INDIANAPOLIS — While the NFL Combine serves as a testing ground for NFL Draft prospects, it is also where the foundation is built for a busy month of free agency. Many teams are still negotiating with their own free agents and deciding whether or not to use their franchise tag.
With the Bears’ roster changing almost daily because of a number of notable cuts — including two more announced Wednesday — Bears general manager Ryan Pace and head coach Matt Nagy had plenty of talk about with reporters in Indianapolis. Here’s everything you need to know from a busy first day at the NFL Combine:
1. The Kyle Fuller situation is very fluid. My understanding is that there continues to be mutual interest in Fuller remaining with the Bears, but there’s still work to be done to come to an agreement in the next few weeks. Pace described the dialogue between the team and Fuller’s agency as “pretty aggressive.”
“Obviously we like Kyle and he had a good season and we’re happy with the way he’s progressed but those are things that are on the table, we’re still evaluating the process, we have some time,” Pace said Wednesday.
The Bears have until 3 p.m. CT Tuesday to place the franchise tag on Fuller and, according to a source, the tag is still a real possibility. Ideally a contract would be worked out before Tuesday’s deadline, but if not, the Bears could use the tag to ensure Fuller remains a Bear in 2018 while still working towards the goal of agreeing to a longterm deal, which both sides would prefer.
Fuller would make somewhere around $15 million in 2018 under the franchise tag, while a longterm deal could put him somewhere in the ballpark of $10 million per year. For reference, $10 million would put him just outside the top 10 cornerbacks in the NFL in per year averages. Based on his 2017 season, that seems fair, but the Bears must weigh Fuller’s entire four-year career and project future production, which isn’t easy.
Thus, it’s a complicated situation and negotiations are ongoing, but unlike with Alshon Jeffery last year, there is motivation on both sides to get something done.
2. The Mike Glennon era will officially end on March 14. Pace confirmed that Glennon will be released at the start of the new league year, parting with a total of $18.5 million of the Bears’ money but leaving behind the rest of the $45 million contract he signed last March. Glennon will still count $4.5 million against the cap in 2018, but releasing him saves the Bears $11.5 million in cap space.
Fittingly, it was on the first day of last year’s NFL Combine that I first got wind of the Bears’ serious interest in Glennon and even wrote that “some team is going to overpay for Mike Glennon.” In writing that, I cited a source that expected Glennon to see somewhere around $8 million per year. That information turned out to be both right and wrong. It was right because that was about what the Buccaneers were offering Glennon to stay in Tampa and no one expected a team to pay much more than that. It was wrong because the Bears actually did pay much more than that.
Pace has maintained a logical stance that can be defended to a point. While moving on from Jay Cutler, he was determined to fix the Bears’ quarterback situation and wanted to take two big shots — one in free agency and one in the draft — with the idea that at least one would work out.
“We were going to be aggressive at that position,” Pace said Wednesday. “We were going to take swings at that position and be aggressive at the most important position, really, in sports … What stands out, as I look back, was Mitch’s acceleration, too. So, it was kind of two-fold. I can sit back now and be happy that we have a guy that we feel good about; a young quarterback that we want to build around.”
Indeed, the process appears to have worked. Glennon was a disaster, but Mitchell Trubisky — while far from a finished product — looks like a quarterback to build around. Glennon’s contract did not hold the Bears back from signing anyone else and it will not hurt the Bears in 2018.
On the other hand, while the process was good, the evaluation of Glennon was obviously bad. And it’s fair to question Pace’s market evaluation going forward given Glennon’s inflated contract.
At least the story this year is who the Bears’ backup quarterback is going to be and not the starter.
3. Now that new coach Matt Nagy has had time to watch all the tape of Trubisky’s rookie season, it was interesting to hear his evaluation of the quarterback Wednesday:
“I think what you could see is just some of the trust in his throws. He has a strong arm so we all know that, but being able to trust it. What happens naturally is the game slows down for you the more and more experience you get. So that’s a benefit that he has going into this next year with us getting him. He has game experience and he is not someone that is coming from the classroom. Just trusting every throw that he makes you can see from where he started to where he finished, that was a big growth.”
While the original plan did not include Trubisky playing 12 games as a rookie, the Bears probably wouldn’t have it any other way now. Nagy inherits a young quarterback with plenty of live experience to build on. And it’s my understanding that Trubisky has been obsessively working on his throwing mechanics and footwork this offseason, even working out at Northwestern’s football facilities at times.
