Hard to Know Where the Bears Are Going But We Have a Much Better Idea of How They Plan to Get There

Every year I think I know where the Bears will go with their picks. And every year I’m proven wrong as they go in a direction I didn’t anticipate. Reading some of the reaction around the Internet, I get the feeling I’m not the only one.  Hub Arkush at chicagofootball.com was typical.

“The problem I’m having with [general manager RyanPace and the Bears at the moment is I’m really not sure what they’re trying to do.”

I get where Arkush is coming from.  But as time and more draft picks go by, we get a better and better sense at least of what Pace is looking for in the draft, if not always how the pieces are going to fit together.

Here are my conclusions about what characteristics are generally important to the Bears based upon their selections on Days 1 and 2 of the draft:

1. The Bears are looking for versatility.

This played a big part in the selection of offensive guard Cody Whitehair. Whitehair played both tackle and guard at Kansas State. Though he projects as a guard in the NFL some scouts believe that he’d be a better center. That means Whitehair could potentially start at any of the five offensive line positions.

What that means is that the Bears are a lot more likely to be able to somehow get their best five offensive linemen on the field in some combination. Suggestions are already being made that guard Kyle Long could be in for a move back to tackle. “I wouldn’t rule anything out for Kyle,” Pace noted. “He can play anywhere.”

Also interesting is what this all means for offensive guard Matt Slauson. It’s been suggested in multiple places, including this space, that the Bears could trade Slauson in a league that promises to be still full of teams with a need for starter quality guards at the end of the draft. The Bears would undoubtedly love to flip Slauson for a draft pick.

It’s also worth remembering that Slauson has played very well at center in the past. Indeed, if it weren’t for his age (30) and the fact that Hroniss Grasu is a third round pick, there would be little doubt that Slauson would be the starter. By of the end of last season, he had shown himself to be decidedly better than Grasu.  If Grasu fails to improve it will be interesting to see if the Bears are willing to start Slauson there as the best player despite the other drawbacks.

Defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard also fits into this mold. Bullard played most of last season as a one-gap three technique defensive tackle but projects well as a two-gapping 3-4 player. That means that the Bears can play him at defensive end in their base set but move him inside to rush the passer when they go into the nickel formation. This has become more and more important as teams spend more and more time defending the pass.

2. The Bears are looking for under-sized players who can add bulk without losing quickness.

The best example of this is Thursday’s first round pick, pass rusher Leonard Floyd. Multiple reports indicate that Floyd has the frame to add more bulk and that he is going to need to. The vast majority of good 3-4 outside linebackers come in at about 250 lb. Floyd was 244 pounds at the combine and indicated that he had lost four pounds since then.

Bullard is in the same boat. Described as having “the frame to add more functional strength and mass” he’s going to need to do just that to develop into a two-gapping defensive lineman while keeping the needed agility to rush the passer.

Even Whitehair is described as a “tireless worker bee in the weight room“.

Like former general manager Phil Emery before him, Pace is betting heavily on the Bears strength and conditioning staff.

3. The Bears are looking for attitude, toughness and discipline.

This wouldn’t appear to be a revelation as most teams will say that. But more than in the past, the Bears seem to be putting actions behind the words.

Whitehair is described as “gritty”. He reportedly is an extremely hard worker in in practices and brings a high degree of dependability and consistency. One scout said, “No question about toughness. Shows good fight and works to execute assignment.” And Pace said of him, “He’s smart. He’s tough. He’s instinctive… [T]hose are all things I like.” It’s obvious that Pace considered these characteristics as being more than enough to compensate for Whitehair’s short arms.

Floyd also stands out in this respect. He attended Hargrave Military Academy between high school and college and undoubtedly that instilled more discipline than the average college NFL prospect will have.

But it’s Bullard who is really the prime example of the Bears commitment to bringing strength in the area of toughness and perseverance over physical attributes. One scout said of Bullard, “Despite multiple nagging injuries during the second half of 2015, Bullard had his best season as a senior (66 tackles, 17.5 TFL and 6.5 sacks)… He’s a grinder. Lacks elite physical tools but he grows on you the more tape you study of him. High motor player. Will pursue from behind. Makes a bunch of effort plays. Good toughness. Backs down to nobody. Battles versus double teams and rarely waives the white flag…plays with a physical edge and relentless motor… brings a tone-setting mentality to the front seven.” Another described him as “Hard-charging, high-effort defender… Competitive and willing to mix it up.”

Toughness, versatility and physical upside in terms of size and strength. These are the characteristics with which Pace hopes to redefine the Bears. It will be years before we know whether the plan will add up to wins. But at least now we know what to look for.

