QUESTIONS ARE OF AN OFFENSIVE NATURE
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
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.