Taquan Mizzell

Bears eye position changes in search for improved depth on offense

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USA Today

Bears eye position changes in search for improved depth on offense

The Bears will try to address one of their more glaring weaknesses — tight end depth — by giving longtime offensive tackle Bradley Sowell some work at tight end in the coming weeks of practice at Halas Hall. 

Sowell, a reliable backup swing tackle the last two seasons with the Bears, was targeted twice as a receiver in 2018 — first, on a nearly-intercepted Mitch Trubisky pass against the New England Patriots, and second on the famous “Santa’s Sleigh” touchdown against the Los Angeles Rams. He also got some work as a fullback in the Bears’ Week 17 thumping of the Minnesota Vikings. 

“We felt like at the ‘Y’ position we could use some more depth,” coach Matt Nagy said. “It’s something we talked about at the end of the season. We discussed it and now we’re giving him a chance.”

Nagy’s assessment of the Bears’ “Y” (in-line) depth is accurate, if not even undersold. The athletic 6-foot-7, 312 pound Sowell will have a chance to be a backup to Adam Shaheen, who has missed 13 games in his first two years due to a string of injuries. Reserve tight end Ben Braunecker can play both the “Y” and “U” positions, and the Bears have a handful of undrafted free agents (led by Utah State's Dax Raymond) competing to catch the eye of the coaching staff in the coming weeks. 

The Bears’ offense struggled with two tight ends on the field last year, especially in Shaheen’s absence as Dion Sims played himself out of the league. It’s far too early to tell if adding Sowell to the tight end mix will help, but at this point, the Bears think it’s worth a shot. 

“He’s shown it repetitively in practice that he has the athletic ability, the hands, he’s very smart, he knows how to block and all that stuff,” Nagy said. “So let’s test it out and see. When I tell you he’s all-in, he’s all-in.”

Center of Attention

As expected, the Bears indeed will flip James Daniels and Cody Whitehair on the offensive line, with Daniels sliding to center and Whitehair to left guard. 

“We feel comfortable with it, so again, this is the time to test it out and see,” Nagy said. “It’s hard right now because we don’t have pads. So, we’ll get into training camp and see how that goes. But I feel pretty good about it.”

Daniels exclusively played left guard during last year’s regular season, with the Bears opting to hold steady with Whitehair at center for the third consecutive season. Whitehair, though, was drafted as a guard back in 2016 and only moved to center after the last-minute signing of Pro Bowl guard Josh Sitton. Daniels, too, starred as a center at Iowa and did get a smattering of preseason snaps there before fully committing to playing guard his rookie year. 

The change is the only planned one on Harry Hiestand’s offensive line, which returns every primary starter from 2018 (Daniels, Whitehair, Charles Leno, Bobby Massie, Kyle Long). Perhaps the most significant change for this group, then, will be losing Sowell as its backup tackle. 

Windy City: Smoke Out?

Taquan Mizzell will work as a wide receiver during OTAs, with the now-former running back trading in No. 33 for No. 11 but facing an uphill battle to make the Bears’ roster. 

Mizzell does have a decent track record as a pass-catcher dating back to his college days at Virginia, but it’ll take a massive effort for the third-year player to crack into a crowded receiver room that already has a competitive battle brewing between Javon Wims, Marvin Hall and a group of undrafted free agents. 

While it’s too early to grant rookie running back Kerrith Whyte Jr. a roster spot, shifting Mizzell out of the picture does appear to create a clearer path for the seventh-round pick to stick with the Bears this fall. 

Bradley Sowell, Taquan Mizzell move to new positions at Bears OTAs

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USA TODAY

Bradley Sowell, Taquan Mizzell move to new positions at Bears OTAs

When the Bears reconvened for their first full team practices of the offseason, two players lined up at new positions on offense with new jersey numbers.

Offensive lineman Bradley Sowell is now wearing 85 and playing tight end, while running back Taquan Mizzell moved to wide receiver and will wear No. 11.

Both players have experience at their new positions from experimenting last season. Sowell actually played more snaps at tight end (30) than offensive line (13) in 2018, according to Pro Football Focus, most notably catching a touchdown pass against the Los Angeles Rams on the play known as “Santa’s Sleigh.”

Mizzell lined up at wide receiver plenty last season too. Out of his 73 total offensive snaps, 33 of them came at a receiver position, according to PFF.

They’re both moving to crowded positions on the depth chart, but the team evidently is confident they’ll make a smooth transition.

Sowell’s move likely clears a spot for converted defensive lineman Rashaad Coward to take over as the third offensive tackle on the depth chart.

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Bears grades and needs: How can the running game improve in 2019?

Bears grades and needs: How can the running game improve in 2019?

2018 depth chart

1. Jordan Howard
Usage: 16 games, 58.1 percent of offensive snaps
2019 status: $2,107,007 cap hit

The Bears need more consistency from their running back position in 2019, but that doesn’t necessarily mean Howard will be excluded from those efforts. He’s still cheap with that cap hit of a little over $2 million, and at the very least he’s an effective runner near the goal line — six of his nine touchdowns came within an opponents’ two-yard line, and all but one of his scores came on goal-to-go downs. 

