Mike Brez

Managing Editor for The Bears Brawl and co-host of The Bears Brawl Podcast.


(Jan. 8, 2018 – Source: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images North America)

The State Of The Union Address has never been easier to report in what could be over 30 years, for the Bears. Coming off a 12-4 season and just falling short of making the ultimate run by the clang of an upright. The Bears are poised to repeat as a NFC strong contender in 2019.

Each year teams across the league prepare to find out how to patch a handful of positions vacant from out going free agents, injuries and poor play. The Bears may stand alone in having the least off season needs, as they stand. The pioneers of football only have 2 starter vacancies on the team, the strong safety and nickel cornerback positions.

It just so happens those positions tend to be the cheapest on the field to fill and 2 of the easier to select starting caliber players in later rounds of the draft. Bears GM Ryan Pace will have ample resources to fill those spots if left vacated by their current holders SS Adrian Amos and NCB Bryce Callahan.

At a Glance the Bears seem to be very limited in cap spacing(around 7 million). But, a closer look will show us after the looming cuts of TE Dion Sims and oft injured OLB Sam Acho. The Bears will regain 8 more million in flash, when they are released. The Bears won’t be thinking about moving on from superstar Khalil Mack any time soon, in the near future. So, they can and probably will covert his salary into a signing bonus spreading it over his current contract years allowing the Bears to open up another 11.5 million in cap space. Now the Bears would be sitting with around 27 million in cap to enter the off season.

27 million and 5 draft picks is more than you need to equip Ryan Pace with to shore up those starter positions and add some depth. The Bears brass will also be future focused, which is generally not the strength of the average fan. Soon will be a new contract on Leonard Floyd, Eddie Jackson, Cody Whitehair, and Mitchell Trubisky. Those contracts will be game changers on how the Bears move forward with other aging players like Kyle Long and Danny Trevathan.

Leaders of the Team on and off the field, but also aging cap hits. Par that with having injury history, it will start to be business decisions with them.

Winning a championship for a team generally has windows of opportunities. The Bears are a shining example of a team sitting smack dab in the middle of one now. 2019 should be an “all chips in” year to get to and win the Superbowl. Looking at the oncoming years and players who will be lost the time is now. With Mitchell Trubisky on a rookie deal, playing at pro-bowl level, that is something you have to push all in on. This is your Time, Chicago Bears.

Room for improvement:

The old saying you’re either growing or failing. The run game unfortunately was not the crown jewel of the 2018 Chicago Bears. You could easily say it was one of the biggest weaknesses. Statistically the running backs themselves did not have great years, the offensive line did not grade out well in the run game, and when the Bears needed to chew the clock the run game stalled. This could certainly be the reason they played in the wild card playoff game with a 12-4 record versus ending up with a first round bye. Has to improve to win it all, this year.

Run:

(Oct. 20, 2018 – Source: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images North America)
Jordan Howard

Not long ago a pro bowler in Chicago, Jordan Howard had his worst season to date in 2018. In the last year of his rookie deal under the new CBA rules he hit his escalator, vaulting his salary up 150% to just over 2 million in 2019. Mid-season there had been a trade buzz floating around and grumbles from Howard regarding his lack of snaps. Hitting his salary escalator doesn’t do much to help the Bears and the ball carrier’s plan for a future together.

Labeled to many as not a good fit for head coach Matt Nagy’s offense before the season, those remarks came to hold some truth. So, a recipe for an early off season trade correct? Not so fast. The interesting wrinkle for me is the escalator. Not ideal to have the extra cap hit, but it also means if/when Howard walks in free agency Bears would be in line for a compensatory pick for him of some magnitude.

The compensatory pick granting process is a special and hidden recipe of the NFL. With time, research and a strong understanding of the variables that come into play, we’ve been able see a format on what certain players will bring a team in compensatory. The trick of compensatory is your draft pick compensation will be a year away and can be cancelled out by bringing in new free agents. In 2018, the cut off date for free agent additions that will cancel out against your compensatory for exiting free agents was May 8th. Two weeks after the draft commenced. That’s the reason the compensatory picks destined for your team come a year removed. This also sets the stage for the 3rd wave of free agency. You may start to notice teams with holes on the roster waiting to pass this little considered date before making moves on some free agents. Some teams and players have handshake deals set in place to pass this date.

