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Bears mailbag: Offensive sets, next year’s draft needs, and more

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The 2017 Bears have a lot of questions before, during, and even after July’s training camp in Bourbonnais. Diving into the mailbag to offer clarity.

NFL: Chicago Bears-Rookie Minicamp Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

What is the most fragile position heading into camp, and do you think the team is poised to ameliorate the challenges this proffers, moving forward? - abynum

It depends on your definition of fragile.

If you mean a position where the Bears merely aren’t very good but have a lot to choose from i.e. bodies then it’s easily the secondary. There’s not a lot of quality talent here at either safety or cornerback the Bears can rely on. Competition will sort it out but I’m not a fan of a secondary that will roll out say, Quintin Demps, Eddie Jackson, Marcus Cooper, and Prince Amukamara. That’s not awful, but it’s not a winning secondary either.

From the other perspective, if you mean fragile as to say the Bears have nothing behind their starters, then it’s easily offensive tackle. I’m of the opinion that Charles Leno Jr. and Bobby Massie are merely serviceable at best and aren’t starters on a contending team. Luckily enough, the Bears aren’t close to contending yet in my mind so it doesn’t matter, for now. But for 2017, if one of Leno Jr. or Massie gets injured, the Bears don’t have reliable options to trust to slot in and expect even below average play.

Barring some kind of surprise late preseason release of a Pro Bowl caliber tackle that the Bears could capitalize on - much like Josh Sitton as a guard last year - they’re not poised to remedy this situation within the next six months or so either.

This time of year, everyone wants to discuss expectations and look into the crystal ball. So let’s unpack all of this.

As far as Pro Bowlers, I would safely lock in Cody Whitehair. For someone that wasn’t even supposed to start at center in 2016 but was pressed in due to injury, Whitehair matured very well over the course of the season. It wouldn’t be a stretch to call him a top-10 center in the NFL. When you look at advanced statistics, according to Pro Football Focus’s grades, only two other rookie centers in the past decade have graded out higher than Whitehair last season: the CowboysTravis Frederick and former Jet Nick Mangold. Of course, both of those players are and were perennial Pro Bowlers and All-Pros. That’s quite the company for Whitehair and sets the bar very high for his play moving forward.

The other two obvious Pro Bowl choices are Leonard Floyd, who I expect to make a big jump as an edge rusher in 2017 with a developed frame and better health, and Jordan Howard, who doesn’t figure to take much of a step back as one of the league’s better runners. Jerrell Freeman will also factor into voting as a dynamite inside linebacker and look for Cameron Meredith to make a surprise push.

On that Meredith note, he’ll easily lead the Bears in receiving and touchdowns in 2017. The hope has to be that Kevin White eventually supplants his teammate, but he’s on a longer development track given previous injuries. For now, with a higher volume of targets and better refinement, Meredith will again lead the Bears in most relevant receiving statistics.

Again, I don’t like what the Bears have on the defensive back-end, but it doesn’t mean there isn’t real upside to look forward to. Eddie Jackson with his playmaking ability and natural range as a safety could add a dimension the Bears have been sorely, consistently lacking for the better part of a decade. I don’t think he’s an immediate Week 1 starter, but watch for him to not miss much of a step once he does jump in.

A Bears roster with not a lot of proven talent could really have anyone be a “sleeper” but I’ll give you one name a lot of people have seemed to gloss over: Jeremy Langford. Langford had a difficult 2016 marred by injury and being supplanted by Howard as a starter. He’s almost certainly not a No. 1 back in that regard, but it doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a place with the Bears as a pass-catcher and change-of-pace player. None of that talent has gone by the wayside and I wouldn’t be surprised if he and rookie Tarik Cohen form a nice complimentary duo behind Howard in 2017.

Finally, given how the Bears have invested in the position this off-season, I wouldn’t count this as a surprise cut from my perspective but some will certainly be taken aback: Zach Miller.

The veteran, oft-injured 32-year-old has writing on the wall with a second-round pick being used on Adam Shaheen this year and $6 million in guaranteed money being given to former Dolphin, Dion Sims. I fully expect the Bears to start Sims as the “Y” tight end and if they’re invested in developing Shaheen quickly, he can be split-out as the “F” or H-back No. 2 tight end. There’s only one ball to go around these three.

How would you rank the Bears' positional needs for next year's draft? I think we really need some young talent at OLB besides Leonard Floyd. - Marquess de Sade

Given that the Bears should again hover around relative mediocrity, they’ll have the pick of the litter for whatever position they’ll need to address. At this moment, I’d rank Chicago’s top needs like this: 1. Offensive tackle 2. Cornerback 3. Edge rusher.

At tackle, the Bears can invest in Notre Dame’s Mike McGlinchey and lock down Mitch Trubisky’s blind side for a long time - which should be the top priority for this franchise. At corner, Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick is everything an NFL team looks for in a youthful shutdown defensive back, an aspect the Bears desperately need. And finally, as an edge rusher, LSU’s Arden Key - who has ironically been compared to Floyd - would be a dream acquisition by those in Halas Hall to compliment their pass rush.

Meredith, (Kendall) Wright, (Victor) Cruz, and (Markus) Wheaton all have done their best work from the slot. Who do you see as the other receiver on the outside across from Kevin White? - pmypants

Meredith does excellent work as a slot receiver but he’ll primarily line up on the outside. Though, his versatility in that regard is what will make him an effective No. 1 wide-out moving forward. The best in the game are those who can slice up secondaries from wherever they’re deployed and that certainly applies to Meredith. If we’re going by pure position definition, then one of Wright or Cruz will line up as the official slot receiver in between White and Meredith.

