It’s obvious the Chicago Bears haven’t enjoyed much success of late. In that light, it can be difficult to figure who exactly is irreplaceable, un-tradable, or otherwise designated as important in the ongoing rebuild of general manager Ryan Pace. Sure you can always project the potential of talents such as new tight end Adam Shaheen or Tarik Cohen, but the current roster and it’s actual construction paints a different picture.
Without the context of winning - which is overblown anyway in a team sport built on 11 players doing their job - understanding which Bears will be a part of the next playoff contender, or even championship team in Chicago, is difficult because of such a small sample size of individual flash and no actual team success. Other contenders such as the New England Patriots or Green Bay Packers can safely say their quarterbacks in Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers are indispensable. They know linebackers such as Dont’a Hightower or defensive ends such as Mike Daniels are game-changing players on a consistent basis no matter the stage.
With the Bears ... well, outside linebacker Leonard Floyd can be great. Rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky can be special. Nose tackle Eddie Goldman can define games. But it’s much too early to clearly say either way. And that’s much of the same story with the rest of the Bears roster.
However, outside of the guys with potential, its also an exercise to understand who’s actually dispensable with the Bears at the moment. Veteran tight end Zach Miller is likely on his last legs with the addition of Shaheen in the draft and Dion Sims in free agency. What about Lamarr Houston, Ka’Deem Carey, and Adrian Amos? These are depth players who don’t hold the future of the Bears in their hands. They don’t tilt the field.
But that’s not the purpose of this conversation. It’s about determining which Bears are the most important. Which Bears will define their coming potential success, if it ever arrives?
The easy answers are the previously mentioned Floyd and Trubisky, who you can easily designate as the faces of the franchise on both sides of the ball if their ceilings pan out. There’s no need to play around here and mention other names. Floyd and Trubisky’s futures mean everything and anything to the Bears.
If Trubisky becomes a top-10 or “championship quarterback,” that means the Bears are likely perennially in the playoffs and no longer a bottom-feeding team in the NFL. That will mean they will finally have stabilized the quarterback position with a legitimate star and given that star the necessary support offensively. In that respect, Trubisky can then become the kind of passer that masks other flaws on the roster, the way great quarterbacks do, especially whenever there’s a new need to address for the Bears each year.
If Floyd becomes the kind of pass rusher that regularly has double digit sacks and makes many Pro Bowls, the Bears defense returns to an expected level for a franchise that prides itself on defensive play historically. That will have meant that Floyd’s athleticism is consistently peaking and humiliating offensive tackles as he becomes the talk of the league with his unique 6-foot-6, 250 pound basketball player frame as an edge rusher. The kind of pass rushing demon that defenses scheme to make sure he doesn’t ruin their defensive game plan and he still does.
In the case of Trubisky’s effect on Chicago’s play if he develops as the brain trust at Halas Hall believes he can, look no further than last year’s quarterback carousel. Collectively, the quintuplet of Jay Cutler, Brian Hoyer, Matt Barkley, David Fales, and even Cameron Meredith combined for an 81.8 quarterback rating. They threw 19 touchdowns to 19 interceptions.
That group Bears 2016 passer rating, if you combined all five players, would’ve been 25th in the NFL, just after the Ravens’ Joe Flacco and before the Eagles’ struggling Carson Wentz.. That touchdown to interception ratio would’ve been in the same company of the much-maligned Brock Osweiler and his 15-16 glory, or the Broncos’ Trevor Siemian and his 18-10 game managing (though he threw far less picks).
This does ignore the idea of other problems the Bears offense had last season such as a rotating stable of wide receivers or the occasional lost identity at intermittent points throughout the year. However, with a sure thing under center and continuity, Chicago probably isn’t tied for 28th in scoring with the Houston Texans. There’s more reason then to fear the offense outside of Jordan Howard bulldozing defenders.
Alas due to injuries and occasional relative abhorrent play (mostly from Barkley), that didn’t happen, and it’s why the Bears have made the investment in Trubisky, regardless of when they believe he’s ready to play. His future, particularly in the modern NFL where you need quality quarterbacks more than anything, will define the trajectory of this franchise over the next few seasons, or longer, bar none.
If Trubisky grows into a special player, this is the kind of play you can expect. The kind of throw where the everything breaks down and a quarterback just has to find his receiver and make something happen.
