How “Welcome” Will Fuller Be?

Patrick Finley at the Chicago Sun-Times quotes head coach Marc Trestman on the entrance of cornerback Kyle Fuller into the locker room:

“Fuller said he’s looking forward to meeting the team’s veterans in the coming weeks. He had heard from [Tim] Jennings but not [Charles] Tillman.

“’I think we have a very welcoming locker room,’ coach Marc Trestman said. ‘The guys in our locker room know that we won’t be the same team tomorrow…”

“’I’m sure the guys who have been in our locker room will be very welcoming to the guys and get them in a position and show them the way, show them how we do things here.’”

I’m not so sure how “welcoming” Tillman is going to be.  Everyone else might consider it to be a foregone conclusion that Fuller will eventually replace him on the roster but I doubt very much that he sees the Bears having locker room in 2015 without him.  Nickel back or not I’m sure he sees Fuller as the competition and he’s not going to fade into retirement without a fight.

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Kromer, Meyer, and Trestman All Expand Their Responsibilities in 2014

Apparently the Bears have cut the media loose on the coaching staff during their weekend rookie camp after a long vacation away.  Both head coach Mark Trestman and offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer were questioned closely about Kromer’s title change (he’s now just the offensive coordinator and Pat Meyer is the offensive line coach):

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Both coaches emphasized the growth as coaches of both Kromer and Meyer as being the reason for the change.  I’ve little doubt there’s some truth to that.  But something tells me the change was hastened by the fact that Trestman feels the need to spend more time with the defense this season.  That means both Kromer and Meyer have to take on more responsibility.  How well they handle that responsibility will be yet another big factor in how successful the Bears are this year.

Mel Tucker and Reggie Herring Send Conflicting Schematic Signals. Sort of.

Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker did a far ranging interview with Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune on a wide variety of subjects.  Much of the focus was on a few tantalizing details about some of the schematic changes the defense is headed for.  Included amongst the questions was a particularly good one about the possibility that the Bears might show some wide-9.  I really should have thought of that.  Defensive end Jared Allen would be particularly suited to it.

In any case, if I tried to provide all of the relevant quotes I’d end up re-publishing the article which everyone interested should really read in full.  However, even as Tucker left the door wide open to almost everything including the kitchen sink, its worth noting this interview that the Tribune did with linebackers coach Reggie Herring:

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Note at about the 2:25 mark where Herring seems to say that the defense really isn’t changing much:

“And scheme-wise were doing what we’ve always done. That’s really a Mel Tucker question but at the end of the day we haven’t changed anything. We’re just trying to get the right peices of the puzzle together. We’re in the early process and we like the guys we’ve got right now. We’re going in the right direction.”

Indeed, if you read Tucker’s words in the Tribune article carefully, even he puts the brakes on, if ever so slightly:

“[Q:] With all the additions you have on the defensive line, will there be greater variations in terms of the front?

“[A:] We’ll have some alternative fronts. How much or how little we use them is to be determined…”

What will determine how much they use them?  The guess here is that it will all depend upon the players.  Its evident that they feel they have the talent to do what they want.  But, as Tucker points out, its fundamentals and consistency that supersedes everything else:

“[Q:] Was the team as a whole in a tough spot trying to use a defense put into place by the former coaching staff?

“[A:] I don’t think so. I didn’t really see it that way. The X’s and O’s are one thing. It’s really the execution that makes a difference. Technique, fundamentals and being able to win one-on-one and having players who can compete and win on a consistent basis, that is what really makes the schemes come alive and allows you to be able to win and beat good teams.

“At times, that was probably our biggest challenge as the season went along. Not having continuity and trying to find consistent play at all three levels of our defense. That probably superseded scheme, those types of challenges.”

I think that the Bears do, indeed, have big plans for the defense.  But what Herring is trying to get across is that those changes won’t be instantaneous.  The Bears will probably start with the base 4-3 defense they’ve always played, make sure they can play it well, then move on to complicating the players roles.

What the Bears do with the defense is going to be fascinating to watch.  But there can be little doubt that all of this talk of schematic change is over-rated in the end.  What might be most interesting of all won’t be what they do but how quickly they do it.  In the end, how fast the players can digest their new varied and complex roles while avoiding individual breakdowns and giving up the big play will determine how good this defense really will be.

