NFC North: Chicago Bears
Chicago Bears coach John Fox plans to implement changes to the club’s offseason conditioning program, tweaks he believes should help Alshon Jeffery as he ascends to the role of No. 1 receiver with Brandon Marshall out of the picture.
“I really liked Alshon coming out [of college],” Fox said Wednesday from the NFL owners meetings. “One of the things I’d say is we had a lot of soft-tissue injuries last year as a football team. We’ve kind of changed philosophically in the weight room. I think you’ll see we’re going to do things a lot different from offseason conditioning, the approach to how we handle that. I don’t think we had a soft-tissue injury a year ago in Denver other than one particular guy.”
In Chicago, the Bears finished up the 2014 season with 10 players on the injured reserve, with Jeffery spending most of the year battling through nagging hamstring issues. Still, Jeffery put together his second-consecutive 1,000-yard season, catching 85 passes for 1,133 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Set to enter the final season of his rookie contract, Jeffery wasn’t approached by the team’s brass about doing a contract extension.
Jeffery tied for 11th in receptions among receivers last year and tied for seventh in receiving touchdowns and receptions for gains of more than 25 yards (12).
“I think [the new conditioning approach] will help him,” Fox said. “There have been times in his career when he might have been a little bit overweight, but obviously a beast as far as size, and a guy we’re looking forward to getting to know better.”
The Chicago Bears took a measured approach after the initial big-money first wave of free agency, and the club's patience may have actually paid off Tuesday with the expected additions of defensive ends Jarvis Jenkins and Ray McDonald.
After spending approximately $31 million guaranteed to land outside linebacker Pernell McPhee, safety Antrel Rolle and receiver Eddie Royal, the Bears continued into the second wave of free agency looking to land bargains as they attempt to fill out the defense for the switch to defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's 3-4 scheme.
With plenty of options at outside linebacker, including McPhee, Jared Allen, Willie Young and Lamarr Houston, the Bears needed to add a couple of interior defenders to play defensive end. The Bears appear to have filled the void at those spots with a couple of steady performers in Jenkins and McDonald.
Jenkins played the run solidly last season at Washington, but has posted just two career sacks. Jenkins told ESPN Redskins reporter John Keim he plans "this offseason to do 100 pass rushes every day on a lineman. I have to work on it if I want to be a dominant player in this league. It's obvious my downfall [is] sacks. [Redskins coach Jay] Gruden explained it to me and said guys like you that are athletic, you're supposed to have sacks. This is a sack league. It will be the main thing I work on, to get my sacks up."
In Fangio's 3-4 scheme, that really won't be necessary, as outside linebackers are charged mostly with the responsibility of netting sacks, while defensive ends serve primarily as run defenders.
That brings us to McDonald, an acquisition sure to stir up some controversy given his recent past. The 49ers released McDonald back in December for what they called a "pattern of poor decision-making" after learning police were investigating the defensive end on suspicion of sexual assault. McDonald was never charged in that case, and the defensive end is suing the woman who accused him of the assault.
McDonald was also implicated in a domestic abuse case involving his fiancée last August, but it was announced in November he wouldn't be facing charges in that case with authorities citing insufficient evidence as the alleged victim declined to cooperate with investigators.
"I feel like what I am doing is the right thing because I know that I am not this bad person that people are making me out to be," McDonald told ESPN last week. "I've been fired from my job. I know some teams don't even want to talk to me because of this past accusation. All I am trying to do is clear my name and move on with my life."
There's a good chance that won't be easy in Chicago, at least not initially. According to a source, the Bears, internally, are bracing for the potential backlash likely to accompany the signing of McDonald. But while the accusations concerning McDonald are certainly serious, he hasn't been formally charged in either of the investigations, and according to NFL spokesman Greg Aiello, "the matter is under review" with regard to the defensive end potentially facing league discipline.
Ultimately, though, it's unlikely McDonald would have landed on Chicago's radar anyway without a strong recommendation from Fangio, the defensive end's former coordinator in San Francisco. McDonald played for Fangio from 2011 to 2014, having joined the 49ers in 2007 as a third-round pick out of Florida.
McDonald became a starter in 2011 under Fangio, and developed into a strong run-stopper capable of providing an added dimension as a pass-rusher. McDonald started 14 games for San Francisco in 2014, finishing fifth on the team in tackles. Pro Football Focus rated McDonald No. 12 among 3-4 defensive ends.
So on the surface it appears the Bears landed a couple of solid potential contributors as they look to restore the club's reputation for annually fielding one of the league's toughest defenses.
If Jenkins and McDonald pan out, along with new general manager Ryan Pace's other recent additions, the Bears could be well on their way to turning around last season's 5-11 mark without having to break the bank to make it happen.
Most significant signing: The addition of outside linebacker Pernell McPhee should give the Chicago Bears the most long-term value of the team's three signings. But in the short term, the addition of safety Antrel Rolle should be Chicago's most significant signing to date in part because of the horrid play at the position in recent years. The Bears haven't fielded a defense with consistent playmakers at safety in more than five years. So although Rolle is 32 years old, he brings a playmaking element (nine interceptions and two forced fumbles over the past two seasons), but more importantly, he provides leadership on a defense that has lost its way over the past three years. Chicago ranked 30th against the pass in 2014, and was one of just three teams to give up an average opponent passer rating of 100 or better. The defense ranked No. 30 overall in each of the past two seasons and also ranked 30th and 31st in points allowed in 2013 and 2014, respectively.