Leonard Floyd a Good Bears Fit. For Now.

The Bears found themselves in an interesting position as the NFL Draft fell to them Thursday night. With both offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil and linebacker Myles Jack in free fall out of the top ten (and out of the first round in the latter case), general manager Ryan Pace knew that something had to be done as players that might have otherwise fallen to the teams in front of him went off the board.   And something he did.

Kudos to Pace for having the guts to trade up and get the guy he wanted. Some of the people in the Bears organization apparently learned a lesson in 2014 when they missed on defensive tackle Aaron Donald in the first round by one pick.  That didn’t happen here as the Bears evidently got their guy.

And its now evident that Leonard Floyd was their target all along. Pace said there was a consensus on Floyd and, in particular, that they that head coach John Fox wanted Floyd or someone like him. “‘(Fox has) been pounding the table to add these kind of guys for awhile,’ Pace said. ‘And we talk during the season: ‘Hey, Ryan, we gotta get off the field on third down, we gotta get off the field on third down.’”.

What that means is that Tunsil, possibly the best player in the draft, was never a serious consideration. The Bears have been extra wary about taking character risks since the Ray McDonald affair and they’re evidently very serious about liking Charles Leno at left tackle, even given that Tunsil probably was an upgrade.

But that doesn’t mean that Floyd isn’t a risk, albeit one of another type.

Floyd was decidedly unproductive in college in terms of sacks with only 17 over 3 years at Georgia, 4.5 last year with 10.5 tackles for loss. Floyd and fellow 2016 draftee Darron Lee give the same vibe, one of a player with tantalizing physical tools who has never put it together to show that he can reach his potential to play football. Think Vic Beasley, drafted by the Falcons in 2015 but with only a disappointing 4.5 sacks last season.

Pace said, and a scout from another NFC North team backed it up, that he believed that Floyd’s lack of production came because the coaches didn’t put him in the best position to succeed, sometimes using him as an inside linebacker to stop the run. The unnamed scout, in particular, was emphatic. “I have no idea what the hell they were thinking. You watch the tape and this kid can get after the quarterback. It’s like they didn’t know what they had. Shame on them.”

That sounds an awful lot like an excuse to me.

In any case, the Bears are relying heavily on a very good defensive staff to develop Floyd. And that might be the best reason to believe that ultimately this will turn out to be a good pick. If there’s anything Bears fans learned last year, it’s that the defense will be well coached and Fangio has helped develop some of the best players in football.

Now that the Bears got their guy, the only question left is whether he was the right guy.  Watching Floyd develop (or not) is just one more reason to be fascinated with the Bears as the 2016 season will now rush towards us over the next few months.

Will the Bears Make a Need Pick? Depends on Your Definition of “Need”.

Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune writes one of the numerous pre-draft stories that appeared this morning. And one of the better ones:

“Call me.

“That’s what Bears general manager Ryan Pace encouraged other teams to do Wednesday when he talked vaguely about the NFL draft, which kicks off Thursday night at Roosevelt University’s Auditorium Theatre.”

“‘We have more than 11 names we’re prepared to go with,’ Pace said, indicating he’s willing to trade down.”

As Biggs points out, this isn’t anything new. Everyone wants to trade down and accumulate more picks. It takes two to tango. But the Bears may be more motivated than most to do so. Let’s finish up with Biggs before I explain why.

“Three offensive tackles — Laremy Tunsil, Ronnie Stanley and Jack Conklin — could be gone in the first 10 picks and while no one at Halas Hall has declared Charles Leno the left tackle for seasons to come, it has been discussed. Those calling for the Bears to draft a left tackle in the first round forget how solid Leno was there in his first 13 NFL starts.

“Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott probably goes in the top 10, too, and coach John Fox doesn’t seem eager to use their top pick on a running back as he has had his most success rotating backs.”

“Fox built elite defenses with the Panthers and Broncos with the benefit of a dynamic edge rusher getting — Julius Peppers and Von Miller, respectively. There isn’t a defensive player like either one in this draft, but Georgia’s Leonard Floyd is an ideal fit as a 3-4 outside linebacker and would add a dimension of speed the defense lacks.

“[Defensive coordinator Vic] Fangio‘s pass rush was manufactured largely last year without players who could win one-on-one matchups consistently. One way or another, the Bears need to change that in this draft. That could lead them to Floyd or perhaps Clemson’s Shaq Lawson.”

Biggs has the Bears taking Floyd in both a need and a value pick at 11 after the top offensive players go off the board, including Elliot and all three offensive tackles, in the top 10.

