DBN Roundtable: Evaluating The Chicago Bears At The Halfway Point

Posted by Matt Clapp | 11/13/2015 03:38:00 PM

With the Chicago Bears halfway through their 2015 season, Jay Rigdon (@JayRigdon5), Matt Eurich (@MattEurich), and I decided to do a roundtable assessing the Bears' first half of the season, as well as look ahead to the second half and offseason.

Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments or hit us up on Twitter.

1. All things considered, should this be viewed as a successful first eight games for the 2015 Chicago Bears?

Clapp: The coaches and players would tell you a 3-5 record is unacceptable, but the rest of us can be real about where this team is at talent wise, and what the expectations should be. Coming into the season, most of us realistically saw a four-to-six win team. That was also before knowing the offensive line would be an injury mess, Alshon Jeffery would miss four games, Eddie Royal would miss multiple games, Matt Forte would miss time, etc.

That they've had all of those things happen and still managed to go 3-5 -- while also having a defense greatly lacking talent -- is pretty impressive. The main thing we (again, realistically) wanted to see this season was the team making strides under a new coaching staff, and have some potential long term pieces emerge. I think we're seeing that.

Eurich: In terms of wins and losses, Chicago is obviously not where it wants to be, but the team has done a good job of staying in almost every game this season. The Bears simply got blown out too often during the Emery/Trestman era.

Rigdon: All things considered (which reminds me that there's nothing worse than NPR covering sports) I'd say no. It hasn't been a disaster, despite a roster caught in the midst of a rebuild and a rash of injuries, and they've managed to start 3-5. In a vacuum, that doesn't sound so bad. But that Vikings loss is a bad one, as was the Lions game. Maybe my standards are too high, but in a soft NFC, those are badly missed opportunities, regardless of circumstance.

2. What grade would you give the new coaching staff so far, and what area has there been a noticeable difference compared to last year's Bears?

Clapp: B.

The effort is noticeably different from last year's team, and the players have clearly bought into John Fox and his staff.

Offensively, Adam Gase has done a tremendous job with Jay Cutler, and Vic Fangio has the defense playing about as well as they can given the (lack of) talent level there. The special teams play has bad, though. And while the pluses of John Fox have definitely outweighed the minuses, he's had some very questionable in-game decisions (something he's always been criticzed for).

Overall it's been very good and it looks like Ryan Pace made the right hire with Fox. This team needed a voice they took seriously, and Gase/Fangio make one of the better OC/DC duos in the league.

Eurich: I would give the coaching staff a B overall.

Offensively, Adam Gase's play-calling has been terrific. He has done a great job of designing an offense that fits Jay Cutler's skill set, and he has put an emphasis on the running game.

Vic Fangio has very little to work with defensively, but the unit has done a nice job considering how many players they have that do not fit this defense. The passing defense has held opposing quarterbacks to just 220.2 passing yards per game, but it has allowed 17 passing touchdowns. The defense isn't perfect, but it is showing signs of progress.

Rigdon: Overall, I'd give the coaching staff a B+. 

Offensively, there's no denying that Adam Gase has connected with Jay Cutler; turns out all it took was an offensive coordinator both talented and tied in to the modern NFL.

Vic Fangio has cobbled together a surprisingly competent defensive unit from spare parts, young players, and wishing.

John Fox has been a welcome breath of emotion on the sideline; I think I've seen more energy from him in half a season than I saw from all of Lovie Smith and Marc Trestman's years combined.

That said, I'm always going to struggle with his game and clock management, which was likely directly responsible for at least one of those two unfortunate losses. And about the special teams, the less said the better.

3. Would the 2015 Bears be 3-5 with last year's coaching staff?

Clapp: You can't say for sure, but I think last year's staff would have this team at no more than two wins, if any. The Bears are more or less maxing out their talent level right now. The same can most definitely not be said for last year, where the effort was lacking, the team had clearly tuned out some of the staff, and the locker room environment was toxic (that's why Brandon Marshall is gone).

Last year's team looked like they flat-out didn't care much of the time. This year's team is constantly competing, and they certainly look better coached on both sides of the ball. I mean, just look at Jay Cutler. He was benched for Jimmy Clausen late in the 2014 season, and is now playing outstanding football in his first eight games under the John Fox, Adam Gase staff.

Eurich: It is hard to imagine this team, with its blatant lack of talent on both sides of the ball, being anywhere near as competitive under Trestman like they have been under John Fox this season. Many players have spoken on record this season about how much different this coaching staff is compared to the previous regime.

Rigdon: No. No way. Based on what we saw last year from that staff, Marc Trestman have gone with Jimmy Clausen as the starter, Aaron Kromer would have hit Kyle Long with a beach chair, and Mel Tucker would have been Mel Tucker, which is perhaps the greatest crime of all.

4. Has Jay Cutler perhaps changed the Bears' post-2015 plans at quarterback with his play?

Clapp: I think there's a very good chance he has. There were whispers all offseason that he wasn't Ryan Pace's preferred option, and he seemed to only be regressing last year under Trestman. But oh what a difference new coaching can make, and no one has ever doubted Cutler's ability; it's top notch.

Jay looks like a different, smarter quarterback under Gase and company.  His decision-making is better, he's made some mechanical adjustments (like with his feet out of the shotgun)... he just looks really comfortable and sharper than ever. In every game Cutler has played, the Bears have had a chance to win the game. This is also with a great talent in Brandon Marshall gone, with Jeffery and Royal missing plenty of time, the offensive line shaking up and having several injuries, etc.

Cutler is a better option than anyone that will be available via free agency or trade, and it doesn't appear there is an absolute stud at the top of the draft this year. Before the season I would've predicted the Bears would move on from Cutler this upcoming offseason, but now I'd say the opposite.

Eurich: I pegged Cutler as having a 50-50 chance of returning next year before this season started, but I would be very surprised if he is not the team's starting quarterback in Week 1 next season. His decision-making has improved, he has showed better mechanics in the pocket and he looks very comfortable in Gase's scheme.

