Draft could close gap between Bears, Packers

365107.jpg

Draft could close gap between Bears, Packers

Monday, April 25, 2011
Posted: 8:56 a.m.

By John Mullin
CSNChicago.com

The gap between the Bears and the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers can be reduced to seven points, basically the winning margin of the NFC Championshp game. But if the Bears are going to close the gap or even keep pace with the Packers, it will begin next Thursday night.

Or else.

The reason the Packers were (and are) better than the Bears right now boils down to the simple fact that Green Bays performance in the draft has been substantially better than the Bears.

Consider:

Of the Bears starting offenses and defenses in the NFC Championship game, barely half (12 of 22) were their draft choices. That doesnt include safety Chris Harris, who was their draft choice (2005) but they had to trade with Carolina to get him this time. It does include, however, Tommie Harris in his final game of a declining Chicago career.

On the other side, 14 of the Packers 22 starters were draft picks.

That wouldnt be terribly impressive except for the fact that Green Bay had nine draft choices on injured reserve, including starters like linebacker Nick Barnett, safety Morgan Burnett and tight end Jermichael Finley. No Bears draft choices were on the final IR list.

The bigger point

Bad as too many recent Bears drafts have been, the Bears have not embarrassed themselves in drafts this decade the way they too often did in the 1990s with a Stan Thomas, Marcus Spears, John Thierry, Pat Riley, John Allred and Cade McNown.

At this point at least their top picks in four of the last five drafts are still on the roster, and later-round picks like JMarcus Webb, Kellen Davis, Zackary Bowman, D.J. Moore, Henry Melton and Johnny Knox have at the very least held onto roster spots.

But the point is hardly the number of drafted players are still on anyones roster. That becomes a case of figures dont lie but liars figure.

The real point is blue players, the elite-level players, players you win because of, not just with. These are the players relied upon to lift your team in situations like playoffs, not the bottom third of the roster. Of that bottom third, nearly half of those will be inactive on game days anyway.

In the past five Super Bowls every team had blue players already in place. More important perhaps, they landed at least a Pro Bowl player in the drafts of at least one of the previous three years:

2006 Colts (Bob Sanders, Dallas Clark)

Bears (Tommie Harris, Nathan Vasher, Lance Briggs)

2007 Giants (Eli Manning)

Patriots (Logan Mankins, Wil Wilfork, Brandon Meriweather)

2008 Steelers (Heath Miller)

Cardinals (Antrel Rolle, Dominique Rogers-Cromartie)

2009 Saints (Jahri Evans, Roman Harper)

Colts (Antoine Bethea)

2010 Packers (Clay Matthews, B.J. Raji)

Steelers (Maurkice Pouncey)

Higher expectations

Contrary to some scenarios, the Bears need very much to score big with their first pick of the draft. Arguably, the strategy needs to be staying put for the best available player regardless of position.

It may be natural to assume that a pick in the mid- to late-20s cannot be expected to alter franchise history. But the Packers hit on Aaron Rodgers (25th, 2005) and Clay Matthews (26th, 2009). And they landed a starting offensive tackle as a rookie, an NFL hit by any measure, in Bryan Bulaga at No. 23 in the 2010 draft.

Trading down may be the convenient, even easier, approach. Adding picks is never a bad thing.

But that has produced next to nothing seriously noteworthy in the top rounds of any recent Bears draft. If little of franchise-turning impact is expected at No. 29, then what is anyone expecting out of picks even lower than that?

The Bears arguably have not found a franchise-mover in the first round since Tommie Harris at 14th in the 2004 and his stay at the elite level was over after 2007. Matt Forte (2008) is on the edge of stardom and Devin Hester (2006) is already there, but both were second-rounders and Hester achieved Pro Bowl status as a returner, not a position player.

Green Bay set itself at quarterback with a No. 1 pick (Rodgers). The Bears needed roughly twice that cost to settle that position (trade for Jay Cutler) after neither Rex Grossman nor Kyle Orton solved it.