The problem is that is highly unlikely to happen. I participated in four mock drafts over the last couple weeks and each time the defensive players flew off the board in the top ten where teams have the biggest needs. Picking for the Bears at 11, I was usually left with two offensive players at the top of my board before I got to the nearest defensive player. Not finding a partner to trade with, in two drafts I took Elliot, in one Conklin and Stanley in the last one.

Could the Bears pass over one of these players to take a defensive player? Of course. But only if the draft falls exactly as Biggs mock draft did or if they had them graded differently than most media experts seem to have them.

Otherwise, left in the situation I consistently found myself in, I think the Bears take the best player available.

I hear your scoffing. Everyone knows that teams never actually just pick the best player available and that need always factors in, right? Right. Kind of.

People like to use the phrase “best player available at a position of need”. But “need” is a relative term. The truth is that any position on the field can be improved if you acquire the right guy. If that guy is available, he fills a need.  Because the only need a team really has is to get better.

That’s why, despite declaring that they are satisfied with the running backs they have, they made a bid to sign C.J. Anderson. And that’s why they’ll take Elliot if he’s at the top of their board. It’s not because they “need” a running back by the classic definition. It’s because they don’t want to pass on any running back that will make them better.

Are they happy with Charles Leno as Biggs says? My eye tells me that that they should be. He played very well last year. But if Ronnie Stanley or, perhaps, Jack Conklin fall and they think that the player will be better in that slot than Leno, the bet here is that they take him.

What the Bears need to do tonight, and what I believe that they will do, is get better. And it doesn’t matter at what position. As long as it happens.

Bears Could Trade Matt Slauson as They Play the Offseason Like a Fiddle

Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune answers another of your questions:

“Can you rationalize your earlier report when the Bears signed Ted Larsen that the team expects him to seriously compete with Matt Slauson for the starting left guard position? This makes no sense whatsoever… [Consider] what a great locker room presence Slauson is by all accounts and the fact that he’s on a very team-friendly deal considering his quality of play. What gives here, Brad? – Ted D., South Bend, Ind.

“I don’t have to rationalize a report. I reported what multiple sources relayed to me. That is how the situation was described to me on multiple fronts and that led me to report what I learned. Whether everyone agrees with it or not, it’s what I discovered in reporting the additions of Larsen and veteran center/guard Manny Ramirez, who were both signed in late March… At this point, I expect the Bears to see if they can potentially trade Slauson for a draft pick this year. If not, they’ll have quality depth on the offensive line when they head to training camp in Bourbonnais and the depth chart will shake out there. Larsen signed a contract that is above backup pay and if he turns into a starter, he will earn decent money. Not quite where Slauson is at (nearly $3 million) but good money. If Larsen does win the starting job, you would have to wonder if the team wants to pay a backup guard $3 million. I don’t know the answer to that right now and the Bears probably don’t either. There’s no question Slauson is a respected player in the locker room who has helped out not only Long but left tackle Charles Leno as well. Let’s see how this plays out.”

Biggs read my mind here. General manager Ryan Pace has done a very good job in playing the offseason for the Bears this year. Not only is his biggest need (defensive line) the strength of the draft, his biggest excess is the biggest need for teams around the NFL.

If there’s one thing the NFL was characterized by last year it was poor offensive line play, especially on the interior. Within the NFC North alone the Lions were notable for it despite drafting Laken Tomlinson at guard in the first round. The Vikings made the playoffs but struggled to beat good teams all year and they literally lost the playoff game, all mostly because of some terrible performance from their offensive line.

Twenty-one of the 32 NFL teams need offensive line help gong into the draft and at least 11 of those have a need at guard. The position has been becoming more and more valuable over the last decade and, though there’s a thought that you can pick up linemen late in the draft, particularly guards, you have to wonder if there are going to be enough good ones to go around this time.

Look for Pace to try to trade to use his excess to make hay in the draft. If a pick doesn’t come for Slauson this year, one could certainly come for next year when teams take stock after the draft and find that they still have a need to fill at guard.

Lamarr Houston a Top Pass Rusher? I Have My Concerns.

Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune answers yet another of your questions:

Lamarr Houston had the sixth most sacks of any outside linebacker last year. Playing half a season how does that not qualify as above average? — @MikeyLillo

“Houston played in all 16 games last season with two starts and was on the field for 40.4 percent of the defensive snaps after being used sparingly at the start of the season. He gained more playing time in the second half of the season when he was further removed from the ACL tear of 2014 and when Pernell McPhee missed substantial playing time with a knee injury. Houston was indeed sixth in outside linebackers with a career-high eight sacks but when you consider him in the class of edge rushers (also looking at statistics for 4-3 defensive ends) he was tied for 17th in sacks. Is that above average? Probably… [G]iven Houston’s improved production with more playing time, I’d imagine he’s in a better spot with the coaches moving forward.”