Most significant loss: The Bears traded a seventh-round pick and receiver Brandon Marshall to New York in exchange for the Jets' fifth-round pick. The move sent away perhaps Chicago's most significant weapon on offense, and instead of working to replace Marshall's production with a top-flight receiver, the team added veteran Eddie Royal, signing him to a three-year contract worth $10 million guaranteed. Over the past two seasons, Chicago's quarterbacks put up a total QBR of 70.2 with Marshall on the field and just 3.33 when he wasn't in the lineup, according to ESPN Stats & Information. So there's no doubt Marshall helped to make Chicago's quarterbacks better. Can Royal do the same? Royal possesses the ability to play opposite Alshon Jeffery as a No. 2 receiver. But it's more likely the Bears ask Royal to operate out of the slot mostly in 2015. So Chicago will definitely be in the market, whether through free agency or the draft, for a No. 2 wideout.
Biggest surprise: Given all the needs on defense, especially in the secondary, it's somewhat surprising the Bears have moved so slowly in making acquisitions. In the first week of free agency, the Bears signed McPhee, Rolle and Royal. McPhee is an ascending talent, but the Bears need to bring in more players on defense who fit that description. Chicago did attempt to sign Kansas City safety Ron Parker to pair with Rolle, but he ultimately decided to re-sign with the Chiefs. The Bears have also been in discussions with Tampa Bay linebacker Mason Foster, but the sides remained far apart on terms.
What's next? Teams all around the league seemed to be making major moves through trades or big-money acquisitions, while the Bears remained mostly quiet during the first wave of free agency. But Chicago isn't done by a long shot, and it's expected most of the team's moves will come during the second wave of free agency, where the Bears might be able to scoop up some deep discounts. The Bears need to continue adding to the defense, and could be looking to bring in at least one more safety, another cornerback and inside linebackers. New general manager Ryan Pace seems to be taking a meticulous approach toward building the 2015 Bears. So don't expect the Bears to come out of free agency labeled as winners, which is fine by Pace and new coach John Fox, as games aren't won on paper.
With options in free agency dwindling for Chicago, let's take a quick look at a few potential draft options for the Bears at receiver. Chicago owns the No. 7 overall pick of the draft.
Round 1 prospects
Amari Cooper, Alabama
2014 stats: 124 receptions, 1,727 yards, 16 touchdowns.
Why he fits: In the debate between Cooper and former West Virginia receiver Kevin White, coaches seem to prefer the former, while scouts tend to give the edge to the latter. That's primarily because coaches view players with an eye toward them helping right away, while scouts take more of a long-term perspective. Cooper (6-1, 211 pounds) ran a 4.42-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine. So he's speedy enough to provide Chicago a legitimate deep threat opposite Alshon Jeffery. Cooper's quickness allows him to gain a clean release off the line of scrimmage consistently, and he possesses a burst that allows him to separate from defensive backs. Cooper also seems to have a natural feel for the receiver position.
Quotable: "You don't want to give the defensive back any signals about what route you're going to run. Every time I run a route, I try to make it seem like I'm running a different route than I'm actually running so I can get open. I certainly want to be the best receiver, not just in this class, but overall, wherever I go, and I'm going to work hard to try to be that. I take good pride in the way I release off the line and coming out of my breaks. That's really the only two ways you can get open. I think that's probably what would separate me from someone else." -- Cooper
Kevin White, West Virginia
2014 stats: 109 receptions, 1,447 yards, 10 touchdowns.
Why he fits: White (6-3, 215 pounds) ran a 4.35-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, and flashed explosiveness with a 36 1/2-inch vertical leap. So White would give the Bears a speed element they lacked in Marshall with similar run-after-catch traits and that knack for overpowering defenders. Like Marshall, White wins most contested-ball situations, but like most receivers coming from college to the NFL, he could improve as a route runner. White fits the mold as an attacking receiver, and might be the ideal type of player to pair on the outside with Jeffery.
Quotable: "I think I put a lot of fear in defensive backs just because I block so well, and when I come off the line I'm quicker than they expect. By the time they realize it, it's already a done deal. When you talk trash, you've got to back it up. That just puts more pressure on me to back it up. I love getting in defender's heads. Once I do that, it's definitely game over. Blocking separates receivers. I feel like to have a successful offense, receivers have to block, and that's what separates me. I love to block. I love to manhandle guys. I'll continue to do that." -- White
Outside of Round 1
Nelson Agholor, Southern Cal
2014 stats: 104 receptions, 1,313 yards, 12 touchdowns.
Why he fits: Agholor (6-0, 198 pounds) appears to be very similar to former Trojans Marqise Lee and Robert Woods, and like them, he's got experience in a pro-style offense, which should ease his transition to the NFL game. Projected as a second-round pick, Agholor clocked a 4.42-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, but couldn't complete the workout after dislocating a finger on his left hand during receiving drills. Agholor runs crisp routes, and provides extra value because of his return ability. Agholor scored a USC-record four touchdowns on punt returns, but he might project in the NFL as more of a slot receiver. The Bears need a bona fide No. 2
Quotable: "I'm very different compared to a lot of guys [in the draft class]. I think a lot of these guys have a lot of traits. I'm multiple in many ways. I want to be the guy you keep in the game 25-7. If a team already has a No. 1, I want to contribute the equivalent to a No. 1 or be the No. 1. I progressed from Year 2 to Year 3. It was always about progressing, and when I left college, I look back at everything and I say, 'You know what, I never took a step back each day.' I never missed a practice. I didn't face injury. It was about progressing each day. I thought my mentality was to be on the rise. In terms of character, professional, everything I do, I want to do it the right way. I want to prepare. As a player, I want them to know that." -- Agholor
Justin Hardy, East Carolina
2014 stats: 121 receptions, 1,494 yards, 10 touchdowns.
Why he fits: Hardy (5-10, 190 pounds) lacks elite speed, having run a 4.56 time in the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, but he's quick enough off the line of scrimmage to consistently get clean releases. Like Agholor, Hardy seems to project as a slot receiver in the NFL. While his speed and measurables don't jump out at you, Hardy is a natural ball catcher capable of making explosive plays after the catch. Hardy also provides extra value in the return game as he returned punts his last three years at East Carolina. Despite Hardy's calm demeanor, he's a confident competitor, and you can't overlook his monstrous college production (387 receptions, 4,541 yards and 35 touchdowns) as the NCAA's all-time leading receiver.