Finding (Dis)Comfort with Teddy Bridgewater

Dan Pompei at Sports on Earth describes how the Minnesota Vikings found comfort with drafting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater:

“Physical skills are necessary to play quarterback, but through the years [offensive coordinator NorvTurner has come to value the mental aspects of the game — learning, communicating and especially visualizing. That’s visualizing where a pass will end up, how a receiver will run a route and what a defensive adjustment will do to a play.

“After the 2007 season, Turner coached the AFC team in the Pro Bowl. One of his quarterbacks was Peyton Manning. As Turner watched a play develop from the sideline, he thought Manning had no chance to make a throw. Wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh was running a seam route, and the coverage was as good as it could have been. Manning was not going to throw the pass, he said to himself. But he did. And he completed it for a 16-yard touchdown.

“Manning knew the exact spot to throw the ball, and the precise speed with which to throw it, so the defender could not get it and the receiver had a chance. The window in that coverage also was a window into Manning’s greatness. Manning, Turner learned, could feel holes opening on the field. And from that point on, Turner would look for that ability whenever he evaluated quarterbacks.

“As Turner watched the tape of Bridgewater this spring, he did not quite see what he saw that day from Manning, arguably the most accomplished passer in history. But he saw intuitive throws, and a feel for how plays would develop.”

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I have a man crush on Bridgewater.  He’s got mobility inside and outside the pocket, a quick release and he can hit a dime at 30 yards on the run.   And above all he plays extremely smart.  The only problems I ever gave any credence to were his average arm strength and slight stature, both over blown in my opinion.

Bridgewater was the consensus opt quarterback coming out of the college football season.  He fell partly because of a bad pro day but it was a lot more than that.  Right about January when the NFL season ends is when coaches start to get involved in the draft process.  Smart ones like Turner value Bridgewater’s assets as things you can’t teach.  But far more often coaches will look at the physical assets of a Blake Bortles and the improvisation of a Johnny Manziel and become enamored with thoughts of what could be instead of what is.

I love Bridgewater and I hate the fact that he ended up in the NFC North.  I watch what he did in a pro-style offense at Louisville and I think I see the potential for greatness.  Evidently Turner did, too.

The Underrated Matt Forte and Other Points of View

  • The writers at the Chicago Tribune are interviewing the former college coaches of the various Bears draft picks. I particularly liked this one from Dan Wiederer with Minnesota defensive backs coach Jay Sawvel on safety Brock Vereen. It went beyond the usual “He’s really, really tough and really really competitive” level.

“Q: What are the areas for improvement that need targeting?

“JS: I think he can become a better blitzer. I think that’s one thing that he’s got to be able to do with some of the things that the Bears are going to ask him to do. He’s had some issues there, false-stepping and things like that, getting off the line on his blitzes and stuff. As a safety, for him, he became really effective. He had a good year at safety (in 2013) until we had to move him. He tackled. He’s surprisingly good in the box. You roll him down in the box and he’s better than average at that. … But I’d say the biggest things with Brock is that he can continue to develop his ball skills. I think there are times out there when he fights a higher, deeper ball. That’s something he’ll need to continue to improve on. He does track balls pretty well. He does break on balls pretty well. And he’s a really disciplined player. So the one thing about him is if he gets beat on a play, he’s going to be there. You’re just going to have to beat him on that play. That’s the biggest thing. That was a very big relief as a coach. And he helped our other players with that.”

  • Ditto on Rich Campbell‘s interview on quarterback David Fales with San Jose State offensive coordinator Jimmie Dougherty:

“Q: And the completion percentage?

JD: ‘I think being football smart and reading coverages and knowing where to go with the ball is the first part of it. Then, from a physical standpoint, he’s got it. He’s always on balance. His feet are always in the proper place, and his eyes are always in the right place. When you’ve got those two things, you’ve got a really good chance of being accurate with the ball, along with knowing where to go with the ball on each snap.

“‘So he’s a guy that sees down the field. He can feel the rush, slide around the pocket. A lot of guys can throw balls and be accurate if it’s an odd-man situation or a pro day or whatever it is, but he translates exactly what he is in those situations onto real-life game situations—guys rushing after him, having to slide around and keep his balance and move around in the pocket. He’s a good enough athlete to get that done, too, and continue to keep his eyes down the field and make accurate throws.’”

One thing Dougherty repeatedly came back to was Fales mobility in the pocket. That’s one of the things that sets great quarterbacks like Tom Brady apart. Not that I would expect him to be Brady. But I consider this to be a good sign.

