How Big Is the Need at Strong Side Linebacker?

Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune answers your questions.

Is the Bears’ starting middle linebacker on the roster yet? If not, how do you see that position being filled? — @mike__chicago

I expect Nicholas Morrow or Roquan Smith to fill the middle and weak-side linebacker positions. The team hasn’t announced a decision on how they will be aligned yet. You can’t rule out the possibility in certain situations they would flip. Depth is still needed but right now linebacker is one position the Bears are in pretty good shape.

Yes, this question of what the Bears need to do at linebacker is an interesting one. Given that the Bears plan to spend a lot of time in the nickel defense, you might claim that two starters are really all they need. However I would point out that new head coach Matt Eberflus said directly that he believes that strong side linebacker is an important part of the defense that he plans to run. In particular, he thought that finding a strong side linebacker who could slip inside in the nickel might be important. This could indicate that either Morrow or Smith may be moved to the bench when the Bears are in the nickel at least sometimes.

I recently participated in a mock draft where I was stuck in an interesting position with the second of the Bears second round picks. The best player on the board by a fairly big margin was Georgia linebacker Quay Walker. Even though I didn’t consider it to be a strong need for the Bears, I did consider it to be a need and I went ahead and selected him.

Something tells me that GM Ryan Poles might get roasted if he does something similar. But you wouldn’t see much criticism from me. I have a feeling that the third linebacker spot is very much in their plans and that it might be a bigger need than most fans in media members state.

Free Agency Is Not a Good Way to Build a Football Team Even When You Have the Cap Space to Spend

Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune answers your questions.

I see this season and next as being a rebuild. Evaluate the players on the roster in Year 1 and gut it again and fill out the roster with a bunch of one-year free-agent deals. Is 2024 when we can expect the Bears to compete again? — @illini8208

There’s no question the Bears are in the beginning stages of a rebuild, and with so many players being added to the roster this year on one-year contracts, there will be considerable overhaul again in 2023. The hope, of course, is that a handful of players they have added will emerge as good fits and be re-signed. The Bears will have a full complement of draft picks next year, and depending on how they advance on offense this season — assuming they do — they could be considerably improved in 2023, when [GM Ryan] Poles will have a ton of salary-cap flexibility to be more aggressive in free agency. The key will be seeing what kind of roots the team can put down on offense and defense in the year ahead.

I tend to agree with this in so far that I think I understand what the Bears are doing this year. They showed that they were willing to spend in spots where they thought they saw value with Larry Ogunjobe. But this is a rebuild year.

Where I hope I differ with many fans and media members is in guessing what the team wants to do in year two. After $45 million in dead cap comes off the books, many understand that the Bears will likely have a lot of space, though perhaps not as much as many people think after they fill out their entire roster this year.

What I think many people expect that the Bears will go on free agents free next year. I hope that that is not the case. I hope what they are planning to do is to spend money to retain players that they signed this year that work out and that they like. But I would hate to see them overpay and blow all kinds of cash on veteran free agents.

Free agency is not a good way to build a football team. The Bears need to develop the players that they are signing and drafting and get them to the point where they want to resign their own. I hope that next year will be the beginning of that process.

Drafting for Need? How Could the Bears Not Draft for Need?

Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune answers your questions.

“With so many needs going into the draft, will Ryan Poles double up on any position? — @joe_vizo”

“I will be as direct as I can: It’s way more important for Poles to find players who can be contributors than it is for him to fill specific roster ‘needs’ that you and I can identity right now. Fast forward to the spring of 2024, and no one will look at his draft picks from this year and say, ‘Hey, they got these two guys and they plugged holes in 2022.’ We will look at the 2022 class and ask how many of those players are in a position to help the team win in 2024. Could they double up on certain positions? Sure. Are there positions where they need two or more players? No question. What’s most important is finding players who can stick and be part of the future — no matter what position they play.

I totally agree with this but I think it’s important to point out here that “drafting for need“ is something that the Bears will be doing almost no matter who they take in the draft this year.

There are generally two ideal approaches to the draft. You can plug all of your holes in free agency and then take the best player available. If you are a competitive team in good shape, this is the path you take. However, if you are a team like the Bears, you go for door number two. You leave all of your needs open and then take the best player available at a position of need. And, boy, do the Bears have needs.

They need players that all three levels of the defense, they need wide receivers and they need offensive lineman. There’s almost nowhere other than running back and quarterback where they won’t be looking for an upgrade drafting for depth at either of those positions is not out of the question. It’s really unlikely that the best player available won’t be filling a need.

Let’s All Welcome Cliff Stein Back to the Negotiating Table

Adam Jahns at The Athletic writes about his take always from an interview with GM Ryan Poles at the owner’s meetings.

