WHERE BEARS STAND BE­FORE GO­ING TO CAMP

PASS RUSH, FRONT SEVEN LOOK TO BE TOP-NOTCH AGAIN, BUT SEC­ONDARY, QB, RUN­NING GAME ARE QUES­TION MARKS

Chicago Sun-Times - - BEARS BEAT - BY JA­SON LIESER | Jlieser@sun­times.com | @ja­sonLieser

Af­ter a fre­netic off­sea­son that in­cluded dump­ing some main­stays, re­vamp­ing the coach­ing staff and cre­at­ing a quar­ter­back com­pe­ti­tion, the Bears are a lit­tle more than a week away from find­ing out what kind of team they have.

Will new quar­ter­back Nick Foles be as good a fit as the Bears imag­ined when they paid a steep price to ac­quire him? Is the rest of the foot­ball world wrong about tight end Jimmy Graham’s de­cline? Will re­plac­ing a po­si­tion coach solve their of­fen­sive line woes?

The Bears haven’t been able to do any­thing but project and guess. The coro­n­avirus pan­demic forced the NFL to can­cel spring prac­tices, so coach Matt Nagy and his staff won’t get their first look at this team un­til they open train­ing camp July 28 — as­sum­ing that starts on time.

Here’s a look at what they have in six key aspects of the ros­ter:

PASS RUSHERS: BEST OF THE BEST

The Bears built their ros­ter around hav­ing a great pass rush be­cause of all the byprod­ucts that come from it. De­fen­sive backs don’t have to hold their cov­er­age as long, and op­pos­ing quarterbac­ks of­ten are pres­sured into mak­ing bad de­ci­sions, even if the Bears don’t get a sack.

Swap­ping out Leonard Floyd for Robert Quinn is an au­to­matic up­grade. All this group needs is for Quinn, Khalil Mack and Akiem Hicks to stay healthy and be them­selves. It would be a nice bonus, but the Bears aren’t bank­ing on Quinn re­turn­ing to the All-Pro form that got him 19 sacks in 2013. If he merely can re­peat what he did for the Cow­boys last sea­son — 11oe sacks, 22 quar­ter­back hits, two forced fum­bles — this pass rush should be over­whelm­ing.

RUN STOP­PERS: STILL SU­PERB

It was im­pres­sive that the Bears re­mained so good against the run last sea­son, even with the op­po­si­tion usu­ally play­ing with a lead and be­ing in­clined to drain the clock through the run­ning game. And they rarely got much of a rest be­tween pos­ses­sions. And they were miss­ing Hicks for

much of the sea­son. With all of that work­ing against them, the Bears were No. 9 in to­tal run de­fense (102 yards per game) and fifth in yards per carry (3.9).

Con­sider this: The Bears al­lowed 22 points or fewer in five of their eight losses last sea­son. Their de­fense was still cham­pi­onship­cal­iber, and there’s good rea­son to ex­pect line­backer Ro­quan Smith and oth­ers in the front seven to be bet­ter this sea­son.

Sec­ondary: No guar­an­tees

This is where the Bears ven­ture into some se­ri­ous un­cer­tain­ties. They’ll ben­e­fit from the elite pass rush and stars Kyle Fuller and Ed­die Jack­son, but they won’t go into train­ing camp with the sec­ondary so­lid­i­fied.

There’s a mas­sive drop-off at cor­ner­back af­ter Fuller. The Bears hope sec­ond-round pick Jay­lon John­son will be an im­me­di­ate starter. They hope recla­ma­tion project Ar­tie Burns gets back on track af­ter flam­ing out with the Steel­ers. They hope Kevin To­liver (16% of the de­fen­sive snaps last sea­son) or Duke Shel­ley (less than 1%) will fight his way into the mix. That’s a lot of hop­ing.

At safety, the Bears want to think they hit the jack­pot with their one-year of­fer to Tashaun Gip­son. He made the Pro Bowl for the Browns in 2014, but this is his third team since then, and the last two cut him.

Pass­ing game: Highly ques­tion­able

Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Cam New­ton and Teddy Bridge­wa­ter were avail­able this off­sea­son, but the Bears picked Foles. Not only did they have to give up a fourth-round draft pick to ac­quire him, but they also signed him to a three-year, $24 mil­lion deal.

That’s quite a com­mit­ment to a quar­ter­back who has started 13 games in the last four sea­sons. While Foles led the Ea­gles to a cham­pi­onship three years ago as a late-sea­son re­place­ment for Car­son Wentz, he has ex­actly one sea­son (2013) as a good, full-time NFL starter on his ré­sumé.

And if he doesn’t work out, the al­ter­na­tive is Mitch Trubisky. So there’s ma­jor con­cern at quar­ter­back but also many ques­tion marks on the of­fen­sive line and at tight end.

Up front, the Bears’ an­swer is that highly re­spected for­mer of­fen­sive line coach Harry Hi­e­s­tand must have been hold­ing them back and that new­comer Juan Castillo can fix the prob­lem. At tight end, the most im­por­tant non-quar­ter­back po­si­tion in Nagy’s of­fense, the idea is that a com­bi­na­tion of rookie Cole Kmet, strug­gling vet­eran Graham and un­her­alded Demetrius Har­ris will be enough.

Ground game: Do they have one?

The afore­men­tioned of­fen­sive line wor­ries ob­vi­ously af­fect the run­ning at­tack, too, but that’s not the cen­tral is­sue for the Bears. The big­gest vari­able in their run­ning game is Nagy’s com­mit­ment to it.

Is he ready to change? He’s a for­mer quar­ter­back who came up in the pass-happy of­fense of Andy Reid. And while he says he’s not al­ler­gic to run­ning the ball, there’s some con­cern­ing ev­i­dence to the con­trary. He set a fran­chise-record low by call­ing for only seven rushes against the Saints last sea­son and had eight other games with fewer than 25. (The NFL av­er­age was 25.4.)

This off­sea­son, Nagy has paid ex­tra at­ten­tion to get­ting the ground game back on track. He had no choice. With most of the per­son­nel re­turn­ing, in­clud­ing run­ning backs David Mont­gomery and Tarik Co­hen, the change needs to be philo­soph­i­cal.

Spe­cial teams: Per­pet­u­ally TBD

Kicker drama has been a Bears sta­ple the last few sea­sons, though they rather that would not be the case. They ap­pear to have moved on from the wild kicker try­outs they held a year ago, but there still will be a head-to-head com­pe­ti­tion be­tween in­cum­bent Eddy Pineiro and chal­lenger Ramiz Ahmed.

That prob­a­bly wouldn’t be the case if Pineiro had been more con­vinc­ing last sea­son. He roared in with a 53-yard gamewin­ner against the Bron­cos in Week 2, but that was for­got­ten when he hit a five-game slump in the mid­dle of the sea­son. His misses were alarm­ing, and so was Nagy’s oc­ca­sional aver­sion to even let­ting him try.

Pineiro is the fa­vorite to win the job, but his job security is only a lit­tle stronger than it was go­ing into last sea­son. ✶

JEFF HAYNES/AP

Pass-rush spe­cial­ist Robert Quinn had 11oe sacks and 22 quar­ter­back hits for the Cow­boys last sea­son. He should be a ma­jor up­grade over Leonard Floyd.

AP

Cor­ner­back Kyle Fuller (23) and safety Ed­die Jack­son (39) are the only sure things in the Bears’ sec­ondary.

AP PHOTO

Eddy Pineiro

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