After a hectic off-season filled with change and optimism, the Bears will report to training camp in five weeks with the highest expectations they’ve had in some time.
With more accountability preached by Matt Nagy, comes a lower margin for error: which means that the spotlight on Bears general manager Ryan Pace becomes brighter in the event that results don’t come as expected. After five straight seasons of failing to jump above the .500 mark, not only is success expected but it must be sustained by the Bears. This ”sustained success” that Pace often preaches must come from the development of their more recent draft classes.
The Bears did a surprisingly good job filling holes and adding young talent to a roster that was in desperate need of all of the above. But, depth is still a question and more importantly, it’s time for some of Pace’s top draft picks to start producing like expected. If the Bears are going to have success in 2018, it’ll start in camp and the preseason: where jobs and roles are carved out.
Here’s what to watch for about a month from now in Bourbonnais.
The progression of Mitchell Trubisky
The running joke over the last three seasons is that former first rounder Kevin White was the team’s second first round pick each year. On a serious note, I think it’s almost safe to consider this a true ”Year One” for Trubisky. That’s not a bad thing.
Last year, Trubisky outperformed Mike Glennon from the minute both of them were on the field. Due to the old-school nature of former head coach John Fox, they continued to stick with Glennon throughout camp, preseason and even into the first four games of the 2017 season. Chicago only made the switch to Trubisky once it became excruciatingly obvious it was time to turn to the rookie.
This year, we get to see Trubisky with more than one college season of experience under his belt. This time around, he’s the guy. The unquestioned leader. The face of the franchise. The starting quarterback. That’s something that shouldn’t be underestimated and that could truly give the second-year signal caller the boost to make a Jared Goff-like jump in his sophomore season.
Coaches and players have raved about Trubisky so far in organized team activities and minicamp. It’s important to keep that momentum rolling into the portion of practices and games where it truly matters. It’s been said that Trubisky has been in the playbook more than anyone. Naturally, most would agree that Nagy’s new offense is about as perfect of a fit for the quarterback as there could be.
With this rampant praise comes expectations, and as they should. Everything has gone well so far, but how big of a change can fans expect from the start of camp at Bourbonnais to the start of the regular season? We’ll find out soon. I’d say expectations should be high considering they traded up to draft Trubisky last year and have structured the entire 2018 off-season plan around him.
Leonard Floyd’s outside linebacker partner
This is arguably the biggest question on the entire Bears’ roster. With few quality names as an answer, it’s going to be a key camp battle.
The reality of this edge rush group is simple: there’s not currently one consistent producer, Floyd included, whether that be due to health or consistency when on the field.
Currently this group consists of:
Floyd: Has not played a full season in his first two years, even while showing a large amount of upside.
Aaron Lynch: After two NFL seasons in 2014 and 2015, Lynch combined for 12.5 sacks. In the two years since, weight and conditioning struggles have limited his effectiveness.
Sam Acho: The seven-year veteran has been primarily a backup. However, he had one of his best statistical seasons in 2017 with three sacks and 45 total tackles.
Kylie Fitts: A long, athletic rookie with a lot to like. Yet, availability was an issue for him at Utah. That explains why the project was selected in the sixth round.
Isaiah Irving: After going undrafted out of San Jose State, Irving impressed in the 2017 preseason enough to land a spot on the practice squad and eventually see regular season snaps. He’s incredibly unproven going into his second year.
There’s real upside with this Bears’ pass rush group, sure. But for the most part, the Bears are heading into the season with a bunch of unknowns. The defensive line, headlined by Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman, has admittedly done a nice job of producing interior pressure to compensate. Still, even with the addition of Roquan Smith in the middle, the edge rushers must find a way to get to the quarterback if this defensive unit is going to take steps towards elite status.
Sharing the ball
The Bears team are five months removed from having a starting receiving group of Joshua Bellamy, Dontrelle Inman and Kendall Wright. What’s happened thus far in 2018 with additions such as Allen Robinson and Anthony Miller has been welcome in that respect.
