Dynasty on tap? Bears youth making huge impact

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Dynasty on tap? Bears youth making huge impact

Thursday, Dec. 23, 2010
3:24 PM

By John Mullin
CSNChicago.com

They are playing largely spot-duty roles for the Bears in their first true NFL seasons. But the 2010 rookie class and a couple of other newcomers have made significant contributions to what is now a 10-4 playoff team.

The true significance, however, may lie in the fact that on a team led by veterans, the Bears have an emerging core of quality youth. Not coincidentally, they are all members of position groups led by some of the elite veterans on the roster: Chris Harris and Charles Tillman in the secondary, Olin Kreutz on the offensive line, Julius Peppers on the defensive line.

JMarcus Webb, right tackle

JMarcus Webb, the Bears seventh-round pick in this years draft, has secured the right tackle spot this season and for what looks like a long, long time. But it has been a season of major adjustments: to the NFL in general, to a new position, even to a whole different kind of coach.

Ive played a lot of left tackle so this was kind of throwing me to the wolves at right and Im having to learn a lot of things over again, Webb said. Its different as far as shifting your weight.

And then theres offensive line coach Mike Tice: Ive had some pretty tough coaches, Webb said, shaking his head, but hes the craziest and most intense for me, his intensity and his word usage.

Major Wright, safety

Third-rounder and safety Major Wright was hit with a succession of injuries almost from the outset of training camp that may have prevented him from shouldering his way into the starting lineup by now. Coming off the bench he has not had fewer than three tackles in any of the last five games and the Bears are 6-1 since his return from a hamstring strain suffered in the Dallas game.

Wright blitzed Minnesota quarterback Joe Webb in the fourth quarter Monday and the pressure contributed to an interception by Brian Urlacher. The play was nullified because Wright was flagged for roughing the passer, but even though he took the quarterback out a little bit, linebacker Lance Briggs said, it was good to see that aggressiveness.

Corey Wootton, defensive end

Defensive end Corey Wootton was drafted in the fourth round primarily for the future and as depth behind Mark Anderson and Israel Idonije. Anderson was cut, Idonije is in the midst of a career year with eight sacks, and Wootton has begun to appear on game days, with three tackles against New England and a game-ending sack of Brett Favre Monday night in Minnesota.

I think every week its been better, said Wootton, who is unlikely to be getting too many more Sundays off. Thats the good thing, just to improve every week, and thats what Ive been doing. But Ive still got some major room for improvement and thats what I want to do.

Henry Melton, defensive endtackle

Like Wootton, Henry Meltons first career sack was of Favre, in the Week 10 game between the teams. The defensive tackleend from Texas was the Bears fourth-round pick in the 2009 draft but missed his entire rookie season with an ankle injury suffered in preseason, making him a de facto rookie as well.

Hes got some real pass-rush stuff to him, said defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, who has worked with enough elite pass rushers to know. Now its about consistency every day. Im looking at him outside and inside and rolling him around because if you suit seven men up or eight men up the guys in a backup role have to have position flexibility.

Melton has played four different defensive line positions in a single game and has emerged as a true part of the Bears defensive line rotation. He is 6-3, 260 pounds but hes got a hardness to him inside, Marinelli said. Hes a physical player. Hell hit.

D.J. Moore, nickel back

D.J. Moore has gone from afterthought rookie playing on special teams in just three games to the starting nickel back on one of the NFLs top defenses. He is tied for the team lead in interceptions, joining Chris Harris and Charles Tillman with four. He leads the defensive backs with three tackles for loss and put up his first career sack in the Detroit game.

The nickel position has an opportunity to make a lot of plays, said coach Lovie Smith. Having the right guy there, you can make a lot of plays. You have an opportunity to blitz like the linebackers, youre in pass coverage like the DBs and the linebackers, man coverage with wide receivers.

You get a chance to do everything and that position seems to be right at the point of attack a lot of times. D.J. has great instincts, as good hands as just about anybody on our team and right now hes just making plays.

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.

