Now that Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Poles and coach Matt Eberflus are in place and filling out their staffs, they can turn their attention to player personnel. Among this week’s questions in Brad Biggs’ Bears mailbag are where Roquan Smith will play in a 4-3 defense and what will the offensive line and wide receiver groups look like.
With the Bears going to a 4-3, does this mean Roquan Smith will join the pantheon of dominant Bears MLBs that includes Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary and Brian Urlacher? — Harold H.
That’s a difficult question to answer before knowing what other options the Bears will have. Smith, Danny Trevathan and Caleb Johnson are the only inside linebackers under contract who played last season. It would be surprising if Trevathan is not released before a $500,000 roster bonus is due March 18. The Bears have to add some players at the position before we get a better idea of how they will deploy personnel.
My initial guess – and this is strictly my opinion – is the Bears might play Smith at weak-side linebacker in the 4-3 scheme. That’s where the Indianapolis Colts played their best linebacker, Darius Leonard, in Matt Eberflus’ defense. Smith and Leonard have similar skill sets.
Smith has the speed and movement ability to be dynamic at the second level. He has the short-area burst to close on the football and he’s a very good tackler in space. He’s fluid enough to open his hips and run with a receiver on a seam route and can play coverage in a matchup zone. Playing him on the weak side would leave him freer to run to the football, especially in backside pursuit where he can run and hit. And lining him up there would allow him to make more plays in pass coverage like Lance Briggs and Derrick Brooks did in their prime.
The weak-side spot in a 4-3 is typically where a defense puts its playmaker. The middle linebacker is more of a point-of-attack defender who has to be able to play off contact, play downhill and play violently consistently. Smith can do that, but the Bears probably can find someone making a lot less money to do that. It could be a situation where the Bears play in a 4-3 under front, which is very similar to a 3-4, and Smith could be in the middle of that alignment and then move to the weak side in sub packages.
It will be interesting to see what the Bears do here, but they probably can find a middle linebacker in the second wave of free agency.
I think most would agree the general manager should have control over roster and selection of the head coach. In a situation such as the current one for the Bears, as the new head coach is hiring his first round of assistants, does he consult with the GM and/or get his agreement prior to selection of assistants or is this an example of when the head coach exercise total control? Do we assume that Ryan Poles and Matt Eberflus are equally on board with new assistant coach selections? — Bob R.
Generally speaking, head coaches are given complete control of their coaching staff. And the Bears typically have done that, so we can figure that’s the case with Eberflus. Still, I would imagine he has had many conversations with Poles about which assistants would be good fits. A new head coach won’t want to make a move that opposes what his GM wants. Conversely, a GM won’t want to force an assistant on a head coach. I imagine Eberflus feels comfortable in pursuing the candidates he wants, but he probably bounces names off Poles.
Do the Bears let James Daniels walk? It seems too much to pay both Cody Whitehair and Daniels big dollars when Ryan Poles does not seem enthused about either. Or do they keep Daniels and move Whitehair? — @redhatduck1
For starters, I haven’t seen anything Poles said that would lead you to believe he’s not “enthused” about Daniels or Whitehair. Those are your words, not mine. Poles has indicated he believes in building a roster from the inside out, starting with the offensive line, and has alluded to wanting to get the line right, but I don’t believe he has addressed the roles of specific linemen.
As far as Daniels, he’s an unrestricted free agent, so it’s not really a case of the Bears letting him walk or not. Free agency is a two-way street, so Daniels has a choice in this matter unless the team places the franchise or transition tag on him. That’s unlikely. Whitehair is due to earn $8.1 million next season and is under contract through 2024. The 29-year-old has been a model of durability, missing only three games in six seasons. Moving on from Whitehair would create a hole, and with the Bears likely considering other moves on the line, I doubt they want to create an additional spot that needs to be filled.
If Daniels makes it to the open market, he will get a big payday. At 24, he would be the youngest veteran available, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he matches or exceeds Whitehair’s $10.25 million average annual salary. Some scoffed when I put that out on Twitter during my three days at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., but the guard market isn’t cheap these days. Whitehair is one of 11 guards who had an average annual salary of $10 million or more last season, according to overthecap.com. Eight more guards were at $7 million or more. My point is finding an upgrade on the free-agent market for the interior of the offensive line, even at center, would be an expensive proposition and one the Bears very well might consider.
It will probably take some time for the new front office and coaching staff to evaluate the players the Bears have under contract and then consider the landscape in free agency as well as what might be available in the first two days of the draft. The Bears have picks in Rounds 2 and 3.