That being said, Nagy has to find a way to get his latest investments on the field in an efficient manner. Robinson, Miller, Trey Burton, Taylor Gabriel, and Tarik Cohen helps make up an exciting arsenal of weapons. But there’s only one ball. Outside of those names, high draft and free agent investments like Adam Shaheen, Kevin White and Dion Sims also need a role in this Bears offense.
Obviously, injuries happen too. From that stand point heading into camp, there’s going to be a collection of players that are fighting for snaps from Day 1.
Luckily, a variety of packages that Nagy and offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich work from should help to get everyone involved. That includes multiple tight end sets, running backs or speedy players like Cohen and Gabriel coming out of the backfield, and three and four receiver sets.
The Bears have the horses to make this efficiency happen. Even still, one high priced investment is likely to ride the bench more often than he should for as much as Nagy and company make the effort.
In the Fox era, the Bears were one of the most injured teams in the NFL, especially over the last two seasons. Despite the efforts to change that fact under former Strength & Conditioning coach Jason George, matters didn’t improve.
Now, Jason Loscalzo, along with Head Athletic Trainer Andre Tucker, are tasked with keeping current players healthy, while continuing to nurse Robinson, Floyd and Kyle Long among others back to health. More importantly, their job is to assist in keeping them on the field.
Loscalzo came from Washington State where he and head coach Mike Leach formed the “Leach Beach,” a philosophy that helped tremendously with soft tissue and ligament injuries. Whether or not he will implement something like that for Chicago remains to be seen. Nevertheless, Loscalzo’s job is of high importance and could make or break the Bears’ season.
Depth, depth, and more depth
There’s no denying the potential starting talent added to the Bears’ roster recently. In order to become a consistent contender and make consistent runs deep into the playoffs, roster depth is zeroed in on for NFL teams.
In the past few years, the Bears have fielded one of the worst rosters (on paper) in the league. That in turn has given them minimal depth, and was evident when starting players went down with injuries. A decimating effect. This year, Chicago should have much better starting talent on the field. Ideally, they’ll also have improved fitness under the watchful eye of Loscalzo and Tucker.
Even in the face of every precaution taken: injuries are going to occur. Once those injuries start to pile up for the Bears, do they have enough of a depth foundation to withstand the adversity and continue to play at their highest level?
This a question that starts to become an answer in camp. Chicago is going to have to rely on a combination of seasoned veterans and young mid-to-late round picks drafted over the past few years. Unlike like they have in recent memory, of course.
As a refresher, from my perspective.
Bears’ positions of strength:
- Running back
- Tight end
- Interior offensive line
- Inside linebacker
These positions have both quality depth, and good starting players. Out of this group, there‘s little to nitpick in terms of holes outside of maybe not having a starting-caliber tailback if Jordan Howard goes down.
Bears’ positions in question:
- Outside linebacker
- Offensive tackle
In comparison to past seasons, the Bears don’t have nearly as many holes across the board. Since I’ve already broken down Chicago’s issues on the edge, it’s uncanny that depth at safety and offensive tackle share the same concern when figuring out who comes off the bench first in case of emergency.
To special teams: as long as the injuries don’t happen at the same rate of the Fox era, depth shouldn’t be as strenuously tested. Cody Parkey was signed to ”close a revolving door” at the kicking position since the departure of Robbie Gould. In addition, the Bears have players such as Bellamy, Benny Cunningham, Sherrick McManis and Cohen returning in prominent roles.
Overall, this entire Bears‘ depth issue goes hand-in-hand with the value you can expect on special teams. Meaning, as long as Chicago‘s injuries are kept to a minimum and the bottom of the roster is capable of a spot start or two: the third phase should be in admirable shape. Of course, it doesn‘t hurt to have multiple explosive options as returners at your disposal as well.
A hectic several weeks in Bourbonnais and the preseason won’t offer a complete, clear picture for each of these relevant Bears’ questions. But, it’ll offer a solid baseline as to where the Bears understand their strengths and weaknesses as an organization starting a fresh coaching era. And ultimately, their capacity to improve over the summer before the fun of the 2018 season gets underway.
Follow Aaron on Twitter @AaronLemingNFL.