Bears Running Back Position Is Probably Better than Most Think

Rich Campbell at the Chicago Tribune reviews the state of the running back position ahead of training camp. I’m going to pick a nit with the article (hey, what else is there to do right now?):

“[Jeremy] Langford practiced catching the ball during offseason workouts more than he did last season. [Ka’Deem] Carey also is working on his hands and his blocking techniques. The Bears probably can’t split either of them wide to create a mismatch against a linebacker like they could with [Matt] Forte, but they need them at least to contribute in conventional backfield roles.”

Actually the Bears did split Langford out wide on occasion last year and to my eye he did a reasonably good job.

My gut is telling me that both Langford and Carey are being under-estimated in terms of what they can do for the Bears. In particular, I’m aware that Langford’s 3.6 yards per carry wasn’t good last year. And, yes, he dropped a few passes. But according to the Bears each of these things is correctable and I tend to believe that.

When I look at a running back I want to see what kind of vision he has. Seeing the field and knowing where to go is instinctual. Unless the problem is something simple, like running with his head down, its something that you can’t teach. Langford seems to me like he has pretty good vision and as long as that’s the case, I think the chances are better than usual that he’ll show more good things as he applies the things he learned as a rookie entering his second year.

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Where is the Competition at Offensive Tackle?

John Mulllin at reviews the state of the offensive line ahead of training camp:

“The operative Bears word was “competition” throughout the offseason within every position group. With that mantra came turnover, and of the 14 offensive linemen presently on the Bears roster, exactly four were under Bears contract this time last year, and only one of those finished the 2015 season at the position he currently occupies. Of the 14, only one is older than 27, and that one (guard Ted Larsen) just turned 29.”

Truth.  And, the Bears did try to deliver.  For instance, by bringing in Larsen, and drafting Cody Whitehair, the Bears increased the competition at right guard and center. If the now retired center Manny Ramirez had stuck around, the competition would be even more intense.

But where is the competition at tackle?

Bobby Massie (RT)
Charles Leno (LT)

Nick Becton
Adrian Bellard
Nate Chandler
Cornelius Edison
John Kling
Martin Wallace
Jason Weaver
Donovan Williams

So who, of this group, is going to step up and provide competition at offensive tackle for Bobby Massie and Charles Leno?  Hell, which of them even qualities to be the swing tackle?

My initial thought was the Bears were counting on Tayo Fabuluje to step up and perhaps try to take a starting job.  But though Fabuluje had the physical talent, apparently he didn’t have what it took mentally to make the grade and he was waived the offseason.

It is always possible that one of the “others” above will step up and impress in training camp.  The Bears need to hope so if they truly believe that competition at the various positions that they need to man is the way to getting better.

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Competition on the Offensive Line Will Span Multiple Positions

Kevin Fishbain at previews training camp by reviewing the situation along the offensive line.  Fishbain surprises me in this article by suggesting that the only major position battle is at left guard:

“The only clear competition for a starting job on offense is at left guard between former Cardinal Ted Larsen and second-round pick Cody Whitehair.”

Fishbain goes on to suggest that the Bears are totally counting on Hronis Grasu, who struggled at times last year, to man the center position.  But that’s not the way I see it.

Multiple reports indicate that Whitehair was snapping the ball at mini-camp last month on the side and that he will have a shot at the center position.  I think its much more likely that this comes down to three players, Larsen, Whitehair and Grasu, for two jobs, left guard and center, with everyone else on the outside looking in entering camp.  And it will be fascinating to see how it plays out.

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Who Is Choosing the Bears Coaches?

Dan Wiederer at the Chicago Tribune reviews the top 10 headlines of the off-season as we head into training camp.  I was caught off guard by his approach to this one:

“Tribune headline: Dolphins hire [offensive coordinator AdamGase as coach — [head coach JohnFox has lots of coordinator options”

“What it means: Gase’s exit was hardly a stunner. He had interviewed for five head coaching jobs — including with the Bears — the previous offseason. So [general manager RyanPace had been preparing to fill the coordinator role again. The Bears ultimately decided the in-house promotion of quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains made the most sense.”

This may be picky but I thought, as the headline implies, that Fox had full authority to pick his coaching staff.  But the text itself seems to imply that Pace had the significant role in the affair.  This is the first I’ve seen that suggested.

True, Pace almost certainly had some input.  And ultimately I’m sure his office crossed the i’s and dotted the t’s on whatever changes to Logan’s contract were needed.  But I’d be surprised if Fox didn’t basically tell him what was going to happen and that wasn’t about it.

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Alshon Jeffery Contract Negotiations Difficult, Not Hopeless

Offseason speculation on the negotiations between the Bears and Alshon Jeffery hasn’t been very positive recently. The gist of the situation has its roots in Jeffery’s penchant for accumulating soft tissue injuries. Even though Jeffery started 16 games in 2013 and 2014, the situation was bad enough to where head coach John Fox commented that Jeffery needed to improve on his tendency to be dinged up with this kind of thing shortly after being hired last offseason in 2015. Then things went downhill during the season as Jeffery missed 7 games, finally going on injured reserve with a hamstring injury. Since last year was the new Bears regime’s first and only year, they’ve never actually seem Jeffery play healthy live and in color and that alone is an issue.

