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Preseason Power Rankings No. 18: Chicago Bears

Chicago Bears Introduce Marc Trestman Getty Images

After missing the playoffs in five of the last six seasons, the Bears showed Lovie Smith the door and decided to start a new era with a new head coach, Marc Trestman. Now it’s time to see how the team Trestman inherited fits with the system he plans to implement.

The good news for the Bears is that there’s abundant talent on both sides of the ball, and on special teams. There are a whole lot of Pro Bowl-caliber players on this roster.

The bad news is that the talent was assembled for a different coaching staff, and the Bears may have some growing pains under Trestman.

Our six-person PFT panel voted the Bears in the bottom half of the league, at No. 18. We explore the reasons below.

Strengths.

Say this for Lovie Smith: The guy knew how to build a good defense. Chicago’s defense was excellent last season, and although Smith and Brian Urlacher are gone, most of the personnel remains.

Cornerback Charles Tillman was one of the best defensive players in the NFL in 2012. He routinely took on the opposing team’s best wide receiver, and almost always got the better end of the matchup. It’s telling that in Calvin Johnson’s record-setting season with the Lions, two of his worst games came against the Bears, when Tillman led the way in holding Johnson to 34 and 72 yards. (Johnson averaged 133 yards a game in the other 14 games of the season.) With Tillman at cornerback, the Bears are in good shape against any wide receiver who comes their way.

The Bears’ defensive front seven is also strong. Julius Peppers is 33, but he doesn’t appear to be slowing down and is still one of the league’s top pass rushers. Chicago should be able to count on Peppers for double-digit sacks. Like Peppers, Lance Briggs will turn 33 this season but remains in fine form. Briggs started all 16 games and had another strong season in 2012.

Henry Melton has emerged as one of the league’s best defensive tackles, with six sacks last year and seven the year before. A former college running back who tips the scales at 300 pounds, Melton has a rare burst for a guy who’s big enough to play defensive tackle in the NFL, and at age 26 he’s in the prime of his career.

The Bears have a very good pair of offensive skill position players in wide receiver Brandon Marshall and running back Matt Forte, both of whom are among the best in the league at what they do. Marshall is a tough and physical receiver who has long been Jay Cutler’s favorite target, and Forte is versatile enough to be both the Bears’ No. 1 running back and their No. 2 receiver.

Weaknesses.

After Marshall, the Bears don’t have any proven commodities at wide receiver. They’d love to see last year’s second-round pick, Alshon Jeffery, become a solid No. 2 receiver. They’d also love to see Earl Bennett, who plays very well at times but also disappears at times, become a more consistent part of the passing game. But until someone steps up, No. 2 receiver has to be considered one of the Bears’ weaknesses.

Tight end has been a weakness for the Bears the last couple of years, when Kellen Davis averaged barely more than one catch a game. The arrival of Martellus Bennett should make Chicago better there, but Bennett is a long way from elite.

The Bears’ offensive line has long been a weakness, and the No. 1 priority of the offseason was shoring that up. That’s why guard Kyle Long was Chicago’s first-round draft pick, and why left tackle Jermon Bushrod was Chicago’s first priority in free agency. The biggest issue with the offensive line being a weakness has been that it has exposed Jay Cutler to injuries, and backup quarterback has been a major weakness for the Bears. That remains the case this year: If Cutler goes down, Josh McCown will step in, and that’s a significant drop-off.

Changes.

By far the biggest change is the arrival of head coach Marc Trestman, who’s been coaching the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League for the last five years. Trestman has plenty of experience on NFL coaching staffs, but he hasn’t been with an NFL team since he was on the Dolphins’ staff in 2004. It’s not often that NFL teams reach into the CFL ranks for their head coaches, and it will be fascinating to see whether Trestman — who has a reputation as an innovative offensive mind — comes in with fresh ideas that take NFL defenses off guard.

The changes to the coaching staff are also significant, particularly on defense, where Lovie Smith and his Tampa 2 disciples are giving way to Trestman’s new defensive coordinator, Mel Tucker. But Tucker and Trestman have both said that they plan to run very similar schemes to what the Bears have been running during Smith’s time with the team.

