ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Before the Bears boarded their charter to Denver Tuesday, Bears head coach Matt Nagy met with reporters back at Halas Hall in Lake Forest. As Nagy answered question after question about Roquan Smith finally showing up to the building that morning, you could sense an odd combination of relief, yet subtle annoyance. The nearly month-long holdout was exhausting and while it was good that it finally came to an end, the timing was only further complicating the always complicated task of shipping an entire NFL franchise west for a week’s worth of work in a different city.
But by Wednesday morning at the Broncos’ practice facility, it appeared that the lengthy distraction was finally behind both Smith and the Bears. He was on the field in pads and, finally, the discussion could move on to football.
On that note, let’s jump into this week’s 10 Bears Things:
1. Keeping Expectations Realistic
Now that Roquan Smith is signed, the attention shifts to getting him ready for the regular season opener in Green Bay on Sept. 9. From the point Smith was drafted, he was viewed (including by me) as a plug-and-play middle linebacker — a guy who could command Vic Fangio’s scheme, get everyone lined up properly, and do so while playing fast. That projection has not changed, but the timeline may have.
The Bears’ coaching staff is currently trying to figure out what kind of condition Smith is in and how far behind he is in the defensive install, a big portion of which took place in the spring, but has been taken to a different level since camp started. Nagy admitted earlier this week that missing the opener in Green Bay was starting to become a real possibility before Smith signed.
“It was probably pretty close, yeah,” Nagy said. “If it would have stretched out any further it would have been difficult. But now where we’re at, we feel like it’s realistic, but he’s got to put in the work and as do all the other players.”
Here in Denver, Smith has been eased into his first two padded practices, working with the backups. The Bears didn’t want to “over do it” this week, especially considering Smith is facing an actual opponent and not friendly teammates in his first NFL experience with pads on.
But while there are still 24 days until the opener, preseason reps are dwindling. It seems unlikely that Smith will see extended playing time Saturday night against the Broncos, which leaves just next week’s game against the Chiefs and the final preseason game against the Bills, a game you typically don’t want to see your first round pick playing in.
2. Don’t Sleep On Kwit
Complicating the situation (in a good way) is that third-year linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski has had a nice camp and is making the case that he’s worthy of being a regular NFL starter. Now, no one here is suggesting that Smith won’t win the starting job over Kwiatkoski, but there’s no doubt the rookie is going to have to go out there and fight hard to earn the majority of the playing time against the Packers on Sept. 9.
“A lot of people don’t give Nick the credit he deserves,” linebacker Danny Trevathan said. “He’s smart, he’s instinctive, he could play anywhere in this league, man. He could start anywhere. Just having him out there, there’s no lack off the defense at all. He’s out there, he’s communicating, he’s making plays. When No. 44 is out there you’re going to know it.”
The reality is that if Smith is ready to go and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio trusts him to play, he’s going to start next to Trevathan. But Kwiatkoski is the ideal backup and could even give Fangio the option to deploy a package with all three players on the field at the same time.
When I asked Trevathan about that possibility, he put his finger in front of his mouth as to playfully shoosh me, before saying: “You never know man, but we’ve got some athletes, we’ve got some dogs, we’ve got some people that hit and love this defense and fly around at LB so we’ve got a lot of people over there. I’m sure we have something.”
3. Impact of Roquan’s Holdout
Interestingly, Todd France, one of the CAA agents who represents Smith, attended Thursday’s practice in Colorado and had a long chat with Bears general manager Ryan Pace on the field before ending it was a bro-hug. And so the NFL world spins.
The longterm impact of Smith’s holdout will be interesting to follow. The CAA gained at least a little ground on protecting so-called “guaranteed” money and we’re starting to see a precedent of negotiating voided guarantees based on the length of certain suspensions. It’s something, especially for slotted rookie contracts.
“I’m proud because (Smith) made a decision and stuck with it. I’m more proud of that,” Trevathan said. “And it’s going to lead to more people doing it. It was big for him to do that. It was tough. I know he wanted to get here with his team.”
Trevathan is in an interesting spot because he’s in the middle of a veteran contract that does not contain the language that Smith received. Technically, Trevathan could have had his guarantees voided after getting suspended last year for his hit on Davante Adams, but the Bears had his back and did not go down that road. Wednesday, Trevathan was asked if he’ll seek similar language in his next contract.
“Oh, I’m going to be talking. I’m definitely going to put it in there,” Trevathan said. “Yeah, implement some stuff. Just a little fine-tuning. On the field, you got to fine-tune some things. Upstairs you gotta fine-tune some things.”
Of course, Trevathan’s situation will be much different. He isn’t scheduled to become a free agent until the age of 30, and let’s not forget the whole reason why voided guarantees exist — to give teams a way to get out of bad contracts. The more risk a player carries, the less likely he is to get some of the protection Smith ended up receiving.
4. From ‘Trend’ To ‘Problem’
I mentioned in last week’s 10 Bears Things, that the center/guard situation was worth watching closely and that’s exactly what I’ve been doing this week in Denver. Two key observations:
- Cody Whitehair continues to have shotgun snap issues.
- I haven’t seen James Daniels work at guard in about two weeks.
It sure seems like Daniels has been moved back to center, even though the Bears said he would begin his career at guard. Nagy referenced Hroniss Grasu’s latest injury as the reason why Daniels was playing center leading up to the Bengals game, but Grasu returned to practice this week and Daniels remained the No. 2 center.
I’ve maintained that Whitehair can be a very good starter at either guard or center, but if he continues to have issues snapping the ball, then you would think the door would be opening for Daniels to slide in at center — if he earns it, of course.
So what’s up with the snap issues?
“I don’t know what it is,” Whitehair told me Thursday. “It’s something I’m struggling with and something I need to get fixed here real soon.”
