Spring brings renewal and never more so than with major league baseball and spring training. Like most sports, the offseason in baseball is a time to unwind and relax. The suspense builds as another season draws near because fans miss the sport after literally not thinking about it for at least four months.
Not so with professional football, which has a yearly calendar like no other sport. Football fans find interesting things to think about year around and it’s often the happenings in the offseason that introduce the issues that are most interesting to follow as the season begins. Football fans never stop thinking about football.
With that in mind, here are ten thoughts on the Bears offseason midway through free agency.
1. The Bears now have two long snappers on the roster: the newly signed Aaron Brewer and the long snapper that the Bears finished with last year, Patrick Scales. Scales, a journey man who has bounced around the league since he went undrafted to the Baltimore Ravens in 2011, was signed in late November by the Bears to replace Thomas Gafford in as effort to upgrade the position. He’s still on the roster and apparently will be given a chance to compete to win the starting job but it’s now evident that the Bears still aren’t happy with the performance at the position since Patrick Mannelly retired before the 2014 season.
The Bears evidently hope that the 25 year old Brewer, who spent the last four seasons snapping for the Broncos including three under Bears head coach John Fox, will solve the problem though it isn’t obvious that he will have the edge going into camp. It isn’t evident why Brewer was released by the Broncos.
“There are always decisions being made at the end of the season as you get ready for free agency,’’ Broncos coach Gary Kubiak said. “Aaron did a good job for us. … He’s been a consistent snapper. We’ve got to go replace him and it will be tough.’’
Scales is slightly older at 28 and has a salary of only $525,000 this year and none of that is guaranteed while Brewer signed a one-year deal for $760,000, also not guaranteed.
Long-snapper is an underrated position in that you never notice it until something goes wrong. It may be instructive to pay a bit more attention to the fine details this year like the strength of the snap and the ball placement as fans handicap the competition. In the end, though, consistency will be the major factor and that will come across only in camp as each man makes snap after snap under the watchful eye of special teams coordinator Jeff Rogers.
In any case, may the best man win.
2. Two things are worth noting about the Bears approach to free agency this year. The first is that the Bears have been unrelenting in their pursuit of strictly young talent.
Danny Trevathon (26), Jerrell Freeman (29), Bobby Massie (26), Nick Becton (26), Akiem Hicks (26), Jacquizz Rogers (26) and Mitch Unrein (29) are all under the age of 30 and the three major signings (Trevathan, Massie and Hicks) are 26 years old. Only Zack Miller (31) and Tracy Porter (30) are 30 or older and the Bears have extensive experience with both as resignings.
It’s now evident that the Bears are trying to make up for poor drafts in the past in a particular way. Had those drafts from a few years ago been good, the Bears would now be trying to sign their own rather than dipping into free agency. So they’re doing the next best thing – signing young players as if they were signing their own draft picks to second contracts.
The Bears are basically betting on their coaching staff to get these players in and to make them into better values than they were with their previous teams, who chose not to re-sign them.
Given the way the team over achieved last year given their talent, I like the approach.
3. The second thing to note is that the Bears approach to free agency has been a cautious one and, to their credit, they haven’t overpaid for some of the young talent that they’ve signed. But it’s also worth pointing out that they have kept the price down by addressing easy to find needs in free agency.
Inside linebacker has been a major focus and rightfully so. It was a major weakness last year and Trevathan and Freeman will be huge upgrades this season over Shea McClellin and Christian Jones. Addressing right tackle with Massie could pay huge dividends if for no other reason than it move Kyle Long back to right guard, at minimum making that position considerably stronger. Massie will be no worse than Long was last year in his first year at right tackle. and promises to improve the run game considerably.
But holes remain at the hard to find positions, pass rusher, defensive back, and, Unrein and Hicks aside, defensive line where an impact player is still needed.
For instance, assuming the Bears wanted to stay young at the position, the price of a pass rusher would have been unbelievable. Olivier Vernon only had 7.5 sacks last year but signed a contract for an astounding $85 million with $52.5 million guaranteed with the New York Giants. Admittedly most of those sacks came late in the year in an fantastic salary drive in a contract year for Vernon. If he keeps up the pace he finished with, he’ll earn that money. But most people think the Giant overpaid and I tend to agree. It’s a huge risk and the Bears evidently wanted no part of it or anything like it.
Look for the Bears to remain economical by drafting heavily at these positions in April’s main event.
