Matt Barkley, the Chicago Bears’ 3rd-string quarterback last season, saw significant time in seven games for the 2016 version of the Bears. In five of those seven games he threw two or more interceptions, and all five were losses. In his clean games, the Bears managed to go 1-1, including a narrow 20-17 loss to the Lions and a 26-6 beatdown of the pathetic San Francisco 49ers. Barkley was just about as bad as a quarterback can be, and served as a microcosm of what went wrong for Chicago both in terms of execution and luck last season.
The Bears have been a joke to Packers fans for awhile now, and last year’s 3-13 record wasn’t exactly unexpected. But underneath the surface of this bottom-feeder, GM Ryan Pace has been quietly implementing John Fox’s boring, dependable system. What many have failed to notice (with good reason) is that this rebuild is farther along than anyone realizes. The Bears are not threats to contend just yet, but don’t be surprised if they rise to the level of “mediocre-pain-in-the-ass” in 2017. So why should you believe me when I say that the Bears are about to take a titanic leap forward?
Football Outsiders has a metric called “Adjusted Games Lost” which tracks just how hard injuries hit a team in a given year. AGL goes beyond simply counting up missed games; it also weights starters more heavily, and used the pre-game injury designations to identify players who are likely playing hurt. From year-to-year, injuries do show some trends and aren’t strictly random, but there is a lot of randomness involved, and it is a near certainty that the Bears will be healthier in 2017.
In 2016, Chicago suffered the worst AGL of any team in 17 years, with 155.1 games lost.
For comparison, the Packers, who were almost exactly average, lost 70.5 adjusted games to injury.
The Bears’ injuries were devastating and widespread. They were the 2nd-most-injured team in the league on offense, due only to a record-setting effort from the VIkings, and the most-injured team on defense, where no individual unit was within the top 20 in health. This is especially devastating for a team led by John Fox, who builds his teams around defense, and in this case around an excellent defensive coordinator in Vic Fangio. Make no mistake, the Bears have good individual pieces on their defense, and if those same injuries don’t manifest in 2017, they will be a force.
The team is particularly stacked at EDGE, where Pernell McPhee, Willie Young, Lamarr Houston, and Leonard Floyd figure to make life miserable for opposing quarterbacks. Young is coming off of a 7.5 sack season, with McPhee chipping in 4 sacks in just 9 games (a shoulder injury required offseason labrum surgery). Lamarr Houston suffered a torn ACL and missed virtually all of 2016 after an 8-sack effort in 2015, and Leonard Floyd will enter his second season after a very impressive, though injury-shortened 7 sack season.
While it’s easy to see Houston taking some time to return to 100%, the other 3 should all be back to normal at the start of the regular season, and Floyd displayed enough potential in his rookie campaign to make opposing NFC North quarterbacks very nervous. Danny Trevathan, Jerrell Freeman, and Nick Kwiatkowski, if healthy, should provide solid play in the middle at inside linebacker. The Bears are only average up front, but a healthy Eddie Goldman should competently anchor the middle while the underrated Akiem Hicks causes even more trouble at end. The backups in the front 7 are an excellent collection of potential (Jonathan Bullard in particular) and useful skill players.
In the secondary, the Bears were legitimately weak in 2016. The one area in which Chicago was actually healthier than Green Bay produced lackluster results as only safety Adrian Amos exceeded expectations. Kyle Fuller had as disappointing a season as any Packer corner, and the rest of the squad was completely decimated. The Bears tapped the free agent market to address this problem, adding Prince Amukamara from Jacksonville and Quintin Demps from Houston. The secondary has potential, but in reality it probably only needs to be average if the pass rush delivers. Fox and Fangio know what they’re doing on this side of the ball and GM Ryan Pace has given them the pieces to put together a good one; they just need to be on the field. If this unit can maintain average health, they will beat people up and stymie good offenses. They may not be a top five unit quite yet, but top ten isn’t out of the question.
Let’s start with the fact that the Chicago offense isn’t great, but it’s probably better than you might think. It was as ravaged by injury as the defense last season, and while they didn’t put up a ton of points they also weren’t miserable, finishing a respectable 17th in DVOA.