With that said, I still think the team will look to add a young quarterback in the draft, but this is Cutler's team for the foreseeable future.

Rigdon: I would certainly hope so. Given the spate of trade rumors around the draft, I think it's safe to say that the Bears were not sold on Cutler, but given the unfairly negative reputation he has around the league, that's no surprise.

But look at the state of NFL quarterback play. Cutler has been a solidly top-12 quarterback. Given his contract going forward, it's actually entering the phase that most benefits the team, and he still has very rare physical talents that are finally being unlocked and harnessed by the partnership with Gase.

If the Bears are looking to contend next year (and in the NFL, regimes generally aren't allowed the luxury of long, multi-year rebuilds) I still think the best path to that is retaining Cutler.

5. Is the move to right tackle looking like a good one for Kyle Long and the Bears, or should they have just left him at right guard where he was already excelling?

Clapp: Even being well aware of the higher value of an offensive tackle vs an offensive guard, I was still hesitant about this move as there was no guarantee he'd be great there. And we knew he was a great guard. But Long is definitely making strides and looking like he can very much be a very good to great right tackle. I think the Bears made the right move, and it's much easier to find quality starting guards in the league than it is to find quality starting tackles.

Eurich: I like the move a lot. Long was arguably a top-5 guard, but I think he has far more value on the outside at tackle. He struggled in Week 1 against Julius Peppers, but he has been pretty solid all season long at his new position. I still think he is better suited to play left tackle in the future because of his athleticism, so moving him to right tackle is a step in the right direction.

Rigdon: This was a move made for the long-term, and I think Kyle Long can be an above-average right tackle, and perhaps a great one. I think that outweighs even a great right guard.

We're still just seeing the potential, as he's been forced to learn on the fly. That's the one element of the move that never made sense to me; what were they gaining by waiting until the regular season to move him over? I think his transition may have been eased by moving him into the role earlier in the offseason.

6. What player has been the biggest disappointment to you so far?

Clapp: For me it has to be Kyle Fuller as I really believed he was a core piece and would make a jump this year after an inconsistent rookie season. But he's only gone backwards.

There have been some impactful plays and the flashes are still there, but there is far too much bad play mixed in as well. Everyone knows his talent is there; the guy was a first-round pick one year ago. It seems to be a confidence problem as much as anything, so hopefully a good game or two could get Fuller going in the right direction.

Eurich: Kyle Fuller seems like an obvious choice here, but I am going to go with Christian Jones. Not to say that Jones has been a train wreck at inside linebacker, but I was expecting more from him. I thought he would really stand out in Fangio's defense because of his ability to blitz the quarterback and his athleticism. He appears to be thinking too much when on the field, resulting in him being a half step or so behind against the run.

The coaching staff appears to be very high on Jonathan Anderson, and that could spell the end for Jones as a starter once Shea McClellin returns.

Rigdon: Kyle Fuller has shown a few flashes of tackling ability of late, but my goodness is he a shadow of what he appeared to be at the start of last season. He looks a long way from a shutdown corner, and in fact the veteran Tracy Porter has looked the superior player by far.

7. What player has been the biggest surprise to you so far?

Clapp: Adrian Amos. This dude attacks the football but in a very disciplined manner for a fifth-round rookie. He hits hard, plays the run well, and seems to be around the football constantly.

All of that sounds like a description for the last young safety the Bears had to be excited about, Mike Brown. Now, not saying Amos is going to be nearly as good as Brown was in his heyday, but he looks like a very good player and a long term piece for the Bears' derfense.

Eurich: What Adrian Amos has done in the first eight games of this season may go unnoticed by many around the NFL, but fans in Chicago should appreciate just how steady he has been this season. He has yet to make much of an impact against the pass, but he has been a pleasant surprise against the run. I think he has chance to be an above average starter in Chicago's for years to come.

Rigdon: Adrian Amos has been the sort of hard-hitting, run support safety the Bears haven't had since, I don't know, Mike Brown? Maybe Danieal Manning? And he's not been exposed in the passing game, at least not to the point of notice. He's been a big key to the Bears defense surging to borderline respectability.

8. What player do you think could surprise, or make a much bigger impact, in the second half of the season?

Clapp: I'm going to go with a guy that has just been banged-up almost the entire season, Eddie Royal. This is a polished, solid all-around receiver that had 62 receptions last year for the Chargers, and 15 total touchdowns over 2013-2014 for the Chargers. He also has a history with Cutler of course, with 91 catches with Jay and the Broncos in 2008.

Obviously we have no idea if Royal can stay healthy the rest of the way, but if he can, he will add a dynamic weapon to the Bears' offense and give Cutler a reliable option out of the slot.

Eurich: I think Jonathan Anderson has a chance to be an impact player for the Bears in the second half. He's been taking reps away from Jones, and while he plays a little out of control at times, he's been a very active tackler. He showed against Detroit he has good hands, and he also has the ability to put pressure on the quarterback.

Rigdon: I think Jeremy Langford is going to be a popular answer, so I'll highlight Tracy Porter's steady, veteran play at corner. Porter is my favorite kind of undervalued NFL asset: former Indiana University standouts. He's brought a sense of awareness and intelligence that has helped the pass defense immensely.

9. Keeping in mind the roster they have to work with, what area of the game do the Bears have the most room for improvement in 2015?

Clapp: Special teams. This has been a very disappointing unit (again), and this is a phase of the game where it's harder to excuse a roster's overall talent. But in the talent department, they need to try someone else at returner over Marc Mariani. Really, the special teams play has nowhere to go but up. Heck, even Robbie Gould missed two field goals on Monday.

Eurich: Considering the pieces they have at outside linebacker, the Bears should be able to do a better job of getting after the quarterback in the second half. Pernell McPhee has been terrific, but neither Willie Young nor Lamarr Houston have shown a lot of consistency this season. Young and Houston both flashed against San Diego, and I think they are still working themselves back from their injuries. If they can continue to show progress in the coming weeks, I think the pass rush could end up being a surprise in the second half.

