NFC North: Chicago Bears
In his latest mock draft, ESPN NFL Draft Analyst Mel Kiper Jr. projects the 6-foot-1, 198 pound Desir will be selected in the second round by the Philadelphia Eagles with the 54th overall pick. The Bears currently own the 51st overall selection.
A relative unknown after spending two years at Washburn, followed by the two seasons at Lindenwood, Desir finished his college career with 25 total interceptions and 52 pass breakups en route to being named a Division II All-American three times.
Desir participated in the East-West Shrine game, Senior Bowl, and was invited to the NFL combine in February.
With Tillman back on a one-year deal, the Bears are believed to be leaning towards drafting a cornerback with a larger frame in the event Tillman leaves the organization after 2014. Since the club already has money and years locked up in undersized 5-foot-8 cornerback Tim Jennings, the Bears need to find a young cornerback big enough to one day matchup with the taller wide receivers in the NFC North, especially Detroit’s Calvin Johnson.
In addition to Barrett and the Bears, four other NFL teams were present at Desir’s Pro Day on March 20.
ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr.’s fourth 2014 NFL mock draft is out on ESPN Insider today, and his choices through the first two rounds definitely reflect the team’s intentions to orchestrate a renaissance on defense.
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For the Chicago Bears, the significant weakness, according to Hornsby, is the safety position.
Horsby writes: “It would be far from unfair to say the worst position group in football last year was the Bears' collection of safeties. Both regular starters were listed in the worst five of our 86 ranked players at the position. Major Wright and Chris Conte combined to give up more than 1,000 yards in the air, and if anything, were worse as run defenders. Both missed more than 10 tackles in that phase alone, and were both in the top 10 for missed tackles overall.”
Obviously, the Bears tried to upgrade the safety position in free agency by acquiring Ryan Mundy, M.D. Jennings, and Danny McCray. But at this point, those players appear to be depth signings, capable of starting games in a pinch. The club needs to raise the talent level, especially now that Conte might end up missing some training camp coming off a shoulder surgery.
Though it’s unclear whether the Bears will address safety immediately with the No. 14 pick, it’s pretty much guaranteed that at some point in the draft the team will take one, possibly even two.
By Hornsby’s rationale, that could be the difference in the Bears earning their first trip to the playoffs since the 2010 season.
While the Bears do currently have second-year tailback/return man Michael Ford slotted behind two-time Pro Bowler Matt Forte on the depth chart, the team could use more depth and competition at the position.
That help could arrive next month if the Bears select a running back somewhere between the fourth and sixth rounds of the upcoming NFL draft, a reasonable target area given the priority in the early rounds will likely be safety, cornerback, defensive tackle and inside linebacker, in no particular order.
One backfield prospect to keep tabs on is former Wisconsin running back James White, who led all rushers with 11 carries for 62 yards and one touchdown at the 2014 Senior Bowl.
The Bears recently traveled to Wisconsin's campus in Madison to put White through a private pre-draft workout, according to a source with direct knowledge of the situation.
Although listed at 5-foot-9, 204 pounds, White finished his four-year career at Wisconsin as the Badgers' No. 4 all-time leading rusher with 4,015 yards and ranks No. 3 in school history with 45 rushing touchdowns.
White ran for 1,444 yards and 13 touchdowns and caught 39 passes for 300 yards and two scores for Wisconsin last season. He also returned kickoffs his first two years in Madison.
Keep in mind, the Bears require a versatile running back that is capable of not only picking up yards on the ground if called upon, but also a player that can catch the ball out of the backfield. Utilizing the tailback in the passing game is a key component of Marc Trestman's offense, and one of Forte's greatest strengths since entering the league in 2008.
In addition to White, there should be an ample supply of running backs for the Bears to choose from in the later rounds if the organization decides to fill that need via the draft.
Other names to consider are Alabama State's Isaiah Crowell, Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas (the Bears reportedly hosted Thomas on a top-30 pre-draft visit at Halas Hall), Tennessee's Rajion Neal, Stanford's Tyler Gaffney, Louisville's Senorise Perry, Arizona State's Marion Grice and Florida State's James Wilder, Jr., among others.
Grice suffered a lower leg injury last year and had to wait until last week to work out in front of scouts at his personal Pro Bowl. Representatives from 17 NFL teams were in attendance. The Bears were not present, but the 6-foot, 207 pound Grice did catch 91 passes out of the backfield for the Sun Devils over the last two seasons.
The Bears also worked out a handful of veteran free agent running backs last week at Halas Hall.
Weems was expected to be released if he declined the salary reduction.