One of my favorite Trubisky throws. That's Solomon Thomas he avoids before launching a deep pass flat-footed. pic.twitter.com/Q6YpqUkKbO— Adam Hoge (@AdamHoge) April 28, 2017
From the other side, Floyd had one of the most dominant stretches for pass rushers last year, ranking second among 3-4 outside linebackers in Pro Football Focus’s pass rushing productivity from Weeks 10 to 14. Of course, the Bears only one won game in this stretch against the similarly hapless San Francisco 49ers, while falling to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New York Giants, Tennessee Titans (didn’t play due to injury), and Detroit Lions.
But it was hard to deny the consistent pressure that Floyd put on with 3.5 sacks in the same time frame along with countless pressures that with a more seasoned player, finish as sacks. Or the constant flash of a lanky No. 94 in the backfield chasing quarterbacks. Yet besides that late October and early November stretch, Floyd was nowhere to be found. Yes, he had 7.0 sacks overall last year, but they came in short spurts mostly in that midseason burst. That was largely due to injury struggles with concussions, and also generally working against the grain as an undersized player.
Moving forward, given how the Bears have invested their resources offensively in the 2017 NFL Draft with four of five selections on offense, it’s clear Chicago is banking on the talent of their front seven. That front seven is led by Floyd and by what they believe he can become, which is a superstar pass rusher. Regardless of how the game has changed, nothing impacts a defenses’ overall play more than a quality pass rush. It has a trickle down effect across the entire defense to create turnovers and get off the field on third down. This is Chicago’s centered construction.
And with a star like Floyd and the attention paid to him, that also allows other individuals along the Bears’ defensive front such as Goldman, or Akiem Hicks to thrive in different ways with one-on-one match-ups. Suffice to say, the Bears know what Floyd is capable of and what he can do for the defense, he just needs to need string it together across an entire season. The expectations are set high, because in time, the newly minted 250 pound second-year pro can reach them.
Flashes such as this have to evolve into a regularly cresting wave.
You can debate this to end of the time, but either Floyd, Trubisky, or both panning out would likely turn the Bears into a contender more than any other current player on the 90-man camp roster.
Now, if you exclude Trubisky and Floyd, you could also make a case for a few other current Bears as untouchable, crucial assets to the Chicago football operation.
After a dominant, breakout 2016 season, Hicks should be in line for a coming contract extension. He was that good in his first season with the Bears as a true lynchpin for defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. For an interior player, Hicks was unblockable as a pass rusher with seven sacks and set the tone on the interior for Chicago. His play greatly contributed to the Bears coming in 12th in the NFL with 37 sacks. As he’s still just 27-years-old, you likely haven’t seen the best of Hicks here either.
Meredith led the Bears in every relevant receiving statistic last year (partly due to a suspension of now Eagle Alshon Jeffery), but there’s no denying his importance. There are a lot of question marks on Chicago’s offense right now - especially at receiver - and Meredith isn’t one of them. He probably isn’t a true No. 1 wideout - as he’ll be used in 2017 - but there are only a handful of those kinds of receivers in the NFL. With higher usage, impeccable route running, and quickness, Meredith is poised to burn defensive backs regularly.
When the 2016 Bears offense was rolling, and it wasn’t often, it was almost always on the back of Howard churning his legs through the second level. The rookie simply couldn’t be stopped when Chicago fed him the ball. With developing and or inexperienced quarterbacks under center such as Trubisky or Mike Glennon, the Bears will count on Howard even more in his second season. Coming in second in the league in rushing with 1,313 yards for one year isn’t good enough. The Bears can’t afford a let down from their offensive bell cow.
A case for someone else
Sure, one could make the argument for one or all of the Bears’ interior linemen in Josh Sitton, Cody Whitehair, and Kyle Long. They set the tone for a power running game and ball control offense. There’s also Jerrell Freeman, who graded out as one of the best inside linebackers last year when he was actually on the field. But outside of that, I think this list is pretty simple. I think the Bears know who their primary untouchables are too and this is how I’d see it.
The Bears aren’t contenders yet.
But on the strength of the development of some of these players, as well as guys maintaining their high-level play, you can better understand how the current roster is built. And of course, how all will shine in the future if everything goes according to the plan on the lake front.
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.