The retirement of longtime middle linebacker Brian Urlacher is a major change in the appearance of the defense, but it’s not a change that will have a huge effect on the field. Urlacher was once among the NFL’s best defensive players, but he was noticeably slower last season and didn’t have a lot left. The unfortunate thing about Urlacher’s departure is the way it happened: The Bears decided early in the offseason that they didn’t want him back, while Urlacher didn’t determine until later in the offseason that he was ready to walk away from the game. Urlacher was a great player who deserved the opportunity to say goodbye to the Bears on his own terms, and it was disappointing that it didn’t quite work out that way, as it did for Ray Lewis in Baltimore.

Camp Battles.

Replacing Urlacher at middle linebacker will fall to either D.J. Williams, the former Bronco signed in free agency, or rookie Jon Bostic, the second-round draft pick from Florida. Neither one of them is going to step right in and be the kind of player Urlacher was at his best, of course, but it’s easy to picture either player being an upgrade over the 2012 version of Urlacher.

As a first-round draft pick, Kyle Long is penciled in as a starting guard, but he’ll have to compete to earn the job. Derek Dennis, Edwin Williams and James Brown will all get an opportunity to beat out Long. Matt Slauson, who started all 16 games at guard each of the last three years for the Jets, is expected to be the other starting guard.

Prospects.

How well does Jay Cutler fit in Marc Trestman’s offense? And can Chicago’s offensive line keep Cutler healthy for 16 games? Those are the biggest questions facing the Bears this season.

Defensively, the Bears should look much like they looked last year, and that’s a very good sign. And the special teams, with punter Adam Podlesh, kicker Robbie Gould and returner Devin Hester, should be solid. There’s a lot of reason for optimism there.

But last year the strong defense and special teams weren’t enough to get the Bears into the playoffs thanks to a disappointing offense, and unless Trestman can make significant progress offensively, the Bears will probably fall just a bit short of the playoffs again this year.

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Chargers pick up option on Corey Liuget

San Diego Chargers  v Pittsburgh Steelers Getty Images

The San Diego Chargers have joined the group of teams to exercise their fifth-year options on 2011 NFL Draft selections.

According to Field Yates of ESPN.com, the Chargers have picked up their team option on defensive tackle Corey Liuget.

Liuget was the 18th overall selection of the 2011 NFL Draft. As per terms of the new collective bargaining agreement, all draft picks sign four-year contracts with first-round selections having a team option for a fifth season. For 2011 draft picks, teams have until May 3 to exercise their options for the 2015 season.

The option would pay Liuget $6.969 million in 2015, per NFLPA records.

Liuget has started every game over the last two seasons for the Chargers. Liuget had 7.0 sacks for San Diego in 2012 and 5.5 sacks in 2013.

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Jets pick up option on Muhammad Wilkerson

Jacksonville Jaguars v New York Jets Getty Images

With the deadline approaching for picking up fifth-year options for 2011 draft picks, the New York Jets have picked up their option on defensive tackle Muhammad Wilkerson.

The Jets had always intended on picking up Wilkerson’s option year. According to Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News, that decision has been officially exercised.

Wilkerson was the 30th overall selection of the 2011 NFL Draft. As per terms of the new collective bargaining agreement, all draft picks sign four-year contracts with first-round selections having a team option for a fifth season. For 2011 draft picks, teams have until May 3 to exercise their options for the 2015 season.

The option would pay Wilkerson $6.969 million in 2015.

Wilkerson racked up 10.5 sacks and 63 tackles with two forced fumbles and an interception for the Jets last season. He was named a second-team All-Pro and a Pro Bowl alternate.

Wilkerson has said he wants to be a “Jet for life” and the option year could give the two sides more time to come to terms on a long-term extension.

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Report: Cowboys to pick up option year for Tyron Smith

Dallas Cowboys v Oakland Raiders Getty Images

Dallas Cowboys left tackle Tyron Smith has blossomed into one of the premier offensive linemen in the NFL over his first three seasons in the league. Smith was selected to his first Pro Bowl last season and was also named a second-team All-Pro.

As such, the Cowboys want to make sure he’s in Dallas for the foreseeable future. According to Todd Archer of ESPNDallas.com, the Cowboys have exercised their team option on Smith for the 2015 season.

Smith was selected with the ninth overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. As per terms of the new collective bargaining agreement, all draft picks sign four-year contracts with first-round selections having a team option for a fifth season. For 2011 draft picks, teams have until May 3 to exercise their options for the 2015 season.

The option would pay Smith equal to the amount of a transition tag for offensive linemen in 2015, which is $10.039 million. The two sides could also work out a long-term extension before the option year would go into effect.