Weems joined the Bears on a three-year deal worth $4.25 million in 2012 that included a $1.5 million bonus.
But when the Bears proposed the salary reduction, it was believed the club wanted Weems' deal to be similar to the contract signed in March by receiver Domenik Hixon. Hixon signed a one-year deal worth $730,000 that included $100,000 in roster bonus provided the receiver is active on game days, and Weems' new base salary for 2014 is the same.
A seven-year veteran, Weems contributed 13 tackles on special teams last season and caught one pass for an 8-yard gain. Weems was named to the Pro Bowl in 2010 as a member of the Atlanta Falcons.
Weems will compete against Terrance Toliver, Josh Bellamy, Hixon and Chris Williams for a dual role as receiver and special-teams contributor.
The club also asked Earl Bennett to take his second pay cut since 2013 but the receiver declined, leading to the Bears to release him on March 18.
ESPNChicago.com's Jeff Dickerson contributed to this report.
ESPN.com's Todd McShay revealed his fourth 2014 mock draft on ESPN Insider today, with this one covering the first two rounds, and his choices for the Bears certainly make lots of sense.
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Hester made that apparent Wednesday with a couple of posts on his Twitter account.
To all my Bears fans I never wanted to leave the Bears, the organization decided to go another route with me. The things I did in Chicago— Devin Hester (@D_Hest23) April 9, 2014
probably would never happen again and I always wanted to retire as a Bears pic.twitter.com/YbrOa1XxmE— Devin Hester (@D_Hest23) April 9, 2014
Hester is correct that there’s a good chance his exploits in Chicago won’t ever be duplicated, but he shouldn’t dismiss the possibility of eventually retiring as a Bear. From the looks of everything, the sides parted on good terms. When the Bears announced they wouldn’t re-sign Hester, general manager Phil Emery put out a complimentary statement, thanking the return man for his contributions over the years.
One team source even said that “Devin holds a very special place for me. He is loved and well-respected by everybody. This is one of the harsh realities of the business aspect of the NFL.”
“For the past eight seasons we have been honored to have Devin Hester as a part of our organization,” Emery said in a statement. “While Devin has redefined the pinnacle standard of the return position in the NFL, the memories and contributions he has given us cannot be measured by stats or numbers. Not only is Devin a special player, he is also an exceptional person. He is a great teammate, husband and father. Devin represented the organization off the field as well as he did on it. When his career is over, he will always be a welcome member of the Bears family. We thank him for his dedication and wish his family the best.”
In the 2013 season, Hester averaged 27.6 yards per kickoff return and 14.2 yards per punt return, and he is the NFL’s all-time leader in punt return touchdowns (13) and punt/kick return TDs (18). In all, Hester has produced 20 return TDs, which is an NFL record.
That’s the scenario Mannelly laid out to reporters before being honored as the Bears’ 2013 Ed Block Courage Award winner at a luncheon held at Maryville Academy in suburban Des Plaines, Ill., an event attended by team matriarch Virginia McCaskey.
The only member of the 1998 draft class that is still playing with their original team, Mannelly is almost three months into a four-to-six month rehabilitation process following offseason hip surgery.
Mannelly is scheduled to fly to California Tuesday night to continue his rehab work at EXOS in San Diego -- he is no longer under contract with the Bears and cannot use the facilities at Halas Hall -- but the veteran long snapper is undecided about his future.
"As athletes you always think you can play forever and I’ve been lucky to play for a long time," Mannelly said. "But I really want to listen to my body and see what happens. You always want to play forever. Your heart wants to play forever. Your mind wants to play forever. But we'll see.
"I would feel bad if I didn’t give it everything I had and [slacked] in the offseason. I’m not going to do that. I truly want to find out. I want to put myself in a position where I get sore again and feel hurt every day and see how much I enjoy it and how I bounce back the next morning.”
The Bears are expected to offer Mannelly a one-year contract if he decides to continue for another season, although a drop-dead date has not been set for Mannelly to make a final decision.
“We haven’t really set anything in stone for that,” Mannelly said. “I have some dates in my mind that I want to set to reach certain plateaus and goals to get ready for the season. I’ll leave those dates to me but we will see.”
If Mannelly’s recovery goes according to plan, he could theoretically return to the field when the Bears hold their organized team activities in late May and early June. But the Bears had to protect themselves at the position and agreed to terms on a three-year deal with former CFL long snapper Chad Rempel on Monday.
“It’s a smart move,” Mannelly said. “Phil Emery should do that. I’ll be 39 this year and I don’t know if I’m going to be back. They need to take care of their roster and that’s the most important thing.”