Rigdon: I think that given the roster, and performance so far, the Bears have the most room to improve on special teams. That's a boring answer, but kick coverage has been quite poor, the return game nonthreatening. I think the main issue is that the lack of roster depth shows up on special teams, and until the roster is healthier as a whole, the Bears are going to continue to struggle to replicate the halcyon days of Toub and Hester.

10. At the moment, what would you consider the Bears' biggest positional need to address in the offseason?

Clapp: Really anywhere on the defense needs to be addressed, as Pernell McPhee and Adrian Amos seem like the only two pieces to feel good about going forward. You could arguably add in Eddie Goldman, but the bottom line is there is talent that needs to be added at all levels of the defense.

But adding another pass rusher opposite McPhee, along with a legitimate starting cornerback would be near the top of the list. Obviously it would help if Fuller could figure it out and make the cornerback situation look better.

Eurich: Even though the Bears have McPhee, Young and Houston, they still need a young edge-rusher who can get after the quarterback. They had a chance to nab Vic Beasley in the first round this year but opted to go with Kevin White. In addition to finding another pass-rusher, they need to get younger at cornerback.

Rigdon: Left tackle. Gase has done a good job scheming around the makeshift offensive line, and Cutler has covered up the rest with fantastic movement in the pocket, but the O-line has been in flux all season, and the demotion of Jermon Bushrod and elevation of Charles Leno Jr. is less than inspiring, long-term.

11. Will Matt Forte be back next season? Why or why not?

Clapp: I don't think so. It's not that Ryan Pace and John Fox wouldn't gladly take the guy, but this Forte's last shot at either a nice multi-year contract, or a pricey (for a 30-year-old running back) one-year deal. Not to mention Forte may want to move on himself. What if the Patriots wanted him, for example? That could be a great shot for Forte to get his first ring.

And after how well we saw Jeremy Langford and Ka'Deem Carey run the ball on Monday night, it looks like the Bears will still be able to run the ball with success in this offense. They'd probably draft another young guy or bring in a cheaper veteran as well.

If the money is equal, there is no guarantee Forte would choose the Bears, and it's probably not in the Bears' best interest to overpay for a 30-year-old running back given the state of their organization (and, again, given how Langford has looked). There are just too many factors at play here that point to Forte likely ending up elsewhere.

Eurich: I'm torn on this. He's been unbelievable this season when healthy, but he turns 30 next month. If there is anyone who could defy the odds and be a productive running back after turning 30, I think Forte can be that guy, but how much is he going to cost the Bears?

I think if Forte believes he has maxed out his earning potential and wants to stay somewhere where he is comfortable, then he will be back next season. But I also would not be surprised if a contending team comes along and offers him an opportunity to go after a Super Bowl.

Rigdon: My guess is no. Wrong side of 30, lots of mileage, classic warning signs for a free agent running back. It's a shame, as he is an incredibly valuable player with a unique set of skills, but sometimes it's just time to move on, for both sides.

12. Will Alshon Jeffery be back next season? Why or why not?

Clapp: I'd be stunned if he isn't back. Maybe if the injuries are looking like that much of an issue on a week-to-week basis?

But even still, if there isn't a chronic injury concern, his talent is too good to not try to keep in Chicago for a long time. The Bears are looking for young, talented pieces to build around. Alshon is just 25 and looks like the best player on the field almost every time he is out there.

The Bears will also be in a great cap situation this offseason and aren't tied to many long term deals. They could always just slap the franchise tag on him as well, but they should try to get an extension done in the near future regardless. Jeffery and Kevin White would set the Bears up for a potentially top-notch wide receiver duo over the next several years.

Eurich: I think re-signing Jeffery is a no-brainer. If I was Ryan Pace, I would be in the process of getting a discussion going right now with Jeffery's agent. Jeffery has proven, when healthy, this season he can be a No. 1 wide receiver. While his injuries have been a concern, I would not be too worried about them moving forward. If the two sides are unable to reach an agreement this offseason, the Bears will undoubtedly franchise tag him to keep him in Chicago in 2016.

Rigdon: Yes. He's a #1 receiver, in his prime, with nothing resembling a replacement on the roster. With the cap room the Bears are projected to have, I think both sides are motivated to continue the relationship.

13. Does this look like a team that is capable of being a playoff competitor by next season? This is of course assuming there are some roster improvements made over the offseason.

Clapp: Sure. This team has competed every time Jay Cutler has played, and you could argue they should be 5-3 after blowing games against the Lions and Vikings. As we've made clear, that's with several key pieces missing time with injuries (heck, Kevin White hasn't even played an NFL snap yet), a roster that is below average talent wise, and with an entirely new coaching staff. And switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4 on defense.

So, yeah, keep progressing, put together a nice offseason, and it would seem this team could definitely compete for a playoff spot next offseason.

Eurich: I think so. They could very easily be 5-3 right now. They had chances against both Detroit and Minnesota, but they let those wins slip away. Offensively, they have a chance to have a strong one-two punch at wide receiver with Jeffery and White, Martellus Bennett should be back and if they move on from Forte, Jeremy Langford has shown he has some promise.

The defense obviously needs to improve, but I think the team is taking steps in the right direction.

Rigdon: It's the NFL, I tend to think that just about every team is an offseason of roster improvement away from being a playoff contender. But in the case of this team, yes, I do think that. I worry most about losing Gase, because so much of what's been promising about this team has been the obvious symbiosis between he and Cutler. Hopefully continuity is possible, and if that is combined with some key roster additions, retentions, and a string of good health, the Bears could easily be a 10-6 team. (Again, that describes all 32 teams, but still.)

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Reflection and Preparation: The Cycle of the Season

Posted by Jay | 9/18/2015 11:48:00 AM

For those of you who don't know me personally (a great number of you, most likely, unless the only readers are my close friends and family, which is a possibility I hadn't considered until just now, and it's depressing) I recently moved to Denver for a job offer. Not this blogging opportunity, though if Matt wanted to throw a few more beers my way I wouldn't object. It's been an interesting experience so far, but a side effect is that I have had to change my sports viewing habits.