Biggs also emphasizes the need for more speed rushers at the outside linebacker spot, something I think we all agree with though pressure on the quarterback is pressure on the quarterback no matter how you do it.

Here’s the problem with Houston. Yes, he had eight sacks. But how many of them came at the end of games when everyone in the stadium knew the opponent had to pass? Under such conditions, players can pin their ears back and rush the quarterback with no consideration for having to stop the run.

Don’t get me wrong. Houston was valuable last year. But if you are going to consider how valuable you need to put the situation in context. There was a lot of what you could arguably call stat padding going on.

Bottom line, you’d like to see more of those sacks come at critical times earlier in the game when they have more of an influence in determining the outcome instead of when the outcome determines whether you get a sack or not.

Conor Cook as a First Round Pick Sounds Like Trouble for Someone

I found the answer that Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune gave to this question to be interesting:

“Will the Bears take Connor Cook if he is on the board with their second-round pick? — @TommyGlodo

“I spoke with two scouts earlier this week and both are projecting Cook to be a late first-round pick at this point. If Cook were to slide into the second round, I don’t know if he would make it to the Bears. Given the value of the position and the number of teams in need, it’s easily conceivable that four are selected in Round 1 with Cook folowing Jared Goff, Carson Wentz and Paxton Lynch (put those three in whatever order you would like). Cook has plenty of game experience from Michigan State but will probably take some time to develop. He’d be interesting if he’s still around when the Bears are on the clock in Round 2 but that might be a longshot at this point.”

Having just participated in a mock draft with representatives of 32 teams, I can say with some certainty that observers on the outside looking in don’t entirely agree with Biggs’ scouts. Most seem to think that Paxton Lynch will be the player to fall to late in the first round with a team trading up to get him in the usual manner, possibly into the 17-19 range to get ahead of the Jets at 20.  Lynch cold use a year of seasoning behind a veteran.

Having said that, as someone who likes the top three quarterbacks better than most, I could easily see Lynch going as high as the top 10 picks. If that happens, a desperate team could target Cook, who is large step below those three to my eye but who does have the physical stature to give the hint of some potential. But his intangibles are questionable and, even worse, his accuracy is very suspect. Strangely, it seems to be the short throws, rather than the intermediate routes, that trip him up.

I pity the team that pulls off this trade should it come to pass. Cook with a couple years of development as a third round pick could – maybe – eventually become a decent NFL quarterback. At least he’d have the chance. But as a first round pick who is likely expected to start in a high pressure situation immediately? This would be a problem for Lynch but a disaster for Cook.

Under those circumstance, Cook looks to me like he’s got the potential to break hearts and kill coaches anywhere he goes.

Brian Hoyer Could to Be a Bear by the End of the Week

Jason La Canfora at CBS Sports is reporting that former Texans (among others) quarterback Brian Hoyer “is expected” be a Chicago Bear by the end of the week. Hoyer is waiting around to see if the Denver Broncos will sign him as a potential starter first.

My first inclination was to scoff at this report. Hoyer is 30 years old and the Bears have been looking for younger players with upside in free agency to this point. And it would seem to me that there are plenty of teams out there with bigger needs at quarterback. The Dallas Cowboys come to mind, as their season was literally tanked by a fragile Tony Romo collar bone.

But I’m gradually coming to terms with this possibility now. The Bears probably don’t have a lot of confidence in either David Fales or Matt Blanchard as a number two quarterback at this point. A veteran back up might well help ease the transition for new offensive coordinator in Dowell Loggains.

Should Hoyer be signed it will set up a very interesting and intense competition between Fales, Blanchard and a potential draft pick as the developmental back up.

Talking Tantalizing Tayo Fabuluje

Yeah, I know.  The title.  I stink at titles.

Anyway, Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune is kind enough to answer a question from this ignorant blogger:

“Competition seems to be intense at guard with the acquisition of Ted Larsen and Manny Ramirez. But not so much at tackle where Charles Leno and Bobby Massie seem to be penciled in with little behind them at the moment. True, the draft is still ahead of us. But is part of it that the Bears anticipate that Tayo Fabuluje will take a step up and provide competition for a job this summer? Is it possible he’ll win one? – Tom S., Chicago

“You make a good point and the Bears are no doubt expecting more from Fabuluje this summer. He was not in adequate shape when training camp opened last year and then missed time during the season with a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. In a perfect world, Fabuluje can be the swing tackle. I don’t that they’re going to get there with him this season. It’s possible but it could take some more time. Let’s remember he was a sixth-round draft pick from TCU. I think he’s probably best suited at right tackle and don’t know if he has the feet and agility to play on the left side. Maybe I’m wrong and he’ll certainly be worth watching in training camp. I’d bet the Bears look to add a tackle at some point in the draft (earlier than sixth round) or see what kind of veteran possibilities there are to compete as a swing tackle after the draft. Fabuluje is definitely worth keeping an eye on entering Year 2.”

