Bears remain active in three get-better avenues as draft approaches

Bears remain active in three get-better avenues as draft approaches

First, truly sad notes...

On top of news that Gale Sayers is battling dementia and that Lance Briggs is talking of symptoms he links to CTE comes the very sad news that former 49ers tight end Dwight Clark has ALS. Clark, co-author of "The Catch" with Joe Montana, put the information out on Sunday night that he has the dreaded illness that has afflicted a number of former NFL'ers.

Take a moment before you read any further. Maybe hug your wife/husband/kids, call someone you haven't talked to in too long, something...

OK, now you can read some more...

After the initial crush of a less than spectacular 2017 free agency pool, the Bears have quietly continued to work at the task of upgrading themselves from the nightmare that was 2016. To wit:

Healing their own

How much better would the 2017 Bears be if they added a wide receiver with a top-10 draft pick, an emerging standout nose tackle at the center of their defensive line, a Pro Bowl guard, and they committed $24 million on a middle linebacker to anchor the defense?

Because those are among the projected starters the Bears anticipate getting back in 2017 from season-ending injuries: Kevin White, Eddie Goldman, Kyle Long and Danny Trevathan. Injuries were not an allowable "excuse" for the travails of 2016, but to critique the Bears without those four, plus the occasional Zach Miller, is silly.

The Bears' run defense allowed 4.8 yards per carry without Goldman, 3.8 with him, which would have ranked among the NFL's best. The Bears allowed 30 or more points in five games last season; four of those occurred when Trevathan was out injured.

And White, coming off season-ending bone breaks his first two years, leading the team after four games last season, is part of the plan, but how much is yet to play out. "He's rehabbed, been cleared medically," said coach John Fox. "He's a guy I think that's got good size, quickness, explosion, big hands. I think yards after catch can be a positive. But at the end of the day he has to go prove that. It's going to take some time. We've got time, and he's healthy."

Looking for new kids

Whether through the No. 3 or No. 36 picks or subsequent picks, or iterations spawned via trades, the Bears already are reportedly setting up some of their 30 allowed visits with prospects. The early names are on defense, and from Alabama: defensive lineman Jonathan Allen and linebacker Ruben Foster.

The process has been ongoing, obviously, involving the Senior Bowl, Combine, Pro Day's and soon the trips to Halas Hall. Notably, and not surprisingly, the Bears met at the Combine with Miami's Brad Kaaya, DeShone Kizer from Notre Dame, Pat Mahomes from Texas Tech, Nate Peterman from Pitt and North Carolina's Mitchell Trubisky. And that's not including the task force the Bears sent to watch the workout of Clemson's Deshaun Watson.

Also notably, according to WalterFootball.com, the Bears' Halas Hall pre-draft guest list last year included Leonard Floyd and Cody Whitehair, their No. 1 and No. 2 picks.

More, many more, to come.

Vet looks

The Bears signed a backup nose tackle (John Jenkins) last week and also had former Washington defensive end Ricky Jean-Francois in for a visit last weekend, first reported by ESPN's Josina Anderson last Thursday. Jean-Francois tweeted about getting used to cold weather again but was then off to Seattle for a visit with the Seahawks.

Visits don't always turn into signings, but just as he did with the addition of QB Mike Glennon, GM Ryan Pace is making moves that dramatically lessen pressure to draft for position need. With Jenkins in place and if the Bears could secure Jean-Francois, for instance, using the No. 3 pick on Alabama's Allen seems increasingly unlikely.

Bears training camp preview: Three burning questions for the offensive line

Bears training camp preview: Three burning questions for the offensive line

With training camp starting next week, CSN Chicago’s Chris Boden and JJ Stankevitz are looking at three burning questions for each of the Bears’ position groups heading into Bourbonnais. Friday's unit: the offensive line. 

1. Will Kyle Long and Josh Sitton flip spots, and will it be effective?

One of the more intriguing storylines to come out of the Bears’ offseason program was the possibility of a Kyle Long-Josh Sitton guard swap, with Long moving from right to left and Sitton to left to right. The prevailing wisdom is that Long’s athleticism would be better suited for the pulls needed at left guard, while Sitton has made Pro Bowls at both positions. But is it prudent for the Bears to make this switch with Long still recovering from November ankle surgery and some nasty complications that came after it? He’s shown he’s skilled enough to already make one position switch on the offensive line (from right tackle to right guard), so there’s no reason to doubt he couldn’t handle another so long as he’s healthy. We’ll see where he is next week. 

