Bears Have At Least One Critical Piece of the Puzzle

Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune answers your questions:

“The Bears finished with a total of 35 sacks last year with Lamarr Houston, Willie Young and Pernell McPhee counting for 20 1/2 of them. Including Leonard Floyd, would you pick the over/under on 32 combined sacks? And is there a chance to see all four of them on the field at the same time? — Jesse G., San Diego”

“I think 32 sacks for the foursome might be a little ambitious but I wouldn’t rule it out. A lot of that will depend on game situations. If the Bears are winning games and holding leads in the second half of games, they’ll have more opportunities to get after the quarterback. If you add defensive end Akiem Hicks to the mix, those five players could very well hit 32 sacks combined.”

I tend to agree with this but would point out one factor that Biggs didn’t mention. Both Houston and Young were coming off knee injuries and certainly weren’t 100% for at least the first half of 2015. My experience is that many players with such injuries aren’t the same until two years out. That means both players should be able to generate more sacks this year than they did last year, maybe as many as three or four a piece.

I’m not all that optimistic about the Bears chances of competing this year for a playoff spot, mostly due to lack of depth. But that doesn’t appear to me to be a problem at this critical position. I like their options at pass rusher and that’s a good sign. It’s such a huge part of the game and when you’ve got the right guys there, and I think they do, you have a big part of the puzzle solved.

EDIT:  It has been pointed out to me that Young’s injury was a torn achilles tendon.  My apologies.  My point still stands, however.

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No Reason to Panic Over Offensive Reports. Yet.

Dan Wiederer at the Chicago Tribune talks about the performance of the offense in OTAs and last week’s mini-camp:

“Explosiveness in the running game was hard to identify throughout organized team activities and minicamp. The consistency of receivers getting open proved iffy. And far too frequently, quarterback Jay Cutler would scan the field, see all his targets blanketed and, in the interest of avoiding disaster, whistle a throw toward the Metra tracks east of the practice fields.

“Just like that, all the chatter in Lake Forest about the offensive growth began to feel a little hollow.”

Indeed, this is not the first time I’ve heard that the offense is not doing well. Zack Zaidman at WSCR told Mike Mulligan and Brian Hanley on the Mully and Hanley Show yesterday morning that the offense hadn’t been looking good though when pressed for details he simply talked about the players they’d lost.

Personally, I’m not too worried about the issues cited above yet. For instance, it could be that the defensive coverage has simply improved and, given their familiarity with the offense and the patterns, wide receivers are simply finding it harder to get open.

Bottom line, problems in a practice setting early in the offseason don’t raise my antennae much.

What would worry me, however, is if we start hearing about missed assignments or comments indicating that the players aren’t all on the same page. That you can evaluate, even in a setting when there is no hitting going on. When you have a new coordinator, especially an unproven one like Dowell Loggains, the risk of the offense becoming “uncoordinated” becomes considerably greater.  That we will want to keep an eye on, especially when we get to the point where the defense can start showing blitzes and adjustments need to be made.

But given that the comments aren’t aimed in that direction, I think we can afford to wait until the players actually hit the field in game situations to start judging the growth of the offense.

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Loss of Wilson Highlights the Bears Problem with Roster Depth

Patrick Finley at the Chicago Sun-Times quotes head coach John Fox after the news broke that Marquess Wilson broke his foot.

“‘I don’t know that you’re ever comfortable with depth,’ Fox said. ‘We’re kinda where we are right now. We’re always looking to improve. I think you have to be fortunate and stay healthy, and then you don’t have to have all that depth.”

Yeah, well, good luck with that.

The truth is that more often than not injuries are going to hit you as an NFL team. If you are going to compete consistently year in and year out, you need to have depth and overcome them. And depth is a major concern for the Bears.

In addition to the wide receiver situation, the Bears still don’t have a swing tackle and, with the retirement of Manny Ramirez and with Ted Larsen not present for minicamp, depth on the interior offensive line is now a concern. The Bears are also razor thin in the defensive backfield where arguably even the starters aren’t up to snuff. The depth at inside linebacker behind Jerrell Freeman and Danny Trevathon is also suspect.

The Bears are likely to be a popular pick amongst those pundits who are looking for a team to come out of nowhere to compete for a playoff spot. They have the second weakest schedule in the league, have strengthened their starting front seven and they have Kevin White back.

But don’t be fooled.

Sure, they could get lucky and remain exceptionally healthy for one year. But despite his statement, Fox surely knows full well that no one should expect that.

The truth is that the Bears still don’t have the talent to consistently compete and, even if a reasonable number of the players taken in 2016 pan out, they are still one or two good drafts away from being so.

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Reading Between the Alshon Jeffery Lines an Exercise in Frustration

Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune answers your questions:

“Is Alshon Jeffrey‘s injury history being overblown in terms of contract negotiations?… — Jesse G., San Diego”

“I think the troubling thing about Jeffery’s 2015 season is he missed seven games with a string of calf, hamstring and groin muscle injuries. It started with the calf and he basically kept suffering soft-tissue injuries. Had Jeffery played nine games and missed seven with a broken bone of some sort, I don’t know that the situation would be viewed in the same light.”