Focus on personnel issues in Bears-49ers matchup of NFL losers

Focus on personnel issues in Bears-49ers matchup of NFL losers

Once upon an NFL time a Bears-49ers game held some consequence, sometimes great import. Even last season the San Francisco game was the Bears’ chance to reach .500 in John Fox’s first year (it didn’t happen, with the Bears defense allowing a long Blaine Gabbert TD run and Robbie Gould missing a 36-yard field goal for the win, all in the last 1:42 of a game the Bears had dominated statistically).

Now the game becomes another in a string of ones in which the opponent and even the outcome matter less than some specific personnel issues for a team trying to avoid losing four straight games for the first time under Fox.

Several of those personnel questions warrant watching because of the positions involved:

Matt Barkley, quarterback   

The Barkley Era unofficially began last Sunday against the Tennessee Titans when the former USC quarterback got his first NFL start and nearly became the third Bears quarterback to win a game in an otherwise dismal season. That did happen once, in 2007 when Brian Griese, Rex Grossman and Kyle Orton also had W’s as starters.

Well, if not an actual “era,” at least the Barkley window opened, and will be open for the foreseeable 2016 future.

Barkley playing his way into a starting job in 2017 is not a front-burner thought — yet — although Kurt Warner once played his way from stocking supermarket shelves into Hall of Fame consideration.

Going against one of the only two teams with fewer wins than the Bears, Barkley’s chances are ostensibly better than they were facing the Titans, if only for “just being comfortable,” said Fox.

“Our opponent, Colin Kaepernick has been in for X amount of time. And like anything, the more you do it, the better you get. Hopefully. Just getting him more reps. More reps with the 1’s. I think there’s a drastic difference between him coming in as the back-up in Green Bay versus him being the starter last week against Tennessee. So hopefully he improves from his first start to his second start. That’s the plan and that’s what we’re working off.”

Quarterback is always a point of supreme interest and Barkley is playing for a shot somewhere in 2017. And the Bears want to know if some of the positives in the Tennessee game were real.

“With Matt, the biggest challenge was he wasn’t here in OTAs and training camp, so you don’t know him,” said offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains. “He was out there running scout team, running ‘cards,’ so you know what kind of talent he has, but he never had gotten a two-minute — that was his first two-minute drill with the first group in a game situation.”

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Daniel Braverman, wide receiver

Braverman was a seventh-round draft choice who flashed in training camp but faded in games. He was elevated from the practice squad and is projected into a slot role with Eddie Royal injured again and the future unclear at that No. 3 wideout spot.

“There are not a lot of great slot receivers out there in the game,” Loggains said. “You’ve got to be able to move the chains, and you’ve got to be able to convert third downs and do those things and score in the red area. You have to understand coverages and leverages to be able to do that stuff. Those are the things that Braverman, coming into the NFL, his biggest challenge is.”

Daniel Brown, tight end

The season-ending foot injury to Zach Miller created another vacuum at a position the Bears have struggled to fill long-term: trading away the likes of Martellus Bennett, Greg Olsen and even Mike Ditka. Brown caught his first career TD pass in the Tennessee game. With Miller’s injury history and age (32), the Bears have a need at the position.

“We thought obviously he’s a guy that has a skill set probably closet to Zach at this point to plug in and play,” Loggains said. “But he did a nice job, helped up on third down, helped us in the red area. Just his ability to catch the football, he’s played receiver before and he’s more of a pass-catching tight end.”

Kyle Fuller, cornerback

Fuller, who led the Bears with two interceptions last year, has been a starter at a position that is a defensive priority. He is coming back from August knee surgery and into a secondary that is takeaway challenged. His goals are basic at this point.

“Just getting back on the field and just performing,” Fuller said.

Jay Cutler is one more massive blow to Bears' real evaluation plan

Jay Cutler is one more massive blow to Bears' real evaluation plan

The shoulder injury to Jay Cutler in the New York Giants game did more than end the quarterback’s season. It landed yet another injury blow to the 2016 season, another in a succession of blows with implications for the Bears stretching beyond the point when the calendar mercifully turns over a new year.

The ripple effect of those blows might be spun into some sort of positive around the development of young players. That would be making the best of a bad situation, but it is anything but positive in the more important long term.

