Training camp is merely one week away, and the anticipation surrounding the Chicago Bears is higher this season than it has been in quite some time. The defense has a handful of promising pieces, while the offense underwent a massive facelift and has a lot of talented young players. The coaching staff is also one of the best groups the Bears have had in years, with a good blend of up-and-coming positional coaches and seasoned masters of their crafts.
Chicago seems destined for some sort of improvement in 2018, which has Bears fans everywhere creating high expectations for the team’s upcoming season. Those expectations are warranted in most cases, but there still needs to be some modulation of what the team can accomplish.
The Bears are coming off of their fourth-straight last-place finish in the NFC North, a division that could see all of three of the other teams in it contending for a playoff spot. While Chicago has made some improvements of its own that make themselves a bigger threat than they were last year, there are still a lot of question marks that surround the team on both sides of the ball.
We’ll look at five optimistic thoughts later next week, but, for the time being, here are five pessimistic thoughts about the Bears heading into training camp.
What if Mitchell Trubisky doesn’t make that big second-year leap?
For the record, Trubisky is more than likely to make some sort of improvement in 2018. A more creative offense, better weapons and a full offseason to hone his skill set will presumably result in a step up in his second season.
With the huge breakout seasons of Carson Wentz and Jared Goff last season, though, are expectations for Trubisky a bit too high?
To each player’s credit, both Wentz and Goff had phenomenal seasons last year. Goff proved all of the doubters from 2016 wrong, while Wentz was playing at an MVP level before his ACL tear late in the season. However, both players arguably had a slightly easier path than Trubisky will have to go down this year.
Trubisky will have to play in what may be the toughest division in the entire NFL this season. Wentz played against two mediocre teams and an underachieving New York Giants squad, while Goff also played against two mediocre teams and a pre-Jimmy Garoppolo San Francisco 49ers squad - Goff didn’t play when the two teams squared off in Week 17, after Garoppolo had joined the team.
Wentz played behind one of the best offensive lines in the NFL last season. Even with the injury to left tackle Jason Peters in October, their unit still overwhelming defenses across the league. Goff also had a well-rounded offensive line that improved greatly from its 2016 performance. While Trubisky isn’t playing behind a shabby line himself, it doesn’t stack up to that of the Rams or Eagles. Neither offensive tackle is anything special - although Charles Leno Jr. is one of the more underrated players on the team - James Daniels is a rookie changing positions, and Kyle Long has missed 14 games over the past two seasons due to injury.
Plus, it’s not like Trubisky was perfect last season, either. He forced too many throws and showed that he needed a bit of work reading defenses last season. The new spread-style offense will take some pressure off of him in terms of having to make full-field reads to find the open man, but the extent of how much he improved over the offseason is unknown until he actually stepped onto the field.
Divisional rival Aaron Rodgers stated in a press conference back in May that a quarterback’s second season is usually the toughest year that a quarterback will ever face.
“The second year is maybe the toughest year for a quarterback because you have an entire offseason for teams – especially in your division – to study you,” Rodgers told Scott Keepfer of The Greenville News. “It makes things a little harder. I played decent my first year and came back in ’09 and was seeing some different looks because there’s a lot more film on you.”
Trubisky seems to be in a good position to improve this year, but the proverbial bar that many have set may end up being a little bit too high for him to reach.
Will Ryan Pace’s decision to not make more moves at edge rusher hurt the team in 2018?
It’s not an exaggeration to say that the Bears’ group of edge rushers is the worst group that the franchise has had in over a decade.
The Bears’ top edge rusher is Leonard Floyd, whom we’ll get to in a little bit. Accompanying of him is an injury-prone veteran, an injury-prone rookie, a veteran with a low ceiling and a partridge in a pear tree.
Aaron Lynch has only played in 14 games in the past two seasons, and has only tallied 2.5 sacks in that times. Any possible upside he has is desperately hoping that he can revert back to his play from all the way back in 2015, when he had a career-high 6.5 sacks. Kylie Fitts was also very good back in 2015, when he had seven sacks, four forced fumbles and 10 pass deflections. However, he has only played in nine game since then due to injury and has had 4.5 sacks. He’s a well-rounded edge rusher with athleticism and a handful of effective techniques at his disposal, but he won’t amount to much in the NFL if he keeps getting bit by the injury bug like he has in recent years. And Sam Acho is what he is at this point: a reliable special teamer who can rush the passer if need be but should never be anyone’s first choice to start on defense.
The team’s decision to pass on drafting an edge rusher earlier than the sixth round is a move that still confuses to this day. Although second-round pick James Daniels fills a need and fits Chicago’s offensive scheme like a glove, would the Bears have been better off picking Harold Landry, the edge rusher whose ability to bend off the edge and get under offensive tackles was arguably the best in the class? Instead of picking Joel Iyiegbuniwe in the fourth round, would the Bears have been better off with Dorance Armstrong, a high-motored pass rusher with good explosion off the edge and some value in coverage? How about Josh Sweat, a player with his own injury concerns but whose athleticism, size and strength projects him as a potential starter? Instead of Bilal Nichols in Round 5, would it have been smarter to select Duke Ejiofor, a high-floor pass rusher who has very refined technique and can shed blocks well? Maybe even Genard Avery, whose versatility and athleticism would be coveted in Vic Fangio’s defense?
