Chicago Bears: Michael Bush
While the Bears do currently have second-year tailback/return man Michael Ford slotted behind two-time Pro Bowler Matt Forte on the depth chart, the team could use more depth and competition at the position.
That help could arrive next month if the Bears select a running back somewhere between the fourth and sixth rounds of the upcoming NFL draft, a reasonable target area given the priority in the early rounds will likely be safety, cornerback, defensive tackle and inside linebacker, in no particular order.
One backfield prospect to keep tabs on is former Wisconsin running back James White, who led all rushers with 11 carries for 62 yards and one touchdown at the 2014 Senior Bowl.
The Bears recently traveled to Wisconsin's campus in Madison to put White through a private pre-draft workout, according to a source with direct knowledge of the situation.
Although listed at 5-foot-9, 204 pounds, White finished his four-year career at Wisconsin as the Badgers' No. 4 all-time leading rusher with 4,015 yards and ranks No. 3 in school history with 45 rushing touchdowns.
White ran for 1,444 yards and 13 touchdowns and caught 39 passes for 300 yards and two scores for Wisconsin last season. He also returned kickoffs his first two years in Madison.
Keep in mind, the Bears require a versatile running back that is capable of not only picking up yards on the ground if called upon, but also a player that can catch the ball out of the backfield. Utilizing the tailback in the passing game is a key component of Marc Trestman's offense, and one of Forte's greatest strengths since entering the league in 2008.
In addition to White, there should be an ample supply of running backs for the Bears to choose from in the later rounds if the organization decides to fill that need via the draft.
Other names to consider are Alabama State's Isaiah Crowell, Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas (the Bears reportedly hosted Thomas on a top-30 pre-draft visit at Halas Hall), Tennessee's Rajion Neal, Stanford's Tyler Gaffney, Louisville's Senorise Perry, Arizona State's Marion Grice and Florida State's James Wilder, Jr., among others.
Grice suffered a lower leg injury last year and had to wait until last week to work out in front of scouts at his personal Pro Bowl. Representatives from 17 NFL teams were in attendance. The Bears were not present, but the 6-foot, 207 pound Grice did catch 91 passes out of the backfield for the Sun Devils over the last two seasons.
The Bears also worked out a handful of veteran free agent running backs last week at Halas Hall.
With starting running back Matt Forte locked in a contract dispute with the club after receiving the franchise tag following the 2011 regular season, the Bears needed to protect themselves in case Forte and the team were unable to reach a long-term agreement. Forte had also missed the final four games that year with a knee injury.
Last year, despite eating up $3.550 million worth of salary-cap space, Bush carried the ball a career-low 63 times for 197 yards (3.1 yards per rush) and caught the ball just four times for 48 yards.
Can the Bears get more bang for their buck out of Bush, who is scheduled to count $3.850 million against the cap in 2014?
“I think, No. 1, it was very difficult to take Matt off the field, and it was very impressive that he had the endurance to do what he did this year,” Bears head coach Marc Trestman said at the NFL combine. “There were times that we just felt we had a plan to play Michael more, the defense may have been on the field, and Matt had a good enough rest so we kept Matt out there and didn’t get Michael on as much as we would’ve liked to. We had a plan but we didn’t execute it. A lot of that, going in, was Matt’s productivity.
I’ve experienced this in Oakland when we had Tyrone Wheatley and Charlie Garner. There’s a place, certainly, for that type of back. If you have a system of football that’s flexible enough, you can seamlessly make that transition and still be just as effective.”
If the Bears decide to cut ties with Bush, the organization would still be on the hook for $2 million worth of dead salary cap space -- the remaining balance of Bush’s prorated $4 million signing bonus. But it’s unclear whether the Bears believe second-year running back Michael Ford is ready to assume the role as the team’s No. 2 tailback. The 5-foot-10 Ford played on special teams last year where he appeared in 12 games and returned five kickoffs for 37 yards and made five special-teams tackles. Ford’s 2014 salary cap number is projected to be $496,166.
Will the Bears address their glaring need for help up front with the 14th pick in the May NFL draft? Our panel weighs in on that and more in an offseason edition of Four Downs:
Fact or Fiction: The Bears' first pick of the draft will be on the defensive line.
