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The prove-it Bears of 2018

There are a few Bears who haven’t yet reached their full potential. They’re going to have to prove themselves if Chicago is to become a contender.

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Carolina Panthers v Chicago Bears
2018 needs to pay monstrous dividends for Leonard Floyd.
Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

At this juncture in the year, we more or less understand who the Bears’ best players are and or who will be counted on to galvanize the team. Small or substantial, everyone has a role to play. Every NFL team has a hierarchy of stars, young and rising players, and those who for lack of better phrasing, are filler playing a part. That’s how you delegate among a successful roster of 53: everyone is comfortable with their job and executes it to a tee.

On this Bears’ team under first-year head coach Matt Nagy, there are a lot of guys who could stand to take their play to the next level. In fact, that’s what Nagy and company are counting on as the organization looks to step out of a recent Dark Ages malaise of 27 total wins in the last five seasons. This is a young team with an abundance of talented players that haven’t yet put it together. But if they do, they can help take Chicago to the stratosphere.

Here are the top Bears under a microscope that need to evolve in stars, quality starters, and rotational players going into the 2018 NFL season. The Bears that need to “prove it.”

Hint: the faces of the franchise are in focus.

Mitchell Trubisky, QB

Carolina Panthers v Chicago Bears
Trubisky has to become the star franchise quarterback the Bears believe he is as early as this year.
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The 2018 Bears start and end with Trubisky’s ascendance. The Bears, ideally of the next decade-plus, start and end with Trubisky’s consistent elite play.

Nagy was hired because of his connections and affinity for Trubisky. Chicago’s offense is being specifically designed for his skill set. The Bears’ coaching staff under Nagy was put together to support Trubisky, through good and bad, as the young quarterback learns to the take the reins of the franchise. General manager Ryan Pace structured the entire off-season to give Trubisky weapons, and has the Bears in win-now mode, because he believes that Trubisky is ready to carry the team.

If Trubisky falls short now, a lengthy rebuild and an abundance of resources will have been for naught. I don’t anticipate the 23-year-old being a disappointment, but stranger things have happened. Look for him to actually thrive in an offense catered to his abilities and with weapons that can create individual magic on their own. Trubisky has officially broken out and proven himself, when he’s the catalyst for a Bears’ offense that ranks in the top half of the NFL.

What this boils down to: look for Trubisky to become the first true Bears’ face of the franchise since Brian Urlacher.

Leonard Floyd, Edge

Minnesota Vikings v Chicago Bears
The Bears can’t afford Floyd missing any more significant amount of time. He needs to dominate the line of scrimmage in 2018.
Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

In four drafts, Pace’s Bears have selected two edge pass rushers: Kylie Fitts in 2018, and Floyd in 2016. Considering Fitts’ injury issues and sixth round selection, the top 10 pick Floyd is the only truly relevant investment on Chicago’s defensive edge until further notice. From a team-wide perspective given draft capital and extensions, he’s arguably the Bears’ second biggest defensive investment next to Akiem Hicks and his 2017 mega contract extension.

More than any other Bears defender on defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s unit: Floyd finally has to start living up to that reliance.

No one denies Floyd’s talent. There’s a reason he was selected in the top 10 two years ago. He’s one of football’s most unique and pliable players. He can seamlessly drop back into coverage, set the defensive edge aggressively in the run game, and relentlessly get after quarterbacks from play to play. For Floyd, it’s been about health.

In two seasons, the third-year edge rusher has missed 10 games due to a variety of shoulder injuries, concussions, and a torn MCL suffered last November. When Floyd has been on the field, he hasn’t been a dominant pass rusher, but he’s had the most defensive responsibilities on the Bears: which he’s executed well. Fangio asks Floyd to do more and relies on him more than each of his other players sans Hicks.

With a defense that is thin at the edge position, Chicago can’t afford Floyd going through similar injury issues of the past. His third year needs to firmly put him on a trajectory towards stardom, or at least, a perennially underrated player. Health provided, expect Floyd to become a household name by the end of the year, and transform into the quiet face of the Bears’ defense. A prove-it season comes in the form of consistency.

