The NFL’s greatest coach ever in Bill Belichick - who has helmed the most successful sustained run of excellence with the Patriots for almost two decades now - lamented last year that New England was “five weeks behind” by winning Super Bowl LI. His team had just climbed to the mountain for the fifth time in 17 years and there the mark of his greatness as a leader that’s never satisfied shined through.
“If you don’t do a good job with your football team in February, March and April, you’re probably going to see that in January,” Belichick said back in February 2017.
Belichick was unequivocally correct. There isn’t time to breathe after the games end. That relaxation doesn’t come until the early summer - the one true dead period of activity by the NFL’s standards every year. The churn of improvement and roster recycling is constant.
Draft season is a stickler presence from January to April when it comes to that improvement, but for two weeks in March, it takes a backseat to free agency. Free agency is the opportunity for teams like the Bears, to poach away proven professional talent on the open market. The new league year ideally means turning a new leaf if you get off to the right foot in spending.
With free agency set to kick off in a matter of days, Bears general manager Ryan Pace has a lot on his plate as far as necessary supplements of players. This year is different in the fact that he has his hand-picked quarterback in Mitchell Trubisky. The clock is ticking with Trubisky on his rookie contract and at his cheapest. Swinging and missing on top talent to add isn’t an option. Being risk-averse and then striking out can’t be on Pace’s mind.
There needs to be a proper introduction for this pending mania. Let’s jump into this week’s mailbag and set the record straight.
In case it wasn’t already, one notion needs to be understood about Allen Robinson: he’s the best receiver in this year’s free agency and a bona fide No. 1 target. It’s an obvious fact but the team that lands him is going to be fortunate to have him as a weapon they can unleash on defenses. A franchise weapon that’ll have opposing defensive coordinators in the NFC North and greater NFC lose sleep at night every week.
Robinson, 24, is coming off an ACL tear and that is a concern. There however don’t appear to be any major ramifications of this injury suffered back in Week 1 of the 2017 season. When healthy, he is in my opinion, one of the 10-12 best receivers in football. He is a match-up problem against almost every single defensive back in the NFL. This is a player two years removed from a 14 touchdown and 1,400 yard season on 80 receptions. That’s a guy who makes big plays downfield and who can be counted on for the tough receptions in traffic on third down. The epitome of the person an offense runs their passing game through.
There’ll be questions as to why the Jaguars are letting Robinson go. They’re a team that just made it to the AFC Championship Game after all. One would think keeping an star receiver would be crucial for them. Early reports suggest not tagging Robinson was a miscommunication among Jacksonville higher-ups. Others consider that the Jaguars would rather save money to keep their bright defensive core together, instead of writing a blank check to a receiver they made it to Championship Sunday without.
Whatever the exact reason as to why Robinson was allowed to walk and why in all likelihood he’ll have a new team, pale in comparison to his fresh opportunities. Soon, he’ll objectively have better quarterbacks to throw him the ball (no offense Blake Bortles) with either Trubisky or the 49ers’ Jimmy Garoppolo.
Because that’s who this bidding war for Robinson’s services will come down to: the Bears and 49ers. I, for one, don’t see anyone else with a legitimate shot to land him. This feels like another chess match between Pace and 49ers GM John Lynch. A duel in negotiating that can either have Pace save a ton of face publicly (whether he needs to or not is irrelevant), or go down further in the tank of wide mass opinion.
So yes, the Bears have a chance at Robinson.
Taking it a step further, if their plan is to put Trubisky in a position to succeed, then there’s no one better to do that than Robinson. He needs to be Chicago’s first priority in free agents, which by every account he is. Much like former head coach Lovie Smith once did with Julius Peppers, bring out the full court press in recruiting and meet him at his house to talk shop. Constantly reference and converse with him on social media the way his former Penn State teammate Adrian Amos has been perhaps not coincidentally doing lately. If the Bears make him feel like he’s appreciated (or show him the money) then he’ll buy their mission statement happily.
Robinson’s someone for a young quarterback to form an easy bond with. He’s someone to help Trubisky become elite, and by extension with the Bears: become a contender.
How would you fix our edge position? How do you think Pace will fix it? Assuming we sign Fuller long term and lock up Wilson and a top WR in FA #AskWCG— Nate Upham (@Bearsfan5234) March 7, 2018
Some will disagree, but I’ve long advocated that edge pass rusher is actually the Bears’ biggest need this off-season. Yes, this offense needs weapons. But that gap will be easier to fill in free agency with guys such as Robinson and an underrated draft class of pass catchers. Meanwhile, dominant pass rushers never hit the open market barring unforeseen circumstances. The 2018 Draft also doesn’t anywhere near have a polished blue chip prospect without any red flags on the edge.
That’s why I’ve never understood the panic surrounding the Bears’ receivers moving forward. One position is going to be much easier to fix, has a higher volume of options to fix it, and is by far less of a concern. It isn’t outside linebacker.
If we’re being candid, edge has ranked in the top two of the Bears’ biggest needs in the last two off-seasons aside from quarterback. With Trubisky in the fold, edge finally comes to the forefront as the Bears decided to go into 2017 with Leonard Floyd and a bunch of injury prone outside linebackers such as Pernell McPhee. A “bold” strategy that predictably went south fast. That decision backfired and has placed Chicago’s defense at a stand still until it’s remedied.