I might be exaggerating this but I think (pre-draft) that what Fabuluje does this summer might be the most interesting issue of training camp along with how wide receiver Kevin White performs.

Fabuluje has very quick feet for a guy that big (6’6″, 353 lb). Are they quick enough to fill the right tackle position? Very hard to say. It may be a bad assumption to make but I expect a guy with that size to be able to run block naturally. I also can imagine guys rushing quarterback Jay Cutler and being engulfed in that bulk. If he can pass protect, he’ll be a fascinating prospect.

Greg Hardy Is Angry that Aldon Smith Was Signed Before He Was

Michael David Smith at profootballtalk.com notes that Greg Hardy got upset when he saw that fellow free agent Aldon Smith got signed before he did.

“Who’s worse, Hardy or Smith? That’s a hard question to answer. But Smith got no signing bonus and nothing guaranteed from the Raiders, and Smith remains suspended by the NFL and won’t even be eligible for reinstatement until November. So the Raiders weren’t taking much of a risk when they signed him.

“NFL teams do think, however, that signing Hardy is a risk. He was suspended after an ugly domestic violence accusation in 2014 with the Panthers, he clashed with teammates and coaches in 2015 with the Cowboys, and he showed no remorse for his actions in an interview that aired this week on ESPN.”

It’s evident that Hardy has no idea just how radioactive he is right now. Smith has had a long list of legal issues but they’re nothing compared to a remorseless animal who beats women. The NFL wears pink in October in support of breast cancer victims and is trying desperately to increase its appeal to women. signing Hardy sends a bad message that dmages not just the reputation of the team that signs him, but that of the whole league.

There is one other thing that is affecting Hardy’s ability to find a team to take him on and it is arguably more important to at least some of the teams with a reputation for signing dodgy players. Given a chance to show that he can still perform on the field, Hardy produced just six sacks and only 1.5 after Thanksgiving.

It was bad enough that Hardy found a place with the Cowboys last year. But combine his performance in 2015 with his past and the bet here is no team will sign him now no matter the financial risk.

Charles Leno is Your Left Tackle. Deal With It.

Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune answers your questions:

“Why does it seem like the Bears are always one change short to better the offensive line? They have improved their backups with experienced lineman and got Bobby Massie but why the heck don’t they get another tackle on the other side where Charles Leno is a career backup at best? Tell me where is the other tackle to complete the moves they made on the line? They have plenty of money and are well under the cap. So what’s the deal? — Paul B., Arlington Heights”

“The Bears believe Leno is much better than a career backup and they’re willing to give him an opportunity to prove it. I thought he was pretty solid in 13 starts last season and I don’t remember re-watching games last season and thinking, ‘this guy is totally out of place.’ It was quite the opposite. Did I miss something in evaluating him in 2015? The Bears had far bigger problems than their left tackle in a 6-10 season.”

Biggs didn’t miss anything. I would say that most people with eyes understood that Leno had a solid year.

Fans and members of the media who believe that left tackle is a priority because Leno isn’t good enough fall generally into three categories:

1. People who see what they expect to see.

Leno was a seventh round pick and people just assume that he won’t be up to the task of playing what is one of the more difficult positions on the field. So that’s what they assume is happening when they watch the games. I have little patience for fans like this and I’m guessing that Paul B. is one of them.

2. People who saw Leno play right tackle in the preseason last year and just assume that he can’t play on the left.

This is a completely false assumption. In fact, Leno seems to have been born to play on the left side. His athleticism seems to come out and shine when he plays against the more athletic pass rushers that he sees on that end of the offensive line. On the other hand, he wasn’t the kind of big, bruising player that is going to be as effective on the right.

You might also need to account for the fact that a light may have come on for Leno after the preseason causing him to simply play better once the real games started.

3. People who see a solid performance from Leno in 2015 but don’t trust him to continue in 2016.

This one, I understand. And for that reason I think the Bears are undoubtedly looking to bring in at least one other tackle that they think can compete for a spot, play reasonably well if Leno regresses or fails to progress, and act as a back up. And, of course, if they see someone in the draft that they think can upgrade the position, they may do that.

But short of this, I think it’s reasonable to conclude that Charles Leno is your left tackle in 2016 and fans are just going to have to deal with that reality.