NFL

The Round-Up: Chicago Bears Edition

Introduction

JANUARY 6TH, 2019: BEARS’ MAGICAL SEASON ENDS ON MISSED FIELD GOAL

Heartbreak, disgust, and frustration. A magical season lost on one play. Until 2018, the Chicago Bears had remained dormant for eight seasons as a result of mediocre quarterback play, injury, and poor coaching. After his third year, general manager Ryan Pace fired then-head coach John Fox because of the team’s constant inability to win games. With a young quarterback needing development and a Vic Fangio-led defense statistically ranked in the top 10 the previous season, the fourth-year GM hired former Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy, another in the long line of Andy Reid disciples, to undertake first-time head coaching duties of the most prestigious organization in NFL history.

To uplift the mindset of a fanbase who had suffered through misery for multiple seasons, Pace invested heavily in the 2018 offseason, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Adhering to the principle of surrounding a young quarterback with weapons for low-risk development, the Bears signed former Jaguars receiver Allen Robinson, former Eagles tight end Trey Burton, and former Falcons receiver Taylor Gabriel to multi-year contracts. In the 2018 NFL Draft, they also selected guard James Daniels as an athletic, versatile interior offensive lineman to protect Mitch Trubisky.

However, these additions don’t compare to the upgrades on defense. Chicago traded multiple future assets for Hall-of-Fame-caliber edge rusher Khalil Mack and drafted Roquan Smith with the 8th overall pick. After paying Mack the heftiest contract for a defensive player in league history, the Bears had a simply incredible 2018 season, finishing with a 12-4 regular-season record before Cody Parkey happened.

Even though this franchise flashed a lot of promise with the emergence of Akiem Hicks, Kyle Fuller, and Eddie Jackson, the Bears’ 2019 offseason was questionably underhyped. How would the reincarnation of “Monsters of the Midway” treat their future in the spring/summer of 2019?

The Losses

Don’t worry, Bears fans, your relief has arrived. Chicago released kicker Cody Parkey after a dreadful 2018 campaign, culminating in a missed field goal that ultimately ended Chicago’s season. To this day, Chicago’s kicker situation has been and looks to be a problem, even though training camp.

Pace also dealt former Pro Bowl running back Jordan Howard to the Philadelphia Eagles for a 6th-round pick. While Howard showed flashes of brilliance in the early stages of his career as a powerful downhill runner, it became quite clear that his ability, or lack thereof, as a true pass-catcher would not mesh well in Nagy’s system.

However, neither of those losses are as remotely crushing when compared to those in the secondary. Chicago lost the best slot corner in the NFL, as Bryce Callahan left in free agency for the Denver Broncos after a spectacular 2018 season, where he would have made First-Team All-Pro if not for injuries.

BRONCOS SLOT CORNERBACK BRYCE CALLAHAN’S TERRIFIC 2018-19 SEASON

The Bears blundered heavily by not extending Callahan. Slot corner is one of the most difficult positions to play, as they deal with quicker and faster receivers, so the nickel defenders who play this position need freakish athleticism to play well. This necessity also explains why there are very few truly elite slot corners in the league, compared to most other positions.

Chicago also lost another key piece of their secondary when strong safety Adrian Amos Jr left in a contract year to the Bears’ division rival, the Green Bay Packers, after a terrific 2018 campaign. Amos was a fixture in Vic Fangio’s scheme since 2015, and often were times where he was the only light in the mediocrity of the pre-2018 Bears defense. One of the most underrated defensive players in the entire league, Amos was ranked by Pro Football Focus as the third-best safety in the game over the last two seasons, only behind All-Pros Harrison Smith and Earl Thomas III, so this loss is going to hurt this defense in 2019.

Last but not least, defensive mastermind Vic Fangio left his post at defensive coordinator to become the head coach of the Denver Broncos, after creating a terror known as the top-ranked defense last season. Fangio also took former Bears secondary coach Ed Donatell to the Broncos to serve as defensive coordinator. Both Fangio and Donatell had crucial roles in developing stars such as Kyle Fuller, Eddie Jackson, and Akiem Hicks as well, leading to everyone on the Bears’ defense producing the best season of their respective careers. By this count, the Bears lost 4 crucial pieces to their defense, and their plan to acquire more pieces became quite unclear…

The Additions

Don’t be alarmed, Bears fans. This front office made up for a majority of these losses. On the offensive side of the ball, Pace and Nagy repeatedly addressed their depth at specific skilled positions. With the departure of Jordan Howard via trade, Chicago traded up for Iowa State runner David Montgomery to be the future of the franchise at running back. The former Cyclone has an incredible motor, coupled with versatility in the receiving game that’s welcomed in Nagy’s system.

Chicago also signed former Seahawks runner Mike Davis, whose burst and unique vision sets him up as a wonderful change-of-pace back in this Bears offense. While he may not get a multitude of carries in 2019, Davis should spell David Montgomery and speedster Tarik Cohen as another running back with a different skillset. Along with Montgomery, the Bears drafted Florida Atlantic runner Kerrith Whyte Jr for more depth, furthermore creating a backfield of diversely-talented ball carriers.