Whitehair is one of those players who is respected because of how much he cares about his craft and his team, so the struggles have been weighing on him.
“It’s tough because obviously if you don’t get the ball to the quarterback, the whole play is messed up,” he said. “So it’s something that I’m trying to move past and move to the next play, but it is in the back of my head and I care so much that I got to let it go.”
Nagy was quick to point out that Whitehair isn’t the only center struggling with snaps right now, and it’s true that both James Daniels and Hroniss Grasu have had a couple errant snaps this week too. But Whitehair is the incumbent starter and even he admitted that this was an issue at times last season as well.
“You want to make sure that he understands and all the centers understand that you can’t have that,” Nagy said. “The quarterback’s back there, if you’re in the shotgun, he needs to get that football coming to him and it can’t be two inches from the ground and it can’t be three feet above his head because what that does is it immediately takes him off his progression or off the handoff that he might give to the (running) back. So you want those to be darn near perfect, 98 percent of the time if not near 100.”
Interestingly, Daniels compared snapping the ball to shooting free throws.
“If you focus on it, it’s easy,” he said. “You just need to make sure you focus on it and do your same routine every single time. Because with free throws, if you don’t focus on it or you don’t do your same routine, you’re going to miss it.”
The center position will be one to watch closely Saturday night. With both Whitehair and Daniels expected to get significant playing time, both the snaps and their blocking will be in the spotlight.
5. Tight Ends Getting Noticed In Denver
When I’m on the road, I like to keep my pulse on the local sports talk radio conversation, and after the Bears’ tight ends put on a show in Wednesday’s practice, the Denver media was raving about Nagy’s revamped position group.
One sampling overheard on 104.3 The Fan here in Denver: “The tight ends, top to bottom, just destroyed the Broncos defense.”
Indeed, Trey Burton and Adam Shaheen were impressive, even as Dion Sims continued to sit out with a concussion.
“We have an awesome tight end room,” Trubisky said. “They create mismatch problems for the defense, and we’re going to try to continue to utilize that all year long … They’ve done a great job of separating. When we get a linebacker or safety on them, we feel like it’s a mismatch for this offense. We just gotta continue to take advantage. When the ball’s in the air, they have great hands, so they continue to make plays for us.”
I’ve been especially impressed with Shaheen in training camp. He appears to be getting more comfortable in his large frame. While Burton is smaller, he’s also much more fluid in his movements. Shaheen is getting there though, especially when it comes to adjusting his body while the ball is in the air. It also seems like Trubisky is trusting the young tight end to make plays, especially when the QB just needs to get the ball up in the air. The 6-6, 270-pound Shaheen is so big that he should win those 50-50 balls most of the time. In, fact they should really be considered 75-25 balls when he’s involved.
6. Eying The Bubble
As the preseason moves along, we’re starting to get a picture of which veterans could be on the bubble. Two names that immediately come to mind are center Hroniss Grasu and cornerback Marcus Cooper Sr. Grasu has been dealing with a calf injury and he’s limited in that he doesn’t really help the team much at guard. With Daniels impressing at the center position and Eric Kush able to play both guard and center, it puts Grasu in a tough spot.
Cooper, meanwhile, just needs to play better. He didn’t look good against the Bengals and was struggling with Demaryius Thomas in Wednesday’s practice. With Prince Amukamara dealing with a groin injury, Cooper will likely get a lot of playing time Saturday night and he needs to take advantage.
Tight end Dion Sims might also be worth discussing, especially with Shaheen looking so good, but Sims is still only 27 years old and $4 million of his $6 million salary for this season is already guaranteed. The concussion he is dealing with is worth watching, but the gut feeling here is that Sims is still safe.
7. Facility War
The Broncos’ outstanding facility at the UCHealth Training Center must have the Bears itching for their Halas Hall renovations to get completed. Right now the Broncos and many other teams are way ahead of the Bears when it comes to practice facilities, but that is going to change by the time the 2019 season starts.
The players got a taste of some of the renovations earlier this week when they practiced on the new fields that were just built adjacent to the Walter Payton Center. They fields feature a new building that serves as a viewing suite and contains a sand pit to aid in rehab, recovery and training.
Of course, the latest renovations make you wonder if the Bears will eventually move training camp to Lake Forest. Newer facilities like the Broncos’ UCHealth Training Center, allow them to keep their team in one place and host fans on the property. That last part will be the issue for Bears, as they would need to add more viewing areas and parking for fans. There’s a lot of land to work with and I wouldn’t be surprised if training camp is eventually moved to Halas Hall down the road.
8. Quote Of The Week
After Wednesday’s practice, Nagy was asked about Trubisky continuing to throw the ball deep instead of checking it down. The head coach’s response was significant:
“Yeah, that’s never going to stop. Not in this offense.”
9. Love From Elway
As a Hall-of-Fame player and general manager, John Elway knows a little something about the quarterback position. Thursday, he was asked about Trubisky and has this to say:
“I liked Mitch coming out. He’s a young guy that is in his second camp and I’m sure things are a little bit more clear in his second camp, and he has a good feel for having played as much as he played last year and going through his first year. I think that Mitch has got a lot of talent and has a chance to have a real successful career. They continue to make strides. It’s always hard when they put in a new offensive system that he has got to get used to, but physically he has all the tools.”
10. What To Watch For
The Bears will have a walk-through Friday before Saturday night’s game in Denver. The starters are expected to play more than they did in Cincinnati and wide receiver Allen Robinson and linebacker Danny Trevathan will play in their first game of the preseason. Nagy would not say if Roquan Smith will play, but if he does, it probably won’t be much. Next week, the Bears will attempt to simulate a regular season game-week as the Chiefs come to town.