“Extra point, Part 2: Poles has turned to Cliff Stein, the Bears’ senior vice president/general counsel, to handle player contract negotiations and the salary cap.”

“‘It was really cool to see Cliff back at it,’ Poles said. ‘You could tell he has a lot of respect from the agents from the time he did it before. They were excited to see him and hear his voice. And he has a wealth of knowledge that I know helped me and it helped Matt. And we have a nice little team that we’ve put together. So he was a big part of this.'”

Personally, I was glad to see this. Stein is far more conservative than what was needed in the Ryan Pace era where the Bears were constantly manipulating the cap to put off charges into the future. Stein dates back to the days when the Bears were far more financially responsible and rarely overpaid for a player.

Stein has actually talked to agents during the draft and told them that the Bears wouldn’t take their player without a promise that there wouldn’t be a hold out. I think we’re going to be back to the days when the Bears were among the first organizations to get all of their draft picks signed.

Aiming for High Draft Picks Through Poor Performance Is a Loser’s Game

Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune answers your questions.

What’s worse for the next two years? The Bears stink and Justin Fields plays poorly and they get a top-three pick or Fields does great, the Bears win six to eight games and a first-round pick next year between 15 and 17? I feel like both are lose/lose. — @nieldan20112581

No one said digging out of the current predicament would be easy. This is certainly a glass-half-empty outlook at the near future. I don’t think the Bears will be great in 2022 by any stretch, but they’ll have to be especially poor — with what appears to be a much easier schedule than the 2021 slate — to have a top-three pick. If they’re that bad, quarterback play will be a major problem, the defense will be significantly worse and injuries likely will be a huge issue. If Fields “does great,” there’s no way that’s a lose/lose for the team. That would mean the Bears have taken a massive step toward solving their long-standing quarterback dilemma. That’s the biggest issue they face, and there are a lot of questions for Fields and the offense in 2022 because he struggled as a rookie. I guess your sweet spot is Fields plays well and the Bears have a lousy record and get a high pick in the 2023 draft. If you’re rooting for the team, you have to want the quarterback to play as well as he can. If that means a middle-of-the-pack pick in 2023, great. It beats the alternative of Fields playing poorly and quarterback being a huge issue again at this time next year.

I have always thought that fans who believe in losing to get higher draft picks are barking up the wrong tree. As a fan of a team, I think you should always root for the team to win.

This perception that your team is going to be much better because they’re drafting higher is simply not correct. Time and again its been shown that tanking doesn’t work. The Miami Dolphins didn’t go to the playoffs last year. The Browns tore their team apart for multiple years to lose and to attain more, higher draft picks. they are hardly world beaters.

If you are a bad organization, tanking won’t help you. You’ll blow the picks and fail to develop your players no matter where you drat them. On the other hand, if you are a good organization, you don’t have to tank. You’ll find good players no matter where you draft.

I think we can all hope that the Bears win as many games as possible this year and, more importantly, they turn out to be the kind of organization under the new leadership that can find and develop players without feeling that they need to improve their draft position by losing. On the other hand, if they do feel that is the way to build a team then I will consider it to be a very bad sign.

Ryan Poles and the Art of the Deal

Adam Jahns along with Kevin Fishbain at The Athletic reviews George McCaskey‘s comments to the media at the owners meetings.

McCaskey: ‘Well, that’s where I’ve been impressed with ([GM Ryan] Poles’) discipline because he was very calculated in how he assessed various players that were available as unrestricted free agents and the limit financially that he was willing to go to with each player. He stuck to his plan and I was impressed with that.

‘That’s where I come back to his quality of being self-possessed. There’s something about him. It’s really difficult for me to put my finger on, but he’s very confident and exudes that, and I think the other people on the staff pick up on it.'”

Jahns: I couldn’t help but think of Pace and his spending habits when McCaskey made these remarks. Pace and Joey Laine, his director of football administration, set their price parameters for free agents, too. But whether Pace’s attempts to give John Fox some veterans to work with or Pace’s pursuit of the Bears’ next quarterback, it can also be argued that the team went outside of those parameters to add personnel. You always overpay in free agency. Poles said that himself. Pace once described free agency as “treacherous waters” but the Bears also were a bad team that had to overpay in order to land certain free agents. Look at the Jaguars. They have to do the same seemingly every year.

I totally agree with Jahns here. My understanding is that agents jumped for joy when they found out that the Bears were involved in the bidding for one of their players. Sure, its possible that Pace set parameters on a player and then decided what they were worth. But Pace fell in love with players and I’m convinced that he basically decided that when he wanted someone he simply wouldn’t be out bid. This is ordinarily something that you hear GMs say that you should not do. Pace did it constantly.

