Khalil Mack and the Bears need better production from the offense if they want to get back to the playoffs
It was no secret that the Bears' primary concern in the offseason was improving a quarterback situation that was abysmal last year with Mitchell Trubisky, the second overall draft pick in 2017. To that end, GM Ryan Pace, whose legacy is intertwined with Trubisky's, swung a trade for Nick Foles. The eight-year veteran has combined tremendous success under the brightest lights with injury and journeyman-type mediocrity. The Bears go to training camp characterizing the situation as an "open competition," but the smart money says Foles will be leading the team sooner rather than later.
Despite last season's disappointing 8-8 finish following a 12-4 campaign in 2018, the Bears still have a playoff-caliber defense. But they need drastic improvement on offense, specifically at quarterback, if they are to return to the playoffs.
Trubisky regressed in 2019, failing to demonstrate a stronger grasp of the offense in his second year in the same system and third season as the Bears' starter. His lack of ability to see the field is also a concern, and he seemed loathe to use his athleticism and running ability to salvage plays as he had done proficiently in 2018. Foles, the Super Bowl LII MVP, could be an upgrade, but he's no sure thing. He suffered a fractured clavicle on the Jaguars' second series of the 2019 opener and then, after he returned, lost his job on merit to sixth-round rookie Gardner Minshew. Foles has started just 13 regular-season games in the last four years.
Wide receiver Allen Robinson II was the only reliable offensive threat the Bears possessed in 2019, and the offense should once again run through him. Robinson caught 98 passes for 1,147 yards and seven touchdowns. Wide receiver Anthony Miller averaged 12.6 yards on 52 catches but scored just twice and will be coming off yet another shoulder surgery. Miller is tough and has had some big-play moments, including seven touchdowns as a rookie in 2018, but he would benefit from more consistency and greater attention to detail in his route running. The Bears have done little to upgrade the supporting cast at wide receiver, which was woefully inadequate in 2019, but are hoping veteran Ted Ginn Jr. can provide some steady production.
The addition of way-past-his-prime Jimmy Graham is an upgrade at tight end, but that's not saying much, considering the position was a wasteland in 2019. In his heyday, the 33-year-old Graham was a red zone menace, but he has averaged 11.7 yards on a combined 93 catches the past two seasons with just five touchdowns. By using their first draft pick (second round, 43rd overall) on Notre Dame's Cole Kmet, the first tight end taken in the draft, the Bears believe they've turned the position into a strength.
The Bears were 29th in scoring in 2019 (17.5 points per game) and 31st in yards per play (4.7), and the attack was nearly devoid of explosive plays, as Trubisky finished No. 32 in passing yards per attempt at 6.1. Aside from Graham and Kmet, there have been no significant additions at the skill positions, disappointing given the lack of game-changing performances last season. Pint-sized running back Tarik Cohen caught 79 passes but averaged just 5.8 yards per catch.
As a rookie, third-round draft pick David Montgomery flashed the tackle-breaking talent that characterized his career at Iowa State. But he was sometimes underutilized in an offense that has failed to consistently commit to the run game in two years under Nagy. He's expected to play a larger role this year. Cohen was a productive complement as a rookie in 2018, but he spent too much time running diagonally in 2019 and averaged just 3.3 yards per carry.
The performance up front was so disappointing in 2019 that it cost well-respected offensive line coach Harry Hiestand his job. Four of the five starters are expected to return: left tackle Charles Leno Jr., right tackle Bobby Massie, center Cody Whitehair and left guard James Daniels. Veteran free-agent addition Germain Ifedi is expected to fill the void at right guard left by Kyle Long, who was released after multiple injuries made him just a shell of his former Pro Bowl self. But Ifedi will have to battle Rashaad Coward, a project who has some upside. This group has not distinguished itself as pass protectors (21st in sacks allowed) or as run blockers. The ground game averaged just 3.69 yards per attempt, ranking 29th.
In its first season under new defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano, this unit was not quite as lethal as it was in 2018, mainly because big plays dropped precipitously. The Bears plummeted to 26th in interception rate and 27th in sack percentage last year after ranking first and ninth, respectively, a year earlier. Still, Pagano's crew allowed just one point more per game than Vic Fangio's last Bears defense.
The group still has Pro Bowl performers at all three levels: Akiem Hicks up front, outside linebacker Khalil Mack, cornerback Kyle Fuller and safety Eddie Jackson. The Bears found out last season just how valuable Hicks is. An elbow injury in Week 3 limited him to just two more games, both of which he played at less than full strength, and his absence was noticeable. The Bears allowed 13 points per game before Hicks was hurt, but 20 per game after that. Mack felt the loss of Hicks as much as anyone, as his sacks dropped from 12.5 to 8.5, his lowest total since his rookie season. Hicks also needs to stay healthy because starting tackle Eddie Goldman has opted out.
The Bears finally pulled the plug on outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, who never approached his potential. To replace him, they signed nine-year veteran Robert Quinn, whose production as a pass rusher — 80.5 career sacks, including 11.5 last season — gives the team a proven sack man, rather than the promise of one. Quinn was a two-time Pro Bowler with the Rams in 2013 and '14, when he had 29.5 sacks. Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan provide an excellent young-old mix at inside linebacker, provided Trevathan stays healthy. He's missed 18 games in his four years as a Bear, including seven last season. Smith, the eighth overall draft pick in 2018, is a difference-maker with Pro Bowl potential. But the free-agency loss of Nick Kwiatkoski robs them of an ascending player.
The biggest question mark is who will replace nine-year veteran cornerback Prince Amukamara, a solid three-year starter in Chicago who was a salary-cap casualty. It could be free agent Artie Burns, a 2016 first-round pick who never worked out in Pittsburgh. The Bears also like the size-speed-athleticism combo of Kevin Toliver, II a pet project since he went undrafted out of LSU in 2018. But second-round pick Jaylon Johnson should have every opportunity to earn the starting spot opposite Fuller. The Bears need to replace Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who didn't do enough to earn a long-term deal; meanwhile, they have invested heavily in Jackson ($58.4 million over four years).
The Bears hope Eddy Pineiro will be the long-term solution to the kicking dilemma that has haunted the team since the ill-advised decision to cut Robbie Gould before the 2016 season. Pineiro connected on an acceptable 82.1 percent of his field-goal attempts last year, although it's worth noting that Gould has hit 90.5 percent of his three-pointers since leaving Chicago. Punter Pat O'Donnell is solid, while Cordarrelle Patterson has been an All-Pro kickoff returner three times, including last year. Patterson's arrival allowed Tarik Cohen to focus on punt returns, where he is excellent.
The Bears can't afford to ignore Trubisky's deficiencies any longer if they harbor playoff/championship aspirations in 2020. If he doesn't show marked improvement early on, the job goes to Foles. But does Foles have the ability to elevate a still-flawed offense? Whoever lines up at quarterback has to be better than Trubisky was last year, and the same can be said at every position on the offense.
Prediction: 3rd in NFC North
(Top photo by Todd Rosenberg via AP)