NFC North: Chicago Bears
Those were the headline grabbers early in free agency as far as the NFC North is concerned.
Now that the buzz over the initial wave of free agency has died down, it's a good time to assess where things stand in the black and blue division.
Over the next several days, NFC North reporters Rob Demovsky (Green Bay Packers), Ben Goessling (Minnesota Vikings), Michael Rothstein (Detroit Lions) and Michael C. Wright (Chicago Bears) will discuss the comings and goings in the division.
First, we look at the best free-agent signing:
Demovsky: Yes, Aaron Rodgers needs someone to catch his passes. But if he's not upright and healthy, it doesn't matter which receivers line up with him. That's why re-signing right tackle Bryan Bulaga was the best move the Packers – or anyone else in the division – made in free agency. Sure, bringing back Cobb was important, but the Packers have been able to develop and replace receivers over the years. It's much more difficult to find franchise tackles. Bulaga, the team's first-round pick in 2010, looks like a 10-plus year starter. What's more, the Packers developed chemistry on their offensive line (which started together in 17 of the 18 games last season), and it helped them become not only the league's highest-scoring offense but also one that could succeed via either the run or the pass. Re-signing Bulaga to a five-year, $33.75 million contract will keep the Packers' entire offensive line intact for at least another two years, when left tackle David Bakhtiari plus guards T.J. Lang and Josh Sitton will be free agents.
Goessling: In what has been a fairly quiet year for the NFC North in free agency, I'd say the best move was a team signing one of their own: The Packers got Cobb to stay for $40 million – or less than he probably could have made elsewhere – and they kept a 24-year-old receiver in tow after they'd let a couple of wideouts leave in recent years. Cobb has turned into an instrumental piece in that Packers' offense, and the decision to keep both him and Bulaga means the Packers will return all the pieces from the highest-scoring offense in the league. For a team that collapsed on the doorstep of the Super Bowl and has a 31-year-old quarterback, it's important to win now. Signing a young player at a reasonable price is an important step in that process.
Rothstein: Chicago needed to revamp its front seven, particularly as it switches from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense. Signing the versatile Pernell McPhee from Baltimore was an inspired move by the Bears, who were the most active NFC North team in free agency. McPhee might not have massive stats, but he is young and is just entering his prime. McPhee was rated as the No. 2 3-4 outside linebacker in the league last season by Pro Football Focus and was third in the league at 3-4 outside linebacker as a pass rusher. Considering the revamping going on in Chicago, he was a critical piece to land for the Bears.
Wright: McPhee deserves mention because Chicago acquiring a young, ascending talent to address a major area of need. But Cobb is easily the best free-agent acquisition in the division for a variety of reasons. First off, Cobb signed a very team-friendly deal in taking less money to stay in Green Bay on a $40 million deal. Cobb and Jordy Nelson are now signed through 2018 and Rodgers' deal runs through 2019, which means the trio should be able to continue developing chemistry over the next few years while still providing the production the staff has come to expect from them. What's especially promising for Green Bay is the fact Cobb is just 24 and hasn't even hit the sweet spot in his career where experience and athleticism intersect. Although Cobb is coming off a 91-catch 2014 season, he’s sure to eclipse those numbers at least a couple of times over the next few years.
It’s obvious the Chicago Bears learned from their brief rift with former linebacker Brian Urlacher and plan to try to avoid a similar situation in dealing with aging free agents Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman.
Urlacher became a free agent in March 2013, and when negotiations on bringing him back to Halas Hall for a 14th season broke down, the organization issued a statement announcing the sides couldn’t come to an agreement. The whole situation led to a strained relationship between the organization and star player which was later mended by team chairman George McCaskey.
If the team parts ways with Briggs and Tillman, as is widely expected, McCaskey plans to handle their departures better than the organization dealt with Urlacher.
“Anytime a player leaves the team you want to make sure that it’s handled in a respectable manner and that’s even for an undrafted rookie who’s there for three weeks of training camp,” McCaskey said during the NFL owners meetings, via Adam Jahns of the Chicago Sun-Times. “These are human beings, these are people. They’re working their butts off trying to make the team. So you want to handle it in a dignified and respectable manner.”
Two days after negotiations between Urlacher and the Bears ended, the linebacker told "The Waddle & Silvy Show" on ESPN 1000 he would have appreciated at least a phone call from the team before it sent out the news release to announce the sides had shut down talks.
Nearly a month after talks between the team and Urlacher broke down, former general manager Phil Emery said he harbored “absolutely” no regrets for how Chicago handled the failed negotiations. The Bears’ best and final offer to Urlacher was a one-year deal that maxed out at $2 million.
“It was a very straightforward process,” Emery said at that the time. “We had a very honest and open exchange between Brian and his representatives, his agents. There was no lack of clarity. There were no surprises during this period.”
Don’t expect a similar situation to play with Tillman and Briggs. Briggs visited the San Francisco 49ers on Monday, and the Bears have reportedly told the linebacker he won’t be brought back for the 2015 season.