There’s been a lot of talk about the philosophies that Matt Eberflus brings to the Bears and how they are a return to the days of Lovie Smith. But right now I’m being reminded far more of returning to the days of Jerry Angelo when the Bears were known to never overpay for a player.

The art of the deal involves always being willing to walk away from the negotiating table. Right now I’d say that Poles understands that is sometimes the only responsible way to build an organization.

The Bears Front Office Is Apparently Setting Expectations Appropriately

Adam Jahns at The Athletic reviews George McCaskey’s comments to the media at the owners meetings along with Kevin Fishbain.

McCaskey: ‘Well, the goal every year is to win a Super Bowl. We saw last year how the Bengals can go from last in their division to playing in the Super Bowl and coming darn close to winning the whole thing. So what we’re looking for is progress. How are they putting the team together? How are they working together? Are we moving forward? Are we doing the right things? Are we doing them in the right way? And again, looking forward to seeing the results.

Jahns: This was the first time in the Poles era that McCaskey used his line about winning the Super Bowl every year. He’s used it in the past. McCaskey, though, made an effort to temper them. And I felt that was notable. It’s important in terms of not only setting the right expectations for himself and his team but also maintaining them for this season and next. [GM Ryan] Poles’ moves this offseason — starting with trading Khalil Mack to the Charters — indicate that a rebuild of sorts is happening at Halas Hall. McCaskey would never use that “R” word. But he seemingly knows what’s happening with his team.”

It is indeed notable that McCaskey tempered his statement about competing for the Super Bowl every year. One of the things that Ryan Pace did very poorly with the Bears was managing expectations. He seemed to want to set the expectations for the team high in order to push them to meet those expectations. I think that’s OK in the locker room. But its a dangerous business when you are doing it with the public.

When you are also setting expectations for the team’s fans and when the team doesn’t perform to the expectations that you have set, it resulted in major disappointment. All of the sudden 8-8 with a first round playoff loss which might have been a sign that the team was competitive under Lovie Smith isn’t good enough. You can’t claim that its a step along the way where the organization continues to learn and get better anymore because you’ve already publicly declared it to be a finished product.

Poles seems to be doing a better job of setting the expectations for the team this year and, if I were to guess, he will do a better job in years to come. He understands that if he wants to handle the free agent market in a sane manner that he is embarking in a long process.

This is especially true because he is short on draft picks this year. It is true, as McCaskey said, that the Bengals turned their fortunes around very quickly. But they had very high draft picks in two straight drafts that allowed them to do that. The Bears will not have that luxury.

Eventually you hope that this team will make the playoffs and compete for a Super Bowl every year. But fans and to a certain extent media have to understand that that may take a long time if they are going to properly set the foundation and do it right.

Setting expectations for the team internally is one thing. Setting public expectations appropriately as something else altogether. The early signs are that perhaps Poles understands the difference.

The Implications of Matt Eberflus’s Proposed Heavy Use of the Nickel Defense

Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune addresses take always from the session that Bears head coach Matt Eberflus had with the media at the owners meetings.

“When asked if there is a candidate on the roster to play strong-side linebacker, Eberflus said he wasn’t sure. Ideally, the Sam linebacker would have the ability to slide inside, if needed, as a reserve. He said he doesn’t anticipate the Bears being in their base package too much, saying they could use a nickel cornerback as much as 85% of the time.

“That highlights the need at the position as the Bears are without a clear nickel or starter opposite Jaylon Johnson. They haven’t added a cornerback in free agency, although there wasn’t a particularly deep group of options. Eberflus had one of the top nickels in the NFL in Indianapolis with Kenny Moore, a former undrafted free agent. Moore is one of the many young players who really developed under Eberflus and his defensive staff.”

Thomas Graham Jr., Kindle Vildor and Duke Shelley have experience, but they will almost certainly have to compete against multiple options for playing time.

“Obviously we need to add some pieces there, and we’re excited about doing that,” Eberflus said. “Those guys have been working hard in the offseason. And we’re excited to get our hands on them and see what they could do.

