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Preseason Power Rankings No. 12: Chicago Bears

Alshon Jeffery, Brandon Marshall AP

The 2013 Bears scored the second-most points in franchise history (445). Only the 1985 Bears tallied more in regular season play, putting up 456 in their bulldozing of all non-Dan Marino-led competition in a 15-1 season.

But for all of their skill on offense, the 2013 Bears were overmatched on defense, surrendering 478 points, 57 points more than any previous Chicago club had given up.

Long before the Packers’ Randall Cobb sprinted through the Chicago secondary en route to the division-clinching touchdown in the regular season finale, the Bears’ defense was broken. Chicago surrendered at least 28 points in half of its games, including 54 to Philadelphia, 45 to Washington, 42 to St. Louis and 40 to Detroit. No team allowed more yards per play than the Bears, and no team was worse against the run.

In the offseason, the Bears set out to bolster that “D,” signing two of the best available defensive ends (Lamarr Houston, Jared Allen) and drafting defensive players with four of their first five picks. On offense, the Bears tried to build continuity. They re-committed to quarterback Jay Cutler, signing him to a seven-year contract worth up to $126.7 million in January. In May, they signed wide receiver Brandon Marshall to a four-year deal worth as much as $40 million.

These were logical moves for Chicago. For once, it was the offense didn’t need much work. Now, the focus turns to whether the defense can provide more resistance in head coach Marc Trestman’s second season on the job.

Strengths.

The Bears’ 2014 offense could be one of the best the franchise has ever fielded. Marshall (100 catches, 1,295 yards, 12 TDs in 2013) and fellow starting wideout Alshon Jeffery (89-1,421-7) were Pro Bowlers a season ago, as were tailback Matt Forte (1,933 combined rushing-receiving yards) and right guard Kyle Long.

Cutler — now in sixth season in Chicago — appears to have taken well to Trestman’s scheme. The strong-armed Cutler connected on 63.1 percent of his throws a season ago, his best completion percentage in six years. He’s quite capable of being the first Bears quarterback to make a Pro Bowl since Jim McMahon 29 years ago.

If Cutler gets an all-star nod, he’ll be aided by strength of his pass catching corps. Marshall and Jeffery form an outstanding tandem. Forte is one of the game’s best receivers out of the backfield. Tight end Martellus Bennett is solid, too.

In Trestman’s inaugural campaign, the Bears’ passing attempts rose nearly 20 percent, but total sacks were down more than 30 percent. Moreover, the club’s completion percentage was up more than five percent. In short, the 2013 Bears threw it more and threw it better — and their quarterbacks hit the ground less. That’s testament to Trestman’s scheme, but it also reflects well on the offensive line, which the club overhauled last year, drafting Long and right tackle Jordan Mills and signing left tackle Jermon Bushrod and left guard Matt Slauson.

The Bears can only hope their offseason D-line investment will pay similar dividends. And Allen, Houston and ex-Lions end Willie Young should strengthen a defense that got just 20 sacks from its front four a season ago.

Finally, in Robbie Gould, the Bears have one of the NFL’s most reliable kickers. He hit 26-of-29 field goals in 2013, including 9-of-11 from 40 yards and beyond.

Weaknesses.

Even with an upgraded defensive line, the Bears’ defense looms a major concern. The top player in the LB corps, Lance Briggs, will be 34 in November. Shea McClellin, the Bears’ 2012 first-round pick, could get reps at strong-side and middle linebacker in an attempt to jump-start his career. More is also needed from second-year pro Jon Bostic, whether at middle or outside linebacker.

The Bears’ secondary also looks shaky. Per Pro Football Focus grades, the club had two of the four worst starting safeties in 2013 (SS Major Wright, FS Chris Conte). Wright departed in free agency, and Conte comes off shoulder surgery. The Bears added four veterans and a draft pick at safety, which at least gives them some options as they try to craft a workable solution on the back end.

The Bears’ cornerback play should also be monitored. The club added some much-needed youth and depth in the draft, taking Kyle Fuller in Round One. Fuller, veterans Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman figure as the top three corners. If the 33-year-old Tillman stays healthy and returns to form, and if Fuller is a quick study, the Bears should be just fine at this key position. But if Tillman misses time, and if Fuller isn’t quite ready for prime time, the Bears could have a problem.

The worries don’t stop there. The Bears’ special teams are quite unsettled entering training camp. The club will have a new punter, holder, long-snapper, punt returner and kickoff returner. And backup quarterback could be a trouble spot after the departure of Josh McCown. Veterans Jimmy Clausen and Jordan Palmer and sixth-round rookie David Fales will vie to back up Cutler. Clausen and Palmer have generally struggled against NFL competition, but Trestman is masterful with quarterbacks.