“If somebody’s had a distinguished [career], yeah, that’s certainly with Charles and Lance, you want to be properly respectable of their accomplishments and let them know, if it works out, great, and if it doesn’t work out that, as far as we’re concerned, they’ll always be Bears,” McCaskey said.
Chicago Bears coach John Fox called it "all an open competition" Wednesday at the NFL owners meetings when asked whether there was any scenario in which he envisioned Jay Cutler competing for the starting job at quarterback.
“I would say logically if you are looking at the depth chart and you are asking me for it two weeks before we can really get anything going, I’d say he’d be first on the depth chart, yeah,” Fox said. “Obviously you’ve got to start somewhere and my experience in football and really anything is it’s not where you start the race, it’s where you finish it. We have to start the race with some kind of lineup, and we have not discussed that in depth. We have not presented it to our players in depth. I think it’s important for them to see it maybe more than you guys. I’ve had guys who were third on the depth chart that by the time we started the opener were first. I can’t tell you what’s happening. If I could I’d be at some racetrack somewhere.”
Either way, it’s clear Fox and the Bears plan on placing their bet first with Cutler, who in six seasons with the team has gone through four offensive coordinators, two head coaches and two general managers. Cutler set Chicago’s single-season record last season for completions (370) and finished with career highs in completion percentage (66.0) and passing touchdowns (28). But Cutler also led the league in turnovers, which played a role in his benching, not to mention the current climate of uncertainty regarding the quarterback.
Cutler enters the second season of a seven-year, $126.7 million contract he signed in January 2014.
Having studied Cutler thoroughly during extensive roster evaluations shortly after taking over as coach, Fox identified one of the main factors in the quarterback’s struggles from last season.
“I think maybe he got to a point where he lacked confidence. He has to build that back up, and it’s going to take time,” Fox said.
The coaching staff can help, Fox said.
“Football-wise, there are things you can do in coaching; playing defense, playing complementary football is going to be something that helps,” he said. “I liken it a little bit, and not being critical to Tony Romo. I know he’s a tremendous competitor. I thought he had one of his better seasons a year ago, and with success comes confidence. I’m not going to be critical of last year. I wasn’t here last year. I had my own problems. I know this: Unless something good happens, it’s hard to have confidence. Our job is going to be building that confidence. I’ve seen him have success; maybe not super recently, but in spurts, in sections of his career. Now, like anybody, it’s becoming more consistent with that success.”
At this point, veteran Jimmy Clausen seems to have the best chance of unseating Cutler. But such a scenario isn’t likely. Fox served as the head coach in Carolina when the Panthers selected Clausen in the second round in 2010, and the quarterback started 10 games as a rookie in leading the team to a 2-14 record, which resulted in the coach’s firing.
Clausen started one game in 2014 when former coach Marc Trestman benched Cutler and the former Notre Dame star completed 60 percent of his passes for two touchdowns and an interception to go with a passer rating of 77.0 in a Dec. 21 loss to the Detroit Lions. Fox didn’t rule out the possibility of adding another quarterback in the upcoming draft, but the team’s moves in free agency up to this point indicate the Bears will be in position to stick to new general manager Ryan Pace’s philosophy of selecting the best available player, regardless of position or need.
“Ryan has the approach, which I’m on board with, of taking the best available player,” Fox said. “We’re sitting there at No. 7. I’m not sure what could happen with that, but we’ll look at the best available player. I think quarterback is a unique position. I’ve been places where we took one just about every year, whether it was a college free agent or late in the draft, early in the draft or middle of the draft.”
Chicago Bears coach John Fox plans to implement changes to the club’s offseason conditioning program, tweaks he believes should help Alshon Jeffery as he ascends to the role of No. 1 receiver with Brandon Marshall out of the picture.
“I really liked Alshon coming out [of college],” Fox said Wednesday from the NFL owners meetings. “One of the things I’d say is we had a lot of soft-tissue injuries last year as a football team. We’ve kind of changed philosophically in the weight room. I think you’ll see we’re going to do things a lot different from offseason conditioning, the approach to how we handle that. I don’t think we had a soft-tissue injury a year ago in Denver other than one particular guy.”
In Chicago, the Bears finished up the 2014 season with 10 players on the injured reserve, with Jeffery spending most of the year battling through nagging hamstring issues. Still, Jeffery put together his second-consecutive 1,000-yard season, catching 85 passes for 1,133 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Set to enter the final season of his rookie contract, Jeffery wasn’t approached by the team’s brass about doing a contract extension.
Jeffery tied for 11th in receptions among receivers last year and tied for seventh in receiving touchdowns and receptions for gains of more than 25 yards (12).
“I think [the new conditioning approach] will help him,” Fox said. “There have been times in his career when he might have been a little bit overweight, but obviously a beast as far as size, and a guy we’re looking forward to getting to know better.”