Shea McClellin at No. 19 overall. Last year, the Bears badly needed to upgrade the offensive line and took guard Kyle Long at No. 20. While the actual picks themselves (McClellin and Long) came as a surprise to many, the Bears did target the position groups most believed they would. We are weeks away from free agency, and three months from May's draft, but there seems to be a surplus of talented defensive linemen who could be available when the Bears go on the clock at No. 14. I never rule anything out. Maybe a top-notch cornerback is still on the board at No. 14. Or a safety. We should have a better idea the direction the Bears are leaning after the club makes some moves in free agency. But this far out, it seems like a safe bet that a young defensive lineman is fairly high on the team's wish-list.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. And they better get it right this time. Premier defensive line help is expensive on the free agent market, so it makes sense to get some help on a rookie deal. Phil Emery whiffed two years ago when he selected McClellin out of Boise State to play defensive end. He should look for inside help, given the Bears' lack of depth at tackle, unless there is a can't-miss defensive end waiting for them. Every defense starts up front, and the Bears' injury problems at defensive line led to the defense's demise last season. Go big or go home, Phil.
Fact or Fiction: The Bears will consider Missouri DE Michael Sam in the third round.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. I would love for the Bears to draft Sam. His story is inspiring, and given that Chicago has a thriving gay community, he could have a seamless transition to living as an adult in an NFL city. I also think the Bears' locker room would welcome him, and all the fears about "the NFL not being ready" would be proven garbage prognostication. But here's the thing. They already have an undersized defensive end in McClellin. The signs are pointing to the Bears moving him to outside linebacker. That's a move that a lot of NFL scouts and draftniks believe is in Sam's future. I hope he ends up here, but I don't think it happens with the Bears' other defensive needs.
Fact or Fiction: Roberto Garza's career in Chicago is over.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. I think the Bears get another season out of Garza. Their offensive line thrived last season, and Garza was integral to the group's development. I think the Bears need to draft a young center, but Garza should be able to get another year out of his body. He takes good care of himself and has a fantastic attitude. Of course, Emery has shown little nostalgia in his short tenure, with good reason. So maybe they just move on and grab a veteran center in free agency. But I'm leaning toward a one-year return.
Fact or Fiction: The Bears will have a new No. 2 running back next season.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. Bush has a $3.85 million cap hit next year. He's been a decent backup, but not for that price. The now cost-conscious Bears will likely save money by getting rid of him and finding a replacement on the free agent market or through young Michael Ford. Maybe that's the offensive position they draft. Don't rule it out. Regardless, Forte will continue to be the man in 2014. Given his dual roles as running back and pass-catcher, he looks like a bargain with a $7.5 million cap hit.
The money (2014 salary-cap numbers): Forte ($7.5 million), Bush ($3.85 million), Tony Fiammetta ($730,000), Michael Ford ($496,616). The cap numbers are manageable, but the Bears might look into upgrading in Bush’s spot given that his contributions aren’t commensurate to the $3.85 million cap figure. Perhaps the Bears will give Ford an opportunity to win the No. 2 job during training camp. Ford excelled during training camp and tied with Forte for the team lead in preseason rushing, but he’ll have to improve at pass protection for the team to feel comfortable enough to increase his role.
Draft priority: Low. The Bears would be fine going into the season with Bush as the primary backup to Forte. But it wouldn’t be a bad idea to see whether they can upgrade there because Forte, while healthy in 2013, has missed time in the past. Teams are increasingly going to a running back-by-committee approach, but in Chicago, Forte has shouldered the majority of the workload. That just doesn’t seem to be a sustainable plan moving forward.
Week 13 Report Card: Minnesota Vikings 23, Chicago Bears 20
Despite hyperextending his right knee in last week's loss to the St. Louis Rams, Matt Forte rushed for 120 yards on 23 attempts and became the Bears' second career all-time leader in yards from scrimmage. Michael Bush even made the most of his lone rushing attempt by gaining 15 yards. However, the Bears are still having a difficult time in short-yardage situations and were just 2-of-11 on third downs versus the Vikings.
Josh McCown didn't play his best game of the season, but he finished with 355 passing yards, two touchdowns and a quarterback rating of 114.9. He was lucky not to have a couple of throws picked up. Alshon Jeffery broke his own franchise record with 249 receiving yards on 12 catches, two for touchdowns. There wasn't a ton of production after Jeffery, with Brandon Marshall finishing second on the team with four receptions for 45 yards.