Changes.

The defensive depth chart got a makeover. The Bears released defensive end Julius Peppers and didn’t bring back defensive tackle Henry Melton, defensive end Corey Wootton or linebacker James Anderson. The Bears’ most expensive free agent signings — Houston and Allen — are defensive ends, a nod to the premium that ready-made pass rushers command. To bolster the defensive tackle depth, the Bears turned to the draft, selecting Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton in the second and third rounds, respectively.

The Bears took a value shopping approach at safety. Free agent additions Ryan Mundy, M.D. Jennings, Danny McCray and Adrian Wilson are all slated to make less than $1 million in salary this season, per NFLPA records.

On offense, the changes were reserved to backup spots. McCown left to be the Buccaneers’ starter, while tailback Michael Bush and Earl Bennett were released. Rookie Ka’Deem Carey could help replace Bush, while former Washington wideout Josh Morgan was signed to bolster the WR depth.

The Bears underwent several major shakeups in the kicking game. Long-time star returner Devin Hester signed with Atlanta. Punter Adam Podlesh was released, and the club spent a draft pick on a potential replacement (Pat O’Donnell, Round Six). Then, late in the offseason, 16-year long-snapper Patrick Mannelly retired, adding another layer of uncertainty to the special teams.

Camp battles.

Here are the positions and players to watch:

— Safety: Ex-Giant Mundy might have the edge at strong safety, but Wilson is a wild card if he has something left after missing the 2013 season with an Achilles injury. Rookie Vereen is the biggest threat to the incumbent Conte at free safety.

— Cornerback: The progress of Fuller must be monitored. There are plenty of snaps to be had in this secondary if he’s up to it.

— Defensive tackle: Can Ferguson or Sutton push starters Jay Ratliff and Stephen Paea? If not, can the rookies at least prove capable rotation players?

— Linebacker: Will Bostic, McClellin and second-year outside linebacker Khaseem Greene step up their play? The Bears didn’t draft a linebacker and added only veteran backup Jordan Senn in free agency.

— Wide receiver: Morgan and second-year pro Marquess Wilson appear the favorites to replace Bennett as the third receiver.

— Running back: Carey and second-year pro Michael Ford will compete for the little work that won’t go to Forte, a true three-down back.

— Quarterback: Palmer, Clausen and Fales will compete for no more than two reserve roles. The question is, which of this trio most quickly applies Trestman’s lessons?

— Returner: Eric Weems is the most experienced option in the competition to return kickoffs and punts.

— Punter: O’Donnell will try to hold off veteran Tress Way.

— Long-snapper: First-year pro Brandon Hartson and CFL veteran Chad Rempel will battle it out.

Prospects.

The Bears must hang tough early. Six of their first nine games are on the road, including trips to visit the 49ers (Week Two), Falcons (Week Six), Patriots (Week Eight) and Packers (Week 10).

If Chicago can get through that nine-pack in decent order, there’s a real chance to close with gusto. From November 16 through December 21, the Bears play five home games and take just one road trip — Detroit on Thanksgiving Day. The Bears end their season at Minnesota — no picnic, yes, but not the worst draw ever.

It all looks fairly cut-and-dried with the Bears. If their defense is better, and if their offense hums along, they are serious contenders for a playoff spot. But if the defense remains a sieve, and if the offense regresses, they are vulnerable.

The Bears aren’t the youngest of teams. Tillman and Briggs don’t have many NFL years left. Cutler and Marshall aren’t kids, either, and Forte is approaching 2,000 career touches. There ought to be a real sense of urgency to get into the playoffs with an offense this talented. As Bears observers with any sense of history would tell you, scoring points traditionally hasn’t been a Chicago strength.

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Raiders cut Tyvon Branch

Tyvon Branch, Benson Mayowa AP

The Raiders have officially let go of one of their homegrown defensive starters.

The club announced the release of safety Tyvon Branch on Tuesday. His impending departure was first reported last week by Jason La Canfora of CBS.

Branch was due $5.5 million in salary in 2015, according to the NFLPA.

An eight-year pro from Connecticut, Branch has played his entire career with the Raiders, who drafted him in the fourth round of the 2008 draft. His market could be tied to whether he can convince clubs that any durability concerns are a thing of the past. He does not turn 29 until December, which could play in his favor.

Branch started the 2014 season on a tear, notching 30 tackles in his first three games. However, a broken foot suffered in the Raiders’ Week Three loss at New England ended his season. The previous year, Branch had been limited to just two games with a broken leg.

