The Chicago Bears seem to be trapped in a time loop of adeptly creating a strong front seven coordinated by an excellent defensive mind, yet being completely unable to put together a functioning offense outside of an occasional above average running back. The greatest Bears quarterback of the last three decades is a walking punchline starring in his wife’s reality show, and even when the team does something right, it’s usually undone by a dozen poor decisions that undercut everything else.
The Bears probably won’t be as embarrassing this season as they were in 2017, most of their off-season moves make a good deal of sense, and they are due for a positive regression on the injury front, but there are still big problems on this team and improvements to the rest of the NFC North will leave them in the dust once again.
Let’s start with the good. Vic Fangio is an excellent defensive coordinator who has already worked some miracles operating with a skeleton crew. The Bears were hit hard with injuries on both offense and defense last season, a repeat of their 2016 injury luck. In the NFL injuries are not as random as they are in other sports, and injury prone teams tend to remain injury prone. However, the Bears have now turned over enough of their roster — and enough of their injury-prone players — that some improvement is likely. While injuries tanked the offense in Chicago, Fangio kept the defense afloat as they managed to rank 14th in DVOA overall despite losing the 3rd-most adjusted games to injury of any defense.
The defense is anchored by the front seven, and the linebackers in particular where Danny Trevathan and Leonard Floyd will be joined by former 49er and Fangio charge Aaron Lynch and first round pick Roquan Smith. (Editor’s note: this assumes that Smith signs his rookie contract at some point, which currently remains the subject of tense negotiations.) Sam Acho is also a starting-caliber linebacker who will, at the very least provide production as a rotational player and, in addition to Smith, the team spent a 4th rounder on Joel Iyiegbuniwe. The Bears, as always, love their linebackers, and they have an abundance of good ones.
The defensive line is anchored by Akiem Hicks, who is coming off back-to-back excellent seasons in which he started all 16 games, a rarity on the Bears’ defense. Hicks was a nice find by the front office after an average start to his career in New Orleans. Combined with Eddie Goldman and Jonathan Bullard, this line is more than capable of occupying offensive linemen and allowing the talented linebackers behind them to get all the glory.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Bears finally crack the top 10 in defensive production, but if they do it won’t be because of the secondary. While Kyle Fuller held up well last season, the Packers put an offer sheet on the restricted free agent and as a result the Bears had to give him a raise, cutting down on the surplus value he provides. Fuller will be the seventh-highest paid player on the team, a few spots behind corner-mate Prince Amukamara. Amukamara was signed away from Jacksonville before the 2017 season to aid in rebuilding the secondary, but he was well below average across the board, ranking 63rd in Football Outsiders’ success rate against the pass and only accumulating seven passes defended in 50 targets. It showed in their overall metrics, as the Bears ranked just 20th against number one receivers while holding up much better against opposing number twos.
The Bears didn’t add a single defensive back of note in the off-season, which means they will be relying on the growth of Fuller and safeties Adrian Amos and Eddie Jackson to improve. It’s possible this plan will work, as both safeties have proven to be adept in run support and flashed explosiveness in coverage. The problem is that Amukamara and the depth behind him are simply awful. Slot corner Bryce Callahan provided average coverage as slot receivers ranked 15th against the Bears, but the Bears really struggled against four and five-wide looks as they ranked 26th in defending “other non-slot receivers.” That could be a problem for them in the pass-happy NFC North.
Still, this is a defense on the rise, continuing a pattern that is nearly four decades old. The Bears spent capital and draft picks getting Fangio’s crew up to speed, and it seems likely they will at least be good. The question with the Bears is always about the offense and whether it can finally enter the modern age.
That’s not an understatement as former head coach John Fox ran one of the most conservative, antiquated offenses I’ve seen since the 1980s. Some of this was simply due to the massive amount of injuries they suffered, some of it was due to the lack of a decent quarterback and the inexplicable decision to pay money for and start Mike Glennon, and some of it was simply because John Fox is like a hundred years old. To address this problem the Bears replaced Fox with Matt Nagy, formerly of the Kansas City Chiefs and the Andy Reid coaching tree. Nagy has a decent history as a QB guru (including getting Alex Smith to actually throw down the field), and he managed to shoot some life into the Chiefs with his play-calling. Pulling off a big turnaround with the Bears is going to take some magic though, as the team is a mess in terms of personnel.
The Bears’ offensive line, anchored by Kyle Long, is fine. They may even be slightly above average, but it was hard to tell in 2017 because there was no deception in the team’s play-calling and defenses basically knew what was coming. The Bears threw the ball less than anyone else last year and played at a glacial pace, relying on workhorse Jordan Howard and speedy Tarik Cohen to generate whatever the Bears’ version of offense is.