The biggest difference, perhaps predictably, is the time zone; NFL games kicking at 11 AM is an interesting twist on the game-watching experience. On one hand, once the game ends, you have more of the day remaining to enjoy; on the other hand a disappointing result has more day to ruin.

Beyond the time difference, I'm not used to watching sports by myself. I've done it before, of course, but I've always preferred watching with a few friends who know sports, preferably friends who share my fandom, allowing for jokes and snark and analysis that really works. Without that shared Bears fandom, for example, I wouldn't have died laughing a few years ago when my uncle Joe, upon seeing a ground level camera angle, said "Hey, the Tommie Harris Cam." And he wouldn't have had an audience for it.

And though I've met some cool people out here, including some cool Bears fans, I still miss having a rapport like that while I'm watching. So, in search of a different viewing experience, I went to Wyman's with Annie and Cat (two of the aforementioned cool people I've met here) to watch opening day.

Wyman's is a Chicago bar here in town, and it proved to be an interesting, though perhaps ultimately unsatisfying environment. I enjoyed the beer, the welcome sight of Bears apparel (one woman sported a "Bear Down For What" shirt, which was awesome), and a few fun moments (the crowd exploding in cheers for the announcement of offsetting penalties, for example. And a guy yelling "Enough with the f****** flags!" after a play, seeing the call was on Green Bay, and yelling "More f****** flags!") I don't think it's the best way for me to absorb the game.

For one, I just couldn't see that well. It's hard to analyze the play when you can't follow the action closely enough. I honestly couldn't tell you how Shea McClellin looked (although this certainly isn't a good sign), for example, or how well Kyle Long protected the edge.

I can give overall impressions, which are that the team is definitely still a work in progress, in all phases; that John Fox demonstrated more emotion, energy, and passion on the sidelines in that one game than Lovie Smith and Marc Trestman combined to show during their entire tenures; that Matt Forte is still really good; that Aaron Rodgers is still really, really good, sadly; that the Bears' passing defense is likely going to struggle; and that, finally, this season is likely to not be the debacle that some pundits predicted.

I'm not saying the Bears can battle for a playoff spot, but as I lay in bed later that afternoon, curled up around a heating pad as my stomach fought a losing battle against the effects of morning beers and early afternoon deep dish pizza, I watched the Lions collapse in Lions fashion.

The next night, I happily watched Minnesota bumble around as though The Monstars had paid a visit to Vikings training camp this summer. 

The Bears' performance was much more encouraging than either of those, and it came against much better competition.

Was I thrilled that they couldn't pull it out? No, I wasn't. 

But I was pretty happy that, when Green Bay scored late following the Cutler interception (a combination of multiple factors, but none indicative of a bad pick; the throw wasn't forced into a nonexistent window, it was just slightly underthrown, which is rarely Jay's problem. Clay Matthews made an incredible play on the ball, and that was that. I hung my head like everyone else, but aside from game situation, it was about as acceptable as interceptions get) to increase the lead to two touchdowns, the Bears didn't fold.

That was probably my biggest takeaway from that game (one more than the Bears defense had): this group wants it. Of course, it's easy to want it on opening day. It's another thing to be resilient midway through the season after a few more disappointing losses (hopefully interspersed with a few uplifting wins). 

But they did not look a cut below the Packers, which hasn't been the case often in recent years. (Not since Week 17 in 2013, at least.) There were enough positive signs, as well as a few obvious spots where improvement needs to and could reasonably be expected occur, that this season will at the very least be interesting to follow.

Which brings us to Week 2.

The Arizona Cardinals are perhaps the most overlooked good team in football. Sharing a division with a budding dynasty in Seattle, as well as the tail-end of the Harbaugh-era 49ers run, as well as an intriguing bunch of talent in St. Louis (argh, Aaron Donald was so close to ours!), Bruce Arians has rescued Carson Palmer's career, building a functioning offense from the bones of a group that for years scared absolutely no one, aside from Larry Fitzgerald fantasy owners. Now, they boast a very good defense and an offense that is likely to pose similar issues as Green Bay.

The Bears' secondary is not a great one, though any secondary is going to get exposed without at least a threat of a pass rush. The Bears couldn't muster much of one last week, though in terms of mobility, pocket presence and feel, and generally annoying unhittability, Carson Palmer is not Aaron Rodgers. I like to think Vic Fangio is only going to get more accustomed to how to best use the talent at his disposal, and as long as Pernell McPhee can go, I expect the Bears to pressure Palmer much more often than they managed against Rodgers. (Which, again, is a low bar.) That in turn helps out the defensive backfield, and the linebackers in coverage, etc.

As to the other side of the ball, Kyle Long is only going to get better at right tackle, though I'll never understand why they didn't make that move earlier in the offseason. I doubt it was for any sort of strategic advantage, as whatever miniscule gain that may have provided was heavily outweighed by the potential gains of having your starting offensive line work together throughout the preseason. I guess they were really holding out hope for Jordan Mills or Charles Leno? 

In any case, I think the Bears can make some things happen on offense, especially as their receivers (sans Kevin White, whose explosiveness they obviously miss) are all apparently healthy, and Martellus Bennett looked engaged, which is a matchup problem for any opponent.

I'm hoping the Bears can pull off what I (and Vegas) would consider to be consider to be an upset, and as with just about any NFL game, forcing turnovers, not committing turnovers, and playing well on third down are the likely keys. The Bears did one of those things well last week, and it obviously wasn't enough. Given the roster deficiencies, it's likely Jay Cutler is going to have to play a very good game for the Bears to win. I certainly hope he does, as starting out 0-2, and 0-2 at home, would be a difficult hole from which to escape. 

I tend to think the Cardinals are a bit too strong on both offense and defense, though I hope I'm wrong.

