Subjectively, the most important draft of Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Pace’s tenure is now only a little over a week away. It’ll no doubt set the tone for the rest of this regime’s eventual success or failure.
But that doesn’t mean the rest of the Bears’ world not related to the draft suddenly stops spinning.
Ah yes, it’s time for offseason as Chicago players emerge from their annual winter hibernation from such cold destinations like Hawaii and Florida. These first weeks are purely “voluntary” workouts for guys on the team, but it’s obviously best encouraged they attend and work with their teammates. A holdout this time of year isn’t unexpected but is still wholly unwelcome for NFL talent evaluators and coaches.
Over the next two approximate months, as the Bears build through their strength program, begin installing play systems in organized team activities for training camp in late July, and experiment with position changes, we’re going to be able to discern just what the 2017 Bears are going to look like. These workouts in helmets and shorts on the field and in the weight room may seem minuscule now, but they lay the groundwork for players to be prepared for the upcoming grind of a 16-game season.
Perhaps, they’ll even give us some quality glimpses of Chicago’s future beyond the next year.
With that noted, here are five primary keys to watch for as the Bears begin their offseason workout program while getting ready for 2017.
- Leonard Floyd’s ascension
The Bears have routinely waxed poetically about the budding potentially dominant pass rusher’s role in the future of their team and it’s on Floyd to prove their faith wasn’t misguided. In the 6-foot-6, 240 pound, 24-year-old’s rookie 2016 season he showed flashes of the franchise player he could be during a five-game stretch where he had 16 tackles, seven sacks, a forced fumble, and said fumble recovered for a touchdown. He also had concussion issues characterized due to tackling technique, was thrown around at times due to his lanky frame, and was otherwise streaky.
If the Bears and their defense under defensive coordinator Vic Fangio are to ever make the leap, Floyd’s going to have become more consistent and totally refine all aspects of his game as he grows into the special player all parties know he could be. What kind of shape - any weight and strength gains - he comes into on Tuesday will set the tone for the rest of what needs to be a big sophomore season.
2. A revamped quarterback depth chart - with questions
Gone are the legends of Matt Barkley, Brian Hoyer, and yes, even Jay Cutler. In come free agent acquisitions Mike Glennon, Mark Sanchez, and perhaps, even a young drafted quarterback. Don’t forget Connor Shaw either. It’s a new era in Chicago, for better or worse, and the Bears are banking that’s it the former notion.
Across five eligible players in 2016 (including receiver Cameron Meredith), Bears passers collectively had an 81.8 passer rating last season, threw for 4,139 yards, and had 19 touchdowns to go with 19 interceptions. Largely only counting the main four, Chicago’s quarterback play ranged anywhere from solid, to meh, to beyond painstaking.
It doesn’t feel like there’s much confidence outside of the organization in the direction the Bears will go with at quarterback in the aforementioned Glennon, Sanchez, and a potential to-be-determined, either. It’s on the coaching staff and these veterans under center to acclimate themselves quickly over the coming weeks with the time they’ll receive and instill belief to surprise.
3. A safety dance for Deiondre’ Hall
One of the Bears’ biggest team needs is quite obviously at safety. You can certainly expect another draft pick to be used on the position this year. And depending on how the former fourth-round pick in Hall translates a first season at cornerback to safety during organized team activities as planned, Chicago could be locking in it’s long-term duo. You know, finally not having to worry about this snakebitten Bears’ position for quite some time.
Hall did play a bit of safety in college at Northern Iowa so he is position flexible. In fact, some believed he might have projected a better safety than cornerback in the NFL given his ball skills and solid-enough range. But making that transition from college to the professional level is an entirely different obstacle to overcome.
Now, while he did have some troubles earlier this offseason with a March arrest, if Hall focuses in and does well during his coming experiment, the Bears might have themselves a quality starter at likely free safety (ball skills) next to their potential draft investment.
4. Coaching turnover and development
The three standouts of the Bears’ 2016 Draft class - Floyd, Jordan Howard, and Cody Whitehair - all saw their individual position coaches leave the team in one way or another following the season. Floyd’s mentor, former outside linebackers coach Clint Hurtt left for the Seattle Seahawks. Stan Drayton, Howard’s running back coach, left for a position with the University of Texas. And offensive line guru Dave Magazu was let go - one of Fox’s longest tenured assistants dating all the way back to the 2003 season with the Carolina Panthers.
Out goes the old, in comes Jeremiah Washburn (offensive line), Curtis Modkins (running backs), Zach Azzanni (receivers), Brandon Staley (outside linebackers), and even Roy Anderson (assistant defensive backs). All while the three-headed trio of head coach John Fox, offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains, and Fangio stay in primary power.
What’s been a part of the Bears’ recent lack of success in particular has not only been drafting poorly but also developing imperfectly. It’s on these specific position coaches to help out on that track and move along some of Chicago’s current rising core players and assist the new wave as it comes in. We won’t know how to evaluate the job being done by them until there’s play on the field, though.
5. Health and fitness, and health and fitness, again
The 2016 Bears had the highest “Adjusted Games Lost” due to injury since the year 2000 per Football Outsiders’ annual study. It feels like every year, a crucial player or several goes down in an area for the Bears where they don’t have the best depth or talent, too. Moving forward, maybe outside of the draft, this might again become the most crucial development for not only the 2017 team, but for the success Pace’s Bears will or won’t enjoy in the end.
So you have to keep an eye on a “sexier” Pernell McPhee at outside linebacker who reportedly lost 25 pounds in the offseason, but who has not made a commitment to team activities to this point. You worry about his knee that’s caused him problems during his time with the Bears until he proves otherwise.
You hesitatingly hope for the best for 2015 first-round pick receiver Kevin White, and hope he’s still showing flashes of speed and agility after two leg injuries that robbed him of 28 of his first 32 NFL games.
And is tight end Zach Miller fully healthy after a broken foot? Or is the newly added Dion Sims opening as the starter come May? There are also always future injuries that can arise without proper training as the Bears evaluate their conditioning processes from the top down.
So many questions concerning this Bears’ team’s health, so little time. Only the consistent availability of some of these supposed core guys can ultimately alleviate any concerns.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for the Rock River Times and is a staff writer for Windy City Gridiron. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.