Ten Thoughts on the Bears after the First Week of Training Camp

As we finish the first week of training camp, here are ten thoughts on the Bears as they approach the pre-season.

1.  One of the players I’m most interested in following this offseason is Khari Lee.  Lee spent most of the season on the roster last year as a blocking tight end.  This year he’s in line to compete seriously for the second tight end spot behind fragile starter Zach Miller and the Bears need him to come through.

It didn’t help that Lee left the first training camp practice with a sprained AC joint.  However he’s back practicing with the team and, therefore, probably won’t be hurt by the set back as long as he doesn’t lose any more time.

General Manager Ryan Pace gave up a draft pick to get Lee last year as training camp broke and I have to believe he did so with the idea that Lee would be more than he currently has shown himself to be.  How he develops in the passing game will be a major factor in his future with the team.

2.  Bears head coach John Fox obviously isn’t being easy on these guys in training camp.  Former Bears he’d coach Lovie Smith in particular was notorious for running easy camps, especially late in his tenure.  Player’s coach Marc Trestman wasn’t much tougher.  But Fox apparently isn’t of the same mind.  Despite the heat index only being about 80 degrees on Thursday, Leonard Floyd, outside linebacker Roy Robertston-Harris and tackle Nick Becton each left the session because of illness.

“It’s a good indoctrination into training camp,” Fox said. “They don’t have the added weight. … Everyone is carrying 12 pounds extra (in pads). But all in all I thought our guys came back in pretty good shape. We’re not all there yet, but it was a good start.”

3.  As Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune points out, the competition along the interior of the offensive line will be fierce this season as four players, Hronis Grasu, Cody Whitehair, Ted Larsen and Amini Silatolu, compete for two spots, left guard and center.  Kyle Long is established as the right guard, assuming he is healthy when the season starts.

That’s all fine.  Competition brings out the best in players and, though you could try to bring in someone to compete at right guard with Long as well, no one would really take that seriously.

The problem is at tackle where Charles Leno and Bobby Massie literally have no one to compete with them.  These guys are not Kyle Long.  Massive is an average starter at best and, though Leno played well when the Bears finally moved him to left tackle last year, there’s no guarantee he’ll do it again.  The Bears really don’t even have a swing tackle with Nick Becton being the front runner for the job.

Unless someone emerges, the depth at this position looks very shaky.

4.  Having said that, I’m completely stunned that a Bears offensive line that ranked sixteenth overall by Pro Football Focus after last year’s season ended is now thirtieth in their preseason rankings going into the season this year.

This is a unit that moved Long back to right guard where he belongs and, in essence, replaced last year’s starters at that spot, who clearly didn’t belong starting in the league, with Bobby Massie who moves in for Long at right tackle.  Yes, they lost Matt Slauson at left guard but between Ted Larsen and rookie Cody Whitehair, the Bears have replaced him with players who better fit the scheme that they want to run.

Charles Leno starts the season at left tackle and that seems to be the thing that has outside observers most worried.  My opinion is closer to that of Adam Jahns at the Chicago Sun-Times.

“I don’t think he’s the question mark others make him out to be. Last year was his first as a starter, and he’s a seventh-round pick. He had good moments last year despite being in a new offense and facing capable pass rushers (i.e. Aldon Smith, Ziggy Ansah, Tamba Hali). But Leno’s development is essential.”

I would agree.  Leno obviously player much better last year once he moved from right tackle to the left and was a steady presence.

Even then, in terms of the PFF ranking, Leno finished the season in that position for the Bears and should be the reason for the down grade.

The Bears offensive line improved over the offseason and I see no reason why this group won’t be, at minimum, as good as the middle of the road unit that finished 2015 for the Bears.

5.  As usual, fans and media are mildly upset with John Fox as he won’t put a time frame on Long’s recovery from a calf strain.

“I don’t put time frames [on injuries] because I don’t know, so I can’t tell you,” Fox said after practice Friday at Olivet Nazarene. “We just take it day by day. When our medical people deem him healthy, he’ll be back. But they have all that [including an MRI] at their disposal.”

Having said that, it is being reported that the injury is not severe and that his return to practice should come some time this week.  That’s a relief.  Recovery times for muscle strains are highly variable and offer a huge risk of recurrent and more severe injuries when players return to play before they’re 100% recovered.  They can be frustrating to deal with.

Here’s hoping the team has it right and Long is back fully healthy sooner rather than later.

6.  One of the things about quarterback Jay Cutler that I believe may be under appreciated is ho smart he is.  Long raves about this aspect of Cutler’s personality in this interview with the Chicago Tribune.