The problem is that the Bears believe that these injuries are preventable. So after last season they outlined an offseason training plan for Jeffery. And, of course, they’ve been tracking his progress all offseason as he regularly checks in with them and… oh, crap. That didn’t happen. Jeffery stupidly decided to skip voluntary offseason workouts despite the fact that he signed his franchise tag offer which means that the Bears are paying him 14 and a half million dollars to not be with the team, showing the kind of dedication that I’m sure always sits well with an organization that is negotiating for the right to pay you 10s of millions of dollars in more guaranteed money over the next 3-5 years.

So the Bears haven’t been unable to monitor Jeffery’s progress and even though Fox said Jeffery looked like he was in good shape at the mandatory minicamp last month, no one really knows what that means. Bottom line, there’s a nagging feeling that the Bears might not think that Jeffery works hard enough to stay in shape and there’s speculation that they’d like to see him perform for one healthy season before shelling out big cash to him long-term.

Having said that I’m more optimistic about this situation than most of the reports indicate.

For one thing, some of the articles contain the statement that the Bears are only offering Jeffery “mid-level receiver money”, something that no one around here believes. You don’t franchise a receiver that you think is a mid-level player. I’d say Jeffery’s agent is the source of these reports and that what we are seeing is the result of his attempt to negotiate through the media.

I particularly take issue with columns that are suggesting that having Jeffery play under the tag for a season is the best thing for both sides. That’s hogwash. Jeffery risks serious injury playing in yet another contract year and he’d be a fool not to take a reasonable long-term offer.

On the other side, with the salary cap now rising at an alarming rate, the Bears can surely see that salaries are jumping up like the dinner bell rang and that waiting another year to sign Jeffery long-term could cost them a great of money.

If you ignore all of the speculation and agent-generated babble and just look at the concrete facts of the matter, they provide too much motivation for both sides to reach a deal and I think the odds are much better that something gets done than most people think. I don’t know that I’d characterize them as great. But certainly not hopeless.

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More Trouble for Minnesota Stadium Construction

Something tells me I won’t be visiting the Vikings any time soon.  From Rochelle Olsen at the Star-Tribune:

“Several black zinc panels on U.S. Bank Stadium came loose during Tuesday night’s storm, and stadium officials were at a loss to explain why Wednesday.”

“Unsecured rectangular panels are more than a tangential concern because U.S. Bank Stadium’s exterior walls are lined with thousands of them.”

“In a previous incident several weeks ago, the panels were believed to be loose because of other work to fix a moisture problem, but now the two appear unrelated, she said.”

You should see some of the cheap construction in some of the new buildings around me in downtown Chicago.  One building I considered buying a condo in was less than two years old.  Six months later, they had a $40,000 special assessment because the balconies were pulling away from the building.

Similarly, the concrete in the stadium plaza at the then brand new Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati was badly cracking just a year after that stadium was built.

I’ve got a feeling the same type of thing maybe going on here.  Hopefully no one gets hurt.

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The Power of Being One With the Crowd

Joe Bucs Fan tries to climb into the mind of Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith by posting excerpts and/or highlights from Smith’s book, “You Win in the Locker Room”. He doesn’t think much of this part:

“The biggest theme in Smith’s book is all about ‘culture.’ Joe thinks this may be an empty word bordering on misleading. Every coach preaches culture. Hell, former Bucs commander Greg Schiano was huge on this. But what happened? It blew up in his face after some head-scratching personnel moves and a quarterback going mental.”

“If you have, say, Chucky drafting the players and Lovie Smith coaching the players, Joe doesn’t give a damn what kind of culture a guy preaches, no talent and not knowing how to use that talent will get you fired very quickly. It’s all about winning. Culture doesn’t mean a damned thing.”

There’s some truth to this. You certainly aren’t going anywhere without talent and good coaching.

But beyond that I have to disagree. Players interact as a group and anyone who has ever played competitive sports, hell anyone who has just been part of a crowd that watches competitive sports, knows that people feed off of one another in that type of environment.

Expectations are set in part by the people around you and what they do. If you are part of a group where the majority stay and do the extra work and put forth the extra effort to do the little things to win, you are much more likely to do that yourself. That maximizes talent and leads to a better chance of winning on the field.

I wouldn’t under-estimate the power that lies in this type of interaction. A core group of players doing the right thing can lead weaker members of the team onto the right path. That’s why the Patriots can, say, add Martellus Bennett and expect him to succeed where he failed with the Bears. They have a culture where such antics as his aren’t tolerated, not just by the coaches, but by a large group of veteran players who know how to win.

Establishing a “culture” of winning is a real thing. It’s something that can be the difference between a talented team that consistently finds victory and one that more often than not falls short.

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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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