I’m not entirely sure why this is. Is it because the players are expected to play through these injuries? I find that hard to believe since they will only tend to get worse without rest. Perhaps it’s because they tend to be recurring?

I don’t doubt that Biggs is correct here. But I think I’m supposed to be reading something between the lines and I don’t know what it is.

EDIT:  I’ve been thinking a bit more about this post since I put it up.  I’m thinking that the reason why Jeffery’s injuries being of the soft tissuse variety is important is that they are seen as being preventable.

Right or wrong, I think Jeffery is being pegged as being not in the best shape to play.  Assuming that’s the case, it understandable why there would be a difference between his soft tissue injuries and, say, a broken bone.

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Jeffery and the Bears Apparently Far Apart on Long-Term Contract

Up until now, I’ve been assuming that the Alshon Jeffery contract situation was going to go according to the usual plan. Both sides stake out a position and neither moves until the last minute when a deal gets done just before the deadline, in this case July 15.

But now it appears that may well not be the case.

Multiple unnamed sources “with knowledge of the situation” have told the Chicago Tribune that Jeffery will likely play the coming season under the franchise tag with no long-term deal. This is a very disappointing development for Bears fans.

Jeffery is the only legitimate, established star on an offense that doesn’t have many of them. Sure, 2015 first round pick Kevin White is there but he’s unproven after being on injured reserve last year. Even if he turns out to be a good player you need more than one serious threat at wide receiver to make a good modern offense. The Bears may have that this year but it certainly sounds like no one should be holding their breath on the future after that.

The Bears want to see more from Jeffery in terms of his commitment to the team as well as to his own health before they throw big money at him. But other teams have been handing out huge, big money contracts like candy this offseason. As a good example, Eagles defensive lineman Fletcher Cox recently signed a 6-year contract worth $103 million with $63 million guaranteed. Cox is a good player but that is huge money and players around the league are looking at it and drooling.

The odds are good that Jeffery is asking for the moon. And the problem that the Bears face is that if he hits the open market he may well get it.

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To Maintain a Starting Job Grasu Has His Work Cut Out for Him

Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune answers your questions:

“It’s likely that only one backup interior offensive lineman will dress for game day. With that in mind, might Ted Larsen, Manny Ramirez, Hroniss Grasu (probably not him) or Cody Whitehair (certainly not him) not make the team?”

“Let’s see how this plays out. We’re not going to get a real clear picture of things on the offensive line until training camp when the pads go on. My bet is Larsen gets first crack at left guard and the Bears expect him to win that job. I think that leaves Whitehair to push Grasu for the starting job at center. I could be wrong. We’ll learn much more as camp unfolds.”

This is the first suggestion I’ve seen in the press that Whitehair was a serious consideration for center but I doubt anyone is terribly surprised. It’s been reported already that he was spending time after practice during rookie mini-camp snapping balls.

As Biggs says, its too early to say anything for certain.  It was already a given that Grasu would be pushed by Ramirez.  But if the Bears also used a second round pick to draft a player to compete with Grasu, I’d say Grasu’s starting job is in very serious jeopardy.

The guess here is that Whitehair would make a very good center, probably better than Grasu.  Ramirez aside, the key will probably be for Grasu to prove that he’s a better center than Larsen is a guard, making him one of the best five linemen on the team.  That’s going to be an uphill battle.  At minimum, here’s hoping for Grasu’s sake that he’s not pushed around in the preseason again like he was last year.

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Not Much Doubt that Eddie Royal is the Guy in the Slot This Year

Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune answers your questions:

Kevin White, Alshon Jeffery and … in the slot?

“Bears first-round pick Kevin White

“That’s a good question and the Bears have a variety of options at this point after the draft. Right now, I’d be quite surprised if Eddie Royal wasn’t the slot receiver. For starters, his $4.5 million base salary for this season is fully guaranteed, so he’s not going anywhere. Royal dealt with some injuries last season and wasn’t the player the Bears were expecting but he’s got a track record for producing and a history of working well with quarterback Jay Cutler.”

I tend to agree with Biggs’ assessment here. Royal didn’t have a great season in part because of the injuries and in part because the Bears started him on the outside for the first month of the season.

One reason Royal came to Chicago is because he felt that he could be more than a slot receiver and the Bears gave him that chance. But it was obvious on October 4 when the Bears played the Raiders and they moved Royal back to the slot that’s where he belonged. Royal had 6 receptions for 80 yards that game after getting only 12 for 117 yards total for the first three games before that on the outside.

I think a lot of people are rooting for seventh round pick Daniel Braverman and at 5’10” he seems to have taken on the annual role of the little underdog, try-hard, white guy. He will compete, I’m sure, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that Braverman is probably special teams and depth. When he’s healthy, Royal should be, and probably will be, the guy in the slot.