Adam Shaheen, TE

Chicago Bears v Cincinnati Bengals
Shaheen seems to have been counted out among some circles. The tight end should still have a major part to play in Chicago.
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

2018 free agent acquisition Trey Burton is the sixth-highest paid tight end in the NFL. 2017 free agent addition Dion Sims has been retained on the Bears’ roster, despite Chicago having an opportunity to cut him earlier this spring. Curiously, this has meant to some that Shaheen should play a minimal role in Nagy’s Bears’ offense.

The only person whose opinion truly matters on the Shaheen matter is Nagy, who isn’t ruling out immense contributions for the second-year tight end.

“One thing you guys will see as we go, there’s flexibility within this offense,” Nagy said in May, according to the Chicago Tribune. “This is no longer a deal where you’re just playing a split-out tight end position. But we as coaches need to be able to put these guys in the best position possible so they can succeed. Whatever their strength is, let’s work toward that.”

What Nagy notes there is how the different tight ends in this proposed dynamic Bears’ attack are inherently contrasted in their deployment. Burton is more of a “U” tight end, meaning someone that splits out at receiver and occasionally lines up in the backfield. He won’t be expected to block in-line. Shaheen is your classic “Y” and in-line bruiser with a heavier twinge of athleticism that can work the seam and the middle of the field. And Sims is your second “Y” that can have the Bears operate from multiple tight end and heavy sets.

Why anyone would think that Shaheen, who is effectively a 1B to Burton’s 1A in the Bears’ offensive pecking order, would play a smaller role in 2018 than last year, is baffling. Last year, Shaheen had a total of 14 pass targets and was benched by a coaching staff that had no rhyme or reason to plans. He quite literally cannot have a smaller role barring a severe injury.

Given the second round pick investment made in Shaheen in 2017, and that Pace and Nagy appear to be in lockstep with their franchise vision, expect Shaheen to emerge as one of the Bears’ core foundational pieces. He needs to prove that his status is worthy of this belief, though. This is an offense that will heavily feature tight end sand Shaheen will have every opportunity to be the physical freak at the forefront of this movement.

Roy Robertson-Harris, DE

Chicago Bears v Green Bay Packers
There’s a sizable gap on the Bears’ defensive front that Hicks needs to fill.
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The summer competition to keep an eye for the Bears this year is at defensive end. On one side, Hicks is an All-Pro level player anchoring Chicago’s defense as one of the brightest 3-4 defenders in football. On the other, the Bears have a group of question marks routinely looking to prove themselves and showing up in articles like this. Simply put, Chicago’s other defensive end isn’t anyone to fear at the moment.

Is former third round pick Jonathan Bullard (who was touted as a first rounder in ability) ever going to shine? What about 2018 fifth round pick, Bilal Nichols? Where does he slot in?

Given reports from organized team activities in May, former undrafted free agent Roy Robertson-Harris appears to be the front runner for receiving first crack at taking this position by storm and being a full-time player. Bullard and Nichols are more rotational additions.

Robertson-Harris, 24, is a former outside linebacker that has spent time bulking up the last two seasons to morph into a five technique that features in Chicago’s defensive front. He spent the entirety of the 2016 season and off-season refining his technique and getting used to a new frame that would demand a lot of his body. That new frame had Robertson-Harris play at roughly 294 pounds last year, after hovering around 260 as an amateur.

Of course, Robertson-Harris’ position didn’t pay off immediately, as injuries and a performance wall hit him in 2017. Though, he did have two sacks in limited appearances. Going into 2018, he should be expected to become an impact defensive lineman for Fangio and company. He needs to prove the Bears’ belief in him is warranted to that end.

Chicago’s defensive line coach Jay Rodgers said this of Robertson-Harris to the Chicago Sun-Times: “He can move. He can swivel his hips a little bit. And he does have a good burst, so he’ll make a lot of hustle plays.”

That sounds like a former edge rusher having his athleticism translate to a point-of-attack demand seamlessly. Look for Robertson-Harris to fill in as a Bears’ defensive lynchpin and make Chicago’s front seven incredibly formidable. More than a handful of sacks and making the Bears’ 3-4 scheme relatively unblockable isn’t out of the question.

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.