The Chicago Bears took a measured approach after the initial big-money first wave of free agency, and the club's patience may have actually paid off Tuesday with the expected additions of defensive ends Jarvis Jenkins and Ray McDonald.
After spending approximately $31 million guaranteed to land outside linebacker Pernell McPhee, safety Antrel Rolle and receiver Eddie Royal, the Bears continued into the second wave of free agency looking to land bargains as they attempt to fill out the defense for the switch to defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's 3-4 scheme.
With plenty of options at outside linebacker, including McPhee, Jared Allen, Willie Young and Lamarr Houston, the Bears needed to add a couple of interior defenders to play defensive end. The Bears appear to have filled the void at those spots with a couple of steady performers in Jenkins and McDonald.
Jenkins played the run solidly last season at Washington, but has posted just two career sacks. Jenkins told ESPN Redskins reporter John Keim he plans "this offseason to do 100 pass rushes every day on a lineman. I have to work on it if I want to be a dominant player in this league. It's obvious my downfall [is] sacks. [Redskins coach Jay] Gruden explained it to me and said guys like you that are athletic, you're supposed to have sacks. This is a sack league. It will be the main thing I work on, to get my sacks up."
In Fangio's 3-4 scheme, that really won't be necessary, as outside linebackers are charged mostly with the responsibility of netting sacks, while defensive ends serve primarily as run defenders.
That brings us to McDonald, an acquisition sure to stir up some controversy given his recent past. The 49ers released McDonald back in December for what they called a "pattern of poor decision-making" after learning police were investigating the defensive end on suspicion of sexual assault. McDonald was never charged in that case, and the defensive end is suing the woman who accused him of the assault.
McDonald was also implicated in a domestic abuse case involving his fiancée last August, but it was announced in November he wouldn't be facing charges in that case with authorities citing insufficient evidence as the alleged victim declined to cooperate with investigators.
"I feel like what I am doing is the right thing because I know that I am not this bad person that people are making me out to be," McDonald told ESPN last week. "I've been fired from my job. I know some teams don't even want to talk to me because of this past accusation. All I am trying to do is clear my name and move on with my life."
There's a good chance that won't be easy in Chicago, at least not initially. According to a source, the Bears, internally, are bracing for the potential backlash likely to accompany the signing of McDonald. But while the accusations concerning McDonald are certainly serious, he hasn't been formally charged in either of the investigations, and according to NFL spokesman Greg Aiello, "the matter is under review" with regard to the defensive end potentially facing league discipline.
Ultimately, though, it's unlikely McDonald would have landed on Chicago's radar anyway without a strong recommendation from Fangio, the defensive end's former coordinator in San Francisco. McDonald played for Fangio from 2011 to 2014, having joined the 49ers in 2007 as a third-round pick out of Florida.
McDonald became a starter in 2011 under Fangio, and developed into a strong run-stopper capable of providing an added dimension as a pass-rusher. McDonald started 14 games for San Francisco in 2014, finishing fifth on the team in tackles. Pro Football Focus rated McDonald No. 12 among 3-4 defensive ends.
So on the surface it appears the Bears landed a couple of solid potential contributors as they look to restore the club's reputation for annually fielding one of the league's toughest defenses.
If Jenkins and McDonald pan out, along with new general manager Ryan Pace's other recent additions, the Bears could be well on their way to turning around last season's 5-11 mark without having to break the bank to make it happen.
Over the span of a decorated 13-year NFL career, former Chicago Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher forged a reputation of a player willing to do almost anything to stay on the football field.
Urlacher started all 16 regular-season games in 10 of his 13 years in Chicago, despite the taxing physical demands of being the captain of the Chicago defense from his middle linebacker position.
In a recent interview with ESPN.com's Vaughn McClure, Urlacher said he never contemplated early retirement because of long-term health concerns, a hot-button issue in the NFL in the wake of 24-year-old San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland's decision to walk away from the game after just one season.
"It did surprise me because that kid [Borland] is a really good player," Urlacher said. "But I don't think football is headed in a bad direction because a few guys ... there might be some guys that think the long-term effects outweigh the gratification you get from playing football. There's always going to be one of those guys.
"I thought about the long-term effects, but I never thought about retiring because of it. I love football too much."
Urlacher feels fortunate to have suffered only one documented concussion in 182 regular-season games from 2000-12, but understands that many other players are not so lucky. Borland cited concerns over long-term head trauma when he announced his retirement on March 16.
"I don't know [Borland's] situation. I don't know if he's had a few concussions. I had one major concussion. It's different for each guy. For me, it was never an issue because I didn't have an issue with concussions.
"My lone concussion occurred in 2003 against Denver. I was spinning off block and right when I spun, I hit Clinton Portis with my head turned sideways. I hit him and I hit the ground. That was first big one where I was like 'Whoa.' Back then, it was no big deal. You'd just go back in."
The NFL has made considerable strides in concussion treatment and awareness in recent years, however, Urlacher thinks football carries with it a certain inherent risk that players need to accept before pursuing a career in professional football.
