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