The Packers secured more Pro Bowlers (Matthews, 2010 alternate B.J. Raji) in the 2009 draft than the Bears have in their combined first-round picks since Brian Urlacher in 2000.

John "Moon" Mullin is CSNChicago.com's Bears Insider, and appears regularly on Bears Postgame Live and Chicago Tribune Live. Follow Moon on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bears information.

Bears looking beyond individual players in third preseason game

Bears looking beyond individual players in third preseason game

“The all-important third preseason game… .”

Or is it?

The short answer is yes, because “it'll be the most extended play of the starters we have available will play,” said coach John Fox.

In fact, it has been said that before training camps ever begin, upwards of 45 roster spots are pretty well decided. And the combination of camp time and first two preseason games have taken care of perhaps all but the finest of tunings of roster decisions.

“You know we've got some guys that we've evaluated on a lot of football plays before the third preseason game,” Fox said, “so albeit it is important, we have a pretty good idea about some of our players.”

[MORE: Jay Cutler, Dowell Loggains face deepest test yet in Bears' third preseason game]

So while individual players are tasked with taking steps up in their development – wide receiver Kevin White with just two catches so far, for instance – the focus now shifts from predominantly player evaluation to broader questions of how well whole units are performing together. Each unit has its own challenges in a preseason that is still waiting for the Bears’ first win:

Next step for offense

The shutout at the hands of the Denver Broncos in Game 1 was jolting, preseason or not. The 11 points by the offense in New England was promising.

Now what?

The offensive production last season was disappointing but yet respectable because of the unmatched parts Cutler needed to work with because of injuries at receiver besides losing No. 1 tailback Matt Forte for three full games and most of a fourth. Scoring: 23rd. Rushing yards: 11th. Plus Cutler’s career-best passer composite: 92.3.

That won’t be good enough in 2016. Regardless of the myriad changes ranging from coordinator on through running back, tight end and the offensive line, Cutler himself set the bar by pre-emptively ruling out possible excuses.

“Solely just Year 1 to Year 2,” Cutler said. “I think there’s going to be less thinking. I think we have a better idea of what we like in the offense; what we don’t like in the offense; where we need to improve; what we need to add. I think personnel-wise we’re getting better and better.”

The offense won’t put its entire playbook on display against the Chiefs. But “need to improve” is the mantra, and that extends through the running-back “committee,” the offensive line regardless of who’s on the field, and the receivers from White in his biggest dose of playing time to tight ends tasked with replacing Martellus Bennett as well as contributing to a run game that forms the foundation of the offense.

Defensive dominance, if you please

Upgrading the defense was the foremost priority of the 2016 offseason, beginning with inside linebackers Jerrell Freeman and Danny Trevathan and lineman Akiem Hicks, and on into the draft when the Bears invested seven of their nine draft picks, including two of the first three, on that side of the football.

“I think we have a chance to be a better defense than we were last year, but the proof will be in the pudding,” coordinator Vic Fangio is on record saying. “Practice is the quiz; the games are the final exam. So until we start playing and see exactly what we’ve got, that will determine the true answer to that question. But I think we have a chance to be better.”

The first two preseason games involved the No. 1 defense but not to the degree that Game 3 will. And as of now, no starting quarterback has been sacked by a Bear, and no defensive starter has a sack through two games, although rotation’ers Sam Acho, Jonathan Bullard, Leonard Floyd and Cornelius Washington have at least a partial sack.

The Kansas City offense was No. 3 in rushing average, sixth in rushing yards per game and ninth in points per game last season. The Bears have yet to make a definitive statement that they are close to an elite defense, which is a prerequisite to moving significantly past the 6-10 record in 2015.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

How “special” are ‘teams?

The Bears were a respectable 12th in the special-teams ranking of Dallas Morning News legend Rick Gosselin, a mix of 22 categories that produces a meaningful evaluation of special teams. But the Broncos’ average starting position was their 32, vs. the Bears’ at the Chicago 21. Based on 12 possessions, that loosely translates into 132 field-position yards the Broncos had on the Bears.