"You know, there are a lot of things that I really enjoy doing that you can get hurt doing," Urlacher said. "Driving a car, you can get into a wreck. I love to fly. You get on an airplane and you could die, too. When you step on a plane, it's your option to step on that plane because it could crash. There's risk in everything that you do. It's up to you to measure those risks and do what you want to do.
"Obviously the risk of playing football wasn't worth it to Borland. And that's his decision, just like it's everybody else's decision to play football."
Urlacher feels strongly enough about the game's safety that he plans to allow his nine-year-old son to one day graduate from flag football to tackle football.
"As safe as they try to make the game now with monitoring practices and the collisions they have in practices, I'm not worried about it," Urlacher said. "If he wants to play tackle football, I'll encourage him to play. I think football is a great game. And if you play it the right way and tackle the right the way ... there's always a chance you can get hurt. But that's just with everything you do.
"I want to let him play flag football as long as he can and as long as he wants to. I'm not going to rush him into tackle football. I started it when I was like 12 or 13. I turned out OK. I would say about the same time for him, seventh or eighth grade."
While the Chicago Bears continue to take a cautious approach to free agency, the fact the team still needs to fill several holes prior to the 2015 season isn’t lost on coach John Fox.
“We have a lot of needs,” Fox told Chicago Tribune reporter Brad Biggs on Saturday night at the NFL owners meetings. “There are still a lot of green rectangles on a board. There are still two pools of players. There are still a lot of guys left in [secondary] free agency, which I prefer dealing with anyway; not the jump-out-in-front [signings]. When you get it going good, you don’t have to do that.”
Chicago hasn’t yet accomplished that part of it under Fox and new general manager Ryan Pace. But the club added five players in free agency who are expected to help immediately, as the Bears try to rebound in 2015 from a 5-11 campaign that led to the firings of former coach Marc Trestman and GM Phil Emery.
The Bears signed outside linebacker Pernell McPhee to a contract worth nearly $16 million guaranteed, but outside of that deal, the club has taken somewhat of a conservative approach, opting against bringing in the big-money free agents that cashed in during the early portion of free agency.
Chicago’s other two outside signings -- guard Vladimir Ducasse and long snapper Thomas Gafford -- inked one-year deals.
Despite the team’s limited activity in free agency, Fox told Biggs he’s pleased with the club’s signings.
Fox worked in Denver with Royal for one season, and called him “a veteran guy that we think is playing his best.”
The club remains in the market for a receiver after trading away Brandon Marshall to the New York Jets. If the Bears can’t add one in free agency, they could look to acquire a target in the draft, as this year’s class at the position is deep. Pace also indicated some of the younger players currently on the roster such as Marquess Wilson could see increased roles.
On the other side of the ball, Rolle should prove to be an instant upgrade at the safety position. But perhaps more importantly, he’s expected to provide locker room leadership.
“He’s a guy I coached in a couple of Pro Bowls,” Fox said. “I can’t identify leadership on our defense at this point. I’m not saying we don’t have any. I don’t know. I know this guy does have those abilities.”
A handful of free-agent signings, headlined by outside linebacker Pernell McPhee, wide receiver Eddie Royal and safety Antrel Rolle, leaves the Chicago Bears with $15,226,038 worth of salary-cap space, according to the most recent figures released by the NFLPA.
The Bears’ figure will decrease slightly when the league officially processes the one-year contract signed by veteran long-snapper Thomas Gafford on Wednesday, but as of Thursday morning, Chicago ranked No. 12 in available cap space.
The average amount of salary-cap space per team is $14,179,008, per the NFLPA.
Gafford’s addition still gives the Bears an NFL-low 58 players under contract.
McPhee’s 2015 salary-cap charge of $6.675 million is the sixth-highest on the roster, behind Jay Cutler ($16.5 million), Jared Allen ($12.5 million), Matt Forte ($9.2 million), Jermon Bushrod ($8.050 million) and Lamarr Houston ($6.999 million).
The club’s two other free-agent splashes, Royal and Rolle, will count $5.5 million and $5 million against the cap in the upcoming season.
Guard Vladimir Ducasse is scheduled to eat up a modest $665,000 worth of cap space.
NFL teams are often forced to carry a substantial amount of dead salary-cap money because of the rampant release of veteran players or high-priced free agent busts, but the only noteworthy dead money currently on the Bears’ books is courtesy of former wide receiver Brandon Marshall. Even though the Bears successfully dealt Marshall and a seventh-round draft choice to the New York Jets in exchange for a fifth-round pick, the Bears are still required to carry $5.625 million worth of dead money, the remaining balance of the $7.5 million signing bonus Marshall received in conjunction with the new contract he received on May 22, 2014.