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Donald Jones turns to baseball after kidney transplant

Buffalo Bills v Houston Texans Getty Images

Former Buffalo Bills wide receiver Donald Jones was forced to retire from the NFL last August after discovering he had a kidney disease that made it impossible to continue playing football.

Now just four months after a kidney transplant, Jones is trying to make his way back onto the field in a different sport.

According to Mike Ashmore of MyCentralJersey.com, Jones is playing outfield for the Somerset Patriots of the independent Atlantic League of Professional Baseball.

After being released by the New England Patriots last July, Jones set up a workout with the Indianapolis Colts but had his blood pressure skyrocket during a stress test that ultimately convinced him he could no longer keep playing football. He was diagnosed with Berger’s Disease and required a transplant or kidney dialysis. He received a donor kidney from his father.

“It was scary, to say the least,” Jones said. “But I came to terms with everything, it was going to be what it was going to be. I was excited to get the whole thing over with and I was happy I didn’t have to do the dialysis.”

Jones was coming off his best season with the Bills in 2012. He caught 41 passes for 443 yards and four touchdowns In his three years in Buffalo, he caught 82 passes for 887 yards and six touchdowns.

Jones played baseball through high school and is currently just working out with the Somerset Patriots.

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Bengals, A.J. Green not talking about a new contract yet

Green Getty Images

By May 3, the Bengals inevitably will exercise the fifth-year option on receiver A.J. Green’s contract.  The bigger question is whether the Bengals will be extending Green’s contract by more than a year.

Per a source with knowledge of the situation, talks on an extension for Green have not yet begun.  The fourth overall pick in 2011, Green has a strong argument that he deserves the contract now that he didn’t get three years ago under a rookie wage scale aimed at preventing busts from sucking millions out of the system.

But the Bengals hold his rights for two more years, giving them no reason to break the bank prematurely.  Even in 2016, they can use the franchise tag to hold him in place while working out a long-term deal.

Before that happens, Green could boycott offseason workouts or hold out from training camp.  The former isn’t very expensive; the latter would cost $30,000 per day.  For that reason, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis is confident Green will be there.

Lewis said so during an interview at the recent league meetings in Orlando.  The clip that was televised Thursday on NBCSN’s Pro Football Talk appears below.

Still, a holdout hasn’t been ruled out.  The source tells PFT that it’s too early to tell whether that will happen, and that the topic hasn’t been discussed yet.

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Report: 49ers not planning to release Aldon Smith

Smith AP

The 49ers may not be inclined to extend linebacker Aldon Smith’s stay until 2015, but that doesn’t mean they’re done with him in 2014.

The team currently doesn’t plan to release Smith, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL Media.

It’s not a surprise.  Cutting Smith would mean he would get a second chance with another team — possibly another team in the NFC West.  Since he doesn’t have four years of service, however, Smith would be subject to waivers.

Before cutting Smith, the 49ers surely would try to trade him.  Every player with talent gets a second chance, and every coach thinks he’s the guy who can get through to a player who doesn’t get it.

As we’ve previously explained, a pair of off-field incidents falling under the Personal Conduct Policy makes Smith susceptible to a suspension even without resolution of his pending charges.  Also, the 49ers could put Smith on the non-football injury/illness list if the team believes that his alcohol issues have returned, and that he needs further treatment.

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Ravens exercise 2015 option on Jimmy Smith

Jimmy Smith AP

The Ravens have indeed exercised their right to keep cornerback Jimmy Smith under contract through 2015.

According to Field Yates of ESPN.com, the Ravens have picked up the fifth-year option on Smith, their 2011 first-round pick. Smith is now slated to make $6.898 million in 2015, according to Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun.

In March, Ravens coach John Harbaugh indicated the team would be picking up Smith’s option.

The 25-year-old Smith started all 16 games for Baltimore in 2013, defending 15 passes, recording two interceptions and notching 58 tackles. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound Smith has ideal size for the position and seems likely to sign a lucrative multi-year contract at some point, given his skill and the demand for cornerbacks.

The Ravens took Smith 27th overall in 2011. They held the No. 26 pick, but time ran out on the pick after a trade with the Bears fell through. (Then-Bears G.M. Jerry Angelo took responsibility for the mishap.) The Chiefs, who had the 27th pick, took receiver Jonathan Baldwin at No. 26.

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Which 2011 first-round picks won’t have the option exercised?