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Eagles will cut Trent Cole

Trent Cole AP

Trent Cole is on the way out of Philadelphia.

The Eagles had been hoping to get Cole to take a pay cut, but that hasn’t happened. Now Cole is expected to be released within the next 24 hours, according to Adam Caplan of ESPN.

Cole is a good pass rusher who has 14.5 sacks in the last two seasons, but with his cap number scheduled to be $11.6 million this season, it’s no surprise that the Eagles felt like that was more than they could justify spending.

Eagles coach Chip Kelly, who has been given full control of all personnel decisions, clearly wants to get rid of the aging and expensive veterans on the roster. Todd Herremans and Cary Williams have all been sent packing, and now Cole is on the way out as well.

Kelly is clearing plenty of cap space. He may have plans to make a splash when free agency begins next week.

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Report: Greg Hardy to meet with league on Wednesday

Greg Hardy AP

Last week, the NFL said that defensive end Greg Hardy can’t be reinstated to active duty because he hasn’t been disciplined under the league’s personal conduct policy and therefore can’t be reinstated from a suspension.

That’s true, but it’s not quite the entire story. Hardy remains on the commissioner’s exempt list while the league looks into last year’s arrest on domestic violence charges, however, and would like to have that rectified with free agency starting on March 10.

Joseph Person of the Charlotte Observer reports that Hardy will have a meeting with the league in New York on Wednesday in an effort to do that. While the Panthers have reportedly made the decision to move on without Hardy, there will surely be other teams interested in his services and a clear idea of his availability will just as surely impact the offers they make to secure his services.

A judge found Hardy guilty last July, but Hardy appealed and the case against him was dismissed when his accuser failed to appear for a jury trial last month. The NFL requested court files from the bench trial as part of their own investigation, but were rebuffed and they would need to get the transcript of the trial directly from Hardy’s attorney.

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Cam Newton was on stage moments before gunfire at private party

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Panthers quarterback Cam Newton’s no stranger to near-misses lately.

But after suffering two broken bones in his back in a car wreck in downtown Charlotte late last season, he was close to another potential tragedy over the weekend.

According to WSOC in Charlotte, Newton was on stage in a downtown nightclub moments before shots were fired Saturday night.

Newton was at the nightclub Label (and was photographed with Young Jeezy) moments before gunfire rang out during a party which coincided with the CIAA basketball tournament.

Newton was on stage during the private party, but quickly ducked for cover when the shots inside the club were heard.

Two people suffered non-life-threatening injuries in the shooting, and no arrests have been made.

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Toronto Argonauts sign ex-Bengals RB Bernard Scott

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A former Bengals and Ravens running back is headed to the Canadian Football League.

The Toronto Argonauts have signed Bernard Scott, a five-year NFL veteran. The club announced the move on Tuesday.

The 30-year-old Scott rushed for 1,059 yards and five touchdowns on 249 carries in his stints with the Bengals (2009-2012) and Ravens (2013).

Scott is one of four running backs currently listed on Toronto’s roster, with former Texans back Steve Slaton another notable name in the backfield.

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Tom Johnson looking for 3 or 4 years after 6.5 sacks for Vikings

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In defensive tackle Tom Johnson’s first three NFL seasons, he picked up five sacks while playing a rotational role on the Saints defensive line.

Johnson signed with the Vikings last offseason and Minnesota was rewarded with a more productive effort in the pass rush. Johnson had 6.5 sacks in 444 defensive snaps for the Vikings and now he’s looking to get rewarded with a long-term deal. Johnson’s agent Bardia Ghahremani told Chris Tomasson of the Pioneer Press what the impending free agent is looking for in his next contract.

“Tom knows what he is and the value he brings to the table,” Ghahremani said. “We’re not looking for another, ‘Come in for another one-year deal.’ We want to find him a home for the rest of his career, a three- or four-year deal in the right situation and right system … If the Vikings make a fair offer, absolutely I would say the Vikings are his first choice.”

Johnson saw time in the Arena League and CFL before making the Saints and he turns 31 in August, which may make it hard for him to find a contract of the desired length. He was also arrested on disorderly conduct charges last fall and rejected a plea deal in December, which may be a factor for teams considering signing him. There’s a court date scheduled for March 30 on that matter.

Even with those caveats, Johnson’s strong season as a pass rusher should position him for a bump from last year’s $645,000 base salary whether he’s in Minnesota or elsewhere.

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DeMarco Murray may give the Cowboys a small hometown discount

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The Cowboys don’t necessarily have to top every other team’s offer if they want to keep soon-to-be free agent running back DeMarco Murray.