The Ed Block Courage Award is given out annually to one player on all 32 NFL teams who best exemplifies a commitment to sportsmanship and courage and serves as an inspiration in the locker room. Teammates vote for the award. Ed Block Courage Award winners symbolize professionalism, great strength and dedication, and are considered role models in the community.
Past Bears recipients of the Ed Block Courage Award include: Nick Roach (2012), Brian Urlacher (2011), Anthony Adams (2010), Israel Idonije (2009) and Charles Tillman (2008).
The Ed Block Courage Award Foundation promotes the prevention of child abuse by raising awareness and assisting agencies that provide for the care and treatment of abused children.
So while the workload won't lighten as the Bears prepare for the NFL draft and the April 22 start of the offseason program, they've unwittingly utilized a core motto of former NFL coach Dennis Green: Plan your work and work your plan. That has led to the Bears signing 30 players since the final week of December, a group that includes 17 returners, 10 unrestricted free agents and three street free agents to drastically improve -- at least on paper -- one of the NFL's worst defenses of 2013.
"I think we'll slow down a tad," Bears general manager Phil Emery said on March 31. "But we have a lot of work to do. We have some positions we want to make more competitive. The draft's around the corner."
Not to diminish the work to be done over the next few weeks, but Chicago's activity up to this point should make things easier moving forward. Headed into the offseason, the Bears needed to address a defensive line that played a major role in 2013 in the defense allowing 5.34 yards per rushing attempt (the league average was 4.10), and did so by signing Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston, Willie Young, and Israel Idonije, in addition to bringing back Jeremiah Ratliff and Nate Collins.
The club also re-signed starting corners Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman, while adding to the safety position by acquiring M.D. Jennings, Danny McCray and Ryan Mundy.
So is the defense better now than it was in 2013?
"The obvious answer to that would be we're healthier [than in 2013] because nobody's hurt," Emery said. "Also, I think we've added some guys at key points in their career. Jared adds experience, production, leadership. Somebody like Lamarr and Willie add some youth, speed and [physicality]. Really excited about Jeremiah Ratliff this year. He's excited about playing. He wants to finish here. He added so much the last few weeks [of 2013] in terms of leadership; unbelievably mentally tough player. So yeah, I think the collective group, we've gotten stronger and we're headed in the right direction as far as we want to establish as a defensive football team."
Given the financial commitments to Houston, Allen and Young -- all defensive ends -- it'll be interesting to see how defensive coordinator Mel Tucker finds ways to get them on the field at the same time. Allen is the bona fide starter at right end, and Houston will play on the left side. But it's likely the Bears will take advantage of Houston's versatility and kick him inside to defensive tackle on passing downs while playing Young opposite Allen at end.
Even without the benefit of the upcoming draft, Chicago's defensive line appears to be a more dynamic group than it was in 2013.
"It's up to our coaches to find ways to get them all on the field at the same time or at different times or different personnel groupings or groupings against personnel," Emery said.
Depending on the direction the Bears take in May in the draft, that task could become more difficult for Tucker. Despite the Bears adding Jennings, McCray and Mundy in free agency, the club could stand to acquire another safety in the draft capable of competing for a starting job; especially with the possibility Chris Conte might miss time at camp after undergoing shoulder surgery.
But the club might see more value in using its first-round pick on one of the talented interior defensive line prospects such as Pittsburgh's Aaron Donald or Florida State's Timmy Jernigan, as picking a safety at No. 14 might be a little too high for the team's tastes. Surely, the Bears will address safety in the first three rounds, in addition to adding depth at some point at corner and at linebacker.
Emery declined to say whether the signing of Allen or all the work done to revamp the defensive line will change the club's draft plans -- only that "it's always been about getting the best players possible to continue to build our team towards winning championships. To do that, you have to have high-quality players and players that can make plays. We talked at the end of the season about having more playmakers on our team."
The Bears certainly added some. In the process, they made the possibility of a defensive renaissance similar to what was experienced on the other side of the ball in 2013 a potentially easier undertaking.
They've planned their work and are working their plan.
UPDATE: Freeman worked out for the club, but the Bears do not plan to sign him, according to a source familiar with the decision.
The Bears are in the market for a reserve quarterback after Josh McCown signed a two-year deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in free agency. The club brought back veteran Jordan Palmer on a one-year contract on March 9, but general manager Phil Emery told reporters at a recent news conference the Bears would investigate the available free-agent class of quarterbacks.
Freeman entered the NFL in 2009 as a first-round draft choice of the Bucs (No. 17 overall). The 6-foot-6 Freeman started 56 games over his first four seasons in Tampa, throwing a career-high 27 touchdowns in 2012. But Freeman’s best year occurred in 2010 when he posted a 95.9 quarterback rating plus 25 touchdown passes and just six interceptions.
