One more month and the summer “break” begins for NFL teams. Players and coaches can soon go on vacation to tropical locales, and get refreshed for the grind of the season that begins in late July. Unfortunately for the Bears, that period is cut short this year due to commitments in the Hall of Fame game: meaning the team reports to training camp in Bourbonnais a week earlier than usual.
Until the Bears can get to their much-needed break, they have 12 practices to churn through. These are the first practices where veterans and newcomers alike have the opportunity to get in sync for the 2018 season. While the next four weeks are less meaningful than July’s full pad, fully united gauntlet: they’re foundational periods for a young team. This is where the seeds of trust are planted.
Seeing as how the Bears won’t be in complete gear until July, we have to know where to look and what to gleam from these organized team activities. Those who play along the line of scrimmage take less precedence without a full assortment of equipment. That doesn’t mean there isn’t anything to learn.
Unpacking the major storylines from Nagy’s first Bears’ organized team activities (with a musical theme!).
“I Wanna Be Well” - Injury statuses
The vital idea to remember about team practices in late spring isn’t necessarily who is practicing, but to what extent important players are participating. With camp 2.5 months away, different timelines, and severity of injuries, May can offer a clearer picture of how injury recovery is going for several guys on the Bears’ roster. A basic rule of thumb is not to fret over what someone is doing in May, but to make a mental note of how far they’ve come along.
Who are those recovering players on the Bears roster, you ask?
Look no further than Kyle Long, who was last seen going through three surgeries on his neck, labrum, and elbow this off-season. The 29-year-old guard hasn’t played a full slate of games since 2015 due to complications from a traumatic ankle injury. At this stage of his career, it’s getting to the point where the Bears likely begin thinking about putting a replacement plan in place. Any kind of accelerated Long presence this spring gives him a boost against that sentiment, as it proves he’s starting to get past his injury woes.
Then there’s Allen Robinson. The last time Robinson played in a football game, he tore his ACL in the opening minutes of the 2017 season. The 24-year-old signed a three-year $42 million dollar deal in March to be the Bears’ top offensive playmaker. He signed that deal with the caveat that he, of course, wasn’t in perfect standing with his knee yet. Robinson wasn’t all systems go when the team met in mid-April, but he did vow to be 100 percent ready by training camp. Practice this month should display how the receiver’s promise is coming along.
To the defensive side of the ball, and less of a concern, is the right knee of Leonard Floyd. Floyd tore two ligaments back in November 2017 and missed the Bears’ last six games of the season. The 2016 No. 9 overall pick has missed 10 contests overall in his young career. While he didn’t tear anything that required significant rehabilitation, Floyd nevertheless has a lot to prove health-wise. He better be cleared after “just” an MCL and PCL injury, considering his status as the Bears’ top outside linebacker. Or else.
“Where Is The Love (Rush)?” - Pass rush issues come to forefront
Fun fact: the Bears’ current outside linebacking group, rookies and undrafted free agents included, had a total of 40 games played last season. That’s not 40 valuable starts, but games where they participated for at least one play. Not ideal roster construction.
Yes, right now, Chicago is dangerously thin at edge rusher. They’re relying heavily on the mentioned health issues of Floyd, Aaron Lynch (who hasn’t had a substantial role since 2015), and journeyman good soldier but minimal difference maker, Sam Acho. After this questionable trio, you’re discussing a 2018 sixth round pick who also hasn’t played a full season since 2015 due to injuries in Kylie Fitts, and a bunch of unheralded players unlikely to make any impact.
This problem isn’t going to be fixed in May for Chicago. Yet, it would be worthwhile to begin making note of a depth chart that has more upside with more youth, if possible.
Because this Bears’ defense isn’t deep or good enough to withstand the lack of depth behind and opposite Floyd. It’s not a unit brimming with All-Pro talent at every level to mask a missing piece or two at the most important defensive position. The myth that defensive coordinator Vic Fangio doesn’t need quality edge rushers to have a winning defense is that: a myth. Fangio built a reputation in San Francisco that was heavily assisted by stalwart pass rushers Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks. This pair together enjoyed three All-Pro team appearances and 42 sacks during the heyday of the modern 49ers from 2011 to 2013. Chicago has nowhere near the same aptitude in comparison.
Furthermore, the idea that the Bears are fine with their pass rushing because they were seventh in sacks with 42 in 2017 is ludicrous. That’s not going to change dramatically without an upgrade.
Sacks are a fantastic defensive play to capitalize on because of how they can set back an offense. They also extremely overrate the capabilities of a defense to take control of a game. A team can have five sacks and still be torn apart by an opposing quarterback because there was limited pressure otherwise. You should always strive for more consistent and efficient pressure as a defense. Bringing a quarterback down to the ground three times but doing nothing else is generally not the same measure of success as disrupting him on 12 pass plays for example. Disruption has the same effect and is easier to attain.
Pressure rate - meaning hitting a quarterback and or hurrying a read - is the most accurate indicator of a defensive front’s success. The NFL team with the highest pressure rate in 2017 was the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles. Per Pro Football Focus, Philadelphia generated pressure on opposing quarterbacks on an incredible 41 percent of passing plays they faced. The Eagles’ widely renown top defensive front in football was tied for 15th in sacks with 38.
Where did the Bears rank in pressure rate with their intimidating 42 sacks? Chicago generated a paltry 32 percent of defensive pressure on passing plays, which was tied for 26th in the NFL with the Chiefs and Lions. Considering how much Kansas City and Detroit’s defenses struggled last year, that’s more in line with the work the Bears have to do on the edge. Until they remedy this issue, it’s going to be one of, if not the team Achilles heel.
“The Man” - Trubisky’s time to shine
Last year at this time, the Bears were adamant that Mike Glennon was their starter going into the 2017 season, and they weren’t going to veer away from a careful plan they had set in place to develop Mitchell Trubisky. Glennon himself was steadfast in it being “his year.” That plan meant keeping the raw Trubisky on the bench for as long as possible to take in what it meant to be a professional quarterback. It meant Trubisky plugging away during the off-season summer activities. Eyes were on the future, but attention was diverted to Glennon occasionally, if even slightly.
After Glennon turned over the ball 10 times in four starts to begin 2017 - including an embarrassing four times on national television against the Packers to end September - the Bears’ had no choice but to scrap their original vision. They handed the keys to Trubisky and never looked back.
All of this denotes that it’s Trubisky’s first off-season as unquestionably “the man” in Chicago. It’s his team and ultimate success that defines everything the Bears have attempted to build. Without hyperbole, if Trubisky falls short, then so does the regime of general manager Ryan Pace. If he excels, this organization has a period of sustained success it hasn’t seen in decades.
After surrounding Trubisky with necessary talent upgrades, it helps to have him as the alpha dog at Halas Hall. The Bears, most notably Nagy and Pace, have constantly praised Trubisky for how he’s taken charge as the starting quarterback. Of how he’s set the tone for the organization with his work ethic.
Now it’s time to see it in action beyond the biased words of two men tied at the hip to the 23-year-old. Let’s see Trubisky command his offense. Let’s see him be on top of Nagy’s nuanced offensive scheme faster than everyone else. Let’s see the precursors of him becoming the first true face of the Bears’ franchise since Brian Urlacher. This exercise starts in these organized team activities, when the entire 2018 roster is gathered for the first time. Through this minutiae, it’s time for Trubisky to show he’s the star the Bears believe he is.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times, an editor for Windy City Gridiron and Inside The Pylon, and is a contributor to Pro Football Weekly and The Athletic Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.