The Patriots’ average start was the New England 32; the Bears’ was their own 24, meaning eight yards average on 10 possessions. However, one New England possession started at the Chicago 15 because of a Brian Hoyer interception, skewing the overall.

Meaning: The Bears improved from Week 1 to Week 2 in gaining field position. That needs to develop into a trend that benefits both the offensive and defensive units.

The overall goal is clear: “Improve from Week 2 to Week 3,” Fox said. “We’re here. It’s not a season; they call it preseason for reasons; it’s to evaluate, put your players in positions, take a look at players.”

Jay Cutler, Dowell Loggains face deepest test yet in Bears' third preseason game

Jay Cutler, Dowell Loggains face deepest test yet in Bears' third preseason game

Third preseason games come with added significance simply because it is the one practice game in which the starters play the closest to a full game prior to the start of the regular season. But for the Bears, Saturday’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs is potentially far more important for another reason.

The Kansas City game looms as something of a new tipping point in the one relationship that must function above all others for immediate success of the franchise:

The working relationship/bond between offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains and quarterback Jay Cutler.

The two-plus quarters that Cutler is expected to play will be the longest yet trial by fire for his trust in Loggains. The latter has been a coordinator previously in his career, but with less time and success in the position that most of Cutler’s previous list of coordinators.

And few of those relationships survived, let alone flourished once Cutler lost faith or belief in their messages, whether under an avalanche of sacks, poor play selection or design, or whatever.

Cutler put up the best season of his eight-year career in 2015 with Loggains as his position coach. Adam Gase was the coordinator, Gase came in with credibility from having worked with Peyton Manning in Denver. The credibility traced to not necessarily what Gase might have taught Manning, but rather because of what Gase undoubtedly LEARNED from Manning.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

Saturday’s test will be far short of the ones the regular season holds, when Loggains’ offense has been scouted and schemed for. But after a stretch of “quizzes” for Cutler-Loggains, this is a “test.”

Buy-in with Loggains?

Loggains has traction with Cutler – for now. Cutler was consistent in his compliments of Loggains last year, but it was Gase ultimately in his ear on game days. Indeed, the entire offense believed in Gase: “When I’m in the huddle…and we get a play call,” offensive lineman Kyle Long said at the time, “there’s never a time where we look at each other and think, ‘Oh [darn].’”

The NFL reality is that Loggains, who has stressed an even stronger commitment to running the football (Long and associates love that), has to earn, or re-earn that gut-level trust.

Most of all, from Cutler.

The lurching start to the preseason – the Bears’ 22-0 home loss to Denver, in which the offense with Cutler netted 13 yards in 10 plays, two of them ending in sacks of Cutler – was test No. 1. The Cutler-Loggains relationship appeared to emerge intact.

“We talked,” Cutler said. “We talked a lot about that game. I think the major point for us was, ‘Let’s not panic. Let’s not hit the fire alarm and put guys in a panic.’

“Because it was the first preseason game and we watched the film and a lot of the stuff that went wrong was because of mistakes… . So it was a matter of just kind of cleaning that stuff up and just going back to work. Which I thought we did a really good job of offensively [at New England]. Hopefully we can do that this week, too.”

Tough warm-ups

NFL schedule-makers did Loggains and the Bears no favors. Their first three preseason opponents – Denver, New England, Kansas City – were all top-10 run defenses. Meaning: The Bears are working to establish Loggains’ run-based offense right into the teeth of three of the NFL’s best at stopping that.

[RELATED: Rookie class making much-needed impact from Bears]

The Bears want to run. But just consider: What if they can’t run against a monster Chiefs front that includes Jaye Howard and Dontari Poe and which held the Bears to 3.3 yards per carry, tied for their second-lowest of 2015, in their meeting last season?

Which then tasks Loggains with getting the offense to the right solutions, and those traditionally have not been – and should not be – solely found in Cutler’s right arm. The Bears streamlined and simplified Cutler’s decision-making last year, by design, and it was the right strategy, minimizing a Cutler weakness.

