Stepping down in class
Bears’ 2018 draft picks have underwhelmed after team’s strong run last season
With the Bears losing five of their last six games, the search is on for explanations why they have fallen well short of expectations a year after going 12-4.
Quarterback Mitch Trubisky, coach Matt Nagy, the offensive line, the running game, a slumping kicker, a great reduction in takeaways, an underproducing Khalil Mack, injuries — the list goes on and on. That’s what happens when a team with Super Bowl aspirations trudges into a Week 12 meeting at Soldier Field with the Giants mired in third place in the NFC North and 10th in the conference at 4-6.
The Bears are an incredible long shot to make the postseason, something they haven’t done in consecutive years since 2005-06, and unless they win five of their final six games, they will finish with a non-winning record for the sixth time in seven seasons.
It foreshadows an interesting offseason for Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace, who will aim to get things fixed in quick order. That will mean a series of challenging decisions as the Bears will be short on premium draft picks and project to be tighter against the salary cap than they’ve been since Pace arrived in 2015. There are ways the Bears can manipulate the cap, but many of those moves would come with future consequences and spotrac.com ranks them 28th in available space for 2020.
Another reason the Bears have backslid this season is their young players haven’t made the type of gains you would like to see. Coaches say players make their biggest jump between their rookie and second seasons, and the Bears’ 2018 draft class simply hasn’t done that.
Inside linebacker Roquan Smith, the eighth pick in that draft, appears back to his instinctive and athletic ways after recording a game-high 11 tackles and an interception in last week’s 17-7 loss to the Rams. But he went through a midseason swoon after missing the Week 4 win over the Vikings for personal reasons.
Smith remains an important building block for the future, but he hasn’t elevated his play consistently through the first 10 games.
“He played a whale of a game,” defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. “He played fast, he was decisive, he was physical, played with emotion, played with fire and did a lot of great things. He started fast (this season) and had the one or two games where he just wasn’t himself for whatever reason, and now he’s back doing this.”
After eight games, the Bears moved 2018 second-round pick James Daniels from center to left guard for the Nov. 10 meeting with the Lions. While the Bears remain optimistic Daniels can be a high-caliber player, it’s impossible to spin the position switch as a positive development. At the outset of the offseason program, the Bears switched Daniels to center and Cody Whitehair to left guard because they believed each player would be at his best position.
“He’s hearing it from everywhere,” offensive line coach Harry Hiestand said. “(I told him) we’re all the problem. It’s shared.”
Wide receiver Anthony Miller, whom the Bears traded up to draft in the second round, is perhaps the most vexing young player. He missed the offseason program recovering from left shoulder surgery, then was slowed by an ankle sprain in training camp.
Details remain an issue for Miller. Nagy firmly placed the blame on Miller for Trubisky’s interception against the Rams. Miller was supposed to run his route on the outside to 14 yards, and he went 2 yards too far. The ball deflected off his hand and was picked off, so the Rams declined an offensive pass interference call on Miller.
“Obviously it’s magnified when it’s a pick, it’s magnified when he didn’t have to create the OPI,” offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich said. “It’s discipline. We’ll get it cleaned up.”
The Bears have praised Miller for being more dialed in to the nuances of the offense this season, but mistakes continue to pop up. He has 23 receptions on 41 targets (56.1%) for 272 yards and no touchdowns.
Pace traded a 2018 fourth-round pick and a 2019 second-rounder to select Miller at No. 51. He was very productive at Memphis with 1,448 yards and 16 touchdowns over his final two seasons, and the Bears were motivated to move up because of his explosive-play ability. The offense needs those big plays to flip the field, and Miller and the other wide receivers are not providing them.
Inside linebacker Joel Iyiegbuniwe, a 2018 fourth-round pick, has been one of the team’s better special teams player. He could compete for a starting spot next season if Danny Trevathan and Nick Kwiatkoski leave in free agency.
Defensive end Bilal Nichols, a fifth-round pick, has been solid but missed three games with a broken right hand.
Outside linebacker Kylie Fitts (sixth round) was released in the cut to the 53-man roster, and wide receiver Javon Wims (seventh round) has played sparingly.
Smith projects to be an excellent player, but with a talented group around him in the front seven, he hasn’t had the number of splash plays he’s capable of consistently making.
Daniels is only 22, and the Bears believe he has good football ahead of him with a strong pedigree coming from Iowa.
Miller has flashed playmaking ability, and the Bears narrowly missed a deep shot to him that would have gone for an 80-yard touchdown against the Rams. He has a knack for creating space, and that’s difficult to coach. He needs a greater mastery of the offense to be trusted and more productive.
With a shortage of draft picks this year, the Bears were counting on their 2018 class to take a large step forward, and that hasn’t happened — yet another frustration this season.
Bears general manager Ryan Pace, bottom, hasn’t gotten the necessary production from 2018 draft picks Roquan Smith (58), from top, James Daniels (68) and Anthony Miller (17).