Which brings us back to Jordan Howard. Considering his snap counts, starts, awards, and potential contract to be given by a new team in free agency. The Bears will look to be awarded a 2020 4th round pick when he moves on in free agency. A 4th round pick after considering Howard’s recent pay bump would probably be more than the Bears could net in trying to trade him this immediate off season. With limited draft ammo this year, it might also be foolish to create another hole to fill by trading a still bargain priced Howard. If the Bears ride with Howard in 2019 in the beginning, he serves as a good Hedge for striking out in the draft. I also do not see another team forking out a decent Draft pick for Jordan Howard until they see how they come out of the draft as well.

So two scenarios play out the best for the Bears. Hold him post draft, into camp and see what you have from your drafted rookie. Wait for injuries to starting Running backs to mount on other teams in camp and Howard’s trade stock will rise to an acceptable value for a 2020 draft pick. This allows you a look at your own roster and put yourself in a position to get the better of another desperate team. The second scenario would be the former mentioned, riding with Howard on the team in 2019. Howard walks in free agency, netting the Bears a compensatory pick. In this case he could fall to 2nd or 3rd on the depth chart and be the heavier back for grinding yardage and goal line situations. Imagine being so well set up a pro bowl running back is your 3rd guy.

(Source: Getty Images)
Tarik Cohen

Tarik  will continue to see his role and snaps expounded upon in 2019. However, i see little chance the Bears don’t take a swing on a rookie in this draft. Without the Bears having a first or second round pick this year the middle rounds have to count. It just so happens the middle rounds of this years draft is stocked with intriguing talent to tote the rock. I fully expect the Bears to come out of the 3rd or 4th round with a brand new running back styled for Nagy’s liking.

When you sit back and look at all the factors. Athletic lineman built to run block not looking so hot doing it, a pro bowl running back looking pedestrian, one of the best offensive line coaches in the NFL having a mediocre running attack, there has to be an underlying factor. I believe that factor is Nagy still trying to figure out what the Bears run game actually is. He’s proven he can make an all pro rusher happen under his watch in Kansas City. So why the drop off in Chicago? Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen are simply not the same as Tyreek Hill and Akeem Hunt. Jordan Howard is starchily different then both running backs Nagy was accustomed to implementing. it just didn’t allow for him to simply replicate his past success.

In this off season Nagy will be tasked with developing a new format for his run game to succeed in 2019. A little new and little old might just be the recipe he needs to help his plan come together. Some new blood via the draft with speed, hands and good feet can help the new. The old could be a golden opportunity in low risk/high reward Spencer Ware who played under Matt Nagy’s system in 2016. Ware collected 921 yards on the ground and caught 33 balls for another 447 yards. Charcandrick West who was in Kansas City since 2014 will also be hitting the free agent market. Two guys that could not only add some solid depth with upside, but also be valuable additions to the running backs room to install a better run game this year.

Get Deeper:

“Sometimes” seems to come often in the NFL, when considering you may be only as good as the next man up. The 2018 Bears were the healthiest team in the league last year. Just a year prior they were the unhealthiest, that’s amazing. To the training staff, training procedures and just all over good Mojo, well done. That could be the greatest achievement Nagy and company did for this Bears team so far. A great turn of events that you hope for, but have to plan for the opposite. In which lies the question of depth for the Bears this year.

Pass Rush:

(Dec. 16, 2017 – Source: Patrick Smith/Getty Images North America)

 

Aaron Lynch was signed for a 1 year, 6 million dollar contract to come play for his old coach Vic Fangio. Lynch had a productive season for the Bears until he once again ended the season in the training room, instead of on the field. A source asked him the day before the wild card game if he would have any chance at playing further in the playoffs, he said with a giggle “i have no idea”. They continued to talk the night before the wild card game, while blocks away the rest of the team was deep in a mandatory meeting at the hotel. Personally, I don’t expect to see Aaron Lynch back with the Bears this year. This will leave a hole in the roster behind Khalil Mack and Leonard Floyd. Who, when not on the field are severely missed. With the Bears first pick in this draft being later in the third round, I wouldn’t expect their primary backup this year coming from the draft.