However, Freeman fell out of favor with the Bucs and former head coach Greg Schiano and was released on Oct. 3, 2013. Freeman eventually signed with the Minnesota Vikings but started only one game, going 20-of-53 for 190 yards, zero touchdowns and one interception.
Weber signed with the Denver Broncos as an undrafted rookie free agent out of the University of Minnesota in 2011. He also spent time on the Bucs' practice squad.
Mulligan has made 24 starts since entering the NFL in 2009. He played for the New England Patriots last year after previous stops with the Rams and Jets.
In other news, the Bears agreed terms on a three-year deal with former CFL long-snapper Chad Rempel; veteran long-snapper Patrick Mannelly continues to recover from offseason hip surgery.
The first day of the club's program is April 22, but organized team activities won't begin until May 27.
Here's how it breaks down:
OTA workouts: May 27-28, May 30, June 2-3, June 9-12.
Mandatory minicamp: June 17-19.
None of the workouts listed above will be open to the public. The club hasn't yet announced the start of training camp in Bourbonnais, Ill., but that typically takes place near the end of July at Olivet Nazarene University.
The setback comes at a difficult time for Conte, who after a subpar 2013 campaign, finds himself in the position where he’ll have to compete to keep his starting job next season. Though it’s easy to point to Conte’s struggles last season and say the Bears might be better off going a different direction, as of right now, he’s the only truly proven commodity at the safety position.
Yes, he played badly in 2013.
Even after the shoulder surgery, I expect Conte to wind up as one of Chicago’s starting safeties. Why? He’s arguably the secondary’s most gifted player in terms of raw physical talent coming off a bad 2013 season and going into a contract year.
“He knows he’s got to get better,” Bears coach Marc Trestman said back in Feb. at the NFL combine. “He’s working in any way he can at this point in time, working out, and training to get himself started. I think he knows he didn’t play as well as he could play. He’s moving forward, which is a good thing.”
Obviously, the shoulder should set Conte back significantly enough to land him on the physically unable to perform list at the start of camp. That, in turn, would make it more difficult for Conte to crack the starting lineup this season, which is disappointing because he’s the type of player that cares deeply about his craft and how he’s perceived by fans, the media, and most importantly, coaches and teammates.
Besides that, nobody wants to be a liability; especially Conte.
Making the situation more difficult for the Bears is the current roster. The Bears signed four safeties since free agency started in Ryan Mundy, M.D. Jennings, and Danny McCray in addition to re-signing veteran Craig Steltz. Mundy and Jennings have extensive experience as starters. But in five years with 14 career starts, including nine in 2013 with the New York Giants, Mundy has intercepted just two passes. Jennings, meanwhile, started the past 26 games for the Green Bay Packers over the past two seasons. Yet in three NFL seasons, Jennings has picked off only one pass.
Remember, in what was a bad 2013 season for Conte, he picked off as many passes as Mundy and Jennings combined over their careers. Conte finished last season with seven pass breakups. Combined, Jennings and Mundy have broken up 13 passes.
So it's almost a lock the Bears will draft a safety in May.
As we’ve said before, Conte appeared to be an ascending player headed into last season, and what transpired with him was somewhat puzzling because the expectation was he’d take the next step, which might have put him into the conversation about some of the better players in the league at his position.
“Chris knows he has to come in and compete to start,” Bears general manager Phil Emery said at the combine. “My vision for him is that he does compete and win it. I’d love to be talking to him about an extension. So let’s see what he does.”
The first step now for Conte, however, is rehabilitation.
So, similar to the way the club retooled the offense going into 2013, the Bears plan to work diligently on the defense, with the draft most likely focusing on cornerback, defensive tackle, safety and perhaps even linebacker additions.
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ESPN NFL draft Insider Todd McShay rates Bucannon as the third best safety in the 2014 draft class. Mel Kiper Jr. ranks Bucannon fifth on his list of the top-10 safeties in the draft.
Bucannon earned First-Team All-American honors in 2013 when he recorded 78 tackles, three forced fumbles and a career-high six interceptions. The 6-foot-1, 215 pound safety finished his career at WSU with 15 picks and contributed on defense all four years in college.
Bucannon has the reputation of being a nasty, physical player that delivers big hits from the safety spot. He reportedly had a strong week of practice leading up the Senior Bowl in January.
The Bears are expected to draft a safety next month despite signing several players at the position in free agency.
But only Ryan Mundy appears to be in the driver’s seat to winning a start job in training camp. The rest of the veteran players under contract will be forced to win their roster spots, meaning that a rookie could theoretically step in and start Week 1 if the club feels he can be a difference-maker.
