Report that Jeffery Has Been Franchised but Doubt Remains

Adam Schefter at ESPN has reported that Alshon Jeffery has been franchised:

I find this report easy to believe in that franchising Jeffery should be a slam dunk if the Bears can’t come to a long-term deal before Tuesday’s deadline to place the tag. Nevertheless, neither the Chicago Tribune nor the Chicago Sun-Times has picked up this report leaving doubt about its veracity.

I’d say that Schefter is right in that the Bears have probably already decided to tag Jeffery. The signs certainly are that they want him back and he wants to be back.  Though the Bears could tag Jeffery early – they really don’t have anyone else to use it on – there’s no apparent advantage to placing it on him too far before the deadline.

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What Alshon Jeffery’s Contract Might Look Like Based Upon Yesterday’s News Conferences

Dan Wiederer at the Chicago Tribune addresses the Bears situation with wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. Jeffery, due to become a free agent, missed a number of games with soft tissue injuries last season and his production was reduced:

“‘I think being in Year 2 with a player helps a lot in just understanding his body and his body mechanics,’ [general manager Ryan] Pace said. ‘I know (Alshon) and his agent are doing some things, too, to improve on that. So when he gets back, we’ll have a plan in place. It’s important.'”

“Jeffery began his offseason training by enrolling at Unbreakable Performance, a Los Angeles facility run by Brian Urlacher and Jay Glazer, a close friend of Fox’s.”

“‘Things I’ve heard have been real positive from both sides,’ Fox said, ‘from both Alshon and the people there at Jay’s gym.'”

A few important points:

  • There can now be little doubt that the Bears will franchise Jeffery. There’s always been this niggling doubt that Jeffery really wants to be back with the Bears or that the Bears might not be happy with him. The fact that Fox has been staying in touch with him and tracking his training progress along with Pace’s assertion that he senses that Jeffery wants to be back indicate to me that there’s no real dissatisfaction with the relationship between player and team. There can now be little doubt that they will do what they have to to keep him.
  • Given the concern expressed by both Pace and Jeffery’s agent, Eugene Parker, you’d have to guess that both will be working to get Jeffery in for offseason training.  The standard procedure when it comes to the franchise tag is to get the deal done at the last minute when there’s more urgency to get things done with a deadline approaching. But based upon the above comments you’d have to guess that perhaps there will be a little more urgency to get things done soon so that Jeffery won’t miss workouts.
  • Give the last item, you also have to wonder if the contract won’t be structured to give Jeffery motivation to stay in shape and to do that proper things to prevent his soft tissue problems in the future. I’m thinking that there’s more than the usual likelihood that we’ll see an incentive laden contract. Not necessarily a performance based one but perhaps one with some terms that provide a bonus if, for instance, Jeffery hits certain weight goals or other such similar milestones. A cleverly designed contract could be very satisfactory for both sides.
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Fox’s Comments Regarding Jay Cutler Should Be a Comfort to Us All

Rich Campbell at the Chicago Tribune quotes head coach John Fox at the Combine on the performance of quarterback Jay Cutler last season:

“‘I saw way more about his mental toughness,’ Fox said. ‘I saw way more about how he can absorb an offense and execute it under pressure. I think that speaks volumes for how successful he was on third downs, which is a tough down for a quarterback in the NFL. But I was very, very pleased by what I saw and what we have to work with going forward.'”

I find these comments to be comforting because:

  1. I was also pleased with what Cutler showed, particularly during the Packers game on Thanksgiving.
  2. The comments indicate to me that Fox understands Cutler’s major problem – lack of mental toughness.

There’s always been a suspicion in my mind that because the Bears coaching staff wasn’t with Cutler during his first six years with the team, they won’t understand why trusting him should be an exercise in caution, even now. The fact that Fox’s first comment was regarding Cutler’s major past weakness indicates that he understands the quarterback better than I thought. He knows what to look for if Cutler stumbles and he will recognize it if he sees it.  And the odds are good that he’ll be ready to do something about it.

