With the conclusion of off-season practices, the Chicago Bears have broken off until the start of training camp. Camp this year starts a week earlier than normal on July 19th due to the Bears’ place in the Hall of Fame against the Baltimore Ravens. Players have this short break, before heading full steam ahead into the 2018 season.
Once camp rolls around, fans are going to be able to get a glimpse of the team’s new-look roster following the flurry of off-season activity. While the defensive side of the ball may be familiar with names like Akiem Hicks and Leonard Floyd, there’s been an overhaul of new faces almost everywhere else: including the coaching staff.
Coming off a total of 14 wins over three seasons, Bears general manager Ryan Pace needed that cornerstone acquisition period to truly turn things around. This year, it appears he has done that with a collection of big moves. That isn’t limited to including locking down a few key players from 2017.
For a deeper look, let’s start from the top in what has been one of the most topsy-turvy five months in recent Bears’ memory.
Former Bears head coach John Fox came in with high expectations and simply never delivered with his best season coming in 2015 with a 6-10 record. As games went on, it was evident that the game has passed by his old-school mentality and conservative attack.
Enter in first-year head coach Matt Nagy, whose name didn’t show up on many radars until he started calling plays for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2017.
Some view this as a risky hire due to lack of experience, but Nagy’s mentor in Andy Reid called him the best soon-to-be head coach he’s ever had under his wing. This is coming from the same legendary coach who has produced Super Bowl winners John Harbaugh and Doug Pederson, along with Ron Rivera, Sean McDermott, and Todd Bowles.
Alongside Nagy, the Bears brought in former Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich as their offensive coordinator. Following those two happens to be one of the best offensive line coaches in the country in Harry Hiestand. Combine that with the other offensive minds hired to help transform a 20th century offense, and the team might get more than a competent offense for once.
Outside of the flashy hires, Chicago was able to retain Fangio and his entire defensive staff. This could give them one of the more well-rounded braintrusts this organization has had in quite some time.
Last year’s Bears free agent class was a disaster. Mike Glennon being a headliner is never a good thing. This led to tempered expectations for 2018’s acquisition period, but Pace did not disappoint.
It started with the Bears retaining their top free agents, including cornerbacks Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara. They were also able to keep role players such as Sam Acho, Sherrick McManis, and punter Pat O’Donnell.
Amukamara had made it known he wanted to return, so that isn’t a surprise. But the team went bold with Fuller, after placing the transition tag on the former first rounder and then proceeding to match a lucrative offer sheet from the Green Bay Packers hours after it was made public.
Pace made a huge splash in the infancy stages of free agency in March by signing pass catchers Allen Robinson, Trey Burton, and Taylor Gabriel. This, coming off the heels of retaining a bulk of his own rostered players.
The Bears’ all-in spending spree wasn’t done after their three pass catching additions, as they proceeded to add kicker Cody Parkey, pass rusher Aaron Lynch, and top backup Chase Daniel.
Notably, however, they did lose a trio of players including receiver Cameron Meredith, veteran defensive lineman Mitch Unrein, and versatile linebacker Christian Jones. However, with the overall additions in both free agency and the draft, those holes appear to be filled.
All in all, this has a chance to be the most impactful free agent class that Pace has had in his first four years at the Bears’ helm. Though, these investments come with much more commitment than previous years due to the lack of top-end talent on the market once available.
Heading into late April, the Bears had three big needs: outside linebacker, receiver, and interior offensive line. After Day 2 of the 2018 NFL Draft, they were able to confidently address two of those needs, while waiting until day three to add a “project” pass rusher.
The first three selection is arguably one of the better top-tier trios in the draft with linebacker Roquan Smith, interior stalwart James Daniels, and receiver Anthony Miller.
Linebacker wasn’t a huge need for Chicago on paper. Yet, much like a few years ago with the pick of Leonard Floyd on the edge in a deep group, it’s easy to see a position of strength came become a sizable need within a short time.
Following Smith, the next two picks are excellent fits in Nagy’s offense. Although the Bears traded back into the second for Miller, it’s a risk worth taking, considering Mitchell Trubisky’s development.
The back half of the draft consisted of upside and hope. That’s not to say these weren’t risky picks including fourth round linebacker Joel “Iggy” Iyiegbuniwe. The selection of “Iggy” and betting on his potential resembles much of last year’s draft class: which has worked out well so far.
Players like Bilal Nichols, Kylie Fitts, and even Javon Wims should provide quality depth in a worst case scenario. This is not to say at least one of these players can’t provide starting upside in the near future, with good development.
The Bears did also add a few mid-to-late-round talents after the draft in cornerbacks Kevin Toliver and Michael Joseph, plus running back Ryan Nall. There is a lot of budding talent on the rise.
The Bears went into the 2018 off-season with a clear plan in place of adding talent to a young but thin roster. They went in with something to prove, and came out shining.
Sometimes, free agent additions can be taken for granted when heading into such a make-or-break season. As we’ve seen over the last few years, overpaying players doesn’t guarantee their services. Multiple teams have boatloads of cap space in the NFL every March. To put it simply, the talent pool continues shrinks when with a bunch of sizable bids. So it’s commendable the Bears were able to be so aggressive and successful in this niche.
Obviously the results for Chicago will truly be felt on the field, but the question is whether Pace speed up the team’s timeline?
Holes on the Bears’ depth chart remain, namely at pass rusher. It was a bad year to need one. The good news? If a player or two does not emerge at the position in 2018, next year’s draft class appears to be stacked at the top: assuming much of the next season is still a growth year for a young team.
Overall, Pace not only met expectations for the Bears, but exceeded them in multiple areas. In an ideal universe, he could have his first-year coach and second-year quarterback set up for a Los Angeles Rams or Philadelphia Eagles styled breakout in 2018.
If events don’t follow the same blueprint as the Rams or Eagles to a tee, there’s still plenty to be gained out of this upcoming season for a Bears team on the rise.
Overall 2018 off-season grade: A
Follow Aaron on Twitter @AaronLemingNFL.