Quoteable: "A lot of guys, I tried to look at what they do to be great. Growing up, Jerry Rice, you know, a great guy, kind of like me, not being that fast, but got the job done. It's been fun. Coming from no D-I offers, to walking on at ECU, earning a scholarship and getting to this spot. [I'm] trying to be the best that I can be and go from there." -- Hardy
"It depends," Marshall said Friday during a conference call with the New York media. "The new coach was brought on, and our new general manager. They don’t know us. All they can go on is what they hear, what they see, what they saw from afar. I’ve always described our relationship this way -- and it hasn’t changed -- that we’re brothers. We’re the brothers that we love each other, but also get into it. And it’s always been that way and it will never change. I love him, his family. I love his sons. And I wish him the best."
But on Dec. 8, Marshall was asked about a report on NFL Network's "NFL GameDay Morning" in which Chicago was described as grappling with buyer’s remorse regarding Cutler. Marshall mentioned all the club's issues weren’t the quarterback's fault, but also said he understands the situation and "would have buyer’s remorse, too"
In three seasons with the Bears, Marshall racked up 100-plus yards receiving in a game 15 times. Since entering the league in 2006, Marshall ranks third in receptions (773), fifth in receiving touchdowns (65), and sixth in receiving yardage (9,771).
Marshall had 279 catches for 3,524 yards and 31 touchdowns during his Chicago tenure.
Bears general manager Ryan Pace said the decision to trade Marshall came after a thorough evaluation of the club's roster.
"It’s kind of analyzing the whole roster and just looking at what’s best for the Chicago Bears and what’s best for Brandon Marshall," he said. "That was our decision going forward. He was understanding [of the move], but I like to keep a lot of those conversations internal. I think we both feel good about where we’re at right now."
Prior to finishing the season with 721 yards on 61 receptions in 2014, Marshall had put together seven consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. Marshall fought through nagging leg injuries most of last season, and finished on Injured Reserve because of fractured ribs and a punctured lung.
On top of the production dipping, Marshall participated in a couple of instances that were construed as distractions; most notably, a postgame locker room rant after a loss to the Miami Dolphins. He also challenged a Detroit Lions fan to a boxing match on Twitter, and also spent time during the work week performing as an analyst on Showtime’s "Inside the NFL."
Marshall turns 31 on March 23, and was asked whether he could maintain the production he’s churned out in recent years.
"No, I don’t feel like I’m the same guy. Absoluetly not," Marshall said. "If you’re staying the same, you’re getting worse. Every year I set the bar really high. I have high standards. I’ve heard those rumblings. What people don’t understand is a couple of years ago, I had to make a decision within myself. Everywhere I’ve been I’ve always been 'the guy.' I’ve always been the guy getting thrown 170, 180 balls. When we bring Alshon [Jeffery] down [to Florida to train] and help him take his game to the next level and he has a breakout year, now we have another 'guy.' Then you bring in Martellus Bennett. That’s another 'guy.' We had the workhorse, Matt Forte in the backfield. We had four guys who could really carry a team or an offense. We all had to make that decision to be selfless. Those targets were going to come down from 180, 190 to 150. It was going to go from 118 catches to about 90 catches."
“God, I pray that you just give me a level head,” Rolle explained Friday to WFAN in New York. “I pray that you just give me a sign to lead me in the right direction, and I’ll follow your lead.”
Rolle picked up his cell phone hours later, awakened by an email alert at 4:33 a.m.
It read: Orbitz alert: Flights to Chicago, discount fare.
The Chicago Bears announced Rolle two days later as the club’s newest acquisition in the secondary, after signing him to a three-year contract, worth $11.25 million, including $5 million guaranteed. The plan now for Rolle is to acclimate himself in Chicago as quickly as possible to prove, even at 32 years old, he can serve as a key contributor in the new Bears defense under new coordinator Vic Fangio.
“They wanted me there. They wanted me badly, everything I can bring to their organization,” Rolle said. “My skill level was still top notch, even at the age of 32. They wanted me to be a part of their ball club. From Day 1, they’ve shown the most interest out of any team.”
Rolle plans to reward Chicago’s belief in him through his play. While concerns exist regarding Rolle’s age, his track record on the field speaks to consistency, durability and leadership. Rolle signed a five-year contract worth $37.1 million with the Giants prior to the 2010 season, and participated in every game that season. In 2011, Rolle played in every game, including the four postseason contests on the way to the Giants’ Super Bowl XLVI title.
Rolle served as a team captain the past two years for the Giants, and was selected to two Pro Bowls during his tenure with the team, while earning a reputation among peers and coaches as a leader and consummate team player. During the NFL combine in February, Giants coach Tom Coughlin spoke highly of Rolle, saying, “I don't think I've ever been involved with a player who was more sincerely interested in how his team could improve. I admire that very much in him as a young man and as a leader."
Rolle expects to bring leadership to Chicago as well, but it won’t be through fiery rhetoric.
“I think you earn your leadership. I don’t plan to come in there overnight and start trying to take over things,” Rolle said. “I’ve never wanted to ever take over anything. If I lead, it’s going to be by example. If I’m a leader, it’s because my peers see me as a leader, not because I see myself as a leader. So I’m just trying to go in there, man, and just be the best safety I can be. Be the best teammate I can be, and play between those white lines, just go out there and bring everything I know; bring that University of Miami old-school mentality to that locker room.
Apparently, that’s fine by Bears coach John Fox.
