WCC Notebook: My grade on Bears free agency to date, Blackhawks lines/pairings and continued playoff push, Bulls update and race to bottom three, and Cubs opening day on the horizon.

By Thomas Gibbons

The Bears have addressed multiple needs in free agency, spending wisely and leaving the door open if opportunity knocks.

Heading into the off season, the Bears had plenty of work to do. Even after going 12-4, issues arose that left wins off the table and a possible title.

The Bears had multiple players hit free agency, mainly Adrian Amos and Bryce Callahan. Both departed and turned out to be smart decisions. They have been a big part of the Bears success on defense but the Bears were not going to spend big on players who are replaceable. Sam Acho and Dion Sims were released, freeing up some cap space. Cody Parkey was released and should go without saying why. Other free agents included Josh Bellamy, Daniel Brown, who both went to the Jets, Benny Cunningham and Michael Burton will likely find homes elsewhere.

Moving on to who the Bears signed, GM Ryan Pace has done a nice job filling in holes on the roster and not spending foolishly. To date, the Bears have signed running back Mike Davis, wide receivers Cordarrelle Patterson and Marvin Hall, cornerback Buster Skrine, safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and offensive lineman Ted Larson. They also re-signed tight end Ben Braunecker, offensive tackle Bobby Massie, quarterback Tyler Bray, outside linebacker Isaiah Irving, offensive guard/tackle Rashaad Coward, punter Pat O’Donnell, and defensive linemen Roy Robertson-Harris and Nick Williams. Solid group. And according to NFLPA, the Bears are just below $18 million. There is flexibility for Pace to add another pass rushers like Justin Houston or Ziggy Ansah. Both would presumably be short term deals but Bears should be active with the secondary market. It would be silly not to be.

Looking at who the Bears brought back, each made sense. Braunecker could see more snaps on offense with Sims gone while holding down his duties on special teams. Massie showed great strides last season and the Bears locked him up before free agency. Bray keeps the quarterback room the same as last year. Isaiah Irving will get every chance to carve a role at pass rushers with Acho and Lynch departing. O’Donnell may have shown some weaknesses but it’s a very friendly deal, 2 years, $4 million, and special teams coach Chris Tabor seems to like him. Robertson-Harris should be see plenty of snaps next season and Williams give you a depth piece if someone gets hurt. Lastly, Coward was moved to offensive line last offseason and the Bears are not giving up on that project. If he did not show any promising signs on the practice field, then they probably would have let him go.

My grade for the Bears work in free agency to date: A

The Bears added solid veterans at affordable prices. Pace dodged a bullet overpaying for Amos and Callahan and ultimately it will be one of the best things he did in Chicago. Skrine and Clinton-Dix are very good replacements in the secondary. Skrine is aggressive, and that bods well for Chuck Pagano’s style in playing a lot of man and blitzing off the edge. Clinton-Dix joins former Alabama teammate Eddie Jackson at safety. Clinton-Dix has great range and ball skills and quarterbacks are going to have a hard time throwing against them with Khalil Mack in your face and Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara on the outside. This secondary could be on the best in the league if everyone is at the top of their game.

Moving onto offense, Davis and Patterson fill holes and give Nagy two more weapons in his holster. Davis is a change of pace back who can lower his pads. He can shake defenders and out-run defenders in the open field. Also, he caught 34 passes for the Seahawks last season. He may not be the primary back, but he will be a nice compliment to Cohen and presumably a running back the Bears draft in April.

Patterson fills the need for a kick returner. The Bears were among the worst in the league in kick return average last season. Patterson has had plenty of success taking kicks to the house and the Bears got a front row seat to that last season at Soldier Field when he took one back. Also, Patterson should see a role on offense too. He’s got 4.4 speed and can be that “gadget” guy for Nagy.

Other signings were Marvin Hall and Ted Larsen. Hall will have to fight for a spot during camp. Larsen was with the Bears in 2016 and started eight games. Good backup.

Overall, the Bears addressed needs with seasoned vets and did not spend crazy money. All these signings are not flashy, but each will have a significant role and all have plenty of talent to be keys to a hopeful championship team. The Bears got an A from me in free agency. Their draft class is utter important again as they have to continue to develop players to replace eventual veterans.