With Sam Acho a likely off season cut, it leaves the only other outside linebacker on the roster now as 2018, 6th round pick, Kylie Fitts. In 6 games active last year Kylie did not notch a single stat in 58 snaps on the field. Fitts will be far from a lock to even make roster this year, but he does have the traits to make an impact if he puts it together. The Bears have the exclusive rights tender on free agent Isaiah Irving. The Bears will execute that tender. In 131 snaps last year, Irving did grab a sack, 3 QB hits, 5 hurries, along with 8 total tackles. The Bears could look to expand upon his play in 2019, but it’s a no brainer the Bears will have to dip into free agency to find their third outside linebacker. Don’t look for any banks to be broken in this pursuit. However, the Bears would be wise to utilize a decent portion of their cap space to this position. Lynch played 353 snaps last year and was out 3 games, in addition to the wild card game.

Bears will be looking for an edge rusher to cover at least 500 snaps this year and ready to be one play away from starting. Good news is, this offseason happens to set up well for the Bears’ depth needs. Rush outside linebacker is pretty flush with options, price being the big consideration. There will be a handful of big names who are looming free agents, but who will never hit market via the franchise tag. Furthermore will be out of the Bears spending zone.

One of the top free agents that will fall into the Bears range will be Za’darius Smith from Baltimore. Smith took 741 snaps for the ravens in 2018, deeming him a pseudo starter. Out of those snaps he notched 8.5 sacks, 34 hurries, and a forced fumble. Most of Smith’s sacks came of interior pressure, rolling off stunts, staying with the play, or beating the guard. The lack of production on beating the Offensive tackle 1 on 1 on the outside will bring down his dollars further than people think. Simply checking stat lines, one would think he would garner a huge contract. Pagano has a nature of using stunts and 4 man fronts to get pressure in nickel packages. Smith would be a good fit for his defensive scheme. A helpful tidbit to recruit him to Chicago is Danny Trevathan. They both played at Kentucky together where Danny was the leader of the defense and a mentor of Za’Darius. Smith’s dreadlocks he sports now are inspired by Trevathan. I expect they have had and will have contact about the possibility of re-joining forces. I would speculate Smith’s number will come in around 8-10 mil per year, which would be a solid investment on an ascending player.

The other big pass rusher name that will fall into Chi-town’s price range is Preston Smith. With the Redskins the last 4 years, he has some sneaky production. If you look at the sack stat line, it won’t jump off the page to you. But, when you go to the film to see a guy that can win on the outside, can cover, and has knack for interceptions. At 6’6 and 265 pounds, it’s amazing to see him make such athletic plays on the ball. When he cant get to the QB, he’s great about getting his hands up in the throwing lane. He is a perfect Linebacker to spell Mack or Floyd.

Alex Okafor, Dante Fowler, Shane Ray, Markus Golden, Shaq Barrett could all be young, longer term contract additions this year. John Simon(28), played under Pagano at outside linebacker in Indy. He is a name the Bears will probably look at in some capacity to add in their rotation. Bears could also go the stop gap method this year. If that is the case, Bears could look into up and down Ezekiel Ansah on a one year. Ryan Pace hasn’t faired well bringing in past prime talent guys and seems to be shying away from it. With that said, Clay Matthews, Terrell Suggs, Cameron Wake, Bruce Irvin and Vinny Curry could all be guys that want to chase a ring and make a few bucks, by signing a one year deal with the best defense in the NFL.

Tight End:

Source: Getty Images

 

When you think of NFL tight ends it doesn’t take long before Travis Kelce pops into your head. His numbers and how much he was utilized in Kansas City under Matt Nagy was very impressive. When Nagy was hired to be the Bears head coach you couldn’t help thinking it would be nice to have some tight end play like that in Chicago.

The Bears then go out and sign an ascending talent in Trey Burton. This, to go along with former second round draft pick Adam Shaheen. To say Nagy didn’t live up to the production of that position they had in Kansas City would be an understatement. Burton looked to have all the promise in the world for the Bears. Portions of games he was very impressive, but had a knack of disappearing. Was that play calling? Lack of chemistry with Trubisky? Lack of rising to the occasion? Depending on who you talk to, being absent from the wild card game could had as much to do his anxiety issues, as much as his suddenly arising groin pull.

With all of the hype of Pace using a second round pick on and nicknames like “Baby Gronk”, we have seen little from Shaheen to warrant the hype. He’s ended up on Injured reserve both of his years in the league so far. While his blocking seems to have improved some, his feet and lack of staying on them has not. Saheen has been a decent red zone target and it might turn out that is just what he is. I believe it would be the definition of insanity to run back the same tight ends Chicago did last year and expect different results.