In five seasons with the Giants, Rolle racked up 464 tackles and 14 interceptions to run up his grand total to 801 tackles and 26 interceptions over a 10-year career.
“Coach Fox told me, ‘I want you to go in. I want you to be yourself. I want you to let it loose the way you know how to let it loose,’” Rolle said. “That’s all I needed to hear because I’m ready to let it loose.”
“He’s a good football player,” Pace said. “Going forward, we felt this was the best for us. Quite frankly, it’s the best situation for him, too. So that’s where we’re at.”
In addition to giving up Marshall, the Bears sent a seventh-round pick to New York in exchange for the Jets’ fifth-round pick. The compensation seemed low considering Marshall produced 15 games in which he racked up 100-plus yards receiving in three seasons as a Bear.
Pace said the trade compensation from the Jets “was fair” and also explained some of the factors behind the decision.
“It’s kind of analyzing the whole roster and just looking at what’s best for the Chicago Bears and what’s best for Brandon Marshall,” he said. “That was our decision going forward. He was understanding [of the move], but I like to keep a lot of those conversations internal. I think we both feel good about where we’re at right now.”
During his brief tenure in Chicago, Marshall picked up a reputation for being a distraction by detractors for some of his minor, off-the-field transgressions such as challenging a Lions fan to a fight on Twitter and his weekly commitment as an analyst on Showtime’s “Inside the NFL” as well as speaking his mind and challenging teammates and coaches.
Pace and head coach John Fox never spoke directly about how the decision to trade Marshall might have been a play by the organization to improve locker-room chemistry. But Pace was asked how Marshall’s absence might affect the locker room.
“I’m not sure,” Pace said. “We’re building this thing moving forward. We have a lot of time, guys. Free agency is occurring as we’re speaking. We have the draft going forward as we speak. We have a lot of time to continue to build the roster, build the chemistry, and build the locker room. To speak exactly on how that changes the locker room, I’m not too sure about that.”
What is certain, however, is the team’s need to find a way to replace Marshall’s production. The Bears brought in San Diego’s Eddie Royal on Monday night for a visit at Halas Hall, and Pace said the team is looking in free agency and the upcoming draft to add receivers.
Chicago’s current roster features Alshon Jeffery at receiver along with Josh Bellamy, Marc Mariani, Josh Morgan and Marquess Wilson. The club lost out on marquee free agents such as Randall Cobb, Jeremy Maclin, Torrey Smith and Andre Johnson, as all have agreed to new deals.
“I would say the receiver position, we are looking at that. We are exploring that in free agency, in the draft,” Pace said. “There are guys, honestly, on our own roster that we could see have ascending roles. We’ll add talent to our entire roster. But, yeah, we are looking at receivers.”
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- New Chicago Bears linebacker Pernell McPhee tried his hand as personnel evaluator Tuesday during his introductory news conference when asked to give a scouting report on himself.
"I'm violent, and that's all you need, to be violent," McPhee said, laughing. "No, just a violent guy [who tries] to forget about the [last] play no matter if it's good or bad, and play with that motor and with that energy."
The new Bears regime made McPhee its first major acquisition in free agency on Monday, coming to terms with him on a five-year contract reportedly worth nearly $40 million, including $16 million in guaranteed money.
General manager Ryan Pace agreed with McPhee's self-scouting report.
"There's a couple things that stand out with him. First of all, he's disruptive. He hits the quarterback a ton," Pace said. "I think he's an ascending player. Like he said, I like the violence that he plays with. He's got length, gets off blocks, I think he's a well-rounded player, too. I think he's a productive pass-rusher, but also a steady, consistent run defender. Those are some of the things that jump out."
McPhee has started just six games over his four-year career with the Ravens. But with the team's move to a 3-4 front under new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, McPhee serves as somewhat of a building block to what's expected to be an entirely different defense than the Bears have fielded in recent years.
A fifth-round pick for the Ravens out of Mississippi State in 2011, McPhee brings versatility to Chicago's new scheme. He's produced as an end and tackle in Baltimore's 4-3 looks, while also lining up as an end when the Ravens lined up in 3-4 fronts. McPhee produced a breakout season in 2014, ranking second among all 3-4 outside linebackers, according to Pro Football Focus, with an overall grade of +26.0.
McPhee ranked No. 3 behind Justin Houston and Elvis Dumervil as a pass-rusher.
McPhee credited his rapid ascension in Baltimore to the tutelage of Dumervil and Terrell Suggs. McPhee collected a career-high 7.5 sacks in 2014, and tallied 27 tackles. McPhee also racked up 64 quarterback pressures in 2014, while hitting the quarterback on 24 occasions.
"I played with Dumervil and Sizzle -- Suggs -- [and] it was a blessing," McPhee said. "They taught me a lot about how to play with my eyes, my hands and my feet, and how to read the game. They're all vets, future Hall of Famers. They taught me a lot; how to stay humble and take care of my body. It was all a great experience."
In Chicago, the plan is to play McPhee at one of the outside linebacker spots in base situations. But when the Bears move to substitution packages, which Pace anticipated will be 60 percent of the time, McPhee will kick inside to one of the spots along the defensive line.
"He does have length," Bears coach John Fox said. "He's able to use his hands very well. He does play with body lean. He collapses the pocket. He's not what I would define as a speed rusher, but an outstanding rusher. Comparisons, I don't like doing those very often. [He's] kind of like Michael Strahan, does it with really good technique, really good hands, good leverage. He plays with good lean and he pushes the pocket very, very well."
McPhee spent last season as a backup outside linebacker behind Pro Bowlers Suggs and Dumervil, but took part in approximately half of Baltimore's snaps. McPhee joins an already interesting outside linebacker position group which will also feature Jared Allen, Willie Young and Lamarr Houston. McPhee and Houston are the only players at the position with NFL experience as outside linebackers in a 3-4 scheme.