Howard and Cohen were fine on the ground where the Bears’ offense was 17th in DVOA, but both were simply awful as receivers, ranking near the bottom in receiving DVOA for running backs. This is a big problem in the modern NFL, where receiving and pass protection are far more valuable than actually running the ball. For Howard, the problem is his hands, as he is prone to dropping even the easiest dump-offs. Cohen should theoretically be a good receiver, but the Bears spent too much time “getting him the ball in space,” which never works in real life. Cohen also has a knack for running sideways and backwards when he should just turn upfield and get what he can. The best Bear receiving back was actually Benny Cunningham, who averaged 12 yards per catch and ranked 5th among backs in receiving DVOA.
The Bears will bring a host of new receivers and tight ends into the 2017 season, and for good reason. The leading qualifying receiver for Chicago in 2017 was Kendall Wright, who ranked 58th in DVOA (just ahead of Jordy Nelson). Cameron Meredith and Kevin White started last year as the incumbents, but White suffered another setback and at this point is unlikely to turn into anything. Meredith tragically tore his ACL as well, and was signed as a restricted free agent by the Saints in the offseason.
To right the ship, the team brought in Allen Robinson from the Jaguars. Robinson is an odd choice given his own injury history, and the fact that he really only has one truly good season under his belt. Lack of production could be blamed on substandard quarterbacking in Jacksonville, but that is likely to continue in Chicago. Mitch Trubisky was atrocious when throwing to outside receivers last season, and merely poor throwing to the slot. Perhaps Robinson, a superior talent to anyone they had last season, will fix the issues outside, but he was unable to do so for Blake Bortles, who was similarly bad throwing outside, and meh throwing to his slot weapons.
The Bears seem to have taken notice of this weakness and spent a good amount of capital, both monetary and draft-wise, on slot receivers and tight ends. Taylor Gabriel has had a few nice seasons with Atlanta, and may flourish with some additional targets in Chicago. The Bears also spent a second round pick on Memphis’ Anthony Miller, who has been impressive in camp so far. They signed free agent tight end Trey Burton, late of the Super Bowl champion Eagles, to complement second year tight end Adam Shaheen. There’s a lot of potential in all of those players, and Shaheen and Burton could make for a very nice duo of athletic receiving tight ends, but there is also a limit to the number of TEs and slot WRs you can play at once. Unless you have Tom Brady under center, being so one-dimensional is a problem.
This makes for a bit of a mess in terms of roster construction. There’s a lot of potential in Robinson, Burton, Shaheen, Gabriel, Miller, Howard, and Cohen, but almost all of the receivers and tight ends are young, inexperienced, or have something to prove, and if the Bears are counting on the quarterback to elevate them…
The Elephant in the Room
Mitch Trubisky was their guy, and in the 2017 draft the Bears traded away a pretty big haul for the privilege of moving up one spot and drafting Mitch. Except they also handed out a fairly large (but not punitive) contract to journeyman Mike Glennon to start the season. Those picks turned into:
- DE Solomon Thomas
- RB Alvin Kamara
- S Ted(ric) Thompson
- LB Fred Warner
(Also, Deshaun Watson went 10 picks later.)
The Bears are a living cautionary tale on draft hubris, and there is an alternate universe where they stayed put and turned the entire franchise around on the back of Watson and depth acquired with the additional picks. Watson had an amazing, injury-shortened rookie season for Houston, leading the league in QBR, DVOA on passes to outside receivers, and DVOA on passes to slot receivers. Mitch Trubisky entered a situation with a caveman calling plays, and no offensive talent to speak of. He finished 29th in DVOA, and while there are plenty of perfectly fine excuses as to why he struggled, he also missed out on a crucial year of development under less-than-ideal circumstances. Trubisky may be a good player one day, but getting the Fox stink off of him is going to take some time, if it ever happens at all. If it doesn’t, the Bears will settle, once again, into their reliable pattern of defensive competence flanked by complete offensive ineptitude.
The Bears are very much a work in progress, and with the return of Aaron Rodgers, the outstanding talent of the Vikings, and the Lions just sorta hanging around being the Lions, they still have a long way to go to get competitive. The defense may steal a win or two that they don’t deserve, and 8-8 seems possible if Trubisky can actually be something. But in a stacked NFC, 8-8 isn’t worth anything, and given that they’re closer to 6-10 in terms of true talent, they have a long way to go.