In fact, as long as the Cowboys come close to what other teams are offering, Murray will stay in Dallas, according to Ed Werder of ESPN.

In other words, Murray is willing to give the Cowboys a hometown discount. But it would only be a small hometown discount: If some other team is offering significantly more money, Murray will jump. If other teams’ offers are only a little more than the Cowboys’ offer, that’s when Murray would decide to stay in Dallas.

It’s unclear how much money Murray can command in free agency, as the running back position has been seriously devalued in recent years. But Murray is the reigning Offensive Player of the Year in the NFL, and all it takes is one team willing to break the bank for him.

If some team will break the bank, Murray will go. But if the best offer gets is only a little better than the offer the Cowboys make, then Murray will stay put.

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Report: Ravens ask Lardarius Webb to take pay cut

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There’s been talk about the Ravens approaching defensive tackle Haloti Ngata about a pay cut and it appears he’s not the only member of the defense finding himself in that position.

Ian Rapoport of NFL Media reports that the team has asked cornerback Lardarius Webb to slash his salary before the start of the 2015 season. Webb is set to make $8 million in the fourth year of a six-year contract he signed with the team in 2012 and carries a $12 million cap charge.

Per Rapoport, it’s unclear what the Ravens will do if Webb doesn’t agree. These cases tend to be pay cut or get cut, but it may not be the case this time.

Complicating things for the Ravens a bit is that they don’t get a great deal of relief from cutting Webb. Doing it outright would save them $2 million while designating him as a post-June 1 cut would mean waiting for the additional cap room until the top replacement options in free agency are off the board.

Webb missed three of the first four games last season with a back injury, but was healthy the rest of the way. That was unusual for a Ravens corner in 2014, although Webb’s play wasn’t at a high enough level that a pay cut request comes as a great surprise.

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Report: Giants considering a run at Ndamukong Suh

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When defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said in December that his agent will choose his next team, I assumed Suh meant his football agent, Jimmy Sexton.  If that’s the case, Sexton likely will select on Suh’s behalf the offer that entails the most money, since the football agent gets paid based on how much money a football player makes playing football.

But what if the agent to whom Suh was referring isn’t his football agent but Suh’s marketing agent, Jay Z?  In that case, the marketing agent would be less concerned about football-related revenue and more concerned about off-field earning opportunities, since the marketing agent gets paid based on how much money the player makes away from playing football.

If it’s the latter, a large market like Jay Z’s hometown of New York makes a lot of sense.  Coincidentally (or not), Ralph Vacchiano of the New York Daily News reports that the Giants are considering making a run at Suh.

It would make a ton of sense from a football standpoint, since the Giants won their two championships since 2007 based on the strength of the pass rush — with an emphasis (especially against the Patriots) on creating pressure up the middle of the line of scrimmage.  Ultimately, however, the Giants will have to compete with teams that view Suh as a player who can spark a Reggie White-style transformation of a franchise, making an irrelevant or long-suffering franchise suddenly interesting and potentially competitive.

Without question, Suh is the most significant defensive free agent since White picked the Packers in 1993.  Former Packers G.M. Ron Wolf recently told PFT Live that White chose Green Bay because of the money the Packers offered, notwithstanding White’s claims of divine intervention.  For Suh, the size of the football contract must be compared to the magnitude of the non-football cash possibilities, along with the kind of notoriety that will knock Alex Rodriguez from the back pages of the tabloids.

Whether it’s practical or not, the addition of the Giants to the pursuit of Suh makes a fascinating situation even more intriguing.

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Jets keeping season ticket prices level in 2015

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The Jets took a nosedive in 2014, but their season ticket prices are holding level.

The team announced that they won’t be changing the cost of attending a Jets game for the 2015 season after raising prices last year. The team will expand the use of variable pricing, but tickets for non-club seats to the game will still cost between $50 and $162.50.

“After considering many factors, we determined to keep season ticket prices unchanged for the 2015 season,” team president Neil Glat said, via the Associated Press.

In an email to season ticket holders, owner Woody Johnson said he wants MetLife Stadium “to be a fearsome place to play.” The Jets’ home slate for 2015 consists of their AFC East rivals, Tennessee, Jacksonville, Cleveland, Philadelphia and Washington. If the 2015 season plays out anything like last year for the Jets and most of their opponents, fearsome might not prove to be the right word for the slate.

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Four official candidates and counting on NFLPA ballot

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With two days to go until the window closes for securing sufficient nominations to land on the ballot for NFLPA executive director, three challengers to DeMaurice Smith has qualified for placement on the official ballot.  Others may soon join them.