The Bears began this season needing to see what they have in foundation/starter pieces, NOT backups. The Bears did not need to find out what they have in Matt Barkley as much as they needed to fully find out what they had in Jay Cutler. That was a prime directive coming into this season. The thumb injury that cost him five games was a huge setback in the process; the shoulder issue finished it, and not the way coaches and personnel staff wanted it to resolve.

And Cutler was not alone.

Cutler. Alshon Jeffery. Kevin White. Kyle Fuller. Hroniss Grasu. Those were A-list see-what-they-have questions. The closest thing the Bears have to clear answers on just that handful of one-time projected starters is Cutler, whose poor play and injury history conspire to make one aspect of the Bears’ decision for them. The Bears will end this season short of clear answers on them and others as they go into the 2017 draft and free agency.

A clichéd mantra throughout the injury travails of the Bears’ injury riddled season is that all those injuries have created opportunities for the Bears to really see what they have in some alternative players, ranging from wide receiver Cam Meredith to a seemingly weekly carousel of young cornerbacks to Barkley most recently. Evaluations obviously are more meaningful when they’re based on actual game experience, with the Barkleys, Merediths and others are certainly getting.

But it is also exactly the kind of see-what-they-have opportunities that the Bears do NOT need and in fact are at risk of making critically important offseason decisions more difficult, if not bordering on the impossible.

Including Fuller, coach John Fox and staff came out of the Tennessee game with fully 11 actual or anticipated opening-day starters out due to injury or suspension.

What the Bears are getting from what at times feels like an extended preseason is a better look at their depth chart. Eric Kush has emerged as a solid guard. Meredith has looked like an NFL receiver, last Sunday’s drops notwithstanding. Barkley will be worth a meaningful look in a training camp.

But those are not the evaluations that a franchise looking at the next step in its plan desperately, unequivocally needed. As in:

Quarterback

If Barkley emerges from his opportunity as a serviceable NFL quarterback, that’s good. But this year was about Cutler, a prove-it year for a quarterback with a favorable contract going forward. But while thumb and shoulder injuries gave looks to Barkley and Brian Hoyer, those weren’t what the franchise needed. Cutler’s truncated body of work (is the “real” Cutler the Minnesota Jay or the Tampa Bay Jay?) didn’t “prove” anything the Bears needed proven at their most critical position.

It would be speculation to muse on whether Cutler might have played his way into the plan with five good games to finish the season. Even if not, Cutler may have played his way into possibly some trade value. A 33-year-old QB finishing a two-injury season on IR has little, if any. The Bears do not need to make a final roster decision until the first game Sunday in September, at which point Cutler’s $12.5 million base salary would become guaranteed, although Cutler still being a Bear at that point is the longest of shots.

Wide receiver

Kevin White has caught 19 passes and played in just four games in the two seasons since the Bears made him the No. 7 pick overall in 2015. Meredith or Marquess Wilson may be nuggets, but White’s broken leg left the Bears and the young man in limbo.

The Bears don’t know what they have in White. They know a little about what they have in Jeffery, but his four-game suspension hits in a season with him on pace for his lowest totals since his rookie season. The Jeffery issue has not been resolved, and progress by Meredith or Wilson, while positives, do not project into a tipping point in this position group.

Cornerback

How sold the new coaching has been on Fuller as a starting corner is unclear. He hadn’t missed a game in his two seasons and played 99 percent of opponents’ snaps last year. But defensive coordinator Vic Fangio called Fuller out early in the 2015 season and Fuller was benched for some of the Arizona game. Fuller rebounded to a level of respectability and finished fifth in tackles (56) and led the Bears with two interceptions.

Fuller has been out since mid-August when he needed knee surgery. His absence has given extended looks and some starts to Jacoby Glenn, Bryce Callahan and Cre’Von LeBlanc.

But the Bears needed to achieve clarity with Fuller. They will face an extensive decision on whether to pick up the fifth-year option on his rookie contract. The Falcons paid $8 million on the option for 2013 first-round cornerback Desmond Trufant, the 22nd pick of that draft. If Fuller manages to practice his way onto the active roster this Sunday, it will still give the Bears just five games to make a decision on Fuller, the 14th pick of the 2014 draft.