Both Matt Nagy and Howard struggled to find a solution to the Bears’ run game inconsistencies in 2018. Howard was good in December, going over 100 yards twice (against the Rams and Vikings) while averaging 4.5 yards per carry over the Bears’ final games. But his 10-carry, 35-yard clunker in the wild card loss to the Eagles was yet another sign the Bears may need different personnel and/or tweaks to the scheme to trust their ground game. 

Beyond generating more consistent rushing gains — Howard averaged fewer than three yards per carry in 11 of the Bears’ 17 regular season and playoff games — this is an offense that severely lacked play-action punch. Only the Jacksonville Jaguars averaged fewer yards per play on play action than the Bears’ 5.7 clip, and Nagy called play action on 20 percent of the team’s plays (23rd in the NFL, per Football Outsiders). 

And that’s not necessarily how Nagy’s offense is designed to operate — the Chiefs ran play-action on 27 percent of their plays and averaged 8.6 yards per play on it, both top-10 rates. So a better run game would, in turn, help Mitch Trubisky be a more effective passer. 

Going forward, Howard will still have a place in the Bears’ offense, unless Ryan Pace is able to swing a trade involving him (though, again, around $2 million for an effective goal-line back who has two 1,000-yard seasons under his belt seems like good value). But if Howard is still in Chicago next September, his role likely will be different than what we’ve seen in the past. Three years into his career, he is who he is — which, again, isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it means he may not be the ideal fit for a No. 1 running back in Nagy's scheme. 

“Everyone talks about the run game,” Nagy said. “It wasn't as good as it should be, and the offense can be better. Without a doubt, no doubt.” 

2. Tarik Cohen
Usage: 16 games, 46.1 percent of offensive snaps, 21.2 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: $803,914 cap hit

Cohen led the Bears with 71 receptions, averaged 4.5 yards per carry and scored eight total touchdowns (three rushing, five receiving), proving himself to be the kind of explosive, versatile weapon that fits perfectly in Nagy’s scheme. To illustrate how the Bears used Cohen: He had a higher average yards per touch (6.9) than the likes of Alvin Kamara, Saquon Barkley, Todd Gurley, Christian McCaffrey and Melvin Gordon in 2018. 

Cohen’s lack of use in the wild card loss to the Eagles was a disappointment, though, even if it wasn’t necessarily a failure on Nagy’s part to get him the ball (Nagy, twice, bristled at questions about Cohen only getting four touches in that one-point loss). The issue was more about the Eagles being able to zero in on Cohen without Trey Burton on the field, which might’ve exposed more of a structural flaw within Nagy’s offense. 

Still, Cohen’s future is bright. If the Bears’ 2018 offense was all about learning football 101, then Nagy can do plenty more with Cohen in the more advanced parts of his scheme. And that should be a tantalizing thought for Bears fans going forward. 

3. Taquan Mizzell
Usage: 9 games, 6.5 percent of offensive snaps, 22.6 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: $645,000 cap hit

For a guy who didn’t play much, Mizzell seemed to be a consistent source of frustration among fans last season. That’s not totally unfair — he averaged 1.8 yards per carry on his nine rushing attempts, mostly on RPOs, and only two of those carries went for four or more yards. 

Mizzell did catch eight passes for 78 yards, including a touchdown against the Lions on Thanksgiving, flashing a bit of the pass-catching versatility that allowed him to stick around the Bears’ roster for the last two years. If the Bears do wind up drafting and/or signing a running back to better fit the offense, though, Mizzell will have an uphill climb to stick on the roster in 2019. 

4. Michael Burton
Usage: 8 games, 4.6 percent of offensive snaps, 11.8 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: Unrestricted free agent

Burton was inactive for half the season’s games and only played 28 snaps as a fullback — which represents 2.6 percent of the Bears’ offensive plays in 2018. Nagy may still want the option of having a fullback, and the Bears could still retain Burton, but it doesn’t appear to be a pressing need right now. 

5. Benny Cunningham 
Usage: 15 games, 3.4 percent of offensive snaps, 58.6 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: Unrestricted free agent

Cunningham is a core special teamer and a team leader who was voted by his teammates a captain for the Bears’ wild card playoff game. Howard’s improvements in pass protection meant Cunningham didn’t have much of a place on the offense, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see him brought back in 2019. 

6. Ryan Nall
Usage: Practice squad
2019 status: Reserve/future contract

The Bears liked what they saw from Nall during training camp, but not enough to carry him on the active roster during the season. He could, though, work his way into the mix in 2019 if he shows he could have the flexibility to play fullback while still being effective as a running back/special teamer. 

Level of need (1-11, with 11 being the highest): 10

The Bears’ offense needs to run the ball better in 2019, and Pace, Nagy and the team’s pro and amateur scouting department surely are focusing on identifying players who can accomplish that goal. Unearthing a versatile back with one of the team’s five draft picks (all in the third round or later) while also bringing in a low-risk free agent or two may be the best way to find that fix, though it’s hardly a guarantee. 

Previous positions: QBs