As PFT previously reported, Sean Gilbert and Andrew Smith secured the requisite three nominations from voting player representatives to obtain a spot in the election.  PFT has confirmed that John Stufflebeam has obtained the three nominations as well.

Anyone else interested in running for the position (including declared candidates Sean Morey and James Acho) have until 11:59 p.m. ET on Thursday, March 5 to arrange the sufficient nominations.

Ultimately, the candidate who obtains on March 15 the votes of at least 17 player representatives will get the job.  Those who make it to the final ballot will have an opportunity to make their cases to the folks who’ll be doing the voting.

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Ryan Tannehill on Mike Wallace: I’m excited to see what this year holds for us

Mike Wallace, Ryan Tannehill AP

The Dolphins held onto tight end Charles Clay via the transition tag, but they’ve been taking the scalpel to other members of the receiving corps.

Wide receivers Brian Hartline and Brandon Gibson are both gone and the team hasn’t said what they plan to do about Mike Wallace, who will count $12.1 million against the cap after a year that ended with him on the bench after a spat with the coaching staff. That unhappiness with role or prominence in the offense has been a persistent storyline through Wallace’s two years in Miami with talk often roaming to his relationship with quarterback Ryan Tannehill.

Tannehill said Tuesday that he has no idea what the Dolphins will do with Wallace, but said he had a “great” conversation with the receiver recently that left him looking forward to a third year with the wideout.

“We’ve done it in the past, and the more time we spend together the more the relationship will grow. I’m excited to see what this year holds for us,” Tannehill said, via the Palm Beach Post. “Mike’s a talented player. We’ve all seen what he can do and the element he adds to our offense. Like I said, if he comes back, we’re going to make it work with him, and let him be the playmaker he is.”

Reports out of Miami last week were that Wallace wasn’t willing to take a pay cut, although there’s been no action or comment from the team in any direction.

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Cole Beasley signs four-year deal with Cowboys

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The Cowboys have reached agreement on a multi-year deal with one of their wide receivers.

No, not that one.

It’s Cole Beasley who has signed his name to a new contract with the team. Beasley was set to become a restricted free agent this offseason, but the team has gone further than that to secure his services.

According to multiple reports, Beasley has agreed to a four-year, $13.6 million deal with $7 million guaranteed. Incentives can push the total money in the deal up another $1.5 million and Beasley will reportedly get a $4 million signing bonus.

Beasley had 37 catches for 420 yards and four touchdowns this season with 21 catches and all the scores coming as Dallas went 5-1 down the stretch. He had seven more catches in the playoffs and should continue to be a frequent presence in the slot alongside Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams next season.

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Marc Trestman’s Bears locker room experiment is over

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A lot of the things that made Marc Trestman an interesting/admirable human being might have not been conducive to winning football games.

But such that the locker room seating chart is one of those things, the Bears are going back to a more traditional way of doing business.

The team’s official website noted that the locker room at Halas Hall was reconfigured, and players will again sit and dress next to players from their same position groups.

Because most people tend to gravitate toward people with whom we share traits, a locker room can become a place bordering on segregated, in more ways than one. Trestman tried to shake that up, to make a receiver sit next to a lineman or a cornerback next to a kicker in hopes of fostering a greater bond of brotherhood. Or something. Who knows. It seemed like sort of a hippie social-engineering experiment, and those are usually better ideas on paper. Or anyplace other than a football locker room, really.

If there was any bad reaction to it, it probably had more to do with inertia than anything else, as not many people enjoy moving their stuff around. Does it help to sit next to guys who do the same job as you? Who knows.

Now, the Bears’ biggest challenge might be finding a quarterback who’s willing to sit next to Jay Cutler.

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Reports: With free agency nearing, Byron Maxwell changes agents

Byron Maxwell AP

The player widely regarded as the top cornerback in free agency has reportedly changed agents just before he can begin to start officially talking contract with other clubs.

Seahawks cornerback Byron Maxwell has parted ways with agent Jason Chayut, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Tuesday. Jeff McLane of the Philadelphia Inquirer also reported Maxwell was changing agents.

Per NFLPA regulations, Maxwell cannot hire an agent until this weekend, ESPN reported.

Teams can begin to negotiate with free agents on Friday, making the timing of the change less-than-optimal for Maxwell, who is PFT’s 16th-ranked free agent.

With Seattle having considerable resources tied up in its secondary, Maxwell is expected to sign elsewhere in free agency, and it would not be a surprise if he were among the first wave of signees. The question now is whether the representation change will affect Maxwell’s ability to start laying the early groundwork for a deal.

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