The Bears added receivers Cordarrelle Patterson and Marvin Hall via free agency. New England displayed Patterson’s versatility in 2018, often running him out of single-back formations. Patterson also adds value as one of the best kick returners in the game, lessening the risk of injury for Tarik Cohen, an integral piece in Chicago’s passing game. Hall was a key deep ball threat for the Falcons in 2018, but because Taylor Gabriel has that same skillset, his role will be to provide consistent depth.

The Bears also drafted Riley Ridley in the fourth round, a high-upside wide receiver from Georgia who can be extremely physical when the ball arrives. Ridley also possesses great hands and will be a fixture in this receiver room for quite some time. If he plays well enough in training camp and preseason, don’t be surprised if the brother of current Falcons receiver Calvin Ridley gets starting reps over some of the veterans signed earlier this offseason.

As for the cherry on top (for the offense), Pace extended right tackle Bobby Massie for the next four seasons, protecting Trubisky while he develops. Signing Massie to a long-term deal only shows one thing; the Bears’ front office is determined to follow one of the key philosophies of football: “Build the trenches”, a tenet this front office would conform to on both sides of the ball.

Speaking of the defensive side of the ball, Chicago signed defensive tackles Roy Robertson-Harris and edge defender Aaron Lynch to one-year extensions, solidifying a powerful rotation alongside the Bears’ front four. Because this front already has superstars such as Khalil Mack, Leonard Floyd, and Akiem Hicks, this depth can provide valuable snaps in order to keep the starters fresh for late-game situations.

KHALIL MACK, #52 DE/OLB, CHICAGO BEARS: WORTH EVERY PENNY

The aforementioned secondary wasn’t left to dry, either. Chicago brought in former Jets slot corner Buster Skrine through 2021. Skrine is noticeably a worse player than Callahan, however, his aggressive playstyle and knack for finding the football should be a tremendous asset to this secondary. Former Packers and Redskins strong safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was signed to a one-year deal as well. While Clinton-Dix isn’t as talented as Adrian Amos was, he’ll look to provide the same hard-hitting mentality to this secondary as Amos did. 2019 added a lot of rookie depth to the Bears’ secondary, with the selections of Kansas State corner Duke Shelley in the 5th round and Valdosta State defensive back Stephen Denmark in the 7th. While this team may have lost some key talent, their acquisitions via cheap free-agent deals and the draft supplemented them with just enough aptitude as well as depth for the 2019 go-around.

Pace, in his final move of the 2019 overhaul, hired former Colts head coach and Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano as the new DC for 2019. While the disappointment of the Colts in the post-AFC Championship era hangs over his head, Pagano has also coached some elite defenses in the past, such as the 2011 Baltimore Ravens. While the 2019 Bears don’t possess the Hall-of-Fame talent that Baltimore was gifted with (Ed Reed, Ray Lewis, Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs), Pagano is easily capable of building off the foundation that Fangio built for this elite unit in the previous season.

An Overview

While Chicago only had 5 draft selections, they were able to add a lot of young talent on both sides of the ball. However, their tendency to trade up and lose picks is worrisome, especially when they’ll have to pay a lot of their defensive players (Eddie Jackson).

This overall free agency period was great. Extending bodies on the front four is always beneficial to the success of any defense, and incorporating versatile skillsets from different free agents minimizes injury risk as well as adds a lot more firepower to Trubisky’s arsenal.

For most teams, a second offseason under a new head coach usually pays off, just because an offense is allowed to build chemistry by fine-tuning their strengths and figuring out what works and what doesn’t, and Chicago is no exception. Despite Trubisky’s glaring accuracy weaknesses in 2018, an offseason under Nagy along with new weapons allows him to refine his mechanical prowess and develop better timing with his receivers. Chicago’s receiver depth also reflects their conscious effort to make its young quarterback’s life much easier, especially after a Pro Bowl season.

Chicago also added a lot of quality depth in the secondary, along with their defensive back replacements. All in all, the expectation for this defense should be a slight regression back to Planet Earth, but the unit won’t be forced to put the team on its back at all. In fact, Chicago’s offseason strongly indicated that they would rely a lot less on their defense to manufacture turnovers and that the offense would take a step further from its debut.

Season Prediction

Many discuss the key additions Green Bay made in the offseason, using them to warrant Green Bay’s reclamation of the NFC North’s throne. However, what those passionate Packers fans fail to realize is that Chicago’s still the reigning champ until proven otherwise. The Bears have more talent than much of the NFC at most positions besides quarterback and tight end, and that’s how 2019 looks to be for this team.

Record-wise, the Bears have a 10-win floor and a 13-win ceiling. This team is just so much better than almost every other team in the NFC, and an elite defense can make any opponent’s life completely miserable. Moreover, third-year Mitch Trubisky will be a lot more refined than he was in 2018, hopefully developing into a more accurate quarterback. The Bears have done almost everything to make him a better field general, and he’s shown he can make big-time throws in big-time moments, especially in the playoffs.

The Bears defense is elite enough to win 10 games with very little help from its offense, so predicting that this team’s regular season and playoff upside is fully dependent on Mitch Trubisky and Matt Nagy is no understatement at all. This team easily has enough talent to be a top 1-2 seed in the NFC, and at the end of the 2019 campaign, the Monsters of the Midway may finally restore the Bears to former glory.

#BEARDOWN

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