By Robert Zeglinski
The challenges of a rebuild aren’t limited to acquiring talent and hitting on draft picks. Those players must successfully mesh with each other on either side of the ball i.e. chemistry. Then comes their actual process of development to become quality or even serviceable. With your scouting department up to par, all of this should seem simple enough if you’re Bears general manager Ryan Pace. However, one caveat that people don’t take into account is fortune.
In a league with such high prevalence of injury, you just have to hope your team can stay relatively healthy. There’s just a matter of the proverbial “bounce” of how each situation plays out. Even while he’s done a remarkable job of putting in every contingency plan, Pace’s Bears in that respect haven’t enjoyed the best of luck.
In fact, let’s go down the docket.
Your top pass rusher and former high-value free agent signing, Pernell McPhee, had surgery on a knee in the offseason. This was a nagging issue that hindered the second half of McPhee’s 2015 season. As fate would have it, McPhee is still recovering and didn’t practice at all during training camp in Bourbonnais. The Bears have not given a timetable for his return putting much of the beginning of the season for him in doubt.
Luckily, the Bears have plenty of depth on the defensive front seven and especially outside linebacker in Willie Young, Lamarr Houston, and Sam Acho. But this team is demonstratively better with their dynamic playmaking force McPhee in the fold. It’s fine in a sense if this is something McPhee has to manage for the rest of his career as long as he’s playing at a high level. The Bears just aren’t sure what McPhee they’re going to get and that changes a lot of plans defensively.
Your star receiver, Alshon Jeffery, is yet again having hamstring issues. Of course, the team isn’t necessarily happy about his health. As has been well documented, Jeffery is on a franchise tag and playing for a new contract that would behoove to prove his durability. Beyond financial issues, the Bears certainly can’t afford one of their top pass targets to miss significant time again like many of theirs did last season. Jeffery not being able to consistently produce and actually get onto the field makes circumstances a lot more difficult for others like de facto rookie receiver Kevin White, tight end Zach Miller, and of course Jay Cutler who had his own rotating cast of depth receivers last season.
Given the Bears’ early luck, it’s only ironic that Miller himself is already involved in the concussion protocol along with slot receiver Eddie Royal. Neither of the two have fully practiced in over a week.
The Bears don’t want to endure the same circus, but the human body has to cooperate.
Finally, of the major storylines and injuries that Pace hasn’t been able to foresee despite his quality drafting and moves in free agency are just how his offensive line has been absolutely ravaged.
Whether it’s depth retiring early and quite unexpectedly like tackle Nate Chandler and guard Manny Ramirez or the recently season-ending torn ACL of the promising second-year center, Hroniss Grasu, the Bears front line or now lack thereof is being tested early. You can’t put fault on players for having second thoughts about continuing to play football in the cases of Chandler and Ramirez. People are complex after all. Depending on who you talk to, unless Soldier Field’s grass quality is completely Pace’s burden, Grasu’s torn ACL at this past Saturday’s ‘Family Fest’ was also just an unfortunate slip-up.
Still, after a position group that looked like it had plenty of depth and young talent in mini-camp in spring, the Bears find themselves probably one injury away from the edge of complete disaster. Ted Larsen, a quality backup from Arizona, steps into the fold at center and he still has plenty of help. The entire starting group of Charles Leno, Cody Whitehair, Larsen, Kyle Long, and Bobbie Massie can prove to be a quality offensive line but that’s not the question.
With Grasu’s injury and all of these early retirements, the Bears trusted depth doesn’t extend past their starters. In advance of Thursday’s preseason opener against the Broncos, there’s no doubt Pace is already trying to build more safety nets in free agency or a trade. Even then, this group is rail thin, and it might derail all hopes for the upcoming season.
Head coach John Fox loves to wax poetically about inserting the “next man up” once someone goes down which is admirable and a kind of comfort for Pace that his coach can help anyone step in. But next man up implies literally what it says. The person stepping in lieu of injury was a backup, meaning a lesser quality player and in some cases, as the Bears may experience on the offensive line, not even NFL caliber. In some respects, this is the reality for every team at intermittent points in the season but some are better equipped to handle it than others.
Despite every failsafe implemented, the Bears in the second year of Pace’s rebuild, are not a team that can withstand this onslaught like top tier organizations in New England or Pittsburgh. There just simply isn’t enough talent to go around. Most rebuilds take an approximate three drafts and offseason free agency classes, and that’s if the majority of those players acquired stay healthy. The Bears can’t say either step has happened yet. So, for now, they hold their breath for what could still prove to be a promising season. They just better be patient should things fall through until they can really fill their depth chart.
Fox commented on Grasu’s injury but the sentiment could be applied to the entire organization: “It’s a setback. Sometimes those are setups for better things. We’ll see what they are.”
Indeed, time will only tell what is in store for these early-injury stricken Bears.
Bears vs. Broncos: 3 things to watch
With the Bears journey in Bourbonnais concluded, we now enter the preseason where we can better gauge a lot of preseason battles. The Bears begin with the Broncos at Soldier Field and as the starters will only play a series or two, there’s potential for a lot of guys to make a name. Let’s take a look at things to watch.
- The ongoing safety battle: As has been mentioned in this space, Adrian Amos is completely locked in at one safety spot. Thursday we’ll finally get to see in game action who can start to separate themselves in order to play beside him. Deon Bush and Harold Jones-Quartey have both had quality camps showcasing their skillset. We’ll see how they handle the depth offensive players available to Denver.
- Offensive line questions: Since we probably won’t get a definitive look at the starting group other than limited time, now would be the first chance for relative unknowns like center Cornelius Edison or tackle Jason Weaver to buy the Bears’ trust should they not acquire anyone before game time. This is a position group stretched that could really use a diamond in the rough.
- Second running back battle: While the Bears are likely to stick with a committee anyway, it seems that Jeremy Langford will be the definitive number one. The only question is how the carries divvy up behind him in an intriguing battle between Ka’Deem Carey, Jordan Howard, and veteran tailback Jacquizz Rodgers. The former have proven to be straight-line excellent downhill runners and the latter has explosiveness and versatility catching passes out of the backfield. Whoever showcases better on Thursday night could begin to impress for a larger role.
The Bears play the Broncos Thursday, 7 p.m., on FOX.