“You want flexibility,” coach John Fox said. “You don’t want as much flexibility as we had to use a year ago because we had to play so many guys due to injury. But we’re messing around with (Sitton) and Kyle both playing opposite sides, whether one’s on the left, one’s on the right. We’ll get those looks in camp, we got plenty of time.”

2. Can Charles Leno Jr. capitalize on a contract year?

Leno has been a pleasant surprise given the low expectations usually set for seventh-round picks. He started every game in 2016, checking off an important box for John Fox — reliability. Whether Leno can be more than a reliable player at left tackle, though, remains to be seen (if the Bears thought he were, wouldn’t they have signed him to an extension by now?). He has one more training camp and 16 games to prove he’s worthy of a deal to be the Bears (or someone else’s) left tackle of the future. Otherwise, the Bears may look to a 2018 draft class rich in tackles led by Texas’ Connor Williams and Notre Dame’s Mike McGlinchey. 

“I know if I take care of my business out here, everything else will take care of itself,” Leno said. 

3. Will Hroniss Grasu survive the roster crunch?

A year ago, Grasu was coming off a promising rookie season and was in line to be the Bears’ starting center. But the Oregon product tore his ACL in August, and Cody Whitehair thrived after a last-minute move from guard to center. If the Bears keep eight offensive lineman this year, Grasu could be squeezed out: Leno, Long, Whitehair, Sitton and Bobby Massie are the likely starters, with Eric Kush and Tom Compton filling reserve roles. That leaves one spot, either for fifth-round guard Jordan Morgan or Grasu. The Bears could try to stash Morgan, who played his college ball at Division-II Kutztown, on the practice squad and keep Grasu. But Grasu doesn’t have flexibility to play another position besides center, which could hurt his case. 

Bears training camp preview: 3 burning questions for tight ends

Bears training camp preview: 3 burning questions for tight ends

With training camp starting next week, CSN Chicago’s Chris Boden and JJ Stankevitz are looking at three burning questions for each of the Bears’ position groups heading into Bourbonnais. Thursday's unit: the tight ends.

1. Will Zach Miller make the 53-man roster?

Miller didn’t play a single down from 2012-14, and has missed seven games in two seasons with the Bears, but he’s been productive when on the field: 110 targets, 81 receptions, 925 yards and nine touchdowns. But the Bears signed Dion Sims to an $18 million contract and then drafted Adam Shaheen in the second round of the draft, moves that seemingly put Miller in a precarious position heading into Bourbonnais. Not helping Miller’s case is the Lisfranc fracture he suffered last November, which kept him sidelined through OTAs and veteran minicamp in May and June. He’d be a valuable player for the Bears to keep around, but at the same time, training camp could be a perfect storm for Miller to be among the cuts.

“They’re going to cutting it close for training camp,” coach John Fox said of Miller (and Danny Trevathan) in June. “But right now they’re right on target and that’s kind of what we expected all offseason.”

2. What can we expect from Adam Shaheen?

Shaheen was among the bright spots during May and June, hardly looking like someone who played his college ball at Division II Ashland while going against NFL defenders. But those were just shorts-and-helmets practices without any contact, so it’d be premature to project anything about Shaheen off of them. The real test for Shaheen will be when he puts the pads on in Bourbonnais and gets his first experience with the physicality of the NFL after a few years of being head and shoulders — literally — above his competition in college. It’s unlikely Shaheen will live up to his “Baby Gronk” hype in Year 1, but if he handles training camp well, he could be a valuable red zone asset for Mike Glennon as a rookie. 

“You don’t know until you put the pads on,” Shaheen said. “That’s what I’m excited for.”

3. How productive can this unit be?

Between Sims — who had a career high four touchdowns last year with the Miami Dolphins — and Shaheen, the Bears have two new, big targets for an offense that tied for 24th in the NFL with 19 passing touchdowns a year ago. If Miller sticks around, this group would have enviable depth. But even if he doesn’t, the Bears liked what they saw from Brown last year (16 receptions, 124 yards, 1 TD in six games). There are fewer questions about the tight ends heading into training camp than the receivers, and it wouldn’t be surprising if Glennon leans on this unit, especially early in the season.