Step­ping down in class

Bears’ 2018 draft picks have un­der­whelmed af­ter team’s strong run last sea­son

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - BEARS - Brad Biggs

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.

CHICAGO TRIBUNE PHO­TOS BY JOSE M. OSO­RIO (SMITH, DANIELS), BRIAN CAS­SELLA (MILLER) AND ERIN HOO­LEY (PACE)

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).

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