Make no mistake about it: The Bears are now GM Ryan Pace’s and head coach John Fox’s team. Nine free-agent additions followed by nine draft picks have put a distinct Pace-Fox stamp on the Bears in the second year of their reign, ensuring that the 2016 edition will be dominated by their kind of players.
Four of the new free agents added in March are former Broncos who played for Fox when he was the head coach in Denver from 2011-14. Bears special teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers, his brother Jay, the defensive line coach, offensive line coach Dave Magazu and assistant defensive backs coach Sam Garnes were all on Fox’s staff in Denver.
After adding six players on the final day of the draft, Pace described the kind of players the Bears have been trying to add since he was hired in January 2015.
“The common trait with all these guys,” he says, “is toughness and instincts, something we’ve emphasized and something we’ve drafted today for sure.”
Dowell Loggains has taken over as offensive coordinator for Adam Gase, who left to become the Dolphins’ head coach. Gase was credited with helping quarterback Jay Cutler to the best statistical season of his 10-year career (92.3 passer rating, 21 TD passes, 11 interceptions). The most important item on Loggains’ résumé was his close relationship with Cutler, whose 2016 accomplishments came despite a slew of wide receiver injuries that saw nine players catch at least 19 passes but none more than 54. Nine players caught TD passes, but no one had more than five. The belief is that an injury-free cast will help Cutler continue a late-career renaissance.
A healthier crew starts with big, fast, tough wide receiver Kevin White. The seventh overall draft pick in 2015 missed the entire season when stress fractures in his left shin required surgery. Alshon Jeffery is back on the one-year transition tag hoping to play more than the nine games he did in 2015 when four separate soft-tissue injuries curtailed his contributions. In the two previous seasons he caught 174 passes for 2,554 yards and 17 touchdowns. If he plays 16 games, similar numbers should result. With White and Jeffery both on the field, Loggains can draw plays on much longer paper.
Spindly Marquess Wilson takes a step forward each year but half a step back because of injuries. He averaged 16.6 yards on 28 catches last year. Marc Mariani, an injury-prone return specialist, took advantage of injuries to others to emerge as a reliable underneath target, and he has gained Cutler’s confidence. Another oft-injured receiver was veteran Eddie Royal, who needs a bounce-back season after averaging just 6.4 yards on 37 catches. Martellus Bennett was shipped to the Patriots when his me-first approach to football wore thin. Zach Miller stepped up last season and is a more talented receiver than Bennett but lacks the size and strength to match his contributions as a blocker. Miller turned in a career year in 2015, but he has a lengthy injury history. That’s a concern since there’s not much behind him.
Do-everything running back Matt Forté was allowed to leave in free agency, but the belief is that youngsters Jeremy Langford, Ka’Deem Carey and rookie Jordan Howard can combine to do everything Forté did and more. Langford is faster, Howard is bigger and more powerful, and Fox likes Carey’s toughness.
Magazu will have his hands full reconfiguring a unit that will have different starters at all five positions. After moving to right tackle in 2015, Kyle Long is expected to switch back to right guard, where he played his first two years. He made the Pro Bowl all three seasons. The other two interior positions will be filled by some combination of veteran free-agent additions Ted Larsen and Manny Ramirez, rookie Cody Whitehair and 2015 third-round center Hroniss Grasu. Charles Leno started the final 13 games at left tackle in 2015 and should be back, unless the Bears decide to move Long again.
Nothing says Fox-Pace like the rebuilt front seven. Nose tackle Eddie Goldman was a 2015 second-round pick and the team’s best D-lineman as a rookie. Massive free-agent addition Akiem Hicks was drafted by the Saints when Pace was in their personnel department, and he was a key piece of the Patriots’ defense last year. This year’s third-round draft pick, Jonathan Bullard, could be the other end in the base 3-4.
Both expected starters at inside linebacker, Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman, were picked up in free agency, and it’s expected Trevathan will be a building block. The 2016 ninth overall selection, lanky Leonard Floyd, has the physical tools to develop into an elite sack man and goose the pass rush. Last year’s top three outside linebackers contributed 20.5 sacks, including 6.0 from Pernell McPhee, 8.0 from Lamarr Houston and 6.5 from Willie Young. Houston and Young both had strong second halves after coming back from serious 2015 injuries, which bodes well for this season. More is expected from McPhee, who was slowed by nagging injuries after a strong first half.
The secondary is far from settled after being the main culprit on a defense that had a franchise-low eight interceptions, only four of which came from DBs. Kyle Fuller and Tracy Porter are the starting corners, though Fuller has yet to play up to his first-round draft status. Porter played in 2015 on a modest, one-year, make-good deal and was rewarded commensurately after a team-best 12 pass breakups. But he’s played 16 games just once in eight NFL seasons. Adrian Amos, a fifth-round pick in 2015, started all 16 games as a rookie and ranked third on the team in tackles but made few plays on the ball, big or otherwise. Veteran Antrel Rolle was released after the Bears added three draft picks who started games at safety on the previous level.
Robbie Gould is the ninth-most accurate placekicker in NFL history (85.4 percent), and he connected on 33-of-39 attempts (84.6 percent) in 2015. But it almost seemed like a bad year after he missed two second-half field goals (40 and 36 yards) in a six-point loss and a potential game-tying 50-yarder in back-to-back weeks. But he also had a 49-yard game-winner, and even after 11 years, it seems like he’s got plenty left. In his second NFL season, big, athletic punter Pat O’Donnell improved his net average by 2.0 yards and his percentage of kicks inside the 20 from 28.2 percent to 40 percent. Deonte Thompson adds more big-play potential on kickoff returns than Mariani, who is reliable as a punt returner.
Fox’s Carolina team improved by four games from Year 1 to Year 2, going from 7–9 to 11–5 and the Super Bowl. His second Denver team improved by five games over his first, jumping from 8–8 to 13–3 (the Broncos went to the Super Bowl in Year 3). Coming off a 6–10 debut in Chicago, Fox’s Bears should be better, but they may be another year away from the playoffs, which have eluded the Bears eight times in the past nine years.