“You look at his ability to learn and it’s special. You see a lot of quarterbacks and they hit that mental plateau. Jay never stops learning. It’s cool. It’s like when Neo was in the Matrix and all of a sudden it’s “Oh, I know kung fu now.” Well, Jay is that way. The guy learns new stuff all the time. That’s what makes him great.”

This brings the question.  Is Cutler actually too smart?

You have to wonder if Cutler’s intelligence isn’t one reason he has such a hard time getting along with his coordinators.  His problems with Marc Trestman need no review but Cutler’s history is a long one of struggling to respect his offensive coaches from Mike Martz to Mike Tice.  And its hard to respect someone who is ostensibly in charge when you are sure you know better than they do what needs to be done.  Bottom line, Cutler didn’t think these men could help him get better.

After establishing a good working relationship with former offensive coordinator Adam Gase last year, Cutler is back on a new horse with Dowell Loggains.

Loggains is known to be quite vocal during practice and that may not be a good thing if Cutler figures that he’s close to Mike Tice than Adam Gase.  Its obvious that Cutler doesn’t suffer fools and there’s nothing like having someone you don’t respect yelling what you think is nonsense at you and your teammates.

Bears fans better hope that the relationship Loggains established with Cutler as quarterback coach last year becomes stronger as he transitions into the coordinator role this season.  Because if it goes the other direction, things could deteriorate quicker than usual.

7.  As Hub Arkush at Pro Football Weekly talks about the five players he believes are key to the Bears rebuilding plan he offhandedly makes this statement:

“They swung and missed on [safety Antrel] Rolle and [wide receiver Eddie] Royal;”

The feeling on Rolle is one I’m in touch with.  He was only with the Bears one year, played in only 7 games and was slow to the ball at that.

But Royal is a different kettle of fish.  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.  Once the Bears moved him from the outside into the slot where he belonged in the game against the Raiders last year, he had 6 receptions for 80 yards that game after getting only 12 for 117 yards total for the first three games before that.

Royal could turn out to be a good signing yet if he stays healthy and the Bears continue to put him into the best position to succeed.

8.  Give Alshon Jeffery some credit.  He has really handled questions about his contract well, calmly answering questions with quiet confidence that if he plays well it will all work out in the end.  The only quibble I have with Jeffery’s behavior is that he failed to show up for voluntary offseason workouts.  Had he done so and allowed the Bears to monitor his conditions and progress, he might have a long-term contract right now.  And, having signed his franchise tender, the Bears are paying him a lot of scratch this year.  The least he could have done is showed up to earn it.

Having said that, we aren’t talking about a Martellus Bennett situation here.  Jeffery seems to be on board with the team and all may be set up well for a good season for both him and the team if he stays healthy.

9.  I think everyone was glad to see Willie Young get a 2 year contract extension last week.  You, who was entering the last year of his contract with the Bears and had out performed it, offered preparation was one of the secrets to his success in the NFL.

“Guys that had been playing 10-12 years — I came in as a rookie, they’re taking 10 times more notes than I’m taking. I’m trying to figure out what’s going on. I learned that early on in my career. That’s part of my success right now, I mean that is my success. That’s the only way that I know how to play the game.”

The Bears pass rush is being under-estimated nationally and maybe even locally.  Most outside observers will acknowledge the talent and skill of Pernell McPhee and will recognize the importance of first round draft pick Leonard Floyd.  But few recognize the accomplishments of Young and Lamarr Houston last year.

Both men struggled to fully recover from injuries that they incurred last season.  Down the stretch, though, Young had at least one sack in each game from Weeks 11 through 15, finishing the season with 6.5 sacks overall.  Similarly, Houston had seven of his eight sacks in the final nine games.

If Houston and Young can continue the pace they set late last season and perform throughout the year, the Bears will have a formidable set of outside linebackers to deal with this year.

10.  One Final Thought from Patrick Finley at the Chicago Sun-Times:

“My new favorite drill: coaches throw white towels at punt returners while they catch the ball. Receiver B.J. Daniels has seen it before. ‘I’ve had towels, bowling balls, basketballs, volleyballs, everything,’ he said. ‘Not bowling balls.’

Not bowling balls?  Really?

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.

Where is the Competition at Offensive Tackle?

John Mulllin at CSNchicago.com 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?

Starters:
Bobby Massie (RT)
Charles Leno (LT)

Others:
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.

Competition on the Offensive Line Will Span Multiple Positions

Kevin Fishbain at chicagofootball.com 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.