The Bears sold out to stop Adrian Peterson, especially safety Craig Stetlz -- who recorded a team-high 12 tackles in place of injured starter Major Wright -- but Peterson still crushed the Bears with 211 rushing yards. Bears defenders appeared to be in the correct spot for most of the game, but their tackling was subpar. Wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson gashed the defense for a 33-yard touchdown run, on which both Steltz and linebacker Khaseem Greene had legitimate shots to bring him down but came up empty.
Under no circumstances should Matt Cassel be allowed to enter the game and pass for 243 yards and one touchdown. The Bears had success rushing the quarterback with five sacks, but veterans Greg Jennings, John Carlson and Jerome Simpson had too much room to operate on numerous occasions. Maybe the worst thing to happen to the Bears was Christian Ponder leaving the game with a concussion.
Robbie Gould is basically automatic from almost any range, but he missed a potential game-winning, 47-yard field goal in overtime, although Marc Trestman made a curious decision to kick it on second down instead of trying to run more plays to give Gould a shorter kick. Devin Hester had an impressive 57-yard kickoff return at the end of regulation, but his decision-making was suspect for most of the afternoon. Punter Adam Podlesh had a 33.7-yard net average. The Bears kicked the ball away from Patterson the entire afternoon, a sound strategy.
Again, it's tough to understand Trestman's decision to attempt the overtime field goal on second down. Forte was averaging 5.2 yards per carry, and the Bears have the luxury of the best long snapper in the NFL, Patrick Mannelly, on the roster. The odds of the Bears screwing up on second or third downs seem remote. Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker definitely set a more aggressive tone with his unit, but the results were largely the same.
1. JD, huge Devin Hester fan here. I almost cried when they took away his punt return touchdown last week. Can we expect Devin to light it up against Minnesota? -- Brendan, Peoria, Ill.
Dickerson: Brendan, Hester has torched the Vikings' special teams in 14 career games, returning three punts and one kickoff for touchdowns. Hester was named NFC Special Teams Player of the Week for his efforts against the Vikings in Week 2, when he set a franchise single-game record with 249 kick-return yards. However, it is important to note that Sunday's game will played inside the Metrodome. It's much tougher for a return man to get his hands on the football when the game is played in a controlled climate. Maybe Hester's best shot this weekend is to hope that Vikings rookie punter Jeff Locke kicks him a returnable ball.
2. Why are the Bears going back to Jay Cutler? Josh McCown has found the fountain of youth. Ride with him! GO BEARS! -- Chester, Cicero, Ill.
Dickerson: Cutler is the unquestioned starting quarterback. He has too much talent and is earning too much money to sit on the bench if medically cleared to play. But I believe the Bears are taking the correct approach by sitting Cutler on Sunday and letting McCown start against the Vikings. High-ankle sprains are serious injuries. Cutler needs extra time to let his ankle heal before he's ready to return. McCown is clearly capable of beating the Vikings, who own the league's 30th overall defense (allowing 401 yards per game), so there was no need to rush Cutler back, even if he is pushing hard to come back. But when Cutler is ready, likely for the Bears' Monday night game against the Dallas Cowboys on Dec. 9, he will be back in the starting lineup.
CHICAGO -- A few thoughts on the Chicago Bears’ 21-19 loss to the Detroit Lions on Sunday at Soldier Field:
What it means: The Bears missed an opportunity to seize the division lead and put some cushion between themselves and the Green Bay Packers, who lost to Philadelphia. Instead, Chicago made its road to the postseason more difficult. Quarterback Josh McCown came in and provided a spark late, nearly rallying the Bears. His entrance at the 2:17 mark was long overdue, as Jay Cutler seemed to be hurting the team by trying to play through injury.
Second-guessing fourth-down call: Bears coach Marc Trestman drew praise for his decision Monday night to go for it on fourth down against the Packers, but a similar move in the second quarter resulted in criticism. With his team holding possession at the Detroit 27-yard line, Trestman called for a Michael Bush run behind right guard Kyle Long that went for no gain. The offensive line appeared to produce adequate push, but Bush ran into the backs of his blockers.
