens, two teams making playoff pushes of their own.

The Trubisky offense topped 300 yards in four of the previous five games and did that against credible defenses. Against Philadelphia, a season-low 140 yards. That could turn out to be a blip — and the Eagles can do that — but no team had netted fewer than the Dallas Cowboys’ 225 last week and the Denver Broncos’ 226 the week before, two teams that have combined for 10 straight losses (three teams combining for 14 straight losses if you throw in the Bears).

Injuries have again riddled the defense, but something ominous has been happening on that side of the football, with opponents scoring 20, 23, 27 and 31 points since the 17-3 throttling of Carolina, a game marked by two defensive scores.

And the defense seemed to be feeling the Philly burn.

"That hurt yesterday," defensive lineman Mitch Unrein said. "We’re pissed off, to tell you the truth."

That doesn’t mean anything by itself, but if there weren’t some anger, that would be a fatal tell.

Fire Fox, then what?

The status of John Fox will be a Level 1 topic until it isn’t, whether by virtue of his dismissal or if he sees Year 4 on the strength of a reversal of fortune during the remainder of the 2017 campaign. But be careful with the anybody-but-Fox hysteria.

Drawing on perspective: The Bears once went from sliding down under Jim Dooley to free fall under Abe Gibron, and from a death spiral under Dave Wannstedt to five years at 35-45 under Dick Jauron. Offensive guru Marc Trestman was going to finally turn Jay Cutler into something, presided over an epic downturn and then forced the Bears to turn to Fox for corrective action.

No real conclusion suggested there, only that getting a new coach isn’t even a remote indicator of getting the right coach.

In the Bears' case now, the solution is far from simple, much more complicated than simply finding a coach with an offensive background to shepherd Trubisky to greatness. The templates in Los Angeles (quarterback Jared Goff and head coach Sean McVay with the Rams) and Philadelphia (quarterback Carson Wentz and head coach Doug Pederson with the Eagles) are seductive models, but only if the quarterback proves out, as they have for those teams. It is always — always — about the players, ultimately.

The Bears dumped Lovie Smith after a 10-win season, brought in quarterback whisperer Trestman, surrounded Cutler with Pro Bowl talent (Martellus Bennett, Matt Forte, Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall) and were off the rails after barely a year. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers jettisoned Smith in favor of offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who has overseen some 2017 statistical improvements by Jameis Winston but only within the context of an overall Buccaneers collapse from a 2016 season that nearly ended in a trip to the playoffs.

Josh McDaniels, another name in play by virtue of his time with the New England Patriots alongside Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, went to Denver in 2008, got shed of Cutler on the way to an 8-8 season, then was fired in early December the next season with a 3-9 mark. The Broncos then filled the vacancy with Fox the following year after elevating Eric Studesville, a former Bears assistant and Broncos running backs coach, to the post of interim head coach.

Keeping Pace?

A very good point raised by a reader via direct message to me at @moonmullinNBCS: A friend had said to him regarding general manager Ryan Pace, “It’s about the culture Ryan has created around this organization.” To which my correspondent queried, “What culture would that be?”

Reasonable issue to raise. On Pace’s list of five prime directives, talent acquisition makes up the first four. Building a football operation with the right group mindset is an integral element in the overall. In Pace’s situation, one of the first tasks confronting him, besides hiring a head coach, was to join with that coach to eradicate the negativity that had festered under Trestman. Part of doing that was to weed out certain players who were antithetical to building a team-based organization.

That meant difficult decisions (and second-guessing) on letting go of Cutler, Forte, Marshall and even Bennett, whose premium on “team” has been out’ed by this season.

Not to place too much blame on those one-time Pro Bowlers, but: Cutler has helped the Miami Dolphins go from wild-card finisher last year to the second-lowest scoring team in the AFC and just one game better than the Bears at 4-7. The New York Jets finished 5-11 with Forte last year. The Jets became Marshall’s fourth team to miss playoffs in his two years there, before he went on to the New York Giants — who went 11-5 and earned an NFC wild-card spot in 2016 before Marshall arrived — and was part of the 0-5 start this season before being injured.

The point was that while Pace was giving up production numbers in some cases, the real point was to bring in certain kinds of players. It hasn’t translated into enough wins to this point, but Pace finally addressed the quarterback situation this year, so arguably his real clock started on draft day with Trubisky.

One other Pace thought:

In the extremely unlikely event the Bears were to jettison Pace at season’s end, the replacement would make four general managers under chairman George McCaskey over the last seven years: Jerry Angelo (fired after 2011), Phil Emery (fired after 2014), Pace and the GM to be named later.

That would make them unofficially the Cleveland Browns West, with the Browns going through four in a year less time (including incumbent Sashi Brown, who was given the title of Executive Vice President of Football Operations presumably to break the GM run). The Browns win the Instability Bowl with two additional general managers: Phil Savage through 2008 and George Kokinis for just 2009.