Jake+Locker+Tennessee+Titans+v+Houston+Texans+4hOYVTZ1882l Getty Images

With NFL teams commencing the process of exercising fifth-year options on 2011 first-round picks, the real question becomes which players won’t have the option exercised.

So here’s a look at the candidates for getting the Spalding Smails treatment.

Broncos linebacker Von Miller:  With a six-game suspension last year and a late-season torn ACL, the Broncos possibly would at least consider the possibility of not picking up the option for the second overall pick in 2011.  It nevertheless would be a major surprise if they don’t trigger the option.

49ers linebacker Aldon Smith:  The 49ers reportedly are “very unlikely” to exercise the option on the seventh overall pick, due to multiple off-field issues.  There’s still no downside to using it, since it doesn’t become fully guaranteed until March 2015.  If they’re thinking about trading him, Smith could fetch more in return if his new team controls his rights for two years.

Titans quarterback Jake Locker:  How’s this for an inconsistency?  Locker, the eighth overall pick in 2011, remains on track to be the starter in 2014.  But the Titans aren’t expected to pick up the option.  For the oft-injured Locker, it makes plenty of sense.  Why give an injury-only guarantee to a guy who seemingly has been only injured since he entered the league?  The option for a quarterback taken in the top 10 would by $13 million; that’s more than Locker will make in his first four years, combined.

49ers quarterback Blaine Gabbert:  The right to exercise the option was traded to San Francisco along with Gabbert’s rookie deal as the 10th overall pick.  While they could use a little leverage in their looming negotiations with Colin Kaepernick, the notion of paying Gabbert $13 million in 2015 isn’t leverage.  It’s lunacy.

Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder:  While much cheaper than Locker or Gabbert since Ponder wasn’t taken in the top 10, he’s still on the team only because his salary is low, as veteran quarterbacks go.

Lions defensive tackle Nick Fairley:  The Lions already have said that the option won’t be exercised on Fairley, in order to give him incentive to play hard in 2014.  And if Fairley needs the promise of a long-term contract to play hard, why would the Lions want to give him the security of a long-term contract?

Danny Watkins:  The 23rd overall pick in the 2011 draft was waived by the Eagles last year, and his contract went unclaimed.  With that, the ability to exercise the fifth-year option died.  He currently is a free agent.

49ers receiver Jonathan Baldwin:  Amazingly, the 49ers have three players with fifth-year options, and they’ll quite possibly exercise none of them.  Baldwin arrived via trade last year in exchange for 2012 first-round bust A.J. Jenkins.  Baldwin did nothing last year to merit consideration for a fifth year on his rookie deal.

Falcons offensive lineman Gabe Carimi:  His option evaporated after Carimi’s contract went unclaimed via waivers.  He’d been cut by the Buccaneers after being traded to Tampa by Chicago.  The Falcons signed Carimi as a free agent.

Packers tackle Derek Sherrod:  The last pick in round one from 2011 has appeared in 12 games over three seasons, with zero starts.

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Report: Texans pick up J.J. Watt’s 2015 contract option

J.J. Watt AP

Teams have until May 3 to declare whether they will extend the contracts of 2011 first-round picks through 2015.

However, the Texans didn’t wait until the first Saturday in May to pick up the 2015 option on one of the shining stars of the Class of 2011.

Via ESPN’s Field Yates, Houston has exercised the option to keep defensive lineman J.J. Watt under contract for a fifth season.

The Texans’ decision is hardly a surprise. The 25-year-old Watt is one of the game’s top defensive players, notching 217 tackles and 36.5 sacks in his first three NFL seasons.

However, the timing of the Texans’ move is a little curious, given that the club has begun its offseason training. According to PFT’s Mike Florio, the fifth-year option has an injury-only guarantee. By officially extending Watt before the deadline, the Texans are perhaps taking on a risk of a freak injury in the first phase of workouts.

Nevertheless, the Texans have moved now to secure Watt under contract for at least two more seasons. The next logical step would be signing Watt long-term — a pact that seems likely to make him one of the game’s highest paid defenders at the very least.

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New stadium deal gives Bengals the green light to host games in London

San Diego Chargers v Cincinnati Bengals Getty Images

For some NFL teams, a practical impediment exists to hosting games in London:  The stadium lease.

Some leases require all “home” games to be played in the home stadium, with no “home” games played elsewhere.  The Bengals’ lease at Paul Brown Stadium previously contained such a provision.  Now it doesn’t.