The Bears are likely to take a closer look at several of the top safeties in the draft class in the coming weeks.
Teams are allowed 30 pre-draft visits to their facilities.
Former Bears general manager Jerry Angelo, who initiated the move, told The Game 87.7 FM on Wednesday that he’d "absolutely" do the deal all over again because, “You’ll never see a situation like that ever come about again. It never did before, and it certainly won’t (in the future)."
Most likely, Angelo is correct.
“You don’t let a quarterback in his prime who went to a Pro Bowl, where the arrow is going up, out of the building,” Angelo said. “There were some circumstances mostly due to egos that created that. So you seize the moment. There were a lot of teams in line trying to trade for Jay, and if the Bears didn’t sign Jay, I said this: 'There would be four or five teams standing at his doorstep waiting to sign him.'”
The Bears surrendered two first-round picks, a third-round selection, and their starting quarterback in Kyle Orton at the time in a trade on Apr. 2, 2009 that many thought could reverse Chicago’s fortunes, given its need for a bona fide signal caller. But several circumstances have conspired to prevent Cutler from leading the Bears to a Super Bowl. We’ll get into those later, but let’s first look a little more deeply into the trade.
With the first-round picks the Broncos acquired, they traded one in the 2010 draft to San Francisco, which selected offensive tackle Anthony Davis No. 11 overall. Denver used the other in 2009 to acquire defensive end Robert Ayers. Denver traded the third-round pick acquired from the Bears to Pittsburgh, which snatched up receiver Mike Wallace.
Ultimately, Denver traded away two of the three picks received from the Bears and eventually parlayed those into the acquisitions of receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, who recently joined the New York Jets via free agency.
The Bears, meanwhile, used the Denver’s fifth-round pick in 2009 to select receiver Johnny Knox, who made the Pro Bowl as a rookie return specialist.
Since the trade, Cutler has led the Bears to the playoffs just once over five seasons, and the Broncos have advanced to the postseason three times, and appeared in Super Bowl XLVIII. ESPNChicago.com colleague Jeff Dickerson made a salient point during a Jan. 31 Four Downs feature when mentioning that “when a team surrenders two first-round picks, a third-rounder and its starting quarterback to acquire a supposed franchise quarterback, and then reaches the postseason just one time in the five years after the deal from a team that ends up reaching the playoffs three times and playing in the Super Bowl over the exact same time period, the winner is obvious: the second team. Spin it any way you want, the Broncos crushed the Bears on that trade five years ago.”
Maybe they did, but it’s still worth mentioning some of the challenges Cutler has faced throughout his tenure in Chicago. The man who made the trade, Angelo, was fired by the club, and former coach Lovie Smith suffered the same fate last offseason. Further chipping away at any sense of stability for Cutler is the fact he’s played for four different offensive coordinators -- and four different offenses -- in five years with the Bears.
And after four years of horrid protection (Cutler has played only one full 16-game season since joining Chicago), a lack of offensive weaponry, and outdated schemes, it appears new general manager Phil Emery has finally fixed those issues. Cutler almost immediately responded with his best year as a pro, which in turn led the Bears to signing him to a seven-year extension.
Here’s what ESPNChicago.com colleague Jon Greenberg wrote about the trade back on Jan. 31: “The Bears traded picks for a franchise quarterback, and that is what they have in Cutler. It hasn't been easy, but after a few stops and starts, it looks like Cutler is finally poised to live up to the expectations brought about with that trade. If he had been traded to a team with big receivers and an offensive-minded coaching staff, this wouldn't even be a question. It's a testament to the Broncos that they wisely used the picks to get Super Bowl contributors in Ayers and (through trades) Thomas and Decker. When you trade a star to get draft picks, that's how it should work, a win-win for both sides. But the real key, of course, is Peyton Manning being available. Otherwise, this isn't even a debate.”
Both Dickerson and Greenberg make strong points, and on the surface, it certainly appears Denver came out the winner in the trade. But my thought is that even after five years, it’s absolutely fair to reserve complete judgment until after the 2014 season, with Cutler in the second year of a real offensive system, surrounded by competent weapons and strong protection.
If Cutler falters, then Denver won big in the trade. If he shines, depending on how bright, perhaps we might be able to one day call it a draw.
“The position speaks for itself. It’s the value of what (Cutler) does,” Angelo explained. “He’s very, very talented. We all know that. The Bears have won a lot of games with Jay. If Jay stays healthy, particularly in this kind of an offense with the weapons he has, I think the sky’s the limit.”