McPhee has posted 17 career sacks.
"It's a great opportunity," McPhe said. "It ain't going to be about me. It's going to be about the other 11 guys or 10 guys that are going to be on the field with me; and the 11 on offense. That's what the focus piece is going to be. I can't even say how many sacks I'll get next year. The only thing that I can say is coach and the defensive coordinator and everybody is going to do a great job putting out how much playing time they want me to play. Yeah I hope I play more than 49 [percent of Chicago's snaps], but you know that. Whatever game plan coach comes up with, you know, we're going to roll with it, and try to be the best defense we can be."
The Chicago Bears hit free agency Tuesday fully expecting to go into the 2015 season with Jay Cutler at quarterback, according to ESPN’s Chris Mortensen, citing team sources with knowledge of Chicago’s plans.
Surely coach John Fox and general manager Ryan Pace are acutely aware of the two head coaches left in Cutler’s wake, as well as the two GMs and countless assistants dating back to 2009. But with few options available on the market and in the upcoming draft and an albatross of a contract to unload, Fox and Pace now need to focus their attention on making the best of the situation.
That means surrounding the enigmatic quarterback with even more support Tuesday, via playmakers on offense and defense, once the bell tolls to kick off free agency at 4 p.m. ET.
One free agent, whose representatives spoke with Chicago during the early negotiation period, said his two biggest concerns about joining the Bears were the quarterback and the team’s locker room.
But there’s still plenty left for Fox and Pace to do to avoid the fates of their predecessors.
Knowing all along the organization could very well be stuck with Cutler through 2016, Pace and Fox put together a coaching staff that should be able to coax production from the quarterback. Cutler respects new quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains and offensive coordinator Adam Gase and has long wanted to work with both.
The current situation seems reminiscent of the past, when the organization bent over backward to coddle the quarterback.
The difference this time is Pace and Fox may not hesitate to go another route quickly if Cutler fizzles.
Cutler is scheduled to earn $15.5 million in 2015, a contract that is already fully guaranteed. If Cutler remains on the roster Thursday at 4 p.m. ET, another $10 million of the quarterback’s 2016 salary becomes guaranteed for injury. Cutler could earn another $6 million guaranteed if he is on the roster next March at the start of the 2016 new league year. The team doesn’t owe Cutler any guaranteed money after 2016.
So for Cutler, there’s plenty of incentive to perform in 2015, which would help him avoid a repeat of the current offseason, in which the two most powerful decision-makers on the football operations side have remained noncommittal publicly regarding the quarterback.
Behind the scenes, though, the staff is working diligently to put together a playbook they believe will accentuate Cutler’s strengths.
Soon, it’s expected that Fox and Pace will come out and publicly endorse the quarterback, or at least announce a plan for the position moving forward.
Prior to all that, though, it’s likely the coach and GM sat down with Cutler and discussed expectations for 2015, his attitude, and how he should operate within the confines of the scheme to reduce turnovers and bad decisions, with the sides coming away from the meetings or series of meetings having struck some type of accord all could live with.
Ultimately, Cutler’s contract wasn’t immovable, but it was pretty close. The contract combined with circumstance (weak free-agent market of quarterbacks, lack of strong trade offers and the uncertainly of finding a suitable replacement in the draft) to conjure up the current climate.
Now it’s time for the brass and the quarterback to make the best of it.
The new Chicago Bears regime made its first move in free agency Monday, reportedly coming to terms with Baltimore Ravens linebacker Pernell McPhee on a five-year contract worth nearly $40 million, including $16 million in guaranteed money.
The transaction doesn't necessarily qualify as splashy, considering McPhee has started just six games over his four-year career. But with the Bears' move to a 3-4 front under new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, the acquisition of McPhee was necessary and displays the new regime's commitment to returning Chicago to its former glory on defense.
"Let's face the facts," Bears general manager Ryan Pace said in January during his introductory news conference. "The weather here, I'm experiencing it right now, it can be brutal. To win in that environment you've got to be able to run the ball. You've got to be able to play tough defense. When you think about the Chicago Bears' identity over the years, it's tough, physical defense, and we're going to get back to that."
McPhee starts the movement.
A fifth-round pick of the Ravens out of Mississippi State in 2011, McPhee brings versatility to Chicago's new scheme. He worked as both an end and tackle in Baltimore's 4-3 looks and also lined up as an end in 3-4 looks. McPhee put together a breakout season in 2014 and ranked second among all 3-4 outside linebackers, according to Pro Football Focus, with an overall grade of plus-26.0. As a pass-rusher, McPhee ranked No. 3 behind Justin Houston and Elvis Dumervil.
The Bears plan to play McPhee mostly at outside linebacker, but he's capable of contributing in pass-rushing situations at nose and defensive end. McPhee collected a career-high 7.5 sacks in 2014 and also tallied 31 tackles. In addition, McPhee contributed 64 quarterback pressures while notching 24 quarterback hits.
It appears McPhee is just Step 1 in Chicago's plan to utilize free agency to address needs up front.
The club is also expected to make a push for Denver Broncos free-agent defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, with ESPN's Josina Anderson reporting the Bears have "serious interest" in bringing in Knighton to anchor the interior of Fangio's 3-4 front.
Knighton played the last two seasons for new Bears head coach John Fox in Denver, where he started all 32 regular-season games over that span. Knighton finished 2014 with 30 tackles and two sacks, but he's regarded as one of the better run-stopping defensive tackles in the league.
McPhee spent last season as a backup outside linebacker behind Pro Bowlers Terrell Suggs and Dumervil, but McPhee participated in approximately half of Baltimore's snaps. He joins Jared Allen, Willie Young and Lamarr Houston as potential outside linebackers for the Bears. McPhee and Houston are the club's only known commodities at the position, as Young and Allen have never played outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme.