But now Loggains is front-and-center in those decisions. And Cutler has never appeared to suffer from an excess of patience through his career, even the new, more mature Cutler.

And not only WHAT Loggains tells Cutler, but also HOW he tells him, will matter. Gase was generally quiet; that worked. Loggains is very expressive, which Cutler said he now appreciates.

“He sets the tone every day,” Cutler said. “There’s never a gray area. He sets the tone, sets the standard, and if you don’t live up to that, meet those expectations, he’s going to be vocal, he’s going to let you know.

“As a player, that’s all you can ask for: A coach telling you how to do it, and when you don’t do it, you expect him to push you and help you achieve those goals.”

Preseason game No. 3 will be the biggest test yet for the synchronicity that is there now but needs to stand up to inevitable failures.

Rookie class making much-needed impact for Bears

Rookie class making much-needed impact for Bears

Preseason games are about evaluations as well as fusing together the component parts of offense, defense and special teams. But for a handful of Bears, a little more is at stake, for the franchise itself, not just for themselves.

The foundation of any franchise ultimately is the draft, and the Bears are seeing at least preliminary impact from key members of this draft class, and not simply down in the lower third of the projected roster. Why that becomes particularly relevant this weekend is that preseason game No. 3 is when starters and key rotational players, and the top picks in this year’s draft are in fact already firmly ensconced in roles at the top of the depth charts.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

Among the most significant:

No. 1 - OLB Leonard Floyd

The No. 9-overall pick has not dominated through two games but insiders told CSNChicago.com that Floyd has not only played the run very well, but also delivered impact pass rushes even if only netting him a half-sack on stat sheets. Floyd has played 68 of opponents’ 126 presesaon snaps already and is a critical part of the current edge rotation with Sam Acho, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young as well of the future Bears defenses.

Floyd has missed practice time with three separate issues but “we've been very, very pleased with his progress,” coach John Fox said, an extra “very” always being noteworthy.

No. 2 - LG Cody Whitehair

After a brief flirtation with him replacing injured Hroniss Grasu at center, Whitehair has resumed his upward-trending at left guard. He has been the starter there since the opening of training camp, given an opportunity with an injury to Ted Larsen, and Whitehair has never given the job up.

“He’s done well,” said quarterback Jay Cutler. “He’s a smart kid. He’s quiet, he kind of fits in with that group and he’s doing exactly what we ask him to do. He’s really talented. You can see some stuff he does, the way he passes things off, it comes natural to him.”

No. 3 - DE Jonathan Bullard

Bullard has been given significant playing time (71 of opponents’ 126 snaps) and has produced four tackles, one for loss, and a half sack. He is part of a rotation with Mitch Unrein primarily and has demonstrated starter-grade impact already. “Our expectations are big,” said Fox. “My experience has been, you don’t expect much, you don’t get much. I think he’s lived up to expectations so far.”

No. 4’s - S Deon Bush/CB Deiondre’ Hall

The Bears selected safety Deon Bush three picks ahead of Hall in the fourth round; Bush did play 44 snaps and make two solo tackles against New England but has been out with an injury this week. 

Hall tied for team high with five tackles vs. Denver, plus two pass breakups, and followed that with two tackles at New England as he took over when starter Jacoby Glenn went out with a concussion.

“[Hall] has improved,” Fox said. “When you bring in rookies you don’t really know. You get them out there, they play. He’s played a lot. He’s actually shown up pretty good. We’ll see where that takes us.”

No. 5 - RB Jordan Howard

Howard was given the ball 11 times during his 31 snaps at New England and netted 46 yards along with rave reviews from scouts. His workload may diminish against Kansas City with Ka’Deem Carey back from injury and Jeremy Langford and Jaquizz Rodgers doing heavy time with the No. 1 offense. But he has already made a strong impression.

“Howard, the rookie, has kind of followed along, picked it up as he goes,” Cutler said. “So with those four guys, you’ve got a lot of options.”

Safety DeAndre Houston-Carson (No. 6) and wideout Daniel Braverman (No. 7) have played but their main work will come next Thursday in the game four at Cleveland.