Protecting Cutler: Just 21 days removed from tearing a groin muscle, Cutler returned to the starting lineup on Sunday, showing no residual effects from the injury -- at least initially. Cutler connected on 3 of 4 for 61 yards and a 32-yard touchdown to Brandon Marshall on Chicago’s opening drive. The team put Cutler in the shotgun for the majority of the game to minimize the risk of aggravating the injury; Chicago operated out of the shotgun on 12 of its first 13 snaps and 25 of 33 snaps in the first half. Then, late through the second quarter, Cutler started to show signs that he was in pain. That pain appeared to increase during the team’s first drive to start the second half. Looking stiff and sluggish, Cutler seemed to be in enough discomfort to leave the game. But the next time the Bears had the ball he hit Marshall for a 44-yard completion. Later in the drive, Cutler -- in tremendous pain -- actually headed toward the sideline, with McCown running onto the field. Cutler fell as he neared the sideline, but waved off McCown and walked back to the huddle.
Run D better, still needs work: Reggie Bush ran wild in the first meeting between the teams, gaining a 139 yards on 18 attempts. Chicago’s defense did a much better job defending Bush on Sunday, but the running back still made a few key plays. Bush broke a 39-yarder on Detroit’s first drive of the second half, which put the Lions in position to go ahead by seven on Calvin Johnson’s 4-yard touchdown reception. On the play, Bush shook struggling Bears safety Chris Conte; Charles Tillman making the touchdown-saving tackle.
Conte redemption? Despite the early struggles, Conte picked off a Matthew Stafford pass intended for Johnson and returned it 35 yards to set up a Robbie Gould 32-yard field goal in the fourth quarter. Then he gave Chicago’s offense another chance when he knocked a pass out of Johnson’s hands in the end zone.
What’s next: The Bears return to Halas Hall on Monday to watch film of the loss to Detroit before taking the day off Tuesday. The club begins preparations Wednesday to host the Baltimore Ravens next Sunday at noon.
However, the Bears sent Bush on the field for just two of the team’s 72 offensive snaps in their 40-32 loss to the Detroit Lions. In stark contrast, starting tailback Matt Forte played 71 of the 72 snaps and carried the ball 14 times for 95 yards and one touchdown. Forte also caught the ball five times for 22 yards.
The Bears signed Bush to a four-year, $14 million contract in the spring of 2012 to serve as Forte’s primary backup. Bush will earn a total of $2.550 million this season ($1.5 million base salary, $1 million roster bonus and $50,000 workout bonus), but has run the ball just 16 times for 24 yards in four games.
Bears coach Marc Trestman explained that Bush’s role was limited on Sunday because the Bears fell behind by 20 points in the first half.
“I think it was the kind of game it was more than anything,” Trestman said. “It was a two-minute drill more than anything else. We want Michael to be part of our football team and hope to get him in the mix during the course of the game. We have to grow in that area. We just have to find more ways to get him out there. It’s just difficult because we don’t want to take Matt off the field, either.”
Bush appeared in 13 games for the Bears last season, carrying the ball 114 times for 411 yards and five touchdowns. He rushed for a career-high 977 yards for the Oakland Raiders in 2011.
As a unit, the Bengals’ defensive line recorded 43 sacks last season and helped the defense rank sixth in fewest yards allowed.
This should present a terrific challenge up front for the Bears, especially for the Long/Mills rookie right side of the offensive line. Atkins told the Chicago media during a conference call on Wednesday that he was impressed by Long’s performance in the preseason after the first-round pick won the starting job outright. The Atkins-Long matchup is expected to be one of the most intriguing battles on Sunday.
“He’s big and he’s physical, very aggressive and a strong player,” Atkins said. “And by watching him, you can tell he likes to get after defensive linemen. He likes to get off, be aggressive and show his strength.”
Atkins also praised Bears tailback Matt Forte, who averaged 9.9 yards per carry on 15 rushing attempts behind the offensive line in the preseason. Forte is expected to be a focal point of the Bears’ offense in Week 1.
“He’s very, I want to say, shifty,” Atkins said. “He likes to cut back, so, I mean, he’s very explosive. If you give him a cutback lane, he will take it back and make you pay. To me, that makes him a dynamic player.
They’ve got tons of playmakers like Jay Cutler, Forte and Michael Bush. The offensive line is pretty stout. They’re a big group. And Brandon Marshall. They’re already loaded, so we just have to get after them.”
But organizations need to set lofty goals. Have you ever heard of an NFL team striving for mediocrity?
