The Chicago Bears have defied expectations early this season, as they come out of their bye week at 3-1 and in first place in the NFC North. They have a top-five defense at their disposal, they’re starting to put things together on offense, and they play a physical style of football not seen in the Windy City in nearly a decade. There are still plenty of games left, but there's already buzz about a potential playoff appearance. The Bears have not played in the postseason since 2010.
General manager Ryan Pace made some bold moves heading into the season that have already paid off. There was a time when Pace’s commitment to winning was questioned. But now that his vision is finally coming into focus, the Bears are in the driver's seat. They have four straight games against the AFC East before getting back into divisional play.
With Chicago looking to build off of its early success, here are the seven players who have made the biggest difference thus far.
Khalil Mack, OLB
Ryan Pace made the bold move to trade for the former disgruntled Oakland Raider and wound up making him the franchise’s biggest acquisition. Mack also became the team’s biggest signing ever as he was given a $141 million contract extension upon arriving in Chicago. So far he’s earned every penny as he leads the team in sacks (5.0) and forced fumbles (four). He's also third in total tackles (17), has two passes defended and he's returned an interception for a touchdown. At times he’s been unblockable and he’s given opposing offensive lines fits. He’ll be the most important player moving forward as he was named NFC Defensive Player of the Month for September.
Akiem Hicks, DE
Like Mack, Hicks also has been unblockable at times. He's second in sacks (3.0), tied for second with two tackles for a loss and has two forced fumbles. The most reliable defensive player during the John Fox era, Hicks now has more help (i.e., Mack), which makes him even more dangerous.
Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen, RBs
It's only fair to group the two running backs together, as they have been the key to the offense thus far. Even though Mitchell Trubisky busted out with six touchdown passes in the Week 4 win over Tampa Bay, it's Howard and Cohen who have been the most consistent on that side of the ball. They have combined for 342 rushing yards, another 247 receiving and have scored two touchdowns. Their production has helped offset Trubisky's growing pains (3 INTs, 2 lost fumbles) as well as the offensive line's struggles with pass protection (10 sacks allowed).
Danny Trevathan, LB
Trevathan is the team's leading tackler and has basically stuffed the stat sheet with two sacks, two passes defended, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and an interception. The anchor of the middle of this defense, he is another veteran who is thriving in defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's system and making the most of the opportunity to play alongside Mack.
Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel, WRs
Another package deal, the two wideouts that signed this offseason in free agency are earning their paychecks as Trubisky's top two targets. They have combined for 41 receptions for 410 yards and three touchdowns. They have been reliable when targeted (67 percent success rate), have helped move the chains (19 first downs combined), and have helped diversify the Bears' receiving corps. Trubisky will no doubt continue to look their way as the season progresses.
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.