Rising fourth-year man Shea McClellin is another option at the position.
Pace and Fox are looking to turn around a defense that ranked 30th overall in each of the past two seasons -- and 31st in 2014 and 30th in 2013 in points allowed -- so you can count the acquisition of McPhee as just the beginning of what's expected to be a flurry of moves on defense in free agency.
With just 17 career sacks over four NFL seasons, McPhee doesn't necessarily jump off the page as a major acquisition for the Bears. But if you look deeper, McPhee's versatility, size (6-foot-3, 280 pounds) and athleticism hint at the type of defense Chicago is looking to build, while speaking to Pace's ability to identify and land talented players entering the peak of their careers.
In three seasons with the Bears, Marshall produced 15 games in which he racked up 100-plus yards receiving for a total of 34 such performances in his nine-year career. Since coming into the league in 2006, Marshall ranks third in receptions (773), fifth in receiving touchdowns (65) and sixth in receiving yardage (9,771).
Marshall’s 279 catches for 3,524 yards and 31 touchdowns with the Bears works out to an average of 93 catches per year for 1,174 yards and 10 touchdowns.
So replacing that production won’t be an easy feat for the Bears, and let’s not kid ourselves for one minute that veteran Brian Hartline, brought in Wednesday for a visit at Halas Hall, could get it done. The comparison between the players isn’t even close.
Widely considered a distraction by his detractors, Marshall certainly wouldn’t win Mr. Congeniality in the Bears locker room, where he routinely spoke his mind, and wasn’t afraid to challenge teammates to kick up their games to a higher level. Obviously to management, Marshall’s potential to adversely affect locker room chemistry outweighed the gaudy numbers he’s capable of producing on a consistent basis.
Luckily for the Bears, they go into free agency with close to $30 million in cap space. They’ll need the majority of that cash to upgrade what has been a historically horrid defense, but Friday’s trade of Marshall means that the Bears also will be looking at possibly bringing in receivers in free agency next week as well as in the draft.
The current roster features receivers such as Alshon Jeffery, Josh Bellamy, Marc Mariani, Josh Morgan and Marquess Wilson. And it’s worth pondering whether Marshall’s departure will negatively affect Jeffery’s growth, considering it was the former’s tutelage (teaching him how to train, how to eat and how to take care of his body) that paved the way for the latter’s ascension.
The Bears could try to replace Marshall with Jeffery as the No. 1, but it’s worth asking whether Jeffery is actually ready to take on such a role. Once Marshall was lost for the season Dec. 4, Jeffery averaged just four catches during the last three games after averaging 5.6 receptions the previous 13 contests.
With Marshall out of the picture, the Bears must turn to a free-agent crop of receivers that includes several talented players such as Green Bay’s Randall Cobb, Philadelphia’s Jeremy Maclin, Baltimore’s Torrey Smith and Houston’s Andre Johnson. Starting on Saturday, NFL teams can enter into negotiations with impending free agents. So the Bears will likely be on the phone with representatives for at least one of the players listed above.
Cobb reportedly is seeking a deal averaging in the range of $10 million per season, which obviously is more than the $7.5 million Marshall is set to earn in 2015. Maclin caught 85 passes for 1,318 yards with 21 catches for gains of 20 yards or more and 10 touchdowns in 2014 after missing all of 2013 with a torn ACL. Maclin, reportedly, would prefer to re-sign with the Eagles.
Smith lacks Marshall’s consistency, considering he’s eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark in only one season and is coming off a 2014 season in which he contributed career-lows for yards (747) and yards per catch (15.7). Johnson, meanwhile, recently asked the Texans to trade or cut him. But at 33 with a base salary worth $21.5 million over the next two seasons, Johnson likely won’t receive much action from the Bears for a potential trade, given that he had just 936 yards receiving last season with three touchdowns.
So it’s more likely the Texans cut Johnson and take a $7.3 million hit in dead money, making the receiver a free agent. Once Johnson hits the market, he’ll command quite a bit less in salary than he’s currently due. But even at a much lower salary, it’s unlikely the Bears would be looking to replace Marshall with a 33-year-old receiver who appears to be on the decline.
So while options appear aplenty regarding potential replacements for Marshall, the reality is Chicago faces a difficult challenge in bringing in a receiver capable of matching his production.
The Chicago Bears' reported openness to trading receiver Brandon Marshall makes sense if the new regime believes it can replace his production and improve locker room chemistry by removing him.
But the truth is the Bears are a better team with Marshall on the field than without him. The potential distractions can be mitigated by strong leadership from new head coach John Fox, general manager Ryan Pace, and the rest of the team.
In nine years in the NFL, Marshall has put together 34 games in which he gained 100-plus yards receiving, and his teams are a total of 15-19 under such circumstances. But the Bears are 9-6 when Marshall, a five-time Pro Bowler, reaches 100 yards receiving.
Pace and Fox said they've met with Marshall and several other players as they make plans for the 2015 Bears. Marshall's base salary of $7.5 million for next season becomes guaranteed on the third day of the new league year (March 12).
Marshall fought through lagging leg injuries most of last season, and finished the year on the injured reserve due to fractured ribs and a punctured lung, and produced just 721 yards receiving. Prior to last season, Marshall racked up 1,000 yards receiving in seven consecutive seasons.
On top of the production tailing off, Marshall participated in a couple of instances that could be construed as potential distractions. Most notably, a postgame locker room rant after a loss to the Miami Dolphins, in addition to challenging a Detroit Lions fan to a boxing match on Twitter as well as weekly television duties as an analyst on Showtime's "Inside the NFL."
But wouldn't you accept such hiccups for Marshall's usual production, especially if the new regime found a way to keep it all to a minimum?