I’m not at liberty to put anyone solely on the spot, but each of Lester, E.J., Josh, Steven, Sam, and Kev probably wouldn’t fare well at multiple trips up the hill due to medical reasons and generally not being the world-class athlete Howard is, and Payton was. I’m not going out on a limb to say it wouldn’t be a pretty sight.

As far as who would hold their own: Jacob, Jack, and I could probably last at a decent clip. Perhaps this might call for a staff trial of sorts. Stay tuned.

If the Bears do move on from Foxy will it signal another back to square 0 sort of rebuild, or just that John Fox can’t keep up with the modern NFL (Lovie type of career arc)? - Orange Juice and Mayonnaise

My feelings on John Fox as the Bears head coach to take them over the top are well-documented - he’s not going to be the guy. But I won’t deny that Fox is at least a “professional” in that he’s been around the game long enough to command the respect of a locker room and bring an undisciplined team together.

But in 2017, it’s only a matter of “when” in regards to whether the Bears move on from Fox. With the potential carousel of intriguing candidates available every January along with fascinating retreads such as the Saints’ Sean Payton - who may finally be on his last legs in New Orleans - I don’t see the Bears putting the future of their franchise with Trubisky on the line with someone like Fox long-term. If he wants to stay in Chicago, the Bears in my opinion, have to go at least 8-8 or better to signify real progress on a team level in 2017. That’s a tall order.

And Fox potentially failing in Chicago doesn’t mean he can’t keep up in the modern NFL. It means more that he was never a coach to move the needle in the first place, an inherently average coach such as Jeff Fisher, which Lester and I discussed last week.

If the Bears matriarch had a Twitter account (or knew what it even was, which we cannot confirm), she would eventually tweet something outlandish. That’s the very nature of the website. Perhaps not on the level of Colts owner Jim Irsay a few nights ago (check out Deadspin if you like, but warning: NFSW), but she would definitely still make a mistake.

To give you an idea of how McCaskey would tweet, think former Knicks president Phil Jackson once trying to rib 3-point shooting NBA playoff teams while making the mistake “how’s it goink?”

“NFL analysts give me some diagnostics on how QB-oriented teams are faring this postseason ... seriously, how’s it goink?”

The lesson here is: never tweet.

What’s one story nobody is talking about that interests you (hard in the offseason, I know). Or, give us a bold prediction for this season that nobody will see coming. - The Hurt Lacher

This is always difficult as you noted - off-season - but if I had to go out on a limb and be bold, I’ll say the Bears rookie No. 2 overall pick quarterback, Mitchell Trubisky, starts Week 1 against the defending NFC champion Atlanta Falcons.

I know what you’re thinking. The Bears have a plan with Mike Glennon starting in place until Trubisky is “ready” but that’s a concept the Bears have only discussed. They haven’t yet seen how both have performed in pads nor has either quarterback had much investment from anyone at Halas Hall. All I know is, the Bears haven’t ruled out Trubisky starting, even in the opening week.

I’ve also heard rumblings that Trubisky outperformed Glennon in mini-camp, even while it was in shorts. That doesn’t always translate to full contact camp, the preseason, or even live games, but I do believe Trubisky will open some eyes in July and August enough to win the No. 1 job.

On offense the 2017 Bears have more versatility than last year’s squad. A deep TE group, 2 promising FB’s, some good pass catching RB’s, and a speedier WR group. Do you expect the Bears to use less 11 personnel sets (65% in 2016) and more 12, 21, and 22 personnel packages? - Tophop67

The Bears are a lot stronger at tight end than they are at wide receiver so this is a natural assumption to expect them to take advantage with their playbook. You’ll see a lot of double tight formations, heavy jumbo sets, and tight ends even being used as traditional fullbacks. A throwback, if you will. Chicago’s strength is in it’s power running game and newfound tight end depth, so they would be mistaken not to use it. Neither Trubisky or Glennon will be the kind of quarterback in 2017 that can throw 30-plus times a game so this ball-control, heavy evolution is what will instead happen.

I’d elect to compare the 2017 Bears offense to what the early 2010’s Houston Texans did with an excellent running game led by Arian Foster and a lot of play action passing set up by that success. It’s not pretty or sexy, but it can get the job against a lot of defense’s.

Putting aside realism for a minute. In the unlikely event that everything clicks and we are injury-free, what is the ceiling for this team? - Marquess de Sade

If absolutely nothing goes wrong and there are no major injuries, then the 2017 Bears will win 6-7 games. I haven’t decided on a concrete number yet, but that is their ceiling: a middling .500 team still building, with a lot of talent to look forward to.

Chicago has a tough schedule (which sure, isn’t projected in the same fashion all the time) beginning with a September featuring three of last year’s four Championship weekend participants in the Falcons, Steelers, and Packers. The Bears also still have too many questions at the skill positions on defense and offense at receiver, cornerback, and quarterback.

If the front seven stays healthy, Howard continues to plug along on offense, Floyd takes the next step, and whoever the quarterback is plays effectively as at least a game manager, then the Bears will be in most games regardless. I don’t see this version of this team ever getting blown out. However until Trubisky and company take the next step, I also don’t see this team making the proverbial leap yet.

Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for the Rock River Times and is an editor for Windy City Gridiron. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.