Most significant signing: The addition of outside linebacker Pernell McPhee should give the Chicago Bears the most long-term value of the team's three signings. But in the short term, the addition of safety Antrel Rolle should be Chicago's most significant signing to date in part because of the horrid play at the position in recent years. The Bears haven't fielded a defense with consistent playmakers at safety in more than five years. So although Rolle is 32 years old, he brings a playmaking element (nine interceptions and two forced fumbles over the past two seasons), but more importantly, he provides leadership on a defense that has lost its way over the past three years. Chicago ranked 30th against the pass in 2014, and was one of just three teams to give up an average opponent passer rating of 100 or better. The defense ranked No. 30 overall in each of the past two seasons and also ranked 30th and 31st in points allowed in 2013 and 2014, respectively.
Most significant loss: The Bears traded a seventh-round pick and receiver Brandon Marshall to New York in exchange for the Jets' fifth-round pick. The move sent away perhaps Chicago's most significant weapon on offense, and instead of working to replace Marshall's production with a top-flight receiver, the team added veteran Eddie Royal, signing him to a three-year contract worth $10 million guaranteed. Over the past two seasons, Chicago's quarterbacks put up a total QBR of 70.2 with Marshall on the field and just 3.33 when he wasn't in the lineup, according to ESPN Stats & Information. So there's no doubt Marshall helped to make Chicago's quarterbacks better. Can Royal do the same? Royal possesses the ability to play opposite Alshon Jeffery as a No. 2 receiver. But it's more likely the Bears ask Royal to operate out of the slot mostly in 2015. So Chicago will definitely be in the market, whether through free agency or the draft, for a No. 2 wideout.
Biggest surprise: Given all the needs on defense, especially in the secondary, it's somewhat surprising the Bears have moved so slowly in making acquisitions. In the first week of free agency, the Bears signed McPhee, Rolle and Royal. McPhee is an ascending talent, but the Bears need to bring in more players on defense who fit that description. Chicago did attempt to sign Kansas City safety Ron Parker to pair with Rolle, but he ultimately decided to re-sign with the Chiefs. The Bears have also been in discussions with Tampa Bay linebacker Mason Foster, but the sides remained far apart on terms.
What's next? Teams all around the league seemed to be making major moves through trades or big-money acquisitions, while the Bears remained mostly quiet during the first wave of free agency. But Chicago isn't done by a long shot, and it's expected most of the team's moves will come during the second wave of free agency, where the Bears might be able to scoop up some deep discounts. The Bears need to continue adding to the defense, and could be looking to bring in at least one more safety, another cornerback and inside linebackers. New general manager Ryan Pace seems to be taking a meticulous approach toward building the 2015 Bears. So don't expect the Bears to come out of free agency labeled as winners, which is fine by Pace and new coach John Fox, as games aren't won on paper.
With options in free agency dwindling for Chicago, let's take a quick look at a few potential draft options for the Bears at receiver. Chicago owns the No. 7 overall pick of the draft.
Round 1 prospects
Amari Cooper, Alabama
2014 stats: 124 receptions, 1,727 yards, 16 touchdowns.
Why he fits: In the debate between Cooper and former West Virginia receiver Kevin White, coaches seem to prefer the former, while scouts tend to give the edge to the latter. That's primarily because coaches view players with an eye toward them helping right away, while scouts take more of a long-term perspective. Cooper (6-1, 211 pounds) ran a 4.42-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine. So he's speedy enough to provide Chicago a legitimate deep threat opposite Alshon Jeffery. Cooper's quickness allows him to gain a clean release off the line of scrimmage consistently, and he possesses a burst that allows him to separate from defensive backs. Cooper also seems to have a natural feel for the receiver position.
Quotable: "You don't want to give the defensive back any signals about what route you're going to run. Every time I run a route, I try to make it seem like I'm running a different route than I'm actually running so I can get open. I certainly want to be the best receiver, not just in this class, but overall, wherever I go, and I'm going to work hard to try to be that. I take good pride in the way I release off the line and coming out of my breaks. That's really the only two ways you can get open. I think that's probably what would separate me from someone else." -- Cooper
Kevin White, West Virginia
2014 stats: 109 receptions, 1,447 yards, 10 touchdowns.
Why he fits: White (6-3, 215 pounds) ran a 4.35-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, and flashed explosiveness with a 36 1/2-inch vertical leap. So White would give the Bears a speed element they lacked in Marshall with similar run-after-catch traits and that knack for overpowering defenders. Like Marshall, White wins most contested-ball situations, but like most receivers coming from college to the NFL, he could improve as a route runner. White fits the mold as an attacking receiver, and might be the ideal type of player to pair on the outside with Jeffery.
Quotable: "I think I put a lot of fear in defensive backs just because I block so well, and when I come off the line I'm quicker than they expect. By the time they realize it, it's already a done deal. When you talk trash, you've got to back it up. That just puts more pressure on me to back it up. I love getting in defender's heads. Once I do that, it's definitely game over. Blocking separates receivers. I feel like to have a successful offense, receivers have to block, and that's what separates me. I love to block. I love to manhandle guys. I'll continue to do that." -- White
Outside of Round 1
Nelson Agholor, Southern Cal
2014 stats: 104 receptions, 1,313 yards, 12 touchdowns.