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Langford and Carey: An Interesting One-Two Punch in 2016

Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune answers your questions:

“Why is Jeremy Langford assumed to start at running back? Overall, I thought Ka’Deem Carey ran tougher, caught passes better and blocked at least as well. — @BillMiller1991

“Nothing is locked in at this point but the first thing you should keep in mind is that Langford was drafted by the current power structure at Halas Hall, which includes general manager Ryan Pace and coach John Fox. Langford has better speed and is probably viewed as a better receiver out of the backfield even though he had a couple bad drops last season. Langford was higher on the depth chart last season.”

I think Biggs has the right of it, here. Langford is more athletic and it’s obvious that the coaching staff considers him to be the better receiver and they probably see Langford as being the back that is most like Matt Forte. Carey, on the other hand, was pretty close to having no job at all until he started to become more effective on special teams. Or at least until the coaching staff felt more comfortable playing him on special teams.

Having said that, I think everyone would agree that it’s unlikely that we will be able to expect Langford to be Forte. In this respect, Langford and Carey could make a wonderful one-two punch with Langford being a slightly more elusive and more versatile third down-type back and with Carey being more of a power back.

Should the case it will require that these two back be used differently in 2016. Last season, the coaches were more likely to leave a back in for an entire series before switching up. The Bears might be more comfortable using Carey and Langford alternately down-to-down in specific situations next year, thus taking advantage of their strengths.

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Drugs Will Be a Bigger Issue than Ever for Draft Prospects

Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune describes some things to watch at the Combine this week:

“Ole Miss defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche possesses top-five talent, but he fell out of a fourth-story at an Atlanta hotel in December and was subsequently suspended for the Sugar Bowl after police discovered ‘seven marijuana cigarettes’ in his room. Eastern Kentucky’s Noah Spence, who could be a defensive end or an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme, was kicked out of Ohio State for multiple drug issues and banned from the Big Ten. He had 111/2 sacks last season and performed well in Senior Bowl practices. Teams are doing some digging on these players.”

Both of these guys are massive talents. In fact, if anything, I think Spence is being underrated. But these drug issues are going to be huge red flags for teams this year.

I’m not too thrilled about putting too much stock into encounters with marijuana. I think most people realize that this is something that has become more and more pervasive and it isn’t like they’re shooting heroin (I hope). But thanks to the Cowboys experience with Randy Gregory, who has been suspended for the first four games of the regular season in 2016 after testing positive for drugs four times last year including once at the Combine, teams are going to be more sensitive about it than usual. Frankly, I don’t think a lot of teams care what these guys do in their off time as long as the perform on the field. But you aren’t going to do much performing is you are suspended.  Gregory is a cautionary tale.

As Biggs says, what they say will be important. But it’s what these prospects do that will count the most. It’s going to be more critical than ever for all of these players, especially Nkemdiche and Spence, to show up clean to the Combine and show that they can control whatever caused their past problems.

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Wentz Currently Has a Leg Up on the Competition Going into the Scouting Combine

Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune talks quarterback prospects. Of the top four, there has been less enthusiasm than previously about Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch:

“‘Listening to guys at the Senior Bowl talk about [North Dakota State’s CarsonWentz, I finally had to ask them if the kid from Memphis had fallen off the earth,’ a national scout for one team said. ‘Everyone was touting him and all of a sudden here is Wentz. What happened?'”

The Senior Bowl happened. Once scouts got a good, live look at his size and his arm and once he performed well in the practices and the game, his stock took a massive upward turn. Wentz impressed everyone, including myself.  Lynch, on the other hand, wasn’t helped when he had a poor bowl game.

The comments highlight two things to keep in mind:

  1. It was a huge mistake for Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook to skip the Senior Bowl. I don’t know who he thinks he is but right now he’s a second rounder at best. The Senior Bowl was a prime opportunity to show scouts what he could do and Wentz is the best possible example of how its done.
  2. Having said that, both Lynch and Cook (and California’s Jared Goff) will have their opportunity to impress scouts at the Combine and it looks like all of them will throw. Its unfortunate that it won’t be in the kind of competitive environment that the Senior Bowl provides and they may never get the momentum back from Wentz now. But they’ll all probably get a bump from it.
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Cowboys Record Belies Their Claims of Good Intentions

Remember Randy Gregory, the defensive end that the Cowboys drafted last April in the second round after he tested positive for marijuana at the Combine? Well he’s become a cautionary tale now that he’s been suspended for four games in 2016 after testing positive for drugs four times, three during the 2015 season. Mike Florio at profootballtalk.com comments:

“Gregory consistently has failed to choose football over whatever substance for which he has been testing positive. But the Cowboys necessarily failed to provide him with the resources and assistance necessary to keep him from continuing to fail tests. And Gregory’s agents, who did a great job of puffing him up to a scoop-hungry media before the draft (at one point he was being sold as a top-10 pick despite the failed drug test), apparently haven’t communicated to Gregory the critical importance of getting clean.”

