There are three key individual components to the roster construction of a Super Bowl champion. Positions in quarterback, offensive tackle, and edge rusher are filled. The team has quality depth in most areas in the event that the injury bug strikes. And, there’s enough star players that flip games on their head in clutch moments.
For as much as the Bears have ideally found their future of the franchise in Mitchell Trubisky, and have created a roster with generally reliable depth, that final star puzzle piece is what eludes them. It’s what defines their eventual ceiling as a team as currently constructed. Meaning, the difference between mediocrity and a .500 record, and becoming a legitimate playoff and championship contender.
Every NFL roster has “average” players that do their job admirably and stick to their responsibilities. The contenders, though, have multiple players that push the envelope. These are the guys that close that last half second of space in coverage to get interceptions, the multi-versed pass rushers who almost always have to be doubled teamed, and the talents that create magic out of shocking thin air. Ultimately, they produce regardless of system fit and often do more than what’s asked of them.
The defending champion Eagles have their star group in Carson Wentz, Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, and Zach Ertz. The runner-up Patriots have Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Devin McCourty, and Julian Edelman. You can tell the same story for any number of other contenders like the Jaguars (Calais Campbell, Jalen Ramsey, A.J. Bouye, and Leonard Fournette) and Steelers (Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, Ben Roethlisberger, and Cameron Heyward). These teams have guys that do their job and shift the outcome of games in one fell swoop.
Meanwhile, the still-launching Bears are in the process of molding their core without an established identity, and without firm clue as to who exactly the team’s efforts run through. There’s a difference between locking down the Bears’ core, meaning their own best players, and having actual stars that a lot of other teams would love to possess. By the end of 2018, Matt Nagy and company better have a clear picture of the team’s stars by the latter definition.
Right now, Chicago has more question marks and projection at most crucial positions on the team, than game changers. Even the solid locked-in players like Kyle Fuller or Adrian Amos aren’t elite in the manner one would expect: because they don’t force enough turnovers as secondary players.
That’s what happens when you’re 25th in the NFL as a team with eight interceptions in 2017. When your pass yards per attempt is 25th at 6.5 yards. When your offense struggles to stay on the field on third down (34.6 percent conversion rate, 26th) while your defense struggles to get off of it (39.3 percent allowed, 20th).
Playmakers on offense keep the chains moving. Stars on defense shut the door before more problems arise. Stars as a whole metaphorically make big plays in any situation. The Bears, at least before now, theoretically didn’t have enough in the wings.
Here’s who the Bears’ “Fantastic Four” projects to be, with only the identity of one clearly distinguished already living up to his billing. This squad of Bears is what will have Chicago climb out of the NFC North cellar into relevancy, or sink in deeper if they fall short in development. Each of these men has their own part to play in this drama.
The foundation: Akiem Hicks
The only people that seemingly refuse to recognize Hicks’ greatness are the pundits that won’t write him in for Pro Bowl or All-Pro teams. Otherwise, two seasons in to his career in Chicago and Hicks has evolved into one of the NFL’s premier 3-4 defensive ends. He’s a mammoth of a run defender that causes penetration with a lightning quick step for his 6-foot-5, 332 pound size. More importantly, Hicks’ transcendent bull rush as a pass rusher and arsenal of excellent hand usage and leverage makes him nearly impossible to block. His leaps as a pass rusher in that respect led to an astonishing 15.5 sacks from 2016 to 2017. Only Jacksonville’s Calais Campbell has more in the same span. 3-4 defensive ends aren’t supposed to be that disruptive in the passing game, and there Hicks is continually making his presence felt.
The only reason Hicks hasn’t been voted on to any postseason award teams is a lack of Bears’ success, proving time and again that the voting process is inherently flawed. If it took into account production and impact alone, Hicks would’ve been rightfully already lauded for his efforts as a superstar. A four-year, $48 million dollar contract signed last fall makes Hicks look like a bargain. The rare Bears’ contract extension in the 21st century that’s made them look like brilliant negotiators.
If Hicks continues to be overlooked under a wide microscope, at least he can take solace in knowing he’s the current face of Chicago’s defense. Not only is he the face of the defense, he’s the Bears’ best overall player until further notice. Someone to comfortably build around from the inside out, and the one player you definitively know always goes above and beyond.
The heart: Mitchell Trubisky
Where Hicks is the dominant engine that drives the Bears’ defense, Trubisky must be the maestro that conducts a beautiful symphony of music for Chicago’s offense. He must eventually morph into the Bears’ best player and snatch the metaphorical team certificate away from Hicks too.
The Bears have put everything on Trubisky’s plate this off-season. They’ve given him the weapons. They’ve brought him along as the clear in-house leader of their organization. Anything less than performance like a top-half upper crust NFL quarterback is a disappointment. Down the line, if he isn’t a star firmly in the top 10, the Bears will be even more heartbroken.
Thankfully his athletic ability, accuracy on the move, and instincts as a quarterback mean Trubisky’s floor as a player is moderately serviceable. Chicago and Nagy will rely on his strengths and help him become an enviable facilitator. It’s on him to bring that floor from serviceable to difference maker. It’s on Trubisky to lift the Bears into the stratosphere in a manner that no one else on the roster has the power to.
The glue: Leonard Floyd
The Bears’ depth and quality issues on the defensive edge are well-documented. I’d like to add a thought: I’m not sure this group is any worse off than one that had the injury prone Pernell McPhee, an up-and-down Lamarr Houston, and Willie Young on his last legs. It’s more that Kylie Fitts, Aaron Lynch, and Sam Acho have considerably less pedigree. And that for the first time, Floyd is the lead veteran.
Whatever happens in 2018 for this question mark group is going to be driven by Floyd’s ascendance. If he stays healthy and on the field for a majority of the Bears’ games, there’s no doubt that his production matches up with that of other star pass rushers. Few players can chase down quarterbacks like Cam Newton from the other side of the field like Floyd. He’s the definition of a pass rusher that closes that last gap of space.
If not, the Bears will soon be on the market to find a true difference making outside linebacker. In 2018 alone, if there’s any failure from Floyd, Chicago’s defense will certainly falter according to high expectations. There can’t be any more hiccups for the 25-year-old.
Floyd makes this predicament easier by living up to his original first round draft status from 2016 and challenging Hicks for the Bears’ defensive crown. He is the only one that can finish Chicago’s defensive equation and help them create weekly game plans that cause routine headaches for offensive coordinators. Rest assured you won’t hear much of a peep from the quiet Floyd either way.
The playmaker: Allen Robinson
With apologies to the Bears’ bell cow Jordan Howard, a dynamic Robinson is what sets Chicago’s offense apart and takes them to a competent level and more. Howard is a fine workhorse, but his impact pales in comparison to the No. 1 potential of Robinson.
Robinson is the Bears player opposing defenses have to game plan for to bracket in coverage, in turn creating opportunities for other receivers in a pass-heavy offense. He’s the receiver Trubisky can heave prayers to when no one’s open, who can make the play on demoralizing jump balls. The types of plays where the defense normally wins against most any other opposition, but Robinson literally snatches victory out of the jaws of defeat. He’s the receiver defenses respect on the outside that perseveres anyway.
While Robinson is likely to be on an early pitch count as he eases back in from an ACL injury to start the 2018 season, don’t be surprised if Chicago’s passing offense runs through him once he has his sea legs. The Bears signed Robinson to be Trubisky’s best friend for a reason. They acquired him as the personality and fire their offense needs to rise above. They needed an attitude and a penchant for the impossible play down field in one: the perfect descriptor of a prolific Robinson when dialed in. Rod Tidwell would be proud.
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.