The Blackhawks still find themselves on the outside looking in on the playoff race, and coach Jeremy Colliton is shaking up the lineup in hopes of victories.

Blackhawks lines at practice Wednesday:

Sikura-Toews-Kane/DeBrincat-Strome-Perlini/Saad-Anisimov-Kahun/Kunitz-Kampf-Kruger

Dylan Sikura is getting his shot at the top line for the Blackhawks as he has for the past few games. Kane joins Toews on his other wing and Saad drops to the third line. It’s a pretty balanced lineup.

Sikura has been pretty slow out of the gate, especially in the scoring category. He has yet to register his first NHL goal but has seen his share of chances and hitting iron. He is taking that next step the Blackhawks hoped for and he is doing the little things right to stay in a top six role.

The DeBrincat-Strome-Perlini line should be here to stay until the end of the season. Perlini has taken off in March, eight goals in eight games and earned the NHL’s second star of the week last week for five goals in three games, one being a hat trick performance. In addition, you do not want to break up the chemistry DeBrincat and Strome have shown all season.

There is a still a chance for the Blackhawks to make the playoffs. You can thank Corey Crawford for that. He has been unreal in his last five games, the most notable game being a 48 save shutout vs. Montreal last Saturday.

Heading into Thursday’s game vs. Philadelphia, the Blackhawks will be four points behind the Arizona Coyotes for the second wild card spot. This weekend brings a home to home series with the Colorado Avalanche for the Blackhawks to really make things interesting.

The Bulls host the Wizards Wednesday night and stand 2.5 games ahead of the Cleveland Cavilers for the third worst record in the association.

It was the ultimate tank game Monday night in Phoenix. Bulls, Suns, a race to the bottom. But the Bulls pulled away for the win and the Cavilers also came away with a victory Monday night. A nightmare for those on tank watch.

The Bulls host the Wizards Wednesday night after snapping their five game losing streak on Monday. Otto Porter Jr. is out with a shoulder injury and Zach LaVine is good to go after being listed for a right thigh contusion.

The Bulls have ten games remaining, and the notable games on the schedule are two battles with the Knicks. If you love losing, well for this year, then these are the games to circle on the calendar. The Bulls still have a very good chance at falling into the bottom three and having the same odds for the first overall pick. It’s Zion or bust.

Bucks and Cavilers square off tonight in Cleveland and Jazz vs. Knicks in New York.

The Cubs first pitch of the season is just nine days away.

All the questions surrounding the Cubs will soon be answered as the season is just on the horizon. Will someone emerge as an everyday leadoff hitter? Will Yu Darvish be the guy they paid for? Does Kris Bryant return to elite form? Will the bullpen hold up? So many questions surrounding the Cubs along with them projected to win just 79 games.

The Cubs have been loose and confident this spring training. Bryant has been extremely confident and witty with the media and seems like a totally different person, in a good way. Jon Lester is the same old guy. Routine oriented and cracks a joke every now and then.

The NL Central may be the best division in baseball. The Cardinals, Brewers, and Reds all made significant moves this offseason while the Cubs stuck the course. But that is not a bad thing. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer believe in this core and so do I. Sure, Bryce Harper in the middle of the order would have been amazing, but Anthony Rizzo, Bryant, Javier Baez, and Willson Contreras can be one hell of a punch too.

The Cubs have a lot of questions. But what team doesn’t? This team is extremely talented and knows what it takes to get to the big stage. They are ready to roll.

In other Chicago baseball news, the Chicago White Sox and Eloy Jimenez agreed to a contract extension Wednesday afternoon. The deal is six year contract with $43 million guaranteed, the biggest financial guarantee for a player who has yet to play in the majors.

This is a big deal. The White Sox believe he is the next generational talent who will be a foundation player for their climb back to a title. Jimenez has shown great promise in the minor leagues and now it’s time to show the big leagues why he is worth every penny.

Remember, the Cubs traded Jimenez and Dillion Cease to the White Sox in July of 2017 for Jose Quintana. To this day, I like the trade. Epstein traded for a proven player for unknowns. I will always support this type of move. It’s a no brainer to improve the club, especially a need at the time. If Jimenez becomes a star, it will hurt a bit. But if the Cubs get another World Series title with the aid of Quintana, I will not be upset.

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