With the Bears’ Sept. 13 opener vs. the Li­ons loom­ing, the Sun-Times’ ex­perts — Pa­trick Fin­ley, Ja­son Lieser and Mark Potash — ex­am­ine what they’ve seen in train­ing camp

Chicago Sun-Times - - SPORTS - PA­TRICK FIN­LEY JA­SON LIESER MARK POTASH pfin­ley@sun­times.com @patrick­fin­ley jlieser@sun­times.com @Ja­son­Lieser mpotash@sun­times.com @MarkPo­tash

The Bears’ quar­ter­back sit­u­a­tion is . . .

Pa­trick Fin­ley: Unset­tled, and it will re­main that way even after the Bears name a starter. Coach Matt Nagy has been clear the com­pe­ti­tion won’t end once the sea­son be­gins. The Bears’ first two games should set the starter up for suc­cess. But if they don’t, the starter will be look­ing over his shoul­der be­fore the leaves start to turn.

Ja­son Lieser: Dis­ap­point­ing. This is as good as it gets, Mitch Tru­bisky or Nick Foles? The most ex­as­per­at­ing part is that the Bears are cham­pi­onship-ready on the other side of the ball, but their mis­man­age­ment at quar­ter­back will un­der­mine that. And if Foles isn’t de­ci­sively bet­ter than Tru­bisky, the Bears would’ve been bet­ter off keep­ing their draft pick and sav­ing some money to use else­where.

Mark Potash: What it is. With­out pre­sea­son games to at least sim­u­late game speed, with­out live tack­ling, it was un­likely ei­ther quar­ter­back would pull away, so it’s not sur­pris­ing the quar­ter­back derby ap­pears mud­dled to the naked eye. David Mont­gomery’s in­jury is the big­gest im­ped­i­ment to the process. With­out a good run­ning game, nei­ther Tru­bisky nor Foles is likely to thrive.

Who will start at run­ning back?

PF: Tarik Co­hen and Cor­dar­relle Pat­ter­son on a tech­ni­cal­ity — in the last two sea­sons, Nagy has lined up his team in the fran­chise’s famed T-for­ma­tion for the first play of the year. Pre­sum­ing Mont­gomery can’t re­turn in time for the Li­ons game, plan on the Bears us­ing a pla­toon, with Pat­ter­son lead­ing the team in car­ries with, say, 12.

JL: The Bears will be fine at run­ning back with­out mak­ing a ma­jor ad­di­tion. If Mont­gomery misses the first two games, they can

count on Co­hen and Pat­ter­son. But it will re­quire both, and of­ten on the field at the same time, to avoid the run-game pre­dictabil­ity that hurt the Bears last sea­son.

MP: Co­hen is ill-fit­ted for a Mont­gomery-like run­ning back role, but he’s the next man up, and un­less Mont­gomery is out for longer than ex­pected, the Bears might go for a run­ning back-by­commit­tee so­lu­tion, which in­cludes in­cor­po­rat­ing Co­hen, Pat­ter­son, Ar­tavis Pierce and Ryan Nall. That’s not ideal for the open­ing game or two of the sea­son, but in­tro­duc­ing a run­ning back into the of­fense at this stage is likely to be prob­lem­atic. There seems like a lot to learn.

Nagy’s big­gest chal­lenge is . . .

PF: To pro­duce an aboveav­er­age of­fense after hir­ing three as­sis­tants to help chart a new di­rec­tion de­spite rac­ing through a short off­sea­son in which two quar­ter­backs had to share snaps, and have been un­der­whelm­ing in do­ing so, and de­spite the fact that wide re­ceiver Allen Robin­son has been nurs­ing an an­kle prob­lem and Mont­gomery a groin in­jury. If he can pull it off, the Bears’ de­fense can carry the team the rest of the way. But we said that last year, too.

JL: Adapt­ing. This is not a per­fect of­fense. There are ques­tions all over the depth chart. And what Nagy did the last two sea­sons hasn’t worked. He has to be will­ing to ad­just his phi­los­o­phy, es­pe­cially in the run­ning game, and find a way to work with this per­son­nel.

MP: Putting the en­tire of­fense to­gether. With Robin­son and Mont­gomery out, the quar­ter­back sit­u­a­tion unset­tled, three new tight ends, a work-in-progress of­fen­sive line and no other es­tab­lished wide re­ceivers, Nagy doesn’t even have one po­si­tion group he can hang his hat on. Get­ting all of them in sync in less than two weeks seems like a daunt­ing task, but, then again, we haven’t seen Detroit’s de­fense in train­ing camp, ei­ther. The Li­ons might have their own is­sues.