However, I'm excited for the game! If you read my season preview post from last week, you know that was a struggle for me. The Bears playing hard for an entire game was apparently a cure for my fan apathy, even if it proves a short-term solution. 

I don't yet know where I'll be watching the game, nor with whom, but I'll definitely be watching it. Hopefully on a bigger television, in a quieter environment, and without Joe Buck. (I just checked, and it's Thom Brennaman, Charles Davis, and a roaming Tony Siragusa. I can't believe this, but...may I have Joe Buck and Troy Aikman, FOX? Please? Joe can call the entire second quarter in his stupid Irish accent that he used to promote UFC, and it would still be a better listen than Thom Brennaman.)

What Lies Ahead: Chicago Bears Season Preview

Posted by Jay | 9/11/2015 05:28:00 PM

If you're anything like me, you derive your calendrical sense not from the change from summer to fall or from winter to spring, but rather the change from baseball to football, or basketball to baseball. 

(A quick runthrough: the start of spring is denoted by March Madness, Opening Day, and The Masters, while the beginning of fall is noted by NFL opening week, the baseball playoff chase, and The Rhodes Classic, my family's annual Labor Day golf scramble that debuted in 2005. I've only missed two editions: the inaugural, as I wasn't aware of its existence, and the most recent, as I just moved to Denver for work, and I wasn't able to find a reasonably priced way back. For years the title eluded me, my history there nearly as tortured as Phil Mickelson's at the U.S. Open, but in 2014 I finally won. Feel free to applaud.)

For someone like myself, who is perhaps far too invested in sports, the transition in viewing habits is as cyclical as the leaves changing colors, or the snow melting. I can normally find the exact date of various important events in my life by virtue of remembering which game happened to occur that day, and then researching the box score. By any definition, I'm an involved fan.

Which makes this current fall a bit strange, as for the first time in a long while, the thought of Bears/Packers, Week 1, just isn't doing for me what it might have done in prior years. 

Some of that, of course, can be chalked up to the competitive Cubs; for the past six or seven years, the Bears opening up their season has been a welcome reprieve from a disappointing baseball season. 

This year, it seems the roles have been reversed, as a Cubs rebuild has hit its stride, providing one of the more exciting sports narratives on a national level. You would be forgiven for overlooking the Bears, given the more palatable storyline is drawing near its climax. Even though I love The Royal Tenenbaums, if I saw it was starting up on HBO, I still wouldn't change the channel from Road to Perdition with twenty minutes to go.

That analogy, though, is imperfect; not with regards to my taste in movies, which is obviously infallible, but following teams is not the same as trying to watch two movies simultaneously. Rarely do they come in direct conflict, and I'm obviously capable of consuming quite a bit of information about sports. So if it's not a lack of attention, or a saturation of my own capacity for caring, why the change?

The answer, I think, is twofold, factoring in both the present and the past. 

First of all, this Bears team is not expected to do well. 

Obviously crazy things can happen, and I've written before how the NFL's 16-game schedule leads to some sample size issues, which can benefit lesser teams. If you want a quick and dirty example, consider that the difference in talent between the best and worst NFL team and the best and worst MLB team is probably similar (indeed, it's possible the NFL's gap is inherently smaller), if there were no sample-size randomness, then the best football and baseball teams would have similar winning percentages. 

But as we've seen in recent memory, teams in the NFL can go 16-0, while MLB teams aren't likely to go 162-0 any time soon. Indeed, NFL teams have recorded every possible record within the past eight years. The 2008 Lions went 0-16, a season after the Patriots went 16-0. Meanwhile, the 2003 Detroit Tigers (yikes, sorry Detroit), record-wise the worst baseball team since 1962, still went 43-119, for a .265 winning percentage. That would obviously equate to something like a 4-12 NFL season. 

The NFL is a perfect league for a surprise team, not because of some genius league office machination that secures a level of parity (which is what they would have you believe) but due to the inherently small sample size of the sport. If you want to try to build some hope for a team that appears to have very little, that's as good a place to start as any. 

But still, when I take an objective look at the roster flaws from the past few seasons, and the attempted fixes for this year, and the rash of injuries to key players, I don't see a team likely to make a playoff run. It's hard to get excited for a team that has had very little good news over the past year or so.

The thing is, I've done it before. And not just with the Bears. I love sports, and in recent memory, I've sat through many a hopeless game as my team either went through a rebuilding process (Cubs, IU basketball, Pacers post-brawl), an injury-ravaged season (Bears, Pacers last season), or just plain incompetence/awfulness (IU football, the Cubs, the Bears.) I still get excited to watch the team play, as I prefer the negative feelings sports can sometimes provide to not having that at all. (Which actually might not be healthy, now that I consider it.) 

There's also a certain perverse pleasure in knowing the team you follow is bad; it removes a bit of pressure as a fan, freeing me up to appreciate the smaller positives, or to really enjoy an upset win. It also allows me to laugh at the mistakes, and find the humor when, say, IU takes a delay-of-game before the season-opening kickoff. (Note: this actually happened.)
But after the past few seasons of following the Bears, I'm not sure I'm even mustering that level of interest. 

I remember last season, after Jay Cutler led a precision quick-strike drive against the Bills to open the year, culminating in a deep touchdown to Alshon Jeffery, I texted a friend "Okay, I'm officially all-in for this season." The Bears would go on to lose that game in overtime, which was a signal of things to come, but I was pumped for Week 1. Why don't I have that for this season?

Sadly, I think what has happened here is organizational fatigue. If I haven't prefaced this enough, just know that I really do love the Bears. But they are a joke. They're the 1985 Super Bowl team away from never having won a Super Bowl, and they've only appeared in two, despite being a charter franchise for the league. (Obviously the pre-Super Bowl championships count for something, but only so much.) 

