FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots and Chicago Bears will gather for three days of joint practices (Monday-Wednesday) in advance of their preseason game Thursday at Gillette Stadium (8 p.m. ET), and there's no shortage of storylines.
ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss and ESPN Bears reporter Jeff Dickerson got together for a primer on some intriguing topics.
Dickerson: Frigid, Mike. There was almost zero on-the-field chemistry between them in 2015. Honestly, Bennett’s negative comments about Cutler in ESPN The Magazine came as no surprise to me. He said basically the same stuff last year. In early November, Bennett told reporters, “at some point they have to come my way [on offense],” and, “I’m open ... so.” That was clearly a shot at Cutler, who again took the high road publicly. Privately, the two men had no use for each other.
Look, Cutler is not perfect. He is an incredibly complicated person. But at least he never ripped Bennett in the media. That took the feud to another level. So what I’m saying is, don’t expect them to exchange pleasantries when they cross paths in Foxborough.
What about Bennett long-term in New England? What are the odds the Patriots give him the big contract he wanted, but failed to get, from the Bears?
Reiss: This reminds me of Randy Moss in 2007, when the Patriots traded for him in the last year of his contract, and the sides basically agreed to table all discussions until after that season. Moss was coming from a tough situation in Oakland and happy because he could put up big numbers in a wide-open offense with Tom Brady throwing him the ball; he figured if he had a productive year, everything would take care of itself the next offseason. The Patriots ended up re-signing Moss in 2008, but not before first letting him hit the market (the Eagles pursued him heavily). I’m not sure Bennett will have the same end result but I’d expect the general timeline to play out the same. So it’s a “stay tuned until next offseason” type of deal, and I think both sides are on the same page with it.
The Patriots were pleased with defensive tackle Akiem Hicks in 2015 and were in the mix to re-sign him in the offseason. What is his role and how has he fit in with the Bears?
Dickerson: Hicks is a major upgrade on Chicago’s defensive line. They envision him playing both tackle and end, depending on the situation. Hicks has also, in a short time, developed into a team leader. Day in and day out, Hicks has been the most outspoken defensive lineman on the practice field. And that’s a good thing, because the Bears desperately need a little personality. We all know Hicks is on his third NFL team, so let’s not put him in the Hall of Fame just yet, but he fits nicely in Chicago, at least so far.
Speaking of another ex-Bears player: What’s the latest with Shea McClellin? Have the Patriots found him a permanent position on defense?
Reiss: McClellin’s fit in the Patriots’ defense is as a hybrid defensive end/linebacker who plays more on the line of scrimmage. I had studied some of his Bears film and it struck me how he essentially had four different roles in his four years, under three different coordinators. So McClellin’s role with the Patriots is closer to what he was doing earlier in his Bears tenure than last year, when he was an off-the-line linebacker in Vic Fangio’s 3-4, as the Patriots view him as a multiple player whose pass-rush skills off the edge (which were a primary asset coming out of Boise State) have value to them.
The Patriots have a recent history of trading for players they first see in joint practices. It’s a bit of a projection, but what areas of the roster are the Bears currently deepest in, which could potentially spark their interest in a trade, and what thin positions might Ryan Pace consider bolstering?
Dickerson: The Bears are dangerously thin at almost every position, except for linebacker. Strangely enough, Chicago has a surplus of talent at inside and outside linebacker, especially after moving up two spots to draft Leonard Floyd ninth overall, and signing inside 'backers Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman in free agency.
After Floyd, Pernell McPhee (PUP), Willie Young and Lamarr Houston, the Bears still have Sam Acho and Christian Jones battling for OLB roster spots. Jones even started most of last year at inside linebacker until he fell out of favor with the coaching staff. Reserves John Timu, Jonathan Anderson and Lamin Barrow also have some experience. So there is plenty to choose from at linebacker. Help yourself.
By the way, the Bears will gladly take Jimmy Garoppolo off New England’s hands when Tom Brady returns from his four-game suspension. There is plenty of interest in local boy Garoppolo here in Chicago. Is he definitely the future Patriots quarterback when Brady retires?
Reiss: Interestingly, the off-the-line linebacker spot is one area I’d pinpoint as a position where the Patriots are light on pure depth. Something to keep an eye on, perhaps. As for Garoppolo, his contract expires after the 2017 season and Brady is locked up through 2019. So unless Brady takes a dramatic dip in the next two seasons -- or an injury significantly alters the picture -- I don’t think anyone can say with certainty that Garoppolo is definitely the future quarterback when Brady retires. But he could have value to another team as soon as next year if he performs well in the first four regular-season games, so this is an audition of sorts for him. The Bears will get a sneak preview in these practices.