Why he fits: Agholor (6-0, 198 pounds) appears to be very similar to former Trojans Marqise Lee and Robert Woods, and like them, he's got experience in a pro-style offense, which should ease his transition to the NFL game. Projected as a second-round pick, Agholor clocked a 4.42-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, but couldn't complete the workout after dislocating a finger on his left hand during receiving drills. Agholor runs crisp routes, and provides extra value because of his return ability. Agholor scored a USC-record four touchdowns on punt returns, but he might project in the NFL as more of a slot receiver. The Bears need a bona fide No. 2
Quotable: "I'm very different compared to a lot of guys [in the draft class]. I think a lot of these guys have a lot of traits. I'm multiple in many ways. I want to be the guy you keep in the game 25-7. If a team already has a No. 1, I want to contribute the equivalent to a No. 1 or be the No. 1. I progressed from Year 2 to Year 3. It was always about progressing, and when I left college, I look back at everything and I say, 'You know what, I never took a step back each day.' I never missed a practice. I didn't face injury. It was about progressing each day. I thought my mentality was to be on the rise. In terms of character, professional, everything I do, I want to do it the right way. I want to prepare. As a player, I want them to know that." -- Agholor
Justin Hardy, East Carolina
2014 stats: 121 receptions, 1,494 yards, 10 touchdowns.
Why he fits: Hardy (5-10, 190 pounds) lacks elite speed, having run a 4.56 time in the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, but he's quick enough off the line of scrimmage to consistently get clean releases. Like Agholor, Hardy seems to project as a slot receiver in the NFL. While his speed and measurables don't jump out at you, Hardy is a natural ball catcher capable of making explosive plays after the catch. Hardy also provides extra value in the return game as he returned punts his last three years at East Carolina. Despite Hardy's calm demeanor, he's a confident competitor, and you can't overlook his monstrous college production (387 receptions, 4,541 yards and 35 touchdowns) as the NCAA's all-time leading receiver.
Quoteable: "A lot of guys, I tried to look at what they do to be great. Growing up, Jerry Rice, you know, a great guy, kind of like me, not being that fast, but got the job done. It's been fun. Coming from no D-I offers, to walking on at ECU, earning a scholarship and getting to this spot. [I'm] trying to be the best that I can be and go from there." -- Hardy
"It depends," Marshall said Friday during a conference call with the New York media. "The new coach was brought on, and our new general manager. They don’t know us. All they can go on is what they hear, what they see, what they saw from afar. I’ve always described our relationship this way -- and it hasn’t changed -- that we’re brothers. We’re the brothers that we love each other, but also get into it. And it’s always been that way and it will never change. I love him, his family. I love his sons. And I wish him the best."
But on Dec. 8, Marshall was asked about a report on NFL Network's "NFL GameDay Morning" in which Chicago was described as grappling with buyer’s remorse regarding Cutler. Marshall mentioned all the club's issues weren’t the quarterback's fault, but also said he understands the situation and "would have buyer’s remorse, too"
In three seasons with the Bears, Marshall racked up 100-plus yards receiving in a game 15 times. Since entering the league in 2006, Marshall ranks third in receptions (773), fifth in receiving touchdowns (65), and sixth in receiving yardage (9,771).
Marshall had 279 catches for 3,524 yards and 31 touchdowns during his Chicago tenure.
Bears general manager Ryan Pace said the decision to trade Marshall came after a thorough evaluation of the club's roster.
"It’s kind of analyzing the whole roster and just looking at what’s best for the Chicago Bears and what’s best for Brandon Marshall," he said. "That was our decision going forward. He was understanding [of the move], but I like to keep a lot of those conversations internal. I think we both feel good about where we’re at right now."
Prior to finishing the season with 721 yards on 61 receptions in 2014, Marshall had put together seven consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. Marshall fought through nagging leg injuries most of last season, and finished on Injured Reserve because of fractured ribs and a punctured lung.
On top of the production dipping, Marshall participated in a couple of instances that were construed as distractions; most notably, a postgame locker room rant after a loss to the Miami Dolphins. He also challenged a Detroit Lions fan to a boxing match on Twitter, and also spent time during the work week performing as an analyst on Showtime’s "Inside the NFL."
Marshall turns 31 on March 23, and was asked whether he could maintain the production he’s churned out in recent years.
"No, I don’t feel like I’m the same guy. Absoluetly not," Marshall said. "If you’re staying the same, you’re getting worse. Every year I set the bar really high. I have high standards. I’ve heard those rumblings. What people don’t understand is a couple of years ago, I had to make a decision within myself. Everywhere I’ve been I’ve always been 'the guy.' I’ve always been the guy getting thrown 170, 180 balls. When we bring Alshon [Jeffery] down [to Florida to train] and help him take his game to the next level and he has a breakout year, now we have another 'guy.' Then you bring in Martellus Bennett. That’s another 'guy.' We had the workhorse, Matt Forte in the backfield. We had four guys who could really carry a team or an offense. We all had to make that decision to be selfless. Those targets were going to come down from 180, 190 to 150. It was going to go from 118 catches to about 90 catches."