How Pace fixes outside linebacker this year is creativity because there are no superstar pass rushers available on the open market. As usual. There are no seamless fits on the edge to pick at No. 8 overall. If there were, they wouldn’t make it past the top-five of the draft.
Here’s my three-step (profit) plan to fix the Bears’ defensive edge:
- Sign one of Connor Barwin, Jeremiah Attaochu, or Alex Okafor to be your swing player as I discussed in my free agent edge rushing preview. This is the guy that will play a considerable amount of time behind Floyd and his opposite partner. However, he doesn’t have to be a stud. He has to be disciplined against the run and provide a pass rush spark in limited snaps: which each of these players can do.
- Bring back Lamarr Houston and entrench him as your fourth pass rusher. At this stage in his career following a few major knee injuries, I wouldn’t trust Houston in a larger role. Retaining him as cheap depth and a respected veteran allows you to maintain a measure of security should anything happen to your top-three, though. Plus, don’t forget that he has something left in the tank as four sacks in five games in his late season return to the Bears last year evidenced.
- Draft Tremaine Edmunds in the first round and Josh Sweat in the second round of the 2018 Draft. Edmunds is the most tantalizing and athletically gifted prospect in this year’s draft. He’s incredibly raw but versatile in how he could be maximized. Line him up on the line of scrimmage and have him rush the passer. Have him play sideline to sideline. Have him develop in both facets so that offenses are never prepared. He’s 19-years-old with a lofty ceiling, which further emphasizes the benefit of drafting younger first-round picks that produced at a high level in college.
I believe, that in time, Edmunds could be an All-Pro player. I’m not considering anyone else this year besides Quenton Nelson at the Bears’ first pick. Seeing as how Nelson in my mind, won’t leave the top-five, that leaves Edmunds as a “consolation prize.” Oh no, how awful!
Meanwhile, Sweat is one of those pass rush prospects that has the abundance of physical tools but red flags in terms of medicals. This is a man who has previously dislocated his knee and torn his ACL in high school. Picking him means understanding that there’s a degree of real risk in whether he pans out or not. More so than with any other draft pick. I’m not afraid. He’s a tremendous athlete as evidenced at the Combine. Most importantly, he’s a player that didn’t get to showcase that naturally gifted ability enough through not much fault of his own. Coaching matters.
If you’re the Bears, take Edmunds as your second Swiss Army Knife and fresher Anthony Barr-type to play all over. Then take Sweat to be Floyd’s full-time partner. Watch the heights your defense will rise to.
What will pace do at 5Tech? Can Amos be trusted? Will Lamarr return?— RadChadZad (@LORDBADNIK) March 7, 2018
Oddly enough, I think the Bears are set on their defensive line. This is one group that I’m in no way worried about, which is a weird feeling in retrospect to how the off-season normally unwinds. You can’t do much better than a top four of Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, Roy Robertson-Harris, and Jonathan Bullard. If Mitch Unrein returns in a more limited reserve role, that’s even better.
Specifically akin to the Bears’ five-techniques, I know Muhammad Wilkerson has been thrown out as a possibility following his eventual release from the Jets. I threw out his name as a target a couple of weeks ago that the Bears would be wise to pursue, for one. Unfortunately for Chicago, they’ve already lost the pole position. The Packers’ pull with defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who is acutely familiar with Wilkerson from their time with the Jets from 2011 to 2012, is too much.
And that’s okay. I think “solving” the Bears’ defensive end issue is a luxury rather than a need. If it’s a need, it’s far down the list of priorities relative to receiver, edge rusher, cornerback, and more. With a more modern coach in tow in Matt Nagy, expect one of Robertson-Harris or Bullard to emerge as a serviceable starter opposite Hicks (I think it’ll safely be Robertson-Harris, who is more well-rounded). Remember that young players receiving the proper amount of snaps over good soldier but ineffective veterans was an issue the last three seasons at Halas Hall. Expect Hicks, who was playing 95 percent of the Bears’ defensive snaps by the end of last season, to get greater spells of rest too.
Moving to the Bears’ back end, yes Amos can be trusted. If this in reference to his lack of field-tilting ability as a ballhawk, that’s fine. That’s not his game. For the purpose the Bears use him in as a hybrid linebacker turned safety turned linebacker, he’s perfect. In fact, as someone who rarely, if ever, misses a tackle or an assignment, then Amos is the definition of trustworthy. He’s going to do his job. He’s going to come through. Provided you don’t ask him to do stretch himself beyond those parameters. Thankfully, the range of Eddie Jackson covers up limitations.
Kicker is an underrated point of contention for Pace and the Bears. Fully in hindsight, ever since Pace cut Robbie Gould in August 2016, Gould has gone on to make 49 of 51 field goals in the last two seasons. Quite the miscalculation for a front office when your replacement is the long since released and mediocre Connor Barth. That places whomever the Bears’ 2018 kicker squarely into the spotlight.
My belief is that Chicago and Pace ultimately roll with Cairo Santos. The former Chief suffered a groin injury that cut his Bears’ stint short last year, but has upside and is still young at 26-years-old. I’d bring Santos back on a one-year deal to prove himself with a full off-season of recovery behind him. Then, set a new precedent of competition for every position, and have him compete against an undrafted free agent through the preseason. This time, don’t make any early August cuts in the vein of Andy Phillips.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times, an editor for Windy City Gridiron and Inside The Pylon, and a contributor to Pro Football Weekly and The Athletic Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.