I was born in 1987, and the Bears have won a grand total of 6 playoff games in my lifetime. If you limit it to the past 25 years, they've won 5. They've only been to the playoffs 4 times out of the last 20 seasons. Their last playoff appearance was the ill-fated 2010 NFC Championship game loss to Green Bay, a game that is somehow probably both the highlight and lowlight of Jay Cutler's tenure as Bears quarterback. (Highlight because it's his only playoff visit, and the team was obviously much worse without him; lowlight through no fault of his own.)

This is somehow the status quo for the Bears, a team in the second-largest NFL market (and the only team in that market, unlike the two New York teams), with an undoubtedly passionate and supportive fanbase, has managed to churn out nothing. They're Washington without the racist team name, and with a bumbling family ownership that somehow escapes all scrutiny, most likely thanks to a wise decision to avoid the spotlight. (Remember how well George McCaskey's trip in front of the cameras went earlier this year?)

Again, I love this team. If my fandom was ever going to waver, it would have been when I lived in Indiana, growing up in the height of the Peyton Manning Colts era, with essentially all of my friends being Colts fans. I didn't cheer against them, and I did always want Peyton to succeed; as a Bears fan, I think I was uniquely qualified to appreciate quarterbacking excellence. But when they faced the Bears in the Super Bowl, I was totally on Chicago's side. (Though I barely remember any of it, as I was heavily drugged post-appendectomy. And I missed Hester's return thanks to a last-second trip to the bathroom. Not a fun time for me.) 

But it's just harder to get excited this year. Think of all that has transpired with this organization just within the previous calendar year. 

From Brandon Marshall's antics to Marc Trestman naming rotating captains to Aaron Kromer (last seen fighting a teenager over a beach chair) selling out Jay Cutler to the media to Cutler being benched for Jimmy freaking Clausen (only to have to return once Clausen was concussed) to the offseason purge to the disgusting Ray McDonald signing and subsequent release. 

And that's just the circus stuff. There's also the performance on the field, which was in a few cases historically, record-breakingly poor. (Allowing back-to-back fifty point games from your opponents for the first time since the 40's is, well, laughable.) Oh, and Lamarr Houston's celebration ACL tear.

And yet. And yet, still something pulls at me. After all of this, after all that I've written here (and trust me, I could have written a lot more) there's still something telling me that it's time.

As inexorable as the fall colors, or the winter snows, or the spring thaws, or the summer heat, it's the changing of the season. Football is back, and I'll be watching, and living, and drinking along with the fortunes of the team. 

Maybe the Bears can reward fans like me to the point that we can just enjoy it, wholeheartedly, without feeling a crisis of sports existentialism brought about by situations like this one. Just win games, please, and stop embarrassing yourselves. It doesn't matter how, goodness knows no fanbase cares about style points less than Chicago's. The formula is so simple. Win, and cut out the ridiculousness. The bar has never been lower, in my eyes. Hopefully the Bears can clear it, and they have a chance this Sunday to fly over without worrying about catching their heels.

I just hope no one gets hurt upon landing. Somebody better spot Lamarr just in case.

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1st Round (7)- Kevin White, WR, West Virginia 

After five picks, the board had set up as best as realistically possible for the Bears with the No. 7 overall pick, as USC defensive end Leonard Williams and West Virginia wide receiver were still available. In my opinion -- and, far more importantly, the opinion of many draft experts -- those were the two best talents left in the draft, and two players that would feel a huge need for the Bears.

I said a few times on Twitter leading up to the draft that Williams falling to the Bears would be an unlikely, dream scenario. The scheme-versatile Williams was considered the top prospect in the draft by most, and was expected to be selected in the top-four picks. The Bears have made it clear that they don't feel they have a clear, lockdown starter 3-4 defensive end for new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's scheme, and Williams would've been a perfect fit there.

But, Williams was finally selected by the Jets at No. 6, and we'll never know if he would've been a Chicago Bear had he lasted one more pick. It's certainly possible that they would've just gone with White anyway, seeing as how he is a potential superstar at wide receiver that the Bears can plug in to replace Brandon Marshall opposite Alshon Jeffery.

The 6'3", 215-pound White is a physical specimen with perhaps the highest upside of any wide receiver in the draft. His 4.35 40-yard dash was the third-best among wide receivers at the Combine, and his 23 bench-press reps tied for first among wide receivers at the Combine. It's not just size and speed that White brings to the table, either. He showed off terrific hands in 2014 for the Mountaineers and has rare playmaking ability. He can go up and get it, and he can take a quick pass at the line of scrimmage to the house. All of these traits are why White draws comparisons to receivers such as Julio Jones.

White's route tree is limited and he will need to expand on that for the NFL, but that's a pretty common issue for wide receivers entering the league, as many colleges don't feature the full-blown NFL passing system.

The bottom line is White's potential was too good to pass up, and at a position of need for the Bears. He had to be the pick once Williams was off the board. And when doing these grades, you can only judge based on the players available at the time of the pick. Add everything up and White was the right pick for the Bears, and a great, safe (on the surface) first draft decision for general manager Ryan Pace.

Grade: A

2nd Round (39)- Eddie Goldman, DT, Florida State

When the Bears released a depth chart (note that much could change with it in the coming months) last week, there was one thing that everyone following the team immediately noticed: The Bears only listed one player at nose tackle. And that player is a guy that will be 34 years old in August, in Jeremiah Ratliff.

That was a pretty nice hint that the Bears would look for a potential long-term nose tackle, and at least some depth, in the draft. So, the selection of Florida State defensive tackle Eddie Goldman in the second round was no surprise.

Goldman is a very large man, checking in to the Combine at 6'4", 336 pounds. He should be a nice fit as a 3-4 nose tackle and the Bears feel he may be able to handle some defensive end in their scheme as well.

Goldman's pass-rushing skills are in question, but that's certainly not uncommon for a player of his size. His main job will be to clog the line and slow down the run game on first and second downs, and he should do a good job of that.

Some draftniks had Goldman going in the first round, so the Bears got very nice value here, and at a need position.