Ben Braunecker and Daniel Brown are both now free agents. We could see both return to camp on minimum contracts, but I’d suspect both a move in the draft and in free agency when it comes to the tight end position. With a lot of dollars invested in Burton and a high draft pick invested in Shaheen, I see the bears finding steals in both arenas this off season. Keeping with the theme of free agency setting up well for the Bears. We see that again with tight ends. No massive names, but no massive contract associated with those names is wanted. In the best of both worlds, the Bears would find a “move” tight end and a “Y” tight end this off season. Free agency is sitting ripe with “Y” tight ends whose cost would fit the budget.

The Ravens will have 2 tight ends of interest in Nick Boyle and Maxx Williams, hit market.The Ravens had an emergence of 2 younger tight ends making both of them hitting free agency likely. Williams at 24 has an all around, solid ability at in-line blocking, run blocking and catching the balls that are thrown his way. He will not be stretching the field like Travis Kelce, but he can do what Dion Sims failed to do in Chicago. Jesse James from the Steelers will be another intriguing name to look at in that same role. The “move” or “H” tight end is not as plentiful in free agency this year. Considering The Bears have a lot of cap tied up in Burton as the current “move” tight end, the draft seems like the best place to score one.

 

(Sept. 28, 2018 – Source: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images North America)

Jace Sternberger out of Texas A&M is prospect that really jumps out at me as a perfect fit for Nagy. A transfer from Kansas, he has had limited production until this year in his college career. That may let him slide right into Chicago’s draft range and be a serious new weapon for the offense in 2019.

“Special Teams”:

(Oct. 13, 2018 – Source: Marc Serota/Getty Images North America)

 

 

The Bears have done well to not get themselves into too many bad contracts on players that would be better suited elsewhere. Ryan Pace did what he should have last year and cut Dion Sims, bringing 6 million back to the cap. The only contract left that is a total thorn in side is Cody Parkey’s. Cody may have got a redemption shot for his number of missed kicks including the one to bounce the team out of the playoffs, but the Today show appearance right after the loss ended that. Now the most hated man in Chicago he has $5,187,500.00 in cap space locked up with the Bears. 3.5 million in salary and roster bonus fully guaranteed for 2019 and $562,500 in signing bonus each of year 2019, 2020, and 2021. If his cut comes prior to June 1st , the Bears would take the dead cap hit of the entire $5,187,500.00, but would carry no more obligation to it in future years. If his cut falls after June 1st, the signing bonus hits of 2019 and 2020 can be pushed to next year, leaving the dead cap space this year at $4,062,500.00. The latter would probably be more likely. Hopefully and most likely there is offset language in Parkey’s contract. This would allow for the Bears to regain some of his contract that will be dead cap when he signs with another team.

So now comes the replacement. The Bears were totally in their rights to release Gould in 2016, his kicking % was trending downward after his injury and he couldn’t kick the ball out of the end zone to save his life. It was Gould’s wake up call and he made the most of it, good for him. There is no doubt he wants to be back in Chicago, but can he evade San Fran’s franchise tag? Can the Bears find away to eat all this cap space on kickers? A bonafide kicker is about as hard to come across than a bonafide Quarterback. So simply drafting one into the hardest place to kick in the NFL has no guarantee it will equate into anything better than what Parkey did. Never-the-less expect 3-4 kickers in Bears camp this summer. Maybe, they use a 7th round pick on kicker in the draft. But,I feel it’s likely to see a vet on minimum and some rookies having a kick off.

The Bears special teams last year was just really not that special as a whole. Tarik Cohen’s punt returning was a bright spot. The Bears defense forced teams to give him plenty of opportunities back there. Although, they never really found their kick returner throughout the year. Josh Bellamy was returning kicks in the wild card game for the first time all year, for an example of the instability.

Place kicking as fore-mentioned wasn’t a strong suit and cost the team when they needed it most. Punter, Pat O’Donnell ranked 25th in the league in punt yardage average. Bears didn’t have a special teams score, but did have one put up against them vs the Patriots. That score cost the game. You can focus blame many places, but it’s not out of line to note special teams cost the Bears the Dolphins game and Patriots game. That 14-2 record keeps the Bears out of the wild card last second loss debacle by Cody Parkey in the first place. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one shocked to see the Bears not make a move at a new special teams coordinator this off season. A real kick returning answer is a paramount this year. The Bears would be wise to find a good rookie returner in the draft that can provide running back depth or receiving depth. It might be time for a re-haul across the board at special teams. A new punter, snapper to go with him, new place kicker and a new dedicated kick returner. That’s a lot of question marks all at the same time, but it might just be that time.

