The Chicago Bears 2018 season could have been a fluke. Maybe they just won the games they needed to to make a postseason push? There’s a chance that the league just wasn’t prepared for Mitchell Trubisky? Are rookies that productive to change a team?
The Bears corrected their narrative, finishing 12-4 and winning the NFC North. Already considered by some as the hardest division in the football, Chicago is set for another promising season as training camp begins.
Seriously, Chicago was just inches away from heading to the divisional round of the playoffs last season. Cody Parkey‘s dignity is now destroyed, but the team is coming back strong for a chance at redemption.
So with the Chicago Bears now having a stable core in place for the future, are they a threat in the future?
Pacing the way through
General manager Ryan Pace was highly criticized for his aggressive trade in 2017 to move up one selection and select quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. Perhaps the San Francisco 49ers were considering taking a quarterback with the second overall pick.
Trubisky went through massive growing pains as a rookie. It was clear for him to succeed; he’d need an offense to build around. Pace fired John Fox and elected to bring in Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy. He also went out to sign top free agent weapons such as Allen Robinson, Trey Burton, and Taylor Gabriel.
Pace would also fill a hole on the offensive line with the selection of James Daniels and add another weapon with the addition of Anthony Miller later that draft. With real threats, Trubisky now would have the opportunity to succeed.
And he did… somewhat.
Thanks to a revamped arsenal, the former Tar Heel threw for 3,223 yards, 24 touchdowns and finished with 95.4 QBR rating, according to Pro Football Reference. He did, however, throw 12 interceptions and wasn’t entirely comfortable going through his progression as his second season came to a close.
A 12-4 season isn’t anything to complain about right?
Third-year players are where fans and scouts truly judge a player, especially first-round selections. 2019 will be a make or break year for Trubisky as the team’s franchise quarterback. While he took the proper steps improving last season, the offense is now under his control.
Excuses will not cut it on a roster like Chicago. The Bears offense was considered average at best last season. The team ranked just outside the top 10 in rushing (11th), but passing yards (21st), receiving yards (22nd) and total production (21st) never found a rhythm.
It will also be interesting to see what the exact role of Tarik Cohen will be in Nagy’s offense. Predominately used in the passing game, the 23-year-old runner has collected 814 rushing yards compared to his 1078 receiving yards. Will he become Chicago’s lead back now that Jordan Howard is in Philadelphia.
Throughout the draft process, many dubbed Iowa State’s David Montgomery an “Andy Reid type” runner. Nagy falls from Reid illustrious coaching tree, making him a proper fit for the Bears rushing attack. While a rookie, his role could expand quickly if a strong preseason plays in his favor.
But everything will fall on Trubisky’s growth. Last season, the 24-year-old had five games where he threw for under 200 yards. Surprisingly, Chicago won four of the five contest. But without an established running game, Chicago will rely more on the pass than in year’s pass.
Defense wins championships
If you want to wonder why the Bears finished with one of football’s top records, take a look at the defense. Following the acquisition of Khalil Mack from Oakland, Chicago’s defense became their focal point to success.
Numbers don’t lie. The Bears’ defense made them a contender. Finishing in the top-five of total points (1st), yards allowed (3rd), interceptions (1st) and sacks (3rd), Vic Fangio’s squad dominated teams every week.
But the team lost their long-time defensive coordinator to the Denver Broncos as well as strong safety Adrian Amos to rival Green Bay. Hoping to pick up the production, Pace signed fellow Alabama alum Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to patrol the secondary with Eddie Jackson.
“We just felt like here’s a great opportunity for him coming to this defense and this city and this organization,” coach Matt Nagy said according to NBC Sports J.J. Stankevitz. “And it’s a great opportunity for us where it could fill a role at that spot — two guys that played together at Alabama, with Ha Ha and Eddie (Jackson) — and it could be a win-win situation.”
Chicago finished seventh in total passing yards last season despite leading the league in turnovers. Clinton-Dix graded out with a 79.3 by Pro Football Focus where he collected three interceptions, but also allowed 9.1 yards per reception. Compare that to Amos who graded out with an 82.9 and collected a pair of interceptions in over 1,000 snaps last season.
The real loss for Chicago came when Bryce Callahan bolted to join Fangio in Denver. One of the games top slot defenders, it would have been interesting to see what could have been if he was healthy for the playoff game against Philadelphia.
Big time breakouts
Two significant losses on defense won’t stop the Bears from being a competitor. Not even the lack of coverage should stop Chicago from still being one of the NFC’s top team. But what will make the Bears contend this season is breakout performances.
Eddie Jackson shocked the NFL world last season with his six interception campaign. Chicago will need multiple players to take that jump early on to pull ahead in the NFC North. Trubisky will need to improve, but his weapons surrounding him could allow him to look better than he appears.
Miller could be a candidate for a breakout season. As a rookie, the 24-year-old receiver finished the season with 33 catches for 423 yards. He also scored seven touchdowns and according to Larry Mayer, Miller also fought a nagging shoulder injury that limited his production.
Pace, however, believes both Miller and Burton could become league names with a strong and healthy camp.
“We’ll be smart with those guys and how we ramp them in like we always are,” general manager Ryan Pace said Sunday during a pre-camp press conference in Decatur. “But we expect to go into this training camp in a pretty healthy state.”
On defense, this could be the year Leonard Floyd puts it all together. Chicago traded up to select the Georgia product, but his return has yet to merit a top 10 selection. Through three seasons, Floyd has registered just 15.5 sacks and no more than 4.5 since 2017.
Under the direction of new defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano, the Bears defense seems to be transitioning smoothly into his status. So while the loss of Fangio will sting, production should remain the same so long as Nagy is calling the shots.
“You also see some of those younger guys developing as we go forward,” Nagy said, according to Mayer.” I feel like Bilal [Nichols] is getting better. Leonard Floyd is still getting better. Roquan [Smith] is getting better. Eddie [Jackson] is getting better. We have a young, talented defense that’s improving as we go, and I think you can feel Chuck’s energy spreading through that defensive unit.”
If you look at the Bears roster, genuinely look at it, they’re an average team. Mack, Jackson and Akeem Hicks are stars for the defense, but offensively, it all relies on Trubisky’s progression and his weapon. While the Bears’ arsenal has shown promise, Robinson is the closest thing the team has to a number one receiver.
If he can’t create separation and win, the Bears passing game struggles. Nagy did state that Robinson’s maturity will play a role in the team’s success for 2019.
“When you have players that treat the game and respect the game the way he does every day in practice, during the game, he’s not a me guy. He doesn’t care what his stats are. He just wants to win.”
But it’s more than just an underwhelming offense that keeps Chicago out of the top spot. Only one look on paper and the NFC is a stronger conference far and away.
The New Orleans Saints were a play away from the Super Bowl in January while the Los Angeles Rams will return as a favorite. The Dallas Cowboys have a clear path ahead unless the Philadelphia Eagles have something to say about it. That will all rely on Carson Wentz and if he can remain healthy.
The Green Bay Packers did everything they could to make Aaron Rodgers happy and correct their defensive mistakes. Even the Minnesota Vikings and Atlanta Falcons can’t be considered sleepers despite disappointing seasons in 2018.
Mack and the defense can only do so much. The offense will need to match that same level of intensity if the team wants to win. Assuming they do so, Chicago should still be considered in the favorite column.
That’s a ton of pressure of Trubisky and company. Hopefully, the offense is ready to meet the defensive standard this season.
Cole Thompson is the Lead NFL writer for Pro Football Network. Follow him on Twitter at @MrColeThompson.