4. Somewhat buried in a 23 minute press conference Wednesday was a significant comment about Cody Whitehair. Pace was asked which position he expects the third-year offensive lineman to play in 2018 and this was the GM’s response:
“The good thing about Cody is his position flexibility gives us some flexibility as we go through this player acquisition period. So we’ll go through free agency, we’ll go through the draft, we’ll see how the dust settles, but once that player acquisition period is over, I do think it’s important for him to kind of settle in at one spot. But right now we have some flexibility with that.”
Translation? Pace feels like Whitehair can play either guard or center at a high level, but he would be better off sticking at one position instead of switching week-to-week because of injuries to other players. That means the Bears are in the market for both guards and centers in the free agency and the draft and the outcome of their acquisitions will decide which position Whitehair focuses on going forward.
5. Willie Young was released Wednesday. That means the only outside linebackers currently under contract are Leonard Floyd, Isaiah Irving and Howard Jones. In my mind, that makes the pass rush the No. 1 priority right now.
6. It also means that Floyd is the unquestioned primary pass rusher going forward, unless Pace pulls off an unexpected trade or drafts North Carolina State’s Bradley Chubb at No. 8. There are really no free agents that you would consider to be more promising than Floyd right now.
Of course, Floyd has to stay healthy. His body held up better in his second season, but a fluky “friendly-fire” knee injury ended his season in Week 11.
“He’s added strength,” Pace said. “He’s added size which I think is going to help as he matures as an NFL player. His rehab couldn’t be going better. Just the way he’s attacking that. We feel really good about the progress he’s making.”
Pace added that Floyd should be ready for the team’s offseason program, which begins April 2.
7. While the Bears’ front office and defensive coaching staff has already been through three NFL Combines together, Matt Nagy and most of his offensive coaches will be going through a different experience this week. For Nagy, his prospect interview load will double as he will now be part of the defensive interviews too. That means instead of interviewing 30 prospects this week, he’ll talk to 60.
Meanwhile, offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich has never even been to the NFL Combine before. Having coached in the college ranks until now, he’s never had to make the late February trip to Indianapolis.
But having Helfrich and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand — who was hired away from Notre Dame — gives Pace and Nagy a unique perspective because they’ve coached or coached against many of this year’s draft prospects.
“You got two guys that know the college world,” Nagy said. “And so I’m crazy if I don’t use their knowledge. There’s gonna be times where I’m elbowing them and asking them for some hints here or there on these guys. and then again with a guy like Charles London, our running backs coach, here’s a guy who was at Penn State with Coach (Bill) O’Brien. And so he’s been in that college world. So for me, I’m going to use them as resources, take everything that they say seriously. That’s a benefit that we have on our staff.”
8. One of the more exciting aspects of the Nagy hire was what it might mean for running back Tarik Cohen, especially after seeing how Tyreek Hill was used in Kansas City.
“No. 1, size-wise, you see that and you say, ok, they’re pretty similar, right? And then you have the speed and shiftiness and the moves, everything that they do,” Nagy said. “They’re similar in the fact that you can move them around and do different things. As you see on tape, the one thing if you go back and look at simple numbers, you’re gonna see that Cohen can run the ball a little bit more from the backfield. Not that Tyreek can’t. They’re different. I don’t think it’s fair to compare them, but I do understand why people compare them, and for me, I’m very excited to be able to coach both of them, and look forward to working with Cohen.”
9. Nagy also hasn’t been shy about his intent to be aggressive as a coach. He was asked about Eagles head coach Doug Pedersen’s aggressiveness, especially on fourth down, and with a giant smile on his face, Nagy simply replied: “I like it. I like it.”
Yes, the John Fox days are definitely over.
10. Finally, we’ll end on a general note about the Combine, which you should remember: As you watch NFL Network’s coverage of the on-field drills this weekend, just remember that the medicals and interviews matter a lot more. The testing really just validates what scouts have already noted from the prospects’ tape or it makes them go back and look at something they may have missed. At this point, the on-field evaluations are nearly complete and teams want to get to know these prospects personally to evaluate their football character and their medical charts. As a result, many players will be taken off draft boards completely.