Starting Business:

 

(Oct. 20, 2018 – Source: Naomi Baker/Getty Images Europe)

 

 

All of that brings us back around to the two starting spots still up in the air at strong safety and nickel cornerback. As it sits right now the Bears would go with Sherrick McManis at nickel who filled in valiantly for Bryce Callahan. That said, you could feel Bryce’s absence in the wild card game.

McManis is no long term plan. Callahan, although injury plagued through his time in Chicago is easily the best nickel corner in free agency. If Callahan can come back for a season or more at a reasonable rate of less than 7 million per year, thats the best case scenario for the Bears. If that is out of the question cap wise for the Bears and they allocate dollars elsewhere, then drafting a Cornerback is crucial. In the mean time, the Bears will need to find a replacement in free agency to pair with McManis and a rookie.

Jason Verrett is the first name that comes to mind. Once one of the best corners in the league, he has faced a plague of injuries. Having almost 3 years of recovery, he should be open to signing a cheaper prove it year. Where better to prove it than with the best defense in the NFL?

Justin Coleman from Seattle and P.J Williams from the Saints could come into play for the Bears price range. The name to really pay attention to now is Brian Poole from Atlanta. The Falcons recently came out and said they wouldn’t tender the restricted free agent. Poole can play, but hasn’t seen the same success he had in his rookie campaign. A change of scenery is what they both want and he would be available to the Bears at 2 million or less. Poole could also go to strong safety, instead of playing nickel. That flexibility will be attractive to Pace and company.

Strong safety may have easier solutions than nickel back for the Bears. Adrain Amos is looking for a lot more money than the Bears want to give him. He may look to go home to Baltimore, while the Ravens will look to move on from Eric Weddle soon. Lucky for Chicago the Draft is stocked with talented Safeties this year and will find a great pool in the mid rounds. Strong/nickel safeties tend to fall in the draft and tend to come cheaper in free agency as well. This is why walking from Adrain Amos now isn’t that bad of an idea.

Tyrann Mathieu has suggested he would look for a chance at a ring over a big paycheck this year. By just saying those words, doesn’t sound like he’s sold on trying to stay in Houston.

Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix casted out of Green-Bay to Washington for a 4th round pick might like to get a little revenge on his old team. The connection with Eddie Jackson and new secondary coach DeShea Townsend maybe enough to land him at a fair dollar. Speaking of that connection, it would be unfair not to mention disgruntled, ex-giant Landon Collins. Everyone(but me) expected Collins to get tagged. But, from the recent turn of events and reports coming out of New York, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Collins will cost a pretty penny. But, again a lot of ties to Chicago for Collins. Deshea Townsend was just his positional coach last year. Collins and Eddie Jackson would be the best Safety Tandem in the league and it wouldn’t be close.

Another name, Tre Boston who stayed in free agency for many moons last off season ended up signing only a one year, 1.5 million dollar deal with Arizona. A very outspoken Boston regarding history lack of contract offers, Jersey numbers demands, and position demands will lead him to another dull market.

One name off the beaten path is Adrian Phillips. Phillips is a jack of all trades. Time at Free Safety, Strong Safety, Nickel/Dime linebacker as well as going all-pro in special teams coverage last year. That’s some utilitarianism the Bears could use. If the Bears found a safety in the draft they wanted to work into a starting role early, Phillips will still be earning his salary in special teams and in sub packages. As deep of a pool of safeties in the draft and free agency this year, deals will be abound for the Bears.

Just Win The Whole Thing:

Jan. 8, 2018 – Source: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images North America)

 

 

The Bears are in a “win now” window, but also are striving for continued success at the top of their division for years to come. A delicate line to walk. Ultimately the time to strike is now. If the Bears need to max out their cap and moves to do it, so be it. You’re a 12-4 team, that should have been a 14-2 team with young guys like Trubisky only improving. Before he hits his big pay day, the Bears need to cash in on a championship. That theory is also one you can sell to free agents as well. Do better at what you did best last year and change out what went wrong. Seems like simple hyperbole, but when you are this close it’s just that simple sometimes.