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Bears mailbag: Front seven starters, training camp thrills, and playoff scenarios

It’s (almost) summer. That means it’s time to responsibly speculate about Bears’ defensive issues, getting to the postseason, and more in this week’s mailbag.

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship Game-Alabama vs Georgia
Can Roquan Smith handle “Mike” duties?
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In the summer, one ideally spends time with loved ones and friends at the beach, reading books, and relaxing in the sun. With football out of the picture for a little while, now would be the time for folks to take care of themselves before the hair pulling and stress of Sunday football in the fall.

But, this is not the platform to get away from the NFL. The summer break only means a small reprieve from the Bears and rest of the league. While anyone may well be taking deserved time off and disconnecting, football is still here, sitting prominently at the forefront.

In this week’s mailbag, as we linger around the doldrums of the summer: Chicago’s front seven starters are outlined, playoff scenarios are set, and I dive into my despair of following Polish soccer.

Who do you think takes the place of Danny Trevathan if and when he goes down with an injury? Does Roquan Smith know the defense well enough to call the plays? Does Nick Kwiatkoski come off the bench? If Smith knows his stuff, does the fourth rounder (Joel Iyiegbuniwe) make a push for the other spot? - GentlemanBear

Interesting that you mention “when” for Trevathan considering he hasn’t played a full 16 game season since 2013: there’s a high probability he misses time in 2018.

Originally seen as the gem of the Bears’ 2016 free agent class, Trevathan’s health issues in his first two years with Chicago (12 missed starts) is undoubtedly the reason that the team felt the need to draft two inside linebackers in the first four rounds of the 2018 NFL Draft. While some rightfully perceive Trevathan as one of the top playmaking off-ball linebackers in football (including defensive coordinator Vic Fangio): that’s only when he’s on the field. The Bears were thinking of the future in the draft, even when the position didn’t look like an immediate need.

In the event that Trevathan does end up eventually sitting out this year, look for Kwiatkoski to be his substitute. While the Bears aren’t as high on Kwiatkoski as originally believed, he should be fine in spot play as the swing inside linebacker. He’s a talented player with natural athletic ability: he just doesn’t have it in him to be a full time starter.

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Chicago Bears
Trevathan is a good player the Bears defense needs. Acting as if he’s wholly reliable is misguided, though.
David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

In this situation, you don’t hesitate to have Smith act as the Bears’ defensive signal caller. If he’s the long term future of the position for Chicago, he’s going to have to do it sooner than later. It doesn’t matter if he’s eased into the role, or if it’s baptism by fire. Given that Smith was already taking first team snaps at the end of minicamp earlier this month, it’s not a stretch to say the Bears will soon trust him with the responsibility of getting everyone lined up properly should there be an emergency. He’s a capable and polished linebacker with instincts galore that assist him in that regard.

As far as Iyiegbuniwe, unless he dominates in training camp and the preseason, I don’t believe the Bears see him making a major defensive contribution as a rookie. Fangio and company have lauded his playmaking, but he’s raw and could use seasoning to get acclimated to the NFL. Unless injuries ravage the Bears at inside linebacker, he’ll primarily feature on special teams. The time for Iyiegbuniwe to make a strong push next to Smith comes in 2019.

Who do you think is going to be the Bears’ starter come Week 1 opposite Akiem Hicks and Leonard Floyd? Do you think they pick up another 3-4 outside linebacker after final cuts in August? I am thinking a possible scheme and cap casualty, and if that’s the case: who are your favorites?-OptimistBear

The extent to which the Bears overused Hicks at intermittent points in 2017 are well-known by now. Without a reliable starter at the other defensive slot, there were occasions at the midway point where Chicago was playing it’s mammoth 95 percent of the snaps of games. For a man that is 6-foot-5 and 332 pounds, that’s not conducive to keeping him fresh throughout the grind of a 16-game season. Expectedly, the toll it took on Hicks showed: he only posted 1.5 sacks in the last eight games of the year, after tearing up the league with seven before an early November bye week.

Needless to say, this is a problem that can’t continue if the Bears are not only going to preserve Hicks, but have a playoff-caliber defense. Fortunately, they already have a few capable options of making an impact and taking the load off their superstar defensive end. Between 2016 third rounder Jonathan Bullard and undrafted free agent Roy Robertson-Harris, I think Robertson-Harris is the man that ends up starting opposite Hicks come Week 1. Bullard should become solid depth as a swing pass rush guy in select situations to give Hicks and Robertson-Harris necessary breathers.