Marshall turns 31 on March 23, but his subpar 2014 campaign shouldn't be attributed to age as much as injury, issues at quarterback and suspect play calling. After all, there are several receivers in their 30s coming off productive seasons, such as Atlanta's Roddy White, Baltimore's Steve Smith, San Francisco's Anquan Boldin and Houston's Andre Johnson.
Marshall is younger than all those players, and his offseason training habits make the receiver one of the league's better conditioned players at the position. Let's also not discount Marshall's penchant for playing through pain.
Besides that, the Bears giving up Marshall for a mid- to late-round pick -- which is likely all the team would likely receive in a trade -- makes little sense when considering his $7.5 million salary isn't prohibitive with regards to the cap as Chicago is eyeing more than $25 million in salary cap space.
So if the team is truly looking to move Marshall, Fox and Pace must really perceive the receiver as a major locker room problem. That wouldn't be a surprise. Teammates throughout the season and after have characterized Marshall that way. But it's easy to forget that in Marshall's best season as a pro (2012, when he finished with 118 catches for 1,508 yards), the Bears finished the year with a 10-6 record.
So how much of a distraction was Marshall back then?
"I think [Marshall has] had great production. I think he's a guy that's a big target," Fox said in February at the NFL combine. "That helps you a lot in the red area, and he's done it in this league. We're trying to evaluate where everybody fits, and how we best use them; trying to put the best football team on the field. He's part of that process. I don't know if it's fair to give a full evaluation when I only took part of the test. We've still got more questions on the test, so we'll continue down that path, and hopefully make the best decision for our football team."
If that means ridding the locker room of Marshall, the brass needs to make sure to replace his production.
Because even on the verge of 31 and coming off the second-worst season of his career in terms of production, Marshall still is one of the best receivers in the NFL. Chicago will see that in 2015, whether it's with the Bears or elsewhere.
Profootballtalk.com first reported the visit.
Released by the Miami Dolphins to clear cap space, Hartline caught 39 passes for 474 yards last season and scored a pair of touchdowns. A fourth-round pick in 2009, Hartline's role gradually shrunk last season to the No. 4 option in the team’s passing game.
The Bears likely view Hartline as a potential option in the slot.
Hartline reportedly visited the Cleveland Browns on Tuesday, but could wind up re-signing with Miami as team owner Steve Ross reportedly called the receiver shortly after his release. A source said the Dolphins remain interested. So Hartline could be using his free-agent visits to determine his value on the open market.
Hartline started all 16 games for the Dolphins in 2014, yet produced the fewest receiving yards (474) of his career after putting together back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in 2012 and 2013.
In six seasons with the Dolphins, Hartline has 298 receptions for 4,243 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Interestingly, Hartline and Marshall have maintained a close relationship since the latter joined the Bears. They were teammates for two seasons in Miami (2010-11).
So although it’s apparent the Bears are interested in Hartline, the team could also be using the free-agent visit to glean more information about Marshall.
Remember, Bears general manager Ryan Pace and coach John Fox held off on committing to Marshall for the 2015 season when asked last month at the NFL combine about the receiver, who is due $7.5 million next season in base salary and counts $9.575 million against the cap.
Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, who enters the final year of his deal in 2015, are tied for ninth in the NFL with the most 100-yard receiving games (eight) in the NFL since 2013.
It’s likely that the Bears view Hartline as a potential secondary target as former seventh-round pick Marquess Wilson, after a training-camp injury, struggled during a 2014 season that was supposed to be his breakout year.
Wilson played in seven games last season with six starts, but generated just 17 receptions for 140 yards and a touchdown.
At least 10 former Chicago Bears staffers from the Lovie Smith and Marc Trestman regimes said recently they believe the team can't consistently compete for championships as long as it fields a lineup with Jay Cutler under center.
That sentiment might explain why head coach John Fox and general manager Ryan Pace remain uncommitted to Cutler as the team's starting quarterback for 2015. Deciding whether to commit to Cutler has a time element. If Cutler is on the Bears' roster on March 12, $10 million of his 2016 salary is guaranteed.
Cutler declined comment through a team spokesman. His agent, Bus Cook, said questions about whether the Bears feel they can win with Cutler should be directed to the team.
Two teammates, who also asked to remain anonymous for this story, characterized Cutler as a divisive figure with whom they'd rather not continue to play.
In six years with the Bears, Cutler has gone through four offensive coordinators, two head coaches and a pair of general managers. Yet Cutler remains very much in play as the team's potential long-term solution at the position, in part, because of the seven-year, $126.7 million extension the quarterback signed in January 2014.
One more former staffer said the Bears could win with Cutler as long as the coaches handcuff him to the system.
Although Smith let Martz go after the 2011 season, there's no denying Cutler played some of his best football as a Bear during a six-game span that year in which he completed 60.7 percent of his throws for 1,359 yards and eight touchdowns with three interceptions for a passer rating of 91.3. Cutler led the Bears to a 5-1 record during that stretch before breaking his right thumb in a Nov. 20 win over the San Diego Chargers.
“We're going to take our time on this,” Pace said recently. “We really have until mid-March. We're going to maximize that time and make thorough decisions through this whole process.”
But video evaluation of Cutler may not prove as beneficial as speaking with teammates and perhaps his former coaches. Remember, Pace worked with former Bears offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer in New Orleans, and it would come as a surprise if the new GM didn't pick Kromer's brain about Cutler. Kromer is the same coach who apologized during a team meeting for admitting he was an anonymous source in a story that characterized the Bears as harboring buyer's remorse for signing Cutler to the long-term contract. When the Bears cleaned house in December before Pace came on board, Kromer's contract was the only one terminated of all the assistants remaining on the staff.
“I don't think there's any question that there's ability and talent there,” Fox said recently of Cutler. “[But] there's a lot more that goes into it, and we're evaluating that as we speak.”