“God, I pray that you just give me a level head,” Rolle explained Friday to WFAN in New York. “I pray that you just give me a sign to lead me in the right direction, and I’ll follow your lead.”
Rolle picked up his cell phone hours later, awakened by an email alert at 4:33 a.m.
It read: Orbitz alert: Flights to Chicago, discount fare.
The Chicago Bears announced Rolle two days later as the club’s newest acquisition in the secondary, after signing him to a three-year contract, worth $11.25 million, including $5 million guaranteed. The plan now for Rolle is to acclimate himself in Chicago as quickly as possible to prove, even at 32 years old, he can serve as a key contributor in the new Bears defense under new coordinator Vic Fangio.
“They wanted me there. They wanted me badly, everything I can bring to their organization,” Rolle said. “My skill level was still top notch, even at the age of 32. They wanted me to be a part of their ball club. From Day 1, they’ve shown the most interest out of any team.”
Rolle plans to reward Chicago’s belief in him through his play. While concerns exist regarding Rolle’s age, his track record on the field speaks to consistency, durability and leadership. Rolle signed a five-year contract worth $37.1 million with the Giants prior to the 2010 season, and participated in every game that season. In 2011, Rolle played in every game, including the four postseason contests on the way to the Giants’ Super Bowl XLVI title.
Rolle served as a team captain the past two years for the Giants, and was selected to two Pro Bowls during his tenure with the team, while earning a reputation among peers and coaches as a leader and consummate team player. During the NFL combine in February, Giants coach Tom Coughlin spoke highly of Rolle, saying, “I don't think I've ever been involved with a player who was more sincerely interested in how his team could improve. I admire that very much in him as a young man and as a leader."
Rolle expects to bring leadership to Chicago as well, but it won’t be through fiery rhetoric.
“I think you earn your leadership. I don’t plan to come in there overnight and start trying to take over things,” Rolle said. “I’ve never wanted to ever take over anything. If I lead, it’s going to be by example. If I’m a leader, it’s because my peers see me as a leader, not because I see myself as a leader. So I’m just trying to go in there, man, and just be the best safety I can be. Be the best teammate I can be, and play between those white lines, just go out there and bring everything I know; bring that University of Miami old-school mentality to that locker room.
Apparently, that’s fine by Bears coach John Fox.
In five seasons with the Giants, Rolle racked up 464 tackles and 14 interceptions to run up his grand total to 801 tackles and 26 interceptions over a 10-year career.
“Coach Fox told me, ‘I want you to go in. I want you to be yourself. I want you to let it loose the way you know how to let it loose,’” Rolle said. “That’s all I needed to hear because I’m ready to let it loose.”
“He’s a good football player,” Pace said. “Going forward, we felt this was the best for us. Quite frankly, it’s the best situation for him, too. So that’s where we’re at.”
In addition to giving up Marshall, the Bears sent a seventh-round pick to New York in exchange for the Jets’ fifth-round pick. The compensation seemed low considering Marshall produced 15 games in which he racked up 100-plus yards receiving in three seasons as a Bear.
Pace said the trade compensation from the Jets “was fair” and also explained some of the factors behind the decision.
“It’s kind of analyzing the whole roster and just looking at what’s best for the Chicago Bears and what’s best for Brandon Marshall,” he said. “That was our decision going forward. He was understanding [of the move], but I like to keep a lot of those conversations internal. I think we both feel good about where we’re at right now.”
During his brief tenure in Chicago, Marshall picked up a reputation for being a distraction by detractors for some of his minor, off-the-field transgressions such as challenging a Lions fan to a fight on Twitter and his weekly commitment as an analyst on Showtime’s “Inside the NFL” as well as speaking his mind and challenging teammates and coaches.
Pace and head coach John Fox never spoke directly about how the decision to trade Marshall might have been a play by the organization to improve locker-room chemistry. But Pace was asked how Marshall’s absence might affect the locker room.
“I’m not sure,” Pace said. “We’re building this thing moving forward. We have a lot of time, guys. Free agency is occurring as we’re speaking. We have the draft going forward as we speak. We have a lot of time to continue to build the roster, build the chemistry, and build the locker room. To speak exactly on how that changes the locker room, I’m not too sure about that.”
What is certain, however, is the team’s need to find a way to replace Marshall’s production. The Bears brought in San Diego’s Eddie Royal on Monday night for a visit at Halas Hall, and Pace said the team is looking in free agency and the upcoming draft to add receivers.
Chicago’s current roster features Alshon Jeffery at receiver along with Josh Bellamy, Marc Mariani, Josh Morgan and Marquess Wilson. The club lost out on marquee free agents such as Randall Cobb, Jeremy Maclin, Torrey Smith and Andre Johnson, as all have agreed to new deals.