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The Twilight Zone

Rick Morrissey at the Chicago Sun-Times apparently can’t understand why people want to read about the Bears in May:

“As I’ve perused Chicago newspapers and websites the past few weeks, I’ve seen tons of articles and photos about the team. I now know more about some of the Bears’ draft picks that any person not called ‘Mom’’ or ‘Dad’ should know. The amount of coverage didn’t come out of nowhere. It didn’t come from the whim of editors. It came from the insatiable appetites of a large group of readers.

“In other words, I’m blaming you.”

Go ahead. But I’ve got news for you. From my perspective it isn’t true.

Yes, the articles still appear on the Sun-Times and Tribune websites. But what am I supposed to do with the rest of my day?

Turn on the radio on a given weekend in May and all you hear is “Talkin’ Baseball” and “Inside the Dugout”.  Saturday , heaven help me, I swear I was actually reduced to turning on the White Sox game.

Morrissey can wonder and complain all he wants but we’re in the middle of the sports dead zone. As he points out, I have studied every teams offseason “grades” ad nauseum. I’ve seen everything I want to about baseball (very little). A players league like the NBA where the tail wags the dog and where discipline and team work long left the game in favor of highlighted individual play is a complete non-starter with me.

I need football games. Please let them come soon.

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Bears Apparently Looking to Use a Blocking Scheme Which Is Primarily Zone

Patrick Finley at the Chicago Sun-Times runs us through speculates about some changes in the 2016 Bears offense.

Some of them are obvious. For example, with a healthy Alshon Jeffery and Kevin White, you can figure you’ll be seeing quarterback Jay Cutler stretch the field and throw the ball up for grabs deep a lot more this season. And with the addition of running back Jordan Howard, the power running game may be more prevalent.

But there was one potential change that I didn’t think was as obvious, though we have gotten a hint.

“[D]on’t be surprised to see the Bears running more zone blocking schemes, an approach [new offensive coordinator DowellLoggains embraced as the Titans’ coordinator.

“One reason the Bears cut Matt Slauson and drafted his presumptive replacement, left guard Cody Whitehair, was to increase the line’s athleticism — and its ability to block linebackers. [Kyle] Long’s return to right guard will help, too.

“‘It’s, get to the second level and produce at the second level,’ [offensive line coach Dave] Magazu said. ‘We can beat guys up, up front. But it doesn’t matter if you beat the hell out of the four down guys and the backer’s standing there and nobody can get to him.'”

Last year with the new coaching staff, the question of what the blocking scheme would be was raised frequently. The answer at that time was that it would be a mix of a little bit of everything. Now, in the staff’s second year and with more personnel of their choosing, we may be seeing what they really prefer.

I heard some speculation when Slauson was released that the Bears might be looking to move to more of a zone blocking scheme. This would seem to confirm it. Slauson was a wonderful power blocker. But the kind of athleticism that will be called for in what may be a primarily zone blocking scheme wasn’t his strength.

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Many Points of Interest When Considering the Bears Running Back Situation

Rich Campbell at the Chicago Tribune writes a very interesting article on the running back situation, focusing largely upon the hope that Jeremy Langford will emerge. There are a few things to note.

There’s a slight dichotomy when head coach John Fox and running backs coach Stan Drayton talks about using a backfield by committee approach. Drayton says, “[T]hey all bring a strength that can probably add up to what [Matt Forte] brought. Fox says something similar but slightly different, “Who they are, what their strengths and weaknesses are. Then situationally, it can be…whoever has a hot hand.”

Both men imply that the running backs will be used situationally but Fox emphasizes an approach that the Bears have used before, “going with the hot hand”. In previous years that’s what they’ve done, given one series to one back, then resting him by giving one or two to another. But with both men also emphasizing strengths and weaknesses and, particularly with the addition of power back Jordan Howard, they may alter that, for instance, by putting in Howard in short yardage situations and using Langford and Carey mostly in other situations that fit their skill sets.

How the Bears use their running backs will be interesting to watch this year.

Second, Campbell also addresses Langford’s relatively low 3.6 yards per carry. In the process, Drayton gives us his assessment and one more thing to look for in the coming season.

“He has a tendency to want to run narrow,” Drayton said. “His feet are too close together going through the line of scrimmage. So we’re working on just widening his base on contact, putting himself in a more powerful position to be able to attack through contact.”

Drayton wants Langford to gain 3 yards after contact on every run. We will see if he improves in this area.

Lastly, like many people, my assumption was that Ka’Deem Carey is in deep trouble. And he is. But I said that last year and he survived anyway. Carey runs about as hard as any running back you’ll find and Drayton certainly seems to still have interest in him. From Campbell:

“Drayton is pushing Carey to become more versatile, which means playing better on third down. That’s part of the Bears’ greater effort to replace Forte’s contributions in that make-or-break down.

“‘To me, he’s the wild card,’ Drayton said of Carey. ‘He could challenge everybody in that room at any given time.'”

Keep an eye on Carey on third down and, of course, for his continued development on special teams. Right now Carey is up against Jacquizz Rogers for the third running back spot and Rogers’ strength, besides bringing a veteran presence, is that he excels in both of these areas. Carey needs to show that he can replace what Rogers gives in order to beat the odds again and make the team.

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