Supposedly, the Bears of 2017 were bad, in part, because they were part of a process building the team for the long haul. Supposedly, Chicago is being built into a perennial contender as aging nobodies are replaced with young stars. At the press conference on New Year’s Day, Ted Phillips talked about the roster’s high turnover rate and the young talent being added.
However, I was curious about whether or not this team is really all that young, and about whether or not this team really is built to hold open a long window for possible success. This year, Football Outsiders reported that the snap-weighted average age of an NFL roster was 26.5. Therefore, I wanted to look at all of the players 26 and younger currently on the roster and see whether or not this really is a roster built for the long haul.
The offensive line:
The veterans: Kyle Long turns 30 by the end next season, and he has already sacrificed a lot of his health for Chicago. Likewise, Josh Sitton will be 31 before the next season even begins. Bobby Massie is 28 and has never been a star. The depth on the line is also older (Sowell and Compton are both 28). However, there are some capable young players on the offensive line.
The youth lineup: Charles Leno is 26, Cody Whitehair is 25, and Hroniss Grasu is 26. Jordan Morgan is 25, and for now we might as well assume that he develops into a functional player (alternately, he could be a depth-only piece but Grasu could improve). That leaves an opening at right tackle, or at left tackle if Leno is replaced at some point with an upgrade and Leno is flipped to the other side. It also suggests a need on the interior of the line, because even if Whitehair recovers his earlier form, Grasu probably needs replacing. This is not an amazingly young line, nor is it composed of pro bowlers, but it is at least functional with one glaring hole (they need a young tackle) and one weak link (Grasu).
Verdict: the Bears need a young tackle to finish the rebuild, and there are no young standouts as well as some weak spots. Ideally, this means Pace could find a young stud tackle in the draft while securing a center or guard in free agency. However, this is not a completed remodeling yet.
The skill positions:
The veterans: There are too many older retread wide receivers to keep track of. Dontrelle Inman (29) stands out as a guy who is worth keeping around even if he’s getting long in the tooth by football standards. Mark Sanchez is about as veteran as it gets at skill positions and he is worth what the Bears pay him.
The youth lineup. Cameron Meredith is 25 and will probably be a solid #2 wide receiver when he comes back from his injury. That leaves Kevin White (25) to be the #1 receiver, and I’ll believe that when I see it. Meanwhile, Adam Shaheen is 24 and will probably be fine with a real offensive coordinator assuming he overcomes that lingering chest injury; I admit that I’m biased here because I’ve liked Shaheen since before he was a Bear. Jordan Howard is the sole pro bowler drafted by Ryan Pace so far and he’s only 23. Tarik Cohen (22) should have his picture next to the term mismatch in a football glossary somewhere, but the second Vikings game showed his limitations only too well. Finally, Mitchell Trubisky (23) is obviously the future of the franchise.
Verdict: the Bears need a young receiver to finish the rebuild, but this is actually a solid core for a young offense. In fact, they could probably get by with second-run free agents if they had to, but that would not be ideal. Some will want a young developmental quarterback, but with reps and practice time being what they are, the Bears are better off having veteran quarterbacks to back up #10 for at least another year or so. Assuming a decent coach and a non-terrible free agency period, this group is a single solid draft pick away.
The defensive line:
The veterans: Akiem Hicks is probably the best player on the defense, but he’s 28. When he’s removed from the equation, the only other standout veteran on the defensive line is Mitch Unrein (30), and that’s using the term ‘standout’ very loosely. As in “he stands out as an example of why John Fox should move on.”
The youth lineup: If a defensive lineman had 4.5 sacks, 2 passes deflected, and 59 tackles for a season, it would not be a bad thing. The same stat line is less impressive for an entire defensive line. Eddie Goldman (23) anchors the unit well, and despite the fact that he’s no monster, he is a solid player. However, the defensive ends are a little less inspiring. After the veterans are removed, the Bears are left with Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris (both 24). They are functional, but they are not spectacular. These three players added together have the stats mentioned at the start of the section. There are reasons for that, certainly, but this is not a line to inspire fear.
Verdict: the Bears need a young defensive impact player on the line. They need one badly. They actually need two. Hicks probably has enough in the tank to limit the need, but even if Hicks stays healthy, he needs help.
The veterans: The interior depends on Jerrell Freeman (31) and Danny Trevathan (27). The edge rushers include McPhee, Acho, and Houston (all 29 or older). Basically, the linebackers on this team are largely older guys pieced together to help the transition to 3-4.
The youth lineup: Leonard Floyd, despite his injury history, is a fantastic impact player and is still only 25. Nick Kwiatkoski is 24 and is serviceable. The other candidates for “young inside linebacker” are Christian Jones and John Timu--both 26. They aren’t bad players, but they are also not future All-Pros. How about a young edge rusher opposite Floyd? Well, Jonathan Anderson is 26, but his next sack will be his first in the NFL.
Verdict: the Bears need at least two more young linebackers, including a young edge rusher and a solid interior guy. This is probably the unit farthest away from “young and competitive.”
The veterans: Demps, Amukamara, and Cooper all stand out as older guys, but the defense doesn’t depend on them. This is a good thing, because they are not game-changing players. McManis is a special team pro, not a true defensive back.
The youth lineup: Strangely, the safety position is pretty under control. Eddie Jackson is a playmaker and Adrian Amos has emerged as a solid placeholder. However, even if Kyle Fuller (25) is extended, the youth movement at cornerback depends on Bryce “DPI” Callahan (26) and Cre’Von LeBlanc (23). Ideally, there would be three solid cornerbacks, including a playmaker, in order to field a dynamic nickel defense--especially in a division with Aaron Rodgers and Matt Stafford. Instead, there is a gaping hole at cornerback. In the best-case scenario (Fuller is extended and continues his high level of play), the Bears need another corner.
Verdict: the Bears have a hole at cornerback. This is true even with the veterans playing, and it’s especially true if considered from the perspective if needing to field a young team in nickel defense. They need a young, elite talent here.
Every level of the Chicago Bears needs improvement at youth. They need a young tackle, a young interior lineman, a young receiver, a young defensive end, a young edge rusher, a young interior linebacker, and a young corner. At least a couple of those pieces can be filled by free agents and the veterans on the team, but there is a need for at least four or five playmakers even under the best circumstances. At the rate of the current rebuild, it will be a fight to get the window open in the first place, let alone to keep it from closing.