The Bengals announced a new agreement with Hamilton County that, among other things, “allows the Bengals to participate in the NFL’s International Series games.”

The team will contribute $6 million to stadium upgrades, and the venue will have new wireless Internet service, a high-definition scoreboard, a new weight room, new furniture in he Club Lounges, and an expanded locker room.  The Bengals also waived height restrictions aimed at ensuring views of the Ohio River and the Cincinnati skyline from the stadium.

The agreement flows from the county’s desire to upgrade a riverfront development known as “The Banks,” which could bring up to 2,000 General Electric jobs to the area.  It marks a shift in a hostile relationship between the team and Hamilton County executives.

“We wanted to demonstrate our interest in working together to ensure that The Banks is a viable location for this project,” Bengals president Mike Brown said in a release.  “We all know that the Cincinnati area is a great place to live and work.  Landing this project will let the nation know it as well.”

The release from the team refers to games being played abroad on a “periodic” basis, which implies that only seven regular-season games will be played in Cincinnati at least twice in the coming years.

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PFT’s 2014 NFL Draft visit / workout report is up and running

KHALIL MACK AP

As the 2014 NFL Draft approaches, we’re keeping tabs on prospect visits, workouts and meetings conducted by all 32 NFL teams. And to that end, we’ve compiled a working list of prospects linked to clubs that we’ll update until the draft begins on Thursday, May 8.

With every team talking to scores of draft-eligible players, it’s likely some workouts and/or visits haven’t made our original list. Moreover, a team won’t select many of the prospects with which it has contact before the draft.

Nevertheless, with the great interest in the draft, we offer the workout list as a resource for fans interested in how clubs are proceeding in the weeks leading up to the NFL’s annual selection meeting.

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Sheriff confirms McNabb served one day for misdemeanor DUI

Donovan McNabb AP

Former NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb spent a day in jail this week as a sentence for driving under the influence.

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio confirmed in a statement that McNabb was booked in the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office Detention facility on and was released from county jail after serving one day for a misdemeanor DUI charge.

“I have had other high profile athletes who have been incarcerated with no problems and this latest athlete follows that same pattern,” Arpaio said.

Still unexplained is how McNabb managed to be arrested in December, arraigned in January, go through pre-trial conferences in February, have change-of-plea hearings in March and spend a day in jail in April without anyone in the media hearing a thing about it until today.

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Rolando McClain reinstated from reserve/retired list

Rolando McClain, Matt Shaughnessy

Linebacker Rolando McClain, who last played in 2012 with Oakland, has been reinstated from the reserve/retired list, the NFL disclosed in its Thursday transactions.

The Ravens hold McClain’s rights. He recently had a workout with Baltimore, but he did not perform especially well, according to multiple published reports.

It remains to be seen how the Ravens will proceed with the 24-year-old McClain. The Ravens commence offseason workouts on Monday, and were McClain on the roster, he could take part in the activities.

According to a 2008 Washington Post report on Brett Favre’s reinstatement from retirement, a player, once reinstated, has 24 hours to be added to the roster, given his release or traded to another club.

McClain recorded 246 tackles in three seasons with the Raiders, who took him eighth overall in the 2010 draft. The club released him last April.

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Jaguars’ Tandon Doss arrested for disorderly conduct, not charged

Jarrad Page, Tandon Doss, Brian Rolle AP

Jaguars receiver Tandon Doss was arrested on Wednesday in Indianapolis for disorderly conduct, but he will not be charged.

An Indianapolis police report describes Doss as “out of control” during a disturbance with another man. But the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office decided not to file charges.

The Jaguars have acknowledged they are aware of the matter but made no other comment.

Doss, who grew up in Indianapolis, was a 2011 fourth-round draft pick of the Ravens and spent his first three years in the NFL in Baltimore before signing this offseason with the Jaguars.

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Report: Donovan McNabb was arrested for DUI, spent one day in jail

Green Bay Packers v Minnesota Vikings Getty Images

Former NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb was arrested for driving under the influence in January, agreed to a plea deal and has already served his sentence of one day in jail, according to TMZ.

Although the arrest is months old, it went unreported until McNabb’s mug shot was released today.

There are still no details about exactly what McNabb’s plea was, and no explanation about why the arrest took so long to become public.

McNabb did not address the matter on his NBC Sports Radio show today.

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