Grade: A-

3rd Round (71)- Hroniss Grasu, C, Oregon

The Bears hadn't drafted a center since 1998, when they selected Olin Kreutz in the third round. Kreutz of course went on to be a star for the Bears, making six Pro Bowls and being named to the NFL 2000s All-Decade Team. And since retiring in 2010, the Bears haven't been able to find a quality replacement for Kreutz. Roberto Garza played decently for a while but he was steadily declining every year thanks to father time. The Bears then signed veteran center Will Montgomery this offseason, but he's no more than average and 32 years old himself.

Unlike Phil Emery, Ryan Pace realized it's time to finally address the center position and hopefully find a long term answer at the position again. Enter Hroniss Grasu.

The 6'3, 297-pound Oregon Duck started at center for all 52 games he played at the university, and even played alongside Bears right guard Kyle Long. The familiarity those two share should not be overlooked and should add an immediate comfort factor for the rookie center.

Most experts had Grasu as the second-best center in the draft and feel he can be a starter in the league rather quickly. He may not asked to be immediately with Will Montgomery in the fold, but he'll surely push the veteran for the job this camp. It is also believed that Grasu can handle guard so he'll provide the Bears with some depth there as well.

Center isn't a sexy position to pick in the third round, but if this is a long-term starter at the position, that's great value with the 71st overall pick. Whatever the case, credit Pace for noticing the Bears need an upgrade and youth at this position, something that has gone overlooked in recent years.

Grade: B

4th Round (106)- Jeremy Langford, RB, Michigan State

This was an absolutely loaded running back draft, with quality talent falling into the third, fourth, even fifth round. Given all of the value that could be found at the position in this draft, and given that Matt Forte is a free-agent next offseason (and most likely signing elsewhere given his age and demands), I wanted the Bears to grab one of these backs in the middle rounds. And they did just that with the drafting of Michigan State running back Jeremy Langford in the fourth round.

Langford is a 6'0", 208-pound back whose 4.42 40-yard dash was the highest for running backs at the Combine. The Michigan State product ran for over 1400 yards in each 2013 and 2014 for the Spartans, and combined for 40 touchdowns over those two seasons, an impressive feat in the loaded Big Ten.

What this move, and the Jacquizz Rodgers signing say- Ryan Pace and company are not sold on Ka'Deem Carey, whom Phil Emery selected in this same round just a year ago. There are question marks as to whether or not Langford can has the overall skillset to be a starting NFL running back, but he should quickly get a chance to be a key part of the Bears' rotation and immediately brings a solid third-down back skillset.

My "guy" coming into the draft was Boise State running back Jay Ajayi, but serious concerns about his knee holding up caused him to fall to the fifth round, so I can't fault the Bears for passing on him as every other team did until the Dolphins finally took a chance on him late. The Bears also passed on some other bigger names at running back in this draft, so clearly they are big fans of what Langford brings to the table in the system John Fox and Adam Gase will install.

Grade: B

5th Round (142)- Adrian Amos, S, Penn State

Arguably the best value on the board at this spot for the Bears, at a position they have been desperately looking for solutions pretty much since Mike Brown.

Amos is a rangy safety that ran a 4.37 40-yard dash at his Pro Day. The 6'0, 218-pounder was expected to be drafted in the third and fourth round as safeties with his athleticism are highly coveted in a league that is full of explosive passing attacks. Amos has had some struggles in run support, but currently has a solid NFL skillset in pass coverage and can even line up at nickel. He's a high-IQ football player so perhaps he will show improvements against the run as well.

And he should immediately be able to be a contributor on special teams, a department you are targeting in the draft's late rounds.

Grade: A

6th Round (183)- Tayo Fabuluje, OT, TCU

Easily the first thing you notice about Fabuluje is his massive size- 6'6", 353 pounds. And that size, to go with very good feet, make him a very intriguing upside prospect to grab this late in the draft.

Fabuluje is very raw, with only two years of college football under his belt, and some think he is better suited for guard rather than tackle. So, there is likely a large developmental period here and Fabuluje makes great sense as a guy to stash on the practice squad in 2015.

Going offensive line here was an interesting choice, as linebacker and cornerback are positions where the Bears are looking for long term answers as well, but they got some nice upside and value here.

Having said all that, it's hard for me to give a great grade here given that he's such a question mark and won't offer any special teams value. Not at all saying it's a bad pick and it could loo

Grade: C+ 

Bottom Line

This was a highly impressive first draft by Ryan Pace. Prior to the draft, Pace kept talking about being big on taking the best player available, and not reaching for need. This draft reflected that.

The Bears came away with good value in every single pick, with multiple picks being players expected to go in earlier rounds. And they still were able to fill some needs with those picks.

The top four picks all have good bets to be future starters, or at least key contributors. White has the potential to be superstar and was the best talent on the board at No. 7. And Amos was a terrific pick in the fifth round with the talent to potentially be a starting safety in time.

This was a great start to a rebuild that may take some time, and a nice sign of things to come from Pace in future drafts.

Overall Grade:  B+

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With draft day upon us, I decided to take a look at 40 NFL mock drafts from draftniks around the web to get a good idea of what player the experts think the Bears will select with the seventh overall pick.

This also gives us a good idea of what players the experts think will still be around when the Bears pick seventh. And that's of course as equally important as what players the team actually wants, although you can be sure in the next few days you'll hear from NFL coaches and front offices that the player selected is the one guy they wanted all along!

I also decided against including mock drafts where the Bears traded the pick for this exercise, as that just makes things extra confusing. So, let's just take a look at what the experts think the Bears could do should they hold on to the No. 7 pick...

Kevin White, WR, West Virginia (11)
Don Banks (4/30; Sports Illustrated)
Dane Brugler (4/30; CBS Sports)
Charlie Campbell (4/30; Walter Football)
Dan Durkin (4/27; 670 The Score)
Patrick Finley (4/30; Chicago Sun-Times)
Daniel Jeremiah (4/30; NFL.Com)
Dan Kadar (4/30: Mocking The Draft)
Mark Maski (4/30; Washington Post)
Bob McGinn (4/29); Milwaukee-Journal Sentinel)
Todd McShay (4/30; ESPN)
Ross Read (4/30; Bleacher Report)

The most popular pick of the mock drafts I reviewed was West Virginia wide receiver Kevin White, and that's certainly no surprise. When you add up the most likely scenarios in regards to how the board will fall in the top six picks, when you consider what the Bears needs are, and when you consider potential best players available, White checks all the boxes.