A year after morphing into a beefier 3-4 defensive end from outside linebacker (and rebuilding his frame after gaining 40 pounds): Robertson-Harris should be more accustomed to what’s asked of him in the Bears’ defensive scheme. He’s already been praised by figures at Halas Hall for the strides he’s made in his development. The next step is living up to the hype.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Cincinnati Bengals
Look for Robertson-Harris to make a huge impact in 2018.
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Meanwhile, I don’t believe the Bears will have the kind of Josh Sitton level signing where they find a Pro Bowl starter at outside linebacker in late August like 2016. Good pass rushers, as long as they’re healthy, never become available for cheap. That’s regardless of scheme fit. Any smart organization finds a role for gifted pass rushers even if there’s a radical change in philosophy.

With that in mind, I’d be shocked if Aaron Lynch isn’t the starter opposite Floyd when the Bears visit the Packers at Lambeau Field on Sunday Night Football in September. Yes, Chicago took a flier on the edge rusher with a one-year deal in March. And yes, he’s already going through injury issues without full contact. However, it can’t be discounted that he’s with his mentor in Fangio. He’s familiar with what Fangio asks of his outside linebackers after their shared time in San Francisco, so he has the leg up on his teammates that are competing for the same spot. Lynch also offers higher upside as a starter than either role player Sam Acho or rookie sixth rounder Kylie Fitts until proven otherwise.

I have concern that Lynch doesn’t end up making it through the 2018 season without getting injured considering his history. He’ll be the one pinning his ears back to get after Aaron Rodgers early on anyway.

Now if the Bears do manage to find solid depth at outside linebacker after cuts and make a move on the market: I’d have Connor Barwin on my mind. Somehow, the accomplished veteran is still a free agent despite clearly having something left in the tank at 31-years-old.

There’s no reasonable speculation as to where Barwin could land yet, which means he’s likely taking the veteran route of attempting to skip most of the superfluous off-season activities that all longtime NFL veterans hate because of the punishment on their body. Guys like Barwin know they’re being paid for games and are experienced enough to produce in games without practice time that takes away from their freshness. Think of the GiantsMichael Strahan in 2007 sitting camp out so he could be as prepared as possible for his swan song NFL season that ended with a victory in Super Bowl XLII.

If I’m the Bears and Barwin is sitting there mulling his options come preseason, I don’t hesitate to sign him. He’s probably not suited to take a majority of any starting snaps, but the rock solid ability he’s showcased as a depth man with the Rams and Eagles the last few seasons fits in Chicago seamlessly. A steady approximate five sacks as a pinch-hitting pass rusher and disciplined run defender is something the Bears’ defense needs.

On a scale of 1-10, with 1 being “not at all”, and 10 being “in more ways than one”: Do you see Bears training camp this year being far more eventful than run-of-the-mill? - abynum

This sentiment depends on what you expect from training camp. The scenery certainly hasn’t changed, since the Bears will again practice in Bourbonnais, Illinois at Olivet Nazarene University: as they have every year since 2001. If you’ve been making regular trips out to see the Bears practice in the summer over the years, don’t expect a different format of access, so see the environment as a surefire one on this scale. The Bears will conduct how they funnel in the public in similar uniform fashion compared to previous coaching regimes.

This won’t change until Chicago finishes it’s expansion of Halas Hall next August, which was done in preparation to eventually have training camp under their own roof once the contract with Olivet Nazarene University runs out in 2021. The soon-to-be completed new digs are in recognition of the Bears taking care of their players in a state of the art facility under their complete control. It’s also about them flaunting their money and flexing financially, but that’s besides the point.

If you’re talking about camp being more eventful than year’s past in terms of the product on the field, then I think you have to go with a seven or eight. 10 will never be used for any kind of practice for me because it’s ... practice. NFL teams don’t veer away from a tried and true formula of trying not to reveal too much too soon in the summer. You won’t see crazy plays unveiled or brawls everyday with tension created by the summer heat. Camp is an exciting signifier of the NFL season on the horizon, but let’s not mistake it for any more than the season’s routine getting underway.

NFL: Chicago Bears OTA
Nagy is the primary new element that should make the Bears’ preseason fascinating.
Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Anyway, admittedly, a young first-time head coach like Nagy always creates more optimism and buzz each July. That’s because no one knows what to expect without a sample size of play. I’d be shocked if the Bears don’t ratchet up the offensive intensity around Mitchell Trubisky and show off a worthwhile battle with their defense every day in Bourbonnais. With Chicago practicing at roughly 8:00 A.M for most days of camp this year, the aim is to keep them fresh for when it’s time to compete, and balance out their level of play in the regular season.

Training camp, from that perspective, should be an exciting tug and pull between a balanced football team and an energetic coach such as Nagy re-instilling a fire in his young roster. They’re practice football fireworks, so take them with a grain of salt in perfectly translating to games, but they’re fireworks nonetheless.