So while a part of me wants to cringe when I read Lions defensive tackle Nick Fairley quoted in the Detroit News saying that his team is "going to the Super Bowl”, or watch a video of Detroit running back Reggie Bush tell reporters that he signed with the Lions "to win championships," the reality is that every NFL player should feel that way about the prospects of his respective club this time of the year.
How does each NFC North team look at running back, and what still needs to be done?
Chicago Bears: If you were drawing up plans for an experienced but diverse backfield, you could do a lot worse than modeling after the Bears. Starter Matt Forte is a shifty off-tackle runner and one of the NFL's top pass-catching running backs, a collection of skills that will fit neatly into new coach Marc Trestman's offense. Forte has caught 267 passes since his career started in 2008, the third-most in the NFL by a running back over that stretch. Backup Michael Bush, meanwhile, is a bigger and stronger inside threat who gives the Bears a better option in short-yardage and goal-line situations. He produced a first down on 24.6 percent of his rushes last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information, the 10th-best percentage in the NFL. As long as Forte and Bush are healthy, the Bears' relatively thin depth behind them is irrelevant.
Detroit Lions: Free agent acquisition Reggie Bush figures to benefit from opponents' attention on receiver Calvin Johnson to much greater extent than the Lions' backfield did last season. Early indications are the Lions will use Bush similarly to the way the New Orleans Saints did earlier in his career. With the Saints in 2006, Bush caught 88 passes. Training camp should bring competition for the right to be the "thumper" behind Bush. Will it be 2011 second-round draft choice Mikel Leshoure, who looked slow and not very elusive after returning last season from a torn Achilles tendon? (No NFL running back had as many touches as Leshoure without at least one play of at least 20 yards.) Or will it be the lesser-known Joique Bell, who as Pro Football Focus points out, made defenders miss regularly last season. He forced 26 missed tackles in 82 carries and actually averaged more yards after contact (2.99) than Bush did with the Miami Dolphins (2.06).
Green Bay Packers: The team re-made its backfield through the draft after years of transition, throwing the situation into unknown territory. At some point, the Packers will have to thin the herd of a group that includes returnees DuJuan Harris, James Starks, Alex Green and John Kuhn, along with rookies Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin. The competition is wide open, although both Starks and Green have failed when given previous opportunities. Lacy's build and pedigree suggests he has an excellent chance to ultimately win the starting job, but Harris impressed the team late last season and could get the first shot this summer.
Minnesota Vikings: Adrian Peterson. Is there much more to say? Historically, runners who put together a 2,000-yard season tend to fall back the following year. But nothing about Peterson's career suggests he will fit neatly into a trend. He has set a goal of 2,500 yards, and however unrealistic it might be, he has earned the benefit of the doubt. Backup Toby Gerhart is in his fourth and presumably last season as Peterson's understudy. While Gerhart hasn't shown much explosion in short stints in Peterson's place, you would think he'll want to look elsewhere for more carries when his contract expires after this season.
The Chicago Bears invested heavily in their ground game last offseason when they awarded lucrative contracts to Matt Forte (four years, $30.4 million, $17.1 million guaranteed) and Michael Bush (four years, $14 million, $7 million guaranteed), only to see both players have relatively modest seasons amid talk that neither was used enough.
Forte managed to eclipse 1,000 rushing yards (1,094) for the third time in his five-year NFL career, but his average yards-per-carry fell from 4.9 to 4.4, and he also set career-lows in receptions with 44 for 340 yards. However, Forte remains one of the top all-purpose backs in the league and should be one of the key offensive pieces moving forward under new Bears coach Marc Trestman.
Injuries seemed to limit Bush, who dealt with shoulder and rib issues during his first season in Chicago after a successful four-year stint with the Oakland Raiders. But even when Bush was healthy last season, he did little more than provide the Bears with an effective and powerful goal-line back.
Bush views himself as much more than simply a battering ram in the red zone, but he only carried the ball 114 times and caught nine passes in 13 games. In Bush's final year in Oakland, he ran the ball 256 times and had 37 receptions while starting nine of the Raiders' 16 regular season games. Everybody knew Bush came to Chicago to back up Forte, but Bush probably believed he would see more action in the Bears' backfield when he signed.
With Forte ($7.175) and Bush ($3.550) scheduled to eat up a combined $10.725 million in salary cap space in 2013, the Bears' only objective this offseason might be to upgrade at the No. 3 running back spot, although options do exist internally.