This news came right before another player associated with the Cowboy found himself in hot water. Joseph Randle was arrested for the fifth time in the last 18 months, this time on three counts of aggravated battery, one count of drug possession and one count of criminal damage. The Cowboys had previously  released Randle but not until they absolutely had to after his sixth game in 2015 and not until the NFL suspended him.

Both incidents bring to mind comments made by Jerry Jones at the time of the Greg Hardy signing when he trumpeted the Cowboys as the destination for wayward players, saying that the team was focused upon providing an environment where they could be rehabilitated.  You have to wonder at what point after Gregory’s third faied drug test was this still about “rehabilitation”.

As Florio implies above, it’s now evident that this was hogwash. Jones is simply running an outlaw program where signing risky players and putting up with deplorable off field behavior until there’s simply no way to keep them on the roster is the priority.

“Talent trumps all” is a common philosophy in the NFL. No one follows that mantra more than the Cowboys. Perhaps it’s time for Jones to pull back and take a look at his franchise and decide if this is really the image that he wants “America’s Team” to project. Regardless, he needs to stop spouting off nonsense about nurturing his players to conquer whatever demons haunt them off the field. It’s all too evident that either there’s little or nothing behind it or it’s not working.

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Changes Coming to the Combine?

Tom Pelissero at USA Today reports that the NFL is considering changes to the NFL Scouting Combine make the event more relevant to scouts and coaches.

“No, a quarterback’s throwing session on the field won’t be swapped for one in a virtual reality environment anytime soon. But the days of players training for months to score high in tests such as the 40-yard dash, vertical leap and bench press – sometimes derided as the ‘Underwear Olympics’ – could be numbered.”

Changes to the Combine is a topic that has gained steam in recent years. For instance, Matt Birk, the NFL’s director of player development, addressed the topic about this time last year:

“‘That’s a project we’ll be working on this offseason,’ Birk said, according to espn.com. ‘Once we look at the data that was gathered in-game this year, it may be important to know how fast a wide receiver or defensive back can go 60 yards. Maybe for an offensive lineman it’s only 20 yards. We can actually see that in-game: How far are these guys running? What are the real or improved measures of importance and value as it relates to evaluating players and whether or not they should be drafted in the first round or the sixth round?'”

So, you can’t just look at the 20 yard split for an offensive lineman and see how fast he ran that distance?

If all the athletes did was run the 40 yard dash and do the long jump, I might think that there was a point to this. But, as Pelissero points out, that’s not all they do. Quarterbacks throw, receivers run routes, linemen do drills in the same way they would at a pro day.  And there’s value to that.  If you want to disregard the distance that an offensive lineman jumps, disregard it.

Something tells me that this is going to be one of those situations where the NFL and National Football Scouting Inc., which runs the Combine, put their heads together and, after lots of talk that goes nowhere, decides that no changes are in order. And I’m not entirely sure they won’t be right.

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Bears Offseason Todo List

I was recently asked to construct a “Todo List” for the Bears offseason by the boys over at the Next Fan Up Podcast. I’m occasionally a guest on this podcast as the Bears representative. If you aren’t listening, you’re missing out on some good NFL conversation. The following is more or less what I put together for them.

The Bears have so many holes on their roster that constructing a list of concise tasks borders on the ridiculous. They need everything, especially on defense. Having said that, here are some general things to consider:

  1. Sign your own.

This most applies to wide receiver Alshon Jefferywho is a virtual lock for the franchise tag (though see here for my doubts and fears). The Bears also need to make a decision at tight end on whether to sign Zach Miller, who had a reasonably productive year but who has a history of injury, and talented malcontent Martellus Bennett.

There are also a number of borderline players who the team needs to make a decision on including CB Tracy Porter, DE Jarvis Jenkins, OG Vlad Ducasse and OG Patrick Omameh, LB Sam Acho, and LB Shea McClellin.