What are realistic expectations for what the receiving corps will look like given the cap space needed to fill so many other holes? Outside of Darnell Mooney, of course. — @watsshakinbakin
That’s a great question. The group of wide receivers coming out of contract isn’t super deep. Davante Adams is the best by far, but the Green Bay Packers can secure him with the franchise tag. After that you’re looking at Allen Robinson, Chris Godwin (who suffered a torn ACL and MCL in December), Mike Williams, Will Fuller, Jamison Crowder, JuJu Smith-Schuster, TY Hilton and Christian Kirk. Williams is interesting to me. He has good size at 6-foot-4, 218 pounds and is coming off a season in which he caught 76 passes for 1,146 yards with nine touchdowns. He figures to be one of the hottest targets in free agency and has indicated he’d like to stay with the Los Angeles Chargers.
What’s realistic for the Bears? I imagine they will have to make one significant free-agent signing – or at least give that a shot – and then bring in a draft pick or perhaps a younger player on the market they consider to be ascending. I don’t know if the Bears can get this position looking like they want it to in one year, but there’s no question the room will look significantly different in 2022 with Mooney perhaps the only holdover who will get on the field.
If the Bengals had drafted Penei Sewell instead of Ja’Marr Chase, they probably wouldn’t be in the Super Bowl. I’m not suggesting the Bears are just a wide receiver away from the Super Bowl, but isn’t that their greatest area of need right now? This team needs playmakers. — @mike__chicago
That’s an interesting question, and I agree that you can make a strong case for wide receiver being the greatest need. The Bears have a lot of roster spots to fill this offseason. They need offensive linemen, cornerbacks, linebackers, defensive linemen and at least one safety. That’s just the starting point.
I asked GM Ryan Poles about the Bengals’ turnaround, and he had an interesting reply when talking about their decision to draft Chase with the fifth pick. He had an incredible rookie season with 81 receptions for 1,455 yards and 13 touchdowns, while Sewell wound up going to the Detroit Lions with the seventh pick.
The topic came up when I first asked Poles if he believes the Bears need to surround Justin Fields with better skill-position talent to have a true barometer of where his development stands, and it dovetailed into a discussion of the Bengals’ move.
“I would agree with that,” Poles said. “In terms of getting that line set — I think that is first and foremost — and then giving him talent to work with. Without a lot of draft capital, without a lot of money, it’s going to take some strategy to get that done.
“So when I mentioned the Bengals, they took a different approach. I was critical of it, but at the same time, it’s worked out pretty good, right? I think the main (point) is to support the quarterback. If that means giving him weapons or giving him linemen, I’m an O-line guy, so I believe it starts there. But I’m not going to be blind to the fact that if there isn’t the right players (at one position), then maybe we’ve got to go a different direction.”
So if Poles had been in the Bengals’ position, would he have gone with Sewell over Chase?
“I would have started up front,” Poles said. “The beautiful thing is we can learn from these teams to say there are more ways to do it than doing just what I said. Just learn. And it should get teams like the Bears excited that if we do things the right way, we can make those steps and be a championship-caliber team.”
I agree the Bears need playmakers – and that’s plural. They also need to upgrade the offensive line, and there’s no reason they can’t set out to accomplish both tasks this offseason, or at least begin the process.
I keep seeing Matt Eberflus bringing most of his defensive staff from Indianapolis used as a positive compared to Matt Nagy bringing zero assistants from Kansas City. Can you please clarify that Andy Reid doesn’t allow his assistants to take staff if one gets a head coaching job? And that Indy is going 3-4 and didn’t try to retain any of Eberflus’ staff? — @newtimkbeckman
Eberflus has brought four assistants with him from Indianapolis, including Alan Williams, who coached the Colts cornerbacks and will be the Bears defensive coordinator. I would view this as a positive that the new head coach has some assistants he knows and trusts, especially considering Eberflus said he won’t be calling the defense. The Colts have done a terrific job developing young talent over the last four seasons. When Frank Reich arrived as head coach in 2018 and Eberflus was already in place as the coordinator, the Colts didn’t have a single building block in place on defense.
It is unusual and possibly rare that a coach leaving a team as an assistant can bring so many coaches with him. Eberflus was fortunate that the Colts chose to replace him with an outside candidate. Usually teams won’t let any assistants go with a new head coach or at most one. The Colts could have blocked the position coaches (Dave Borgonzi, James Rowe and David Overstreet II) from leaving but chose to make them all available with the idea that new coordinator Gus Bradley would be able to make any staffing changes he wanted.
I don’t believe Bradley will be running a 3-4 defense. He’s known for running a 4-3 and the Colts will probably stick with that. Their decision not to promote from within to replace Eberflus definitely benefited the Bears as he was able to fill most of his defensive staff with coaches he knows very well and who know the nuances of the scheme.