4. Speaking of defensive backs, the Bears apparently liked Tashaun Gipson of the Browns but the sense was his market went higher than they were comfortable with when he signed in Jacksonville for $35.5 million over five years. If the Jaguars get the Gipson that was a Pro Bowl performer in 2014 for the Browns, it’s money well spent. If they get the Gipson that was on the field last year, it’s not going to end well.
This will be a situation to keep an eye on next year as it will interesting to see if the Bears should have pursued Gipson harder, particularly given their troubles at the safety and that they haven’t made any signings to fill the hole.
5. Tight end also remains a position to be addressed in the draft. Khari Lee came over in a trade with the Texans just before the start of last season and Gannon Sinclair was the only player to spend the entire season on the team’s practice squad. Both of them are more blocking tight ends than they are receivers like Zach Miller. Veteran Rob Housler can also block a little.
The obvious assumption is that the Bears will draft a tight end this year and though the draft is thin at the position, there is talent to be found there. It’s just a risky pick because very few players are asked to block in the spread offenses that are predominant in college.
In particular, Ohio State’s Nick Vannett impressed me at the Senior Bowl as a guy who has the skills to be a receiving threat and at 6’6″, 260 lb, has at least the size to be a blocker.
The 6’4″, 230 lb Lee was a disappointment last year. He came for a sixth round pick and the assumption was the he would contribute immediately. He did play in each of the 16 games but his impact on the offense was minimal. Apparently last year was a red shirt year for the 24 year old and I’m looking for a major jump from Lee this year.
6. One major reason that the Bears are remaining economical in free agency is that they have the contract for Alshon Jeffery yet to be worked out. The efforts to resign Jeffery are ongoing and persistent.
“We’re actively and aggressively negotiating right now,” Pace declared at NFL scouting combine.
The Bears placed a $14 million-plus franchise tag on Jeffery on Feb. 29. The fact that Jeffery signed that offer was critical to his offseason because his salary is now fully guaranteed against skill, injury and salary cap maneuvers. If he gets hurt, he still gets paid. Though Jeffery might still fail to show up for workouts because his salary will not be guaranteed beyond this year, the fact that he signed the offer indicates to me that he probably will. Otherwise there’s little reason to sign the offer and give up the right to negotiate with other teams.
Jeffery has had soft tissue problems over the last few years and there is a plan in place to solve the issue.
“I think being in Year 2 with a player helps a lot in just understanding his body and his body mechanics,” 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.”
It is. And getting Jeffery in for those workouts will undoubtedly be a part of it.
Dez Bryant signed a 5 year contract for $70 million with $45 million guaranteed before the 2015 season and Jeffery’s contract will likely equal or exceed that. Presumably some of that will appear as easy to reach incentives for Jeffery to remain with the program to avoid injury.
7. Look for Jeffery’s contract to be at least a little front-loaded in terms of the cap hit.
First, this is the way that the Bears like to work anyway. It allows them to easily get out of any contract with minimal dead money on the cap. But there is an even better reason for it this year than that.
The last season of Long’s four year rookie contract is 2016. Though the Bears will undoubtedly pick up Long’s fifth year option, it is highly unlikely that they will allow him to play out that contract and hit the market in 2018.
The Bears are undoubtedly thinking about the extension that they’ll be negotiating for Long next offseason and they are planning their cap space, which should still be ample, accordingly.
8. The running back situation for the Bears is a curious one.
The Bears spent a good part of the offseason convincing us that their future lay with 2015 fifth round pick Jeremy Langford and hold over Ka’Deem Carey. For a long time there was doubt that Carey would remain on the team but his development on special teams allowed the Bears to get him onto the game day roster the second half of the season and he responded by running well. Rogers was actually ahead of Carey on the depth chart last year before getting hurt.
The Bears will undoubtedly continue to favor the multi-back system that they ran last year and based upon their comments the assumption was that Langford, Carey and Rogers were the guys.
But the Bears pursuit of Denver running back C.J. Anderson changed all of that and many are wondering now if they might be interested in picking up another running back in the draft.
Indeed, Pace has a history of collecting running backs and he’s been known to pull major surprises by drafting players such as Mark Ingram in the first round of the 2011 draft (under general manager Mickey Loomis).
With this in mind, I’ve seen some thoughts floated that the Bears might draft Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott. Indeed, the NFL Network‘s Charles Davis has Elliot going to the Bears with the 11th pick.
but I very much doubt that will happen as my gut tells me that Elliot will be gone before the Bears are on the clock. Although there are some who think that it is a mistake to draft a running back that high, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if Elliot isn’t the reason why the Eagle traded up with the Dolphins to the eighth position as free agency began this year.
