Chicago Bears

After early hold-backs, Bears strike for two cornerbacks in makeover of secondary

After early hold-backs, Bears strike for two cornerbacks in makeover of secondary

The Bears pulled out of huge-ticket bidding for A.J. Bouye and Stephon Gilmore on day one of free agency in their quest for a starter-grade cornerback, or two. But they didn’t back out too far, coming back to wrap up contracts with a pair of 27-year-old cornerbacks on Saturday: a one-year contract with former New York Giants No. 1 pick Prince Amukamara and following that with a three-year deal for Marcus Cooper, who started 13 games last season for Arizona and led the Cardinals in interceptions last season.

The Bears have now signed six unrestricted free agents from other teams within the last 48 hours: corners Amukamara and Cooper, safety Quintin Demps, quarterback Mike Glennon, tight end Dion Sims and receiver Markus Wheaton. Amukamara and Cooper are both 27 and give the Bears, who have Tracy Porter turning 31 this August, potential longer-term solutions at a position that has been wanting outside of Porter.

With the signing of Demps on Friday, the Bears have done a near full makeover of a secondary that produced historic-low takeaways the past two seasons. The Bears still hold the No. 3 pick of the draft, with elite talent available at both cornerback and safety and the Bears positioning themselves closer to the ideal of being able to secure max-impact, best-available players rather than draft to fill position needs.

The cornerback market exploded early, with Bouye and Gilmore netting five-year packages in excess of $65 million. But the Bears struck back with $7 million guaranteed for 2017 on Amukamara’s deal, and invested on a three-year pact with Cooper, who has had looks at safety as recently as last season.

[RELATED: Bears officially sign Prince Amukamara, re-sign Christian Jones, Johnthan Banks]

Where the Bears did not want to get into the financial blizzard around the early signings, they lured Amukamara with a deal that may have been short term but was at the right level for one season, giving the former No. 1 pick a chance to take his career to the level he’d hoped coming into the NFL as the 19th overall pick of his draft.

“Not a lot of people were agreeing with me,” Amukamara said, laughing, “which is what free agency is all about. It was down to the wire and I was considering a long-term deal with another team but the Bears just made it worth my while.”

Amukamara played with Demps as a member of the Giants’ secondary in 2014, Demps leading the Giants with 4 interceptions. “He knows how to get the ball,” Amukamara said. 

Cooper, 27 and a Pro Bowl alternate last year, was a seventh-round pick by the San Francisco 49ers in 2013 but was cut before the regular season. He went to Kansas City (2013-15) before being traded to Arizona prior to last season. He has played in 56 games, starting 24 after not sticking with the defense under then-coordinator Vic Fangio in San Francisco his first time around.

“I’m a very big fan of Vic. I was with him in San Francisco and also with [Bears secondary coach] Ed Donatell,” Cooper said. “These guys are two geniuses of the game, been around a long time, seen a lot of things and have great defensive schemes. I’m looking for this time to be very productive. We’ve already had familiarity with each other, know how one another thinks, and I’m looking to come in with him and get things done.”

Cornerback and safety have been tough fills in free agency for the Bears at too many times. When free agency in its current form began a quarter-century ago, the Bears marked the moment by signing former San Diego Charger Anthony Blaylock. Blaylock’s career ended after that season due to injuries. Since then, cornerbacks have not typically been hits for the Bears in free agency.

Blaylock. Tom Carter (’97-98). Thomas Smith (’00). Dismal results. Draft hits on Charles Tillman and Nathan Vasher afforded the Bears the luxury of staying out of the market at the pricey position but eventually Vasher faded. The Bears scored with Tim Jennings (’10-14) and Tracy Porter (’15-16).

But Porter turns 31 in August, Kyle Fuller has not developed to the level of his first-round selection, Alan Ball was a failed fix, and lower-tier additions (Bryce Callahan, Jacoby Glenn, Demontre Hurst, Deiondre’ Hall) have not established themselves as starter-grade answers.

Safety has seen myriad failed, one-year tries with Adam Archuleta, Chris Hudson, Ryan Mundy (injured) and most recently Antrel Rolle.

Kendall Wright draws a line between Marcus Mariota and Mitch Trubisky: They 'can do it all'

Kendall Wright draws a line between Marcus Mariota and Mitch Trubisky: They 'can do it all'

Kendall Wright saw two years ago what the transition for a quarterback, picked second overall and coming from a college spread offense, can look like. Marcus Mariota made that move smoothly and now looks poised to join the ranks of the best quarterbacks in the NFL this year with the Tennessee Titans. 