“I would say the receiver position, we are looking at that. We are exploring that in free agency, in the draft,” Pace said. “There are guys, honestly, on our own roster that we could see have ascending roles. We’ll add talent to our entire roster. But, yeah, we are looking at receivers.”
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- New Chicago Bears linebacker Pernell McPhee tried his hand as personnel evaluator Tuesday during his introductory news conference when asked to give a scouting report on himself.
"I'm violent, and that's all you need, to be violent," McPhee said, laughing. "No, just a violent guy [who tries] to forget about the [last] play no matter if it's good or bad, and play with that motor and with that energy."
The new Bears regime made McPhee its first major acquisition in free agency on Monday, coming to terms with him on a five-year contract reportedly worth nearly $40 million, including $16 million in guaranteed money.
General manager Ryan Pace agreed with McPhee's self-scouting report.
"There's a couple things that stand out with him. First of all, he's disruptive. He hits the quarterback a ton," Pace said. "I think he's an ascending player. Like he said, I like the violence that he plays with. He's got length, gets off blocks, I think he's a well-rounded player, too. I think he's a productive pass-rusher, but also a steady, consistent run defender. Those are some of the things that jump out."
McPhee has started just six games over his four-year career with the Ravens. But with the team's move to a 3-4 front under new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, McPhee serves as somewhat of a building block to what's expected to be an entirely different defense than the Bears have fielded in recent years.
A fifth-round pick for the Ravens out of Mississippi State in 2011, McPhee brings versatility to Chicago's new scheme. He's produced as an end and tackle in Baltimore's 4-3 looks, while also lining up as an end when the Ravens lined up in 3-4 fronts. McPhee produced a breakout season in 2014, ranking second among all 3-4 outside linebackers, according to Pro Football Focus, with an overall grade of +26.0.
McPhee ranked No. 3 behind Justin Houston and Elvis Dumervil as a pass-rusher.
McPhee credited his rapid ascension in Baltimore to the tutelage of Dumervil and Terrell Suggs. McPhee collected a career-high 7.5 sacks in 2014, and tallied 27 tackles. McPhee also racked up 64 quarterback pressures in 2014, while hitting the quarterback on 24 occasions.
"I played with Dumervil and Sizzle -- Suggs -- [and] it was a blessing," McPhee said. "They taught me a lot about how to play with my eyes, my hands and my feet, and how to read the game. They're all vets, future Hall of Famers. They taught me a lot; how to stay humble and take care of my body. It was all a great experience."
In Chicago, the plan is to play McPhee at one of the outside linebacker spots in base situations. But when the Bears move to substitution packages, which Pace anticipated will be 60 percent of the time, McPhee will kick inside to one of the spots along the defensive line.
"He does have length," Bears coach John Fox said. "He's able to use his hands very well. He does play with body lean. He collapses the pocket. He's not what I would define as a speed rusher, but an outstanding rusher. Comparisons, I don't like doing those very often. [He's] kind of like Michael Strahan, does it with really good technique, really good hands, good leverage. He plays with good lean and he pushes the pocket very, very well."
McPhee spent last season as a backup outside linebacker behind Pro Bowlers Suggs and Dumervil, but took part in approximately half of Baltimore's snaps. McPhee joins an already interesting outside linebacker position group which will also feature Jared Allen, Willie Young and Lamarr Houston. McPhee and Houston are the only players at the position with NFL experience as outside linebackers in a 3-4 scheme.
McPhee has posted 17 career sacks.
"It's a great opportunity," McPhe said. "It ain't going to be about me. It's going to be about the other 11 guys or 10 guys that are going to be on the field with me; and the 11 on offense. That's what the focus piece is going to be. I can't even say how many sacks I'll get next year. The only thing that I can say is coach and the defensive coordinator and everybody is going to do a great job putting out how much playing time they want me to play. Yeah I hope I play more than 49 [percent of Chicago's snaps], but you know that. Whatever game plan coach comes up with, you know, we're going to roll with it, and try to be the best defense we can be."
On the surface, Royal appears to be an ideal fit for a Chicago offense that currently lacks a proven slot receiver, if he can stay healthy.
The eight-year NFL veteran remains a productive player after catching 62 passes for 778 yards and seven touchdowns last season for the San Diego Chargers.
Royal is also a talented and experienced return man, handling punt return and kickoff return duties throughout his career in San Diego (2012-14) and Denver (2008-11).
Just as appealing to the Bears is Royal’s familiarity with Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler.
In the duo’s lone year together with the Broncos, Royal, then a rookie, hauled in 91 receptions for 980 yards and five touchdowns.
In 98 career games, Royal has caught 338 balls for 3,750 yards and 25 touchdowns.
The Bears are looking to rebuild their depth at the wide receiver position after the club sent Brandon Marshall and a seventh-round pick to the New York Jets in exchange for a fifth-round choice.