Despite Pace's and Fox's refusal to commit to Cutler publicly as the starter, it appears -- based on the staff they've set up -- the Bears are prepared to give the quarterback one last shot. The Bears hired two pro-Cutler coaches in offensive coordinator Adam Gase and quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains.
According to multiple sources, Cutler started to grow close to Gase after spending time with the former Broncos offensive coordinator at the wedding of former Bears quarterbacks coach Shane Day, a disciple of Martz. Cutler has wanted to work with Gase for a while, the sources said. Martz tried to hire Gase in 2010 as Chicago's quarterbacks coach, but Denver wouldn't allow him out of his contract, which led to the hiring of Day.
It's unknown how Cutler and the new staff will get along if he's still on the roster in 2015, and one former coach said he believes it's time the organization stops catering to the quarterback until he delivers a return on the club's investment.
One staffer said that while Cutler was injured and Josh McCown was flourishing as the replacement in 2013, there was a significant faction in the locker room that believed the latter should've remained the starter. Another coach said that fairly early in the 2014 season, it was apparent the team had made two mistakes: (1) not re-signing McCown, and (2) continuing to stand behind Cutler after it was clear he was not going to consistently operate within the confines of Trestman's offense.
That same coach said he believed McCown gave the Bears a better chance to win than Cutler because he simply executed the scheme the way he was asked, without freelancing.
Pace and Fox met with McCown during the NFL combine, but there will be no reunion as McCown signed with the Cleveland Browns.
Some may view the disparaging remarks from Cutler's former coaches as sour grapes on the part of scorned staffers. Nobody on the current staff has told Cutler he's on the way out or that his tenure in Chicago is in jeopardy.
But every one of the former staffers interviewed from the Smith and Trestman regimes pointed out similar flaws in the quarterback. Two “R” words -- “renegade” and “rogue” -- were often used by the former staffers when asked about Cutler's ability to play within the confines of an offensive system.
They all also questioned Cutler's leadership abilities. One former staffer said McCown was the offense's leader in the locker room during his final season in Chicago, adding that for Cutler “it's just not him” to embrace such a role. The staffer said that Cutler doesn't have to be a leader for the team to succeed.
But it's difficult to ignore that the most successful teams in the NFL have strong leadership at the quarterback position.
"There's a lot of things outside of the building that I think are maybe a little misunderstood. When you get to know somebody, things are different when you get to talk face to face. So yeah, that's going on,” Pace said. “I know he's a very talented player, and again it's just getting to know him as a person and kind of how he ticks.”
Let's get started.
@mikecwright: I'm not sure about "fits" as you say, but the Bears are definitely interested in David Harris of the New York Jets, and Tampa Bay's Mason Foster as potential fits at inside linebacker. I think linebackers such as Jonathan Casillas and O'Brien Schofield are also players to keep an eye on as free agency approaches. I think San Francisco has some interesting things going on at linebacker as well. Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman appear to be close to returning to full health, which means that last year's starters Chris Borland and Michael Wilhoite could be relegated to backup roles. So perhaps new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, given his familiarity with all four players, could talk Ryan Pace into trying to trade for one of his former 49ers pupils.
@mikecwright: I could definitely see that happening. The names to look out for would be linebacker Nate Irving, safety Rahim Moore and defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, aka "Pot Roast," as all three are free agents. Knighton is reportedly looking to make somewhere in the neighborhood of $7.5 million per year, which seems a tad steep. Knighton played in Jacksonville and Denver for new Oakland Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio. So there's a good chance Del Rio could be looking to add Knighton as well. Irving is coming off a torn ACL, which means he probably won't have much leverage in terms of landing a big-money deal. But Irving became a full-time starter in 2014, and seems to be an ascending player. Moore, meanwhile, will be one of the better safeties on the market along with New England's Devin McCourty. So there's a good chance Moore could be looking for more than the Bears would be willing to pay. In the past, the Bears didn't value the safety position in terms of handing out big-money deals. Perhaps that's changed with Pace as the GM.
@mikecwright: I think you got it right. But I go back and forth between where to put Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall. In fact, I'd say Marshall probably has a better chance of returning to Chicago than Cutler.
@mikecwright: I'm sure that 5.64 time in the 40-yard dash hurt him in the eyes of some scouts, but I don't believe that will affect his draft position. What you've got to realize is that Danny Shelton has rare power and strength, and he did put up a 30.5-inch vertical leap, which means he's got the explosion that personnel evaluators covet. He's also got the strength and power to command double-teams, which in turn would keep offensive linemen off the linebackers to allow them to run around and make plays. Shelton met with several teams at the combine, including Chicago, Indianapolis, Arizona, Green Bay, the New York Giants and New Orleans, and I don't think any of those teams' interest has waned after that time in the 40. Ultimately, what the player put on tape in games is what Shelton will be judged on; not a 40-yard dash time.
@mikecwright: I like him. Personal side note: Petty's coach at Baylor, Art Briles, was head coach of the Stephenville [Texas] Yellow Jackets back when they defeated us (Wichita Falls, Texas -- Hirschi High School) 49-40 in the first round of the playoffs my sophomore year. Anyway, as much as I like Petty, I don't think he's quite ready. I think he'll need a few years to learn the nuances of an NFL system before he's ready to be a starter. So if the Bears were to draft Petty, they'd have to let him sit and learn a few years before thrusting him into any real action.
Even Petty admitted that it's difficult at this point to project how he'll fare in an NFL system because of his background in a spread offense, but said he's more of a pocket passer than most spread quarterbacks.
"We were in the spread, but at the same time, I feel like I am a pocket passer," Petty said at the NFL combine. "I want to extend plays, extend plays within the pocket. That might be a little bit different than most spread quarterbacks who want to run it out of the pocket. For me, I feel like my game can translate easier in that, and the fact that I want to play within the pocket, and I want to extend plays within the pocket and beat you doing that."