Can Mitch Trubisky make a similarly successful transition? Wright, so far, has liked what he’s seen.

“His overall progression from OTAs to training camp to now, his overall everything he’s done in every area has gotten better,” Wright said. “The work he puts in, it helps him.” 

It’s not a perfect comparison, of course, given the offense Mariota so effectively operated at Oregon had a didn't resemble the look and feel of the one Trubisky ran at North Carolina. Mariota started far more games than Trubisky, too. They’re two different quarterbacks with different skillsets. And Mariota was given the opportunity to be a Week 1 starter from the moment he was drafted, while Trubisky — for now — remains behind Mike Glennon. 

“Marcus was in a different position where he came in and he was the quarterback,” Wright said. “I think it’s different. Once Mitch starts playing, whenever he starts playing, he’ll start progressing a lot more because he’ll actually be out there in game-like situations.”

But consider why the Titans were so confident Mariota could start immediately and make a successful transition to the NFL from that flashy Oregon offense:

“I don’t think the system he had in Oregon, I don’t think that held him back when he came into the league,” Wright said. “I think he was good at making his progressions, decisive. He’s like one of those players, it doesn’t matter what system he’s in, you put him out there and he’s a guy that’s a difference-maker.”

After espousing Trubisky’s accuracy back in April, Bears general manager Ryan Pace quickly pointed out this trait: “His ability to process and see the whole field jumps out right away. 

“… All these top quarterbacks, it’s just their ability to quickly process defenses, process coverage, find open targets, not panic under pressure, deliver accurate throws when there’s a noisy pocket – things are collapsing – those guys all have those traits. And Mitch has those traits, Drew (Brees) has those traits and those are things we value.”

The point being: No matter the system, both Mariota and Trubisky have good football intelligence, and are more than what Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians once bemoaned about college spread quarterbacks. 

“They hold up a card on the sideline and he kicks his foot and throws the ball,” Arians said in 2015. “That ain’t playing quarterback.”

Trubisky, of course, still has to improve with his pre-snaps reads, calling out protections, identifying coverages, learning the playbook, etc. But he seems to have the football intelligence to make those strides and marry them with his impressive physical skillset. 

And as was the case with Mariota, Wright doesn’t see a reason why Trubisky can’t succeed in the NFL. 

“(Trubisky) can do it all too,” Wright said. “He’s still learning, he’s still getting better, he’s never complacent. He has the ability to get better and he’s willing to get better. He’s a young guy that listens. He’s just a baller. You put him out there and he makes plays.” 

With return to Tennessee looming, football is fun again for Kendall Wright

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USA Today Sports Images

With return to Tennessee looming, football is fun again for Kendall Wright

Sunday will mark Kendall Wright’s first trip back to Nashville since he not-so-amicably split with the Tennessee Titans after the 2016 season. 

Wright has said he doesn’t want to talk about his time in Tennessee, where injuries and clashes with coaches led to a steady decline in targets and production after a standout 2013 season (139 targets, 94 receptions, 1,079 yards). But it’s easy to compare how he feels practicing with the Bears to how he felt toward the end of his days with the Titans. 

“A fresh start is good,” Wright said. “Football is fun again. 

“If you don’t have fun playing the game, what the use of you playing? And I didn’t really have too much fun the past few years. But when you’re out here playing and doing what you love to do, it’s fun. So you just gotta keep the game fun.”

Wright was a little more forceful earlier this year. 

“What motivates me the most is I probably was the best receiver on the Titans roster last year and I was playing, like, 10 plays a game,” Wright said during OTAs in June. 

But while this weekend’s game against the Titans could seem to be an opportunity for revenge, Wright is more approaching it for what it is — another preseason game to continue to improve with the rest of the first team offense. 

Wright caught a touchdown from  Glennon Saturday night in Arizona (he also was the target on Glennon’s interception, though that looked to be more on the quarterback than the receiver). And he seems to be clearly ahead of Victor Cruz to be the team’s No. 1 slot receiver — Cruz wasn’t targeted against Arizona, while Wright received three targets. 

If the Glennon-led first-team offense is going to have success in the regular season, it needs improvements from every unit — quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end and offensive line — based on what we’ve seen during the preseason. Perhaps a motivated, fun-having Wright, playing for the same offensive coordinator under which he had his best season, can be a part of that. 

“The game of football is supposed to be fun,” Wright said. “Don’t take the fun out of it. You just gotta go out there and have fun and make plays. When you’re making plays, it’s even more fun.”