Still, it only seems about 50/50 that the 6'3", 215-pound White will be available at No. 7, but if he is, he makes plenty of sense for the Bears, especially after the Brandon Marshall trade. The team is still looking for a wide receiver opposite Alshon Jeffery, and people may say, "Eddie Royal!", but Royal is primarily a slot receiver. And putting need aside, White is considered by most to be one of the top-seven players in this draft.

If I had to put money on the most likely Bears pick at this point, I'd agree with these 11 experts. But, at the same time, we know it rarely goes as we expect in the NFL Draft, right?

Danny Shelton, DT, Washington (8)
Will Brinson (4/30; CBS Sports)
Charles Davis (4/27; NFL.Com)
Doug Farrar (4/30; Sports Illustrated)
Shaun King (4/30; Yahoo)
Geoff Mosher (4/29; CSN Philly)
NFL Draft Geek (4/29; NFL Draft Geek)
Rob Rang (4/30; CBS Sports)
Frank Schwab (4/30; Yahoo)

When the Bears released their current roster over the last few days, the most notable part of it was that there was only one nose tackle on the roster, in veteran Jeremiah Ratliff. And they're now installing the 3-4 defense under new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. One of the three guys on the defensive line in that alignment is the nose tackle. So... the fact that the Bears only feel they have one on the roster right now was pretty eye-opening, although not entirely surprising given what we knew about these players already.

Danny Shelton is clearly the best nose tackle in this draft, drawing comparisons to Vince Wilfork with his ability to clog the middle of the line at 6'2", 339 pounds. But the concern is that Shelton is only an early-down player, in a quarterbacks' league.

Shelton certainly makes sense for the Bears, but you'd probably feel better about getting him in a trade-back scenario rather than at No. 7. Either way, he makes sense as a piece to start up the new defense and you could probably do a lot worse than him with this pick.

Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama (7)
Eddie Brown (4/29; U-T San Diego)
Chris Burke (4/30; Sports Illustrated)
Nate Davis (4/29; USA Today)
Nick Klopsis (4/28; Newsday)
Pat Mayo (4/27); SportsGrid)
Matt Miller (4/30; Bleacher Report)
Pete Prisco (4/30; CBS Sports)

Most have Amari Cooper as the top wide receiver in this draft, and one of the safest picks in this draft. He is an extremely polished wide receiver as we all witnessed against elite competition in his years at Alabama.

With all that in mind, Cooper falling to No. 7 is something I wouldn't bet on. I doubt there is a team in the league that wouldn't love to have this guy. And there are teams ahead of the Bears in this draft (like the Jacksonville Jaguars and Oakland Raiders) that would especially love to have Cooper as a great weapon for their young quarterback.

If Cooper happened to be at No. 7, I think the Bears would take him, but I just don't think the scenario presents itself.

Alvin "Bud" Dupree, OLB, Kentucky (5)
Dan Bilicki (4/29); Toronto Sun)
Rich Cimini (4/30; ESPN)
Eric Edholm (4/29; Yahoo)
Peter King (4/28; MMQB)
Peter Schrager (4/29; Fox Sports)

Bud Dupree is a player that some feel could even go ahead of the Bears' pick, but others feel is too raw to confidently select this early. His potential is undeniable, but we would be looking at a classic Phil Emery type of pick here- A great athlete with outstanding upside, but far from a sure thing.

But if the Bears take Dupree, they feel good about his chances to reach his potential, and be the ideal pass-rushing outside linebacker to plug into their 3-4 defense for a long time.

Vic Beasley, OLB, Clemson (4)
Brad Biggs (4/29; Chicago Tribune)
Jason La Canfora (4/29; CBS Sports)
Bob LeGere (4/29; Daily Herald)
Steve Serby (4/29; New York Post)

Like Dupree, another tremendous pass-rushing talent at outside linebacker for a 3-4 defense. Many even have Beasley going in the top-five, so it's possible the Bears wouldn't even get the chance to decide if they want to take him.

One thing that I found very notable, though:

I feel like if you're a team with a pick in the top-seven and you haven't even spoken much with a player, that player is probably not in your plans with the pick. When we're talking later rounds, this isn't necessarily the case, as players you didn't think would last to your pick -- and thus didn't take the time to get more to know about the player--  may fall and you feel their talent is too good to pass up. But when we're talking a pick at No. 7? If you're considering a player there, you want to get to know as much about him as you can. 

Brandon Scherff, OT, Iowa (3)
Mel Kiper (4/30; ESPN)
Mark Potash (4/30; Chicago Sun-Times)
Evan Silva (4/30; Rotoworld)

Scherff is considered the best offensive lineman in this draft. Some evaluators think he is good enough to be an NFL left tackle, some think he is destined for guard.

If you're the Bears, I have a hard time seeing them make this pick unless they're confident he's a future tackle, given that they already have a young Pro Bowl guard in Kyle Long. They also have a very good left guard in Matt Slauson.

Also, top-10 is just early for a guard in general unless you're sold the guy is another Kyle Long. So, the Bears likely only make this pick if they feel Scherff can not just stay at tackle, but be a very good one as well.

Trae Waynes, CB, Michigan State (2)
Charley Casserly (4/27; NFL.Com)
Mike Mayock (4/29; NFL.Com)

Whenever Mike Mayock predicts something, I listen, but I think Waynes is a reach here at No. 7. Most feel he is a mid-to-late first round talent, and the Bears just selected a first-round cornerback in Kyle Fuller.

Cornerback is an extremely valuable position, but Waynes would seem to be a reach at No. 7. Now, if the Bears were to trade back, this is a target that makes sense.

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