What prob­lem have the Bears solved in train­ing camp?

PF: They have only one tight end on the ros­ter who be­gan last year’s train­ing camp with them. The new tight ends have a lim­bolow bar to clear this sea­son — the Bears had the league’s worst unit last year — but seem up to the task. Jimmy Gra­ham could be a red-zone weapon, while Notre Dame rookie Cole Kmet and freeagent sign­ing Demetrius Har­ris are up­grades over Adam Sha­heen at the in-line “Y” spot. Even J.P. Holtz and Eric Saubert look like they’ll con­trib­ute.

JL: They seem to have nailed down what they want to do in the sec­ondary. Sec­ond-round pick Jay­lon John­son prob­a­bly needs more time, so they’ll work around that by us­ing slot cor­ner Buster Skrine out­side when­ever pos­si­ble.

MP: We won’t know un­til a month into the sea­son if the Bears have solved any of their is­sues. But the tight end corps is one is­sue they ad­dressed in the off­sea­son that seems al­most cer­tain to be im­proved. The Bears will get the ball to Gra­ham, Kmet and even Har­ris. But it re­mains to be seen if they will have room to run in an un­de­vel­oped of­fense.

What prob­lem looms?

PF: The quar­ter­backs, of course. Un­less Foles or Tru­bisky shock the league by be­ing the best ver­sion of them­selves for months at a time, the Bears’ 2021 starter isn’t on the ros­ter. Pre­sum­ing gen­eral man­ager Ryan Pace sur­vives to make the de­ci­sion, would the Bears trade for a vet­eran again next off­sea­son? Or move up in the first round again?

JL: New out­side line­backer Robert Quinn spent the first two weeks of prac­tice on the side­line — he played in team drills for the first time Satur­day — be­cause he still needed to ramp up, and de­fen­sive line­man Akiem Hicks has been out with a mi­nor in­jury. If those two miss time, it’s back to the same prob­lem as last sea­son: Khalil Mack on his own is not enough.

MP: The run­ning game. Es­tab­lish­ing a con­sis­tent run game was go­ing to be dif­fi­cult even with Mont­gomery healthy. If Mont­gomery misses reg­u­larsea­son games, the Bears will be chal­lenged to repli­cate the skills that made him such a “per­fect fit” for Nagy’s of­fense. And it bears re­peat­ing: If the Bears can’t run the ball, this of­fense very likely is doomed to strug­gle.

Who has im­pressed you the most?

PF: Ro­quan Smith has played most of the team’s padded prac­tices with­out Hicks, who has a quadri­ceps in­jury, or Ed­die Gold­man, who opted out, to keep block­ers off him. You can’t tell. Smith looks fast and rangy, and ev­ery bit the star the Bears be­lieve he can be.

JL: Ed­die Jack­son. He con­tin­ues to be the All-Pro tal­ent the Bears be­lieve him to be, and there’s no doubt he’ll play up to the $58.4 mil­lion ex­ten­sion they gave him in Jan­uary. He has been all over the field in camp and will be all sea­son.

MP: In a train­ing-camp set­ting with vir­tu­ally no tack­ling and not much hit­ting, a lit­tle Smith still goes a long way. The third-year line­backer looks big­ger, faster and bet­ter in cov­er­age and hasn’t done any­thing to dis­pel the no­tion that he’s ready for a break­out sea­son.

Which rookie stands out?

PF: I be­lieve John­son will make the big­gest im­pact this sea­son, but he has been lim­ited while he works his way back from shoul­der surgery in March. So I’ll take wide re­ceiver Dar­nell Mooney, who has learned the play­book, isn’t in­tim­i­dated by the NFL and has the speed to be a dif­fer­ence-maker.

JL: Kmet is the ob­vi­ous choice. It’s still go­ing to be a more grad­ual de­vel­op­ment for his po­si­tion com­pared to most oth­ers, but he looks ready to con­trib­ute. He has been a pro­duc­tive pass catcher and ca­pa­ble blocker. He’ll fac­tor into the game plan im­me­di­ately.

MP: Kmet is clearly the one rookie who looks like he’ll make the big­gest im­pact, though train­ing camp can al­ways be de­ceiv­ing. But don’t sleep on cor­ner­back Kin­dle Vil­dor, the fifth-round pick who has got­ten a lot of first-team reps with John­son out.


Safety Ed­die Jack­son (top photo, left, with Jay­lon John­son and Tashaun Gip­son) has been im­pres­sive this train­ing camp, as has in­side line­backer Ro­quan Smith, even with­out Akiem Hicks and Robert Quinn.

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