  1. Find an impact defensive player

The Bears were 22nd in the league in sacks and 30th in interceptions. When you look down the roster, it mostly mediocre (at best) role players. There are no defensive ends like JJ Watt, pass rushers like Von Miller, linebackers like Luke Kuechly or cornerbacks like Josh Norman. It would be unrealistic to expect a team full of guys like this. But the Bears are going to have a hard time being competitive on a week-to-week basis without at least one impact player of this type.

  1. Get better at the line of scrimmage

Games are won and lost at the line of scrimmage. The Bears aren’t adequate on either side of the ball at this point.

Defensively the don’t have a starting quality defensive end. That will undoubtedly be a high priority, probably in the draft where the depth at the top end is strong.

On the offensive side they need a starting right guard where Ducasse and Omameh were fill ins last year. It’s a reasonably deep free agent guard class and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they tried to sign a reasonably young one at the right price.

Depth is also an issue on the offensive line, particularly in the middle. Rookie center Hronis Grasu needs to get stronger in the offseason and the Bears need to sign a veteran back up in case he doesn’t take the next step.

  1. Find a QB of the future

Most people currently associated with the organization would laugh that I’ve listed this as a priority. Jay Cutler will only be 33 years old at the start of the season. The Bears are all in on Cutler, passing over better qualified candidates to keep him comfortable by making QB coach Dowell Loggains as offensive coordinator and hiring Dave Ragone as QB coach.  Ragone’s whose only major qualification is that he’s worked before with Loggains.

The conclusion that Cutler is the guy is a reasonable one from the point of view of the coaching staff. 2015 was their first year in Chicago and Cutler had a reasonably good season. The problem is that I was in Chicago for Cutler’s previous six years with the team. If head coach John Fox had seen what I’ve seen, he’d be a lot more hesitant to trust Cutler to continue to perform for a second year.

In any case, the Bears need to decide if the young QBs on the roster are future starters. Given their low draft status (David Fales was a sixth round pick and Matt Blanchard was an undrafted free agent) I think that’s doubtful. In that case they need to use a high to mid-round pick to find someone to work behind Cutler and step in at the position.

It’s important to note that the Bears are in a position to use a draft pick for future gain at this point. All teams are, to some extent, in “win now” mode. But common sense says that the Bears are unlikely be in a Super Bowl next year.  Mel Kiper at ESPN recently used this reasoning to suggest that the Bears would draft Notre Dame outside linebacker Jaylon Smith. Smith was the 2015 Butkus Award winner but he tore both his ACL and MCL versus Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day.

Kiper’s reasoning also applies to the quarterback position. Though I’m not suggesting that the Bears will actually do it, to me it makes sense to pick a quarterback who needs time to develop behind an established starter at some point in this draft and plan for the future.

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Considering the Possibility of a Free Agent Guard

Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune answers your questions:

“Can you name one or two under-the-radar free agents similar to Pernell McPhee that the Bears may be targeting? — @BearsFanPete

“I don’t know that the McPhee signing was totally under the radar last season. He was regarded as an up-and-coming player with the Ravens who was ready for a bigger role. Chiefs defensive end Jaye Howard emerged as a pretty good player the last two seasons when he was thrust into a starting role. He could make sense for the Bears in free agency and probably will not come cheaply. If the Bears are seeking a veteran to add to the offensive line, Steelers guard Ramon Foster could be an attractive target but he’s already 30. I’m not sure if the Bears will be in the market for a veteran safety but both Bengals starters Reggie Nelson and George Iloka are coming out of contract and have been productive players.”

Though I don’t know how “under the radar” it would be, my first thought was about the guard position. Admittedly, this is a place where you’d typically think draft but the free agent class is deep and general manager Ryan Pace comes from the Saints, an organization that believes in emphasizing strength up the middle on the offensive line. He may think paying a free agent guard would be worth the money.

Some possible names of younger players to keep in mind that you may or may not be familiar with include Houston’s Brandon Brooks and Jeff Allen from Kansas City. Though he’s 33 years old and, therefore, not the kind of signing I would typically expect at this stage, Pro Bowler Richie Incognito redeemed himself last year with Buffalo and he’ll hit the market.

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