Many have looked at where Todd Gurley was drafted last year and figured that is the highest Elliot will go, putting the Bears in a position to draft him but I don;t believe it. Gurley is a wonderful runner but Elliot is a smooth, all around athlete that can do it all: run block and catch. He’s not just a running back. He’s a weapon.
I might add that after years of being de-valued, the running back position is experiencing something of a renaissance this year. Anderson, Matt Forte, Chris Ivory, Chris Johnson, Doug Martin, Lamar Miller, and Bilal Powell to name a few all got signed in a decent market this year.
The Eagles have already traded running back Demarco Murray and they have reportedly made it known that remaining running back Ryan Matthews is also available. Though Andy Reid often threw the ball an inordinate amount of the time as the Eagles head coach, he relied much more heavily on the run when current head coach Doug Pederson was his offensive coordinator in Kansas City. Expectations are that Pederson will carry that philosophy over from the Chiefs. But that can’t happen if he trades his starting running backs away. The bet here is that he has Elliot in mind as a replacement and will draft him at eighth overall.
9. The NFL’s 32 owners were busy when they convened in Florida last week for their annual meeting given the number of proposed rule changes that had to be considered.
One rule that is not changing despite a mass of confusion is the catch rule.
One of the most memorable quotes of the 2015 season was uttered by frustrated Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy after a playoff game against Arizona in January.
“I don’t know what the hell a catch is anymore,” he said. “It’s ridiculous.”
Despite this statement and many like it, the NFL persists in believing that the relevant people associated with the league understand the rule. They believe that the problem might simply be in communicating the rule more clearly to fans and to the broadcasters who influence their opinion.
The league might continue to delude itself but the rest of us are more apt to believe the evidence of our eyes.
The good news is that, despite their declarations, the league might be taking steps to clarify the situation for the referees on the field. The first of those was having Dean Blandino on the phone for replay reviews to inject some consistency into the interpretation.
In January, during the divisional round playoff game between the Packers and Cardinals to which McCarthy is referring above, Arizona receiver Larry Fitzgerald caught a pass while going to the ground. He lost possession when he hit the ground, and the official on the field determined that Fitzgerald had caught the ball. Unlike previous calls which had been reversed in such a situation, this one stood as the referee (and Blandino) ruled that “indisputable visual evidence” to overturn the ruling on the field that Fitzgerald had the ball long enough to become a runner was lacking.
The situation caused confusion because it was exactly the same as one that existed in the playoffs the previous season. In that case, the ruling was incorrectly reversed and Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant was ruled to have not made a crucial catch. It arguably cost them the game.
The truth is that though the league never acknowledged that the Bryant ruling was incorrect, the Fitzgerald catch was effectively an admission of it.
Bottom line, the key to clarifying the catch rule isn’t educating the fans and broadcasters. It’s educating the referees. Once that’s done, the standard will be consistent and complaints will tail off.
10. The Browns have decided to hitch their wagon to Robert Griffin III at quarterback. They signed the still young 26 year old to a two-year, $15 million contract with $6.75 million in total guaranteed money.
Most assume that the Browns will still draft a quarterback with the second overall pick in the 2016 draft and, indeed, they might. Conventional wisdom says that the odds of rediscovering the player that took the league by storm in 2012 are not good. Drafting a quarterback to play behind Griffin, Josh McCown, Connor Shaw and/or Austin Davis to develop for a year would seem to be the way that most teams would play it.
But the Browns aren’t most teams and that may be especially true this year.
The Browns hired Paul DePodesta away from the New York Mets as the team’s chief strategy officer. DePodesta is expected to help members of the team’s player-development, sports-science, high-performance and analytics departments maximize their efforts – think money ball for the NFL.
This development could be a fascinating one because it indicates that the Browns may be going all-in on analytics, something that other teams are experimenting with but which is combined with the more traditional approach to building a team.
So though conventional wisdom says draft a quarterback with the pick, what if the analytics say “No”? There have been plenty of busted quarterbacks drafted in the first round of the draft and its generally ruined multiple careers from the general manager down when it’s happened. What if DePodesta has run the numbers and his version of reality indicates that the odds are better of developing a recycled quarterback into a success?
And better yet, what if he’s right?
Things are never dull with the NFL.