If the Bears are really going to spend 85% of their time in the nickel defense then that’s going to have a lot of implications in terms of the players that they choose to join the team in the off-season. Eberflus went on to talk about what he is looking for in terms of coverage skill level for his cornerbacks. But my first thought was that the Bears are going to have to worry extensively about being able to stop the run in that defensive formation. That leads me to a few thoughts:

  1. As Eberflus pointed out, you need a versatile strong side linebacker. You might think that the Bears will pick up a strong side linebacker that will simply come out in the nickel formation. That is usually what happens because teams usually play the nickel in passing situations and strong side linebackers are typically the worst in coverage of the three positions. But in the Bears case, they may very well want to keep the strong side linebacker on the field for his ability to stop the run. It is entirely possible that, though the Bears are in nickel, on a down where the probability of a run is higher than normal they will want to keep the strong side linebacker in rather than the weak side or middle linebacker for his ability to stop the run.
  2. As Biggs pointed out, the choice of nickel back is going to be critical as well. You’re going to want a nickel who is more than the little quick guy who can cover slot receivers. You’re going to want a guy who can stick his nose in and stop the run. I don’t think the Bears have that guy on the roster right now. So I think that, though wide receiver and cornerback to pair with Johnson has to be among the early priorities in the draft, we can look for the Bears to draft somebody who they feel can play the nickel in the middle rounds. Perhaps even higher than that.
  3. One formation that has become increasingly popular in the NFL over the last 5 to 10 years is the “big nickel”. This is a nickel formation where the extra defensive back is a safety rather than a quarterback. This may very well be what Eberflus has in mind depending upon the down and distance. It would allow the Bears to be effective in stopping the run while keeping the mobility and coverage skills of a defensive back on the field. I don’t have the statistics in terms of frequency but the big nickel is certainly something that Eberflus employed with the Colts.

The Plan for Robert Quinn

Kevin Fishbain at The Athletic answers your questions.

Haven’t heard much buzz about Robert Quinn. What is the likelihood the Bears are looking to trade him, is there a likely timeframe of when it would happen, and what would his price be? — Joseph P.

Between Quinn and Khalil Mack, it always made more sense to move Mack, but that trade had to put everyone on alert — including Quinn. While nothing should surprise me … I’d be slightly surprised if they traded Quinn. He’s familiar with this defense and should thrive in it coming off a season in which he set the franchise record with 18 sacks. I’m not sure how excited [head coach Matt] Eberflus would be entering the season with Trevis Gipson and Al-Quadin Muhammad as his starting defensive ends.

Though there would undoubtedly be a market for Quinn, I don’t think that the idea was ever to completely denude the Bears of talent. Admittedly at 32 years old when the season starts, he probably doesn’t fit the younger, rising talent that the Bears are looking for right now. Because Quinn is older and his salary is almost $13 million, you’d have a hard time convincing me that the Bears would get more than a fourth round pick for him.

Trading Quinn before June 1 would leave $12.7 million in dead cap money. That becomes a more manageable $8.5 million next year when the Bears might a) have a replacement and b) consider it worth taking the hit to dump the $14 million in salary that he would make at the age of 33. I’d say look for a trade then. But if it happens, don’t expect much.

What Are the Implications of the Ryan Bates Offer Sheet?

Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune discusses the signing of Bills guard Ryan Bates to an offer sheet.

General manager Ryan Poles has pledged to upgrade the offensive line, and the Bears signed Green Bay Packers interior offensive lineman Lucas Patrick to a two-year, $8 million deal. They also signed veteran Dakota Dozier to a one-year contract. Patrick said he expects to play center.

The Bears need to replace right guard James Daniels, who left for the Pittsburgh Steelers in free agency, and have to determine a plan at left tackle. Adding Bates would give them a potential starter at guard.

A few thoughts here.

  1. The Bills have about $49,120 in cap space according to overthecap.com. They tendered Bates at $2.433 million. So the Bears might be offering something in that area per year or a bit more over 2 or 3 years. The deal would almost certainly have to be front loaded to make it difficult for the Bills to make space to match.
  2. I think that it’s interesting that the Bears are concentrating on the interior of the offensive line. That might be because good young tackles are hard to find in free agency. But it makes me wonder what the plan is at the position. Are the happy with the tackles that they have? Or will they address the position in the draft? I have to think the latter. Certainly Tevin Jenkins and Larry Borom did not show enough last year to make anyone confident that they will fill the two positions adequately. And I’m unsure of how they fit into the new outside zone blocking scheme, especially Borom.
  3. On a related note, I’m unsure of what all this activity at guard and center means for Cody Whitehair. Whitehair is still young but he’s paid good money. That’s because former GM Ryan Pace out an emphasis in the position. He followed the New Orleans model of sinking the salary cap into good guards to keep the pocket clean and allow the quarterback to step up. But Poles may feel differently about the matter and may prefer to pay his offensive tackles. Its possible that these signings will all compete for two available spots on the interior of the line. But, having said that, could Whitehair be traded for draft picks? Or could he be moved to tackle, a position that he played in college? These questions are worth considering.