These are all questions that still have merit as we head into training camp. Seven of the 10 teams who had the most sacks from last season ended up making it to the playoffs. Although the Bears actually made it in the top 10 last year, the odds of them repeating that feat are highly unlikely at the moment.
Can Leonard Floyd really be trusted as the team’s top edge rusher?
Leonard Floyd was selected with the No. 9 overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft in hopes that he would become the team’s lead edge rusher going forward. He technically is exactly that right now, but, considering the lack of talent at his position, that isn’t saying much.
Has Floyd been bad? No, not by any means. He had an impressive seven sacks in his rookie season despite missing four games. His sack total dipped to 4.5 in his sophomore campaign, but he increased his quarterback hits total from nine as a rookie to 12 as a sophomore. Prior to his season-ending injury, Pro Football Focus gave Floyd the third-highest pass rush productivity among second-year edge rushers, trailing only Pro Bowlers Joey Bosa and Yannick Ngakoue.
Notice a trend in that, though: both seasons saw him miss a handful of games due to injury. His inability to stay healthy throughout the season has stunted his growth and has prevented him from truly proving himself as a crucial piece to their defense going forward. And, although he has been decent when healthy, he hasn’t lived up to the hype that being a top-10 pick in the NFL Draft warrants.
After the 2018 season, the Bears will have to make a decision on whether or not they will pick up Floyd’s fifth-year option. Considering the fact that this year’s price for a fifth-year option for linebackers picked in the top 10 was nearly $13 million, it’s accurate to say that the Bears would be better off not picking up the option based simply off of what Floyd has done on the field so far. It’s up to him to prove in 2018 that he’s worth his draft status.
Will a change in offensive scheme see a decrease in production for Jordan Howard?
Throughout the offseason, rumors arose about a potential trade involving Jordan Howard leaving the Bears. Although the hypothetical deal never took place, it did raise some questions about whether or not the third-year running back is a fit in Chicago’s new offense.
From a running standpoint, Howard should still be a relatively good fit in the new offense. He was very successful when running out of a shotgun formation - which Matt Nagy will presumably run much more of than John Fox did - and has shown the ball-carrier vision to succeed in a zone-blocking scheme. However, it may be Howard’s lack of receiving skills that causes him to have a down year.
During his time with the Kansas City Chiefs, Nagy put an emphasis on involving running back Kareem Hunt in the passing game. In the six games which Nagy called the plays for the Chiefs, Hunt had 20 receptions, a number that undoubtedly would’ve been higher had he not sat out for most of Week 17’s game against the Denver Broncos. For reference, Howard had 23 receptions all season.
Part of the reason that his receiving stats were as low as they were is due to his inability to catch passes on a consistent basis. His five drops were the second-highest number among running backs last season, trailing only Carlos Hyde, who was targeted a whopping 52 more times than Howard was.
One could make the argument that Tarik Cohen will see a lot of the backfield targets than Hunt did, but Cohen will also see significant time at wide receiver. While he will end up getting some catches out of the backfield, he won’t be utilized as much as a receiving back as he will as another slot receiver. That leaves Howard responsible for stepping up as a pass catcher if he wants to avoid losing significant touches in 2018.
What if the Bears’ offense doesn’t improve by as much as people think it will?
Considering the archaic offense that John Fox and Dowell Loggains ran last season, the new-school offense that Nagy and Mark Helfrich have in store has been highly anticipated by Bears fans aplenty since the two joined the staff. Surely, by adding a better coaching staff and better offensive weapons, a consequential leap in production is bound to happen.
But what if that leap isn’t as big as we all expect?
As high as Chicago’s offense’s upside is, there are still a lot of question marks that need to be proven wrong for them to reach that potential. Mitchell Trubisky is coming off of a mediocre rookie season that, despite having been played in a predictable offense with glorified bench players at wide receiver, didn’t exactly light the world on fire. Trey Burton has never had as big of a role as he will likely have in the Bears’ offense this year. Allen Robinson is coming off of a torn ACL. Adam Shaheen looked solid in flashes last year, but those flashes were so sparse that it’s tough to see him making a huge jump in his second season. Jordan Howard hasn't proved that he can be a reliable receiving target. Kyle Long has been flooded by injuries that past two seasons. James Daniels needs to prove that he can seamlessly make the switch from center to guard while adjusting to the NFL at the same time.
Overall, some form of improvement on offense is elementally guaranteed to happen. Given how much uncertainty still floats around the group, though, they still have a lot to prove before they can truly be seen as a threat.
Jacob Infante is a Chicago Bears writer at SB Nation’s Windy City Gridiron. He is also an NFL Draft writer at USA Today SMG’s Draft Wire. He can be reached through Twitter @jacobinfante24 or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.