“Who on the roster should be worried about their job based on the draft? — @gcflatt from Twitter

“The NFL is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business. With the exception of a few elite players with major contracts, every player is being pushed on the roster for a job. The Bears certainly added needed depth on the interior of the defensive line and that should push a veteran like Israel Idonije. The selection of offensive lineman Charles Leno Jr. in the seventh round probably pushes James Brown and Eben Britton. No question cornerbacks Kelvin Hayden and Isaiah Frey will be challenged more with the addition of first-round pick Kyle Fuller. Running back Michael Ford has a challenge from fourth-round pick Ka’Deem Carey. The challenges are across the board.

I’ve heard some rumbling amongst the fans who think that Idonije’s job might be in jeopardy. His age (33) works agains thin but the Bears brought Idonije back because of his versatility. He can play both tackle and end and he fits what the Bears are trying to accomplish on defense. I wouldn’t count him out.

“Soon after the Jets made their final draft selection Saturday, Coach Rex Ryan spoke for every coach or general manager or scouting director in the league.

“‘Did we get everybody we wanted?’ he said. ‘As far as you guys know, we did.'”

One Final Thought

Running back Matt Forte might be the most under-appreciated player in Bears history.

Bears Roster Moves Likely Still Aren’t Over

Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune answers your questions:

“Out of the eight draft picks and nine undrafted rookie free agents, the Bears came away with only one safety. Are they set at safety? — @rodegu from Twitter

“The Bears feel better about their collection of players at safety than their fans do, but let’s wait and see how this plays out. There are three ways in which more players could become available. First, we’re already seeing teams make cuts, shedding veterans that became expendable following the draft. Second, we’ll see more cuts in June with some possibly being for cap reasons and others because veterans have been pushed aside by younger players. Third, there will be an even larger group of players hitting the street in August and the first few days of September when roster cuts happen. Don’t overlook the fact the Bears will be looking at every name that comes across the waiver wire. I would pay particular attention to safeties, tight ends and maybe even a veteran running back or veteran quarterback.”

Two points in support of Biggs, here:

  1. Yes, Chris Conte had a bad, bad year last year. But let’s not forget that he did very well at safety the year before. The Bears haven’t given up on him and neither should the fans.
  2. I heard relentless criticism of the Bears for not taking a safety right up until the Brock Vereen pick. Most asked, “if the draft was going according to plan, why didn’t the Bears sign a safety in free agency?” The answer, as Biggs points out, is that free agency isn’t over yet. Many of those teams that reached for safeties in the draft will be releasing veterans soon. In addition, there may also have already been some out there that the Bears like but they wanted to see who fell to them on the draft first before signing them. Bottom line the Bears aren’t finished over hauling their roster yet.

What the Bears Draft Picks Tell Us about the 2014 Defense and Other Points of View

  • Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune interviews current LSU and former Bears defensive line coach Brick Haley about second round pick Ego Ferguson:

“Q: Does he project as a nose tackle in this defense in your opinion?

“BH: “I would think so. I am not sure what they are going to do. I think he can be a three-technique. He can do them both, and that is one of the good things about him.”

The key word used to describe almost every Bears pick in this draft was “versatility”. When describing Bears first round pick Kyle Fuller general manager Phil Emery used the word at least three times in less than 20 minutes. Area scout Jay Muraco emphasized it. As if it was all part of a script, even Fuller’s college coach, Torrian Gray, used it and Fuller himself used the term at least twice in describing himself.

The choice of Ferguson has important implications in terms of what kind of defense we can expect to see from the Bears this year. Most people understand how versatility would be important when choosing a defensive back. But it isn’t as obvious when considering a defensive lineman. The fact that Ferguson can play both inside and outside is important. Ferguson himself said that the Bears asked him if he could play a two technique tackle, where he would line up directly over a guard rather than in a gap, leading to the idea that the Bears will play some two gap fronts.

When examined within the context of what the Bears may have planned for this year, the Ferguson pick makes a lot of sense. In fact, in contrast to what most members of the media seem to think, the real surprise came when the Bears took defensive tackle Will Sutton in the next round. Sutton is a tad undersized and promises to be a bit more of a one trick pony as strictly a three technique tackle, though I could even see him as an end in a three man front if it came down to it.

In any case, its now evident that the Bears aren’t kidding around when they say they want to show a variety of defensive looks this year from game to game and from series to series. Its not just words now. Their actions via their draft picks back them up every step of the way.