It’s easy to focus on the debacle that existed at quarterback and the injury problems endured by Alshon Jeffery and Kevin White, but the disaster in the receiving corps undercut a standout season from an excellent offensive line anchored by former Packer guard Josh Sitton. Despite injuries, bad quarterback play, and awful skill position players, the Bear line was 7th in the league in Adjusted Sack Rate last season while also providing outstanding run blocking for rookie sensation Jordan Howard, who did everything Ezekiel Elliott did without half of the supporting cast. The power game for the Bears enters the season second to none. The questions on offense center around the quarterbacks and pass catchers, but it’s worth keeping in mind that with a good defense and running game, those questions are far less important than they would be for a team like Green Bay.
What no one seems to realize about the Bears is that Pace and Fox already have what they want in place. This team is equipped, right now, to play high-level defense while they control the game on the ground, protect the ball, and play field position. The receivers and quarterback, should they offer anything at all, are merely icing on the cake.
In my Viking preview I called Minnesota “boring trendsetters” for their focus on limiting interceptions. Here again, we see that philosophy rear its boring head. Mike Glennon isn’t a great or even a good quarterback, but for his career he throws a pick on 2.4% of his passes. Jay Cutler could move an offense, but his 3.3% INT rate would always serve to provide easy points for the opposing team and undercut good defenses. Matt Barkley’s 6.8% INT rate (and general terribleness) completely doomed the team last season. Glennon, if he is the starter, will be called upon to act as a caretaker in service to the defense and running game, and his history suggests he can flourish in that role.
If that was the sum total of the Bear offensive preview they would be interesting enough as a rebuilding team poised to make a decent jump in the standings, but there is some sizzle to go along with this steak. When the Bears were drafting, I and many others were highly critical of their trade up to get Mitchell Trubisky, and several subsequent draft picks also seemed to be, frankly, insane. The Bears only made five picks total, many on skill position players that seemed like small school reaches. However, I have come to appreciate this particular draft even though it violated almost every rule I have about conducting a successful draft.
I thought the Bears would go with defensive players early and often, capitalizing on one of the deepest defensive drafts in years to build a truly dominant unit. However, while the 2017 draft was loaded, it was mostly loaded with EDGE players, of which the Bears already have many. While the league zigged, the Bears instead zagged. They trusted in the fact that injury regression alone would be enough to help the defense, bolstered by free agency, and instead, they went for high-risk, high-ceiling offensive talent.
Trubisky is one of many aces in the hole they now have at their disposal. While the Bears undoubtedly overpaid, he was my favorite quarterback prospect in the draft and should he develop into even a league average player, this team instantly becomes a perennial playoff contender. The Bear line is also well-suited to develop a quarterback as they will provide Trubisky with ample time to read defenses and make easy, rookie throws, while Howard puts him in manageable down-and-distance situations. In the second round the Bears reached for raw but athletic tight end Adam Shaheen of of Ashland (and who is known for his love of Chipotle) while also grabbing teeny-tiny running back Tarik Cohen out of North Carolina A&T in the 4th. Both were strange picks of small school players with odd physical characteristics, but both are also potential stars. Shaheen is a physical monster, and Cohen has the look of a Sproles-ian receiving back and complement to Howard, though that role is currently occupied by Jeremy Langford.
The returning Bears all have questions hovering over them. Former first-round pick Kevin White has never been healthy, Cameron Meredith is a decent 3rd or 4th receiver at best, and everyone else is replacement level or worse. The Bears brought in the remains of Victor Cruz, as well as Markus Wheaton, who has yet to live up to his considerable talents. At tight end, Zach Miller has his moments and can still be useful until Shaheen is ready. At worst it’s a group of complementary players that can operate around the running game, but there is enough potential in young players to be intriguing.
The Bears remind me a bit of the Milwaukee Brewers. They’ve created a base that’s at least good enough to linger around .500, but they’ve also given themselves a few lottery tickets that could pay off even more. No one expected the Brewers to get All-Star level seasons from the likes of Travis Shaw, Eric Thames, or Domingo Santana, but they did, and are in contention because of it. Even if they hadn’t, the future would still have looked bright.
The Bears injected a solid base with some star potential. Fox did what he does in building a defense and they should rival the Vikings in short order. If they want to be boring and mediocre, that option is available immediately, and is still a decent stepping stone towards better things. If Trubisky can develop on top of everything else, the Bears may have something special, and sooner than you probably think.
I expect that they will finish ahead of the Lions this year, somewhere in the 7-9 or 8-8 range, and if the Packers hold off the Vikings to win the division, don’t be surprised if the Bear power rushing attack overwhelming a suspect Minnesota interior plays a part.