My dear friend Kevin here is referring to the Polish Men’s National soccer team, of course. With us being in the thick of the 2018 World Cup - an occasion of human unity and pageantry that I believe is incomparable to any other major sports tournament - I feel it necessary to address that no, they’re not the worst team on the planet. Thank you very much.

However, even though Poland isn’t the worst team in this 32 team field of the World Cup: I’m having a difficult time mustering up confidence they can advance out of the group stage with much of a fight after their 2-1 loss to Senegal on Tuesday. That was as poor a performance with high expectations as the top seed in the group as I can remember. From mental errors and lethargic play, to a poor game plan that didn’t emphasize their quality attacking players: it was par for the course for Poland in men’s soccer since the 1970s when they captured two third place finishes in three World Cups. Truthfully, they should’ve been better back then.

I’m going to believe and be invested as a fan (because it’s one of the few sports when I can still be biased and am not required to be objective or rational), but don’t have much hope they can get to the knockout stage for the first time since 1986. For anyone who doesn’t understand the comparison: being a Polish soccer fan is much like rooting for the Bears in the last 30-plus years. Every time you build yourself up, they shoot themselves in the foot needlessly and expectedly. Now you understand my dilemma.

And for those asking why I root for Poland above everyone else in international soccer: I grew up with Polish parents who raised me in a Polish household and taught me Polish culture. I am unfortunately forever emotionally invested in them not breaking my heart.

Aren’t sports grand?

I’ve been regularly vocal about what will hold the Bears back during this off-season, especially after I feel that the Bears only haphazardly addressed it: their edge rush. Extending that further, their defense. Gasp! Let me explain.

I like the accumulation of defensive talent the Bears have on their current roster. Hicks is one of the best at his position. Floyd is my favorite son and should be poised for a breakout third year. Eddie Jackson, Kyle Fuller, and Eddie Goldman appear to have bright futures. I, however, don’t believe the Bears have enough top-end horses and difference makers to be a playoff caliber defense.

Every great defense has at least three special players. Look at the Vikings (Harrison Smith, Everson Griffen, Xavier Rhodes) and Jaguars (Calais Campbell, Jalen Ramsey, A.J. Bouye) for example. Every great defense also has multiple ballhawks on the back end and a stable of hungry pass rushers. In a nutshell: they possess guys that pressure the quarterback and create turnovers, complementing one another.

At this juncture, it’s a stretch to me to say the Bears have either facet comfortably. Right now, they have one great player they can rely on like this in Hicks. Jackson has to make a leap towards stardom. Fuller is a fine corner, but he isn’t elite, and doesn’t get interceptions. Prince Amukamara is good in coverage as a No. 2, but won’t be mistaken for a ballhawk. Trevathan can’t be counted on to stay on the field to maintain his impact. Smith is too young and green to be transcendent. The list goes on.

Not to mention the Bears’ mentioned dilemma at edge rusher with Floyd not yet having become the dominant pass rusher they envisioned back in 2016, and having little quality depth behind him looming large.

I think Chicago has a solid defense, one that can occasionally put it’s offense in advantageous situations and bail them out, but not much more. It’s not a winning, championship unit until the Bears can fix their edge rush issues, and until a bunch of their young players morph into stars.

The first problem can’t be wholly fixed until the 2019 NFL Draft: which is loaded on the defensive edge. The second is a perfect storm of player evolution wait-and-see that doesn’t always occur.

Ultimately, I think the Bears’ offense is in position to outperform the defense in 2018, and by the end of the year, Nagy and company will have structured the team identity as such to emphasize the attack. One more season, and only then can Chicago have a complete, balanced team.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings
The Bears are on their way defensively, but they need more.
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

As for Baez being the next Michael Jordan in Chicago ... what?

Baez is a fun and good player that plays a key role for one of the best teams in baseball. But he’s not the Cubs’ best player (Kris Bryant), or the most important. By that logic, he’s never going to be the icon that owns the city the way Jordan once did (which is what I assume you’re asking). That’s both in him not being that special a talent (again, he is fun to watch, but that’s different from quality), and in there being a split among Cubs and Sox fans in Chicago.

The only male athlete that could reasonably become the next Jordan in Chicago (there won’t be another exactly like him) is an all-time Bear (this is where Trubisky comes in) or Bull. There’s no other football or basketball team in the city to divert attention or support. Apologies to the Blackhawks, but it’s true. Until they earn it and otherwise, let’s not hyperbolize athletes of a status they aren’t remotely close to being worthy of.

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.