  • The description of seventh round pick Dan Leno from the Chicago Sun-Times goes a long way towards explaining why the Bears valued him:

“Long-armed, athletic project for Aaron Kromer projected as a versatile backup — at tackle, guard or center — but also has the ability to be more than that in the right situation. Started at RT as a sophomore and LT as a junior and senior. Blocked a FG last season.”

Once again, that word “versatile” is used. Dan Wiederer at the Chicago Tribune had this to say:

“As for Leno, he may face an uphill climb to make the roster. Both of the Bears starting offensive tackles Jermon Bushrod and Jordan Mills figure to be longer-term answers. Other tackles currently under contract include Eben Britton, Joe Long, Rogers Gaines and James Brown.”

I’m not entirely sure Wiederer is correct here. Jordan Mills was at best an adequate right tackle. Its true, you don’t draft a guy in the seventh round expecting him to start. But I, personally, wouldn’t be surprised to see Mills challenged and there’s nothing that I can see that says this guy can’t do it.

  • I thought the interview the Tribune’s Rich Campbell did with Ka’Deem Carey’s college coach, Calvin Magee, was insightful:

“Q: Why is he so hard to tackle?

“CM: First of all, he runs with a passion. He runs hungry. He runs like he’s angry. He don’t like being tackled. (Laughs) He’s a studier of the game. He understands angles, and he uses that. His preparation is just top notch.”

Carey isn’t fast but he looks to me like the kind of guy who has a lot of potential to succeed in the NFL. I strongly suspect that the reason he’s so tough to bring down is his low center of gravity. Shorter, stronger running backs like him are like bowling balls. Its going to be fun to watch him play.

  • Campbell and Wiederer also addressed sixth round pick, quarterback David Fales:

“Phil Emery on May 1 said he didn’t believe in drafting a late-round quarterback with the intent to eventually plan for him to be a starter. But Emery also has said he doesn’t like drafting players with a ceiling. Time will tell which applies best to Fales.“

I would say it’s almost certainly both. The Bears probably had a much higher grade on Fales than the sixth round. They, of course, have no intention of having Fales or anyone else supplant starter Jay Cutler but that doesn’t mean Fales couldn’t develop into a starter quality quarterback. As long as there are bad NFL teams, there will always be quarterback hungry NFL teams. The Bears could develop Fales, have him shine in the back up role, then trade him for value later as the Packers have been known to do for years..

One Final Thought

And finally, scouting punters doesn’t sound like rocket science. Emery via Wiederer and Campbell:

“When you first start scouting, all you’re told is look for the big leg, look for the tall guys, look for the guys where the ball really comes off the foot. And that’s what Patrick [O’Donnell is]  all about. “

Maybe people like you and I could do it after all…

Bears in a Tough Spot at #14

Rich Campbell at the Chicago Tribune reviews his choices for the six defensive players that might be on general manager Phil Emery’s list topic at #14:

Aaron Donald
Ra’Shede Hageman
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
Calvin Pryor
Kyle Fuller
Darqueze Dennard

There isn’t a single one of these guys except Donald that isn’t at least a slight reach at 14. And I’m not at all sure he fits what they’re looking for.

I hate the Bears position in this draft. I hope they can beat the odds and find some way to trade back.

Bears Starting to Look Seriously at Highly Regarded Cornerback Prospects

Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune on the Bears history of drafting cornerbacks:

“If you don’t count Devin Hester, who was listed as a cornerback in 2006 but was drafted as a returner in the second round with the plan to switch him to offense from Day 1, the Bears have not used a pick in the first three rounds on a cornerback since Tillman was a second-round selection in 2003. In the 10 drafts since, 122 corners have been drafted in the first three rounds.

“No other team in the league has gone that long without picking one in rounds 1 through 3.”

“The Bears have been able to go so long without turning their attention to the position because of [CharlesTillman‘s longevity, the success of 2004 fourth-round pick Nathan Vasher and, more recently, free agent find Tim Jennings.”

Another reason is that the Bears were playing a base cover 2 defense for those years.  The cover 2 is predicated on getting a pass rush from the front four and using your defensive backs in zone.  High draft picks are spent on defensive linemen in such a system, not on cornerbacks who won’t be called upon to play much man-to-man coverage.

The fact that the Bears apparently are viewing the position as one that needs to be addressed with more urgency is yet another indication of the changes that are coming in the defensive scheme.  Although Tillman and Jennings are excellent, the Bears are going to continue to need big, athletic cornerbacks who are versatile and can cover in a variety of packages.