An optimist would say there’s nowhere to go but up for a Bears team that limped home with a 3-13 record in 2016, the worst 16-game mark in franchise history.
A realist would say that this year’s Bears team isn’t any better on paper and that John Fox and his staff will be coaching for their jobs in 2017. Maybe that’s where the improvement will come from, because it’s debatable whether the personnel is any better. That’s especially true after a draft that left observers scratching their heads and wondering how general manager Ryan Pace could provide so little immediate help for a team that is so much in need of it. The Bears were extremely active in free agency and improved their depth. But a team with a dearth of impact players didn’t add any and lost its best offensive weapon in wide receiver Alshon Jeffery.
After eight years of teasing with rare flashes of talent but always underachieving, Jay Cutler is gone. Mike Glennon is the successor. But Glennon is in a win-now-or-else situation, because the Bears used the second overall pick in the draft on Mitchell Trubisky, who Pace hopes will become the team’s franchise quarterback. If Trubisky doesn’t deliver, Pace will soon follow Cutler out of town. Glennon got a three-year $45 million deal, but after the $16 million he’s guaranteed this year, just $2.5 million more is guaranteed. The hope is that by 2018, Trubisky will be ready to replace Glennon, or that Glennon plays well enough to keep the rookie on the bench for another year of seasoning.
The 6'6" Glennon’s career passer rating of 84.6 indicates competency, especially since most of his playing time came as a rookie in 2013 when he started 13 games for a bad Tampa Bay team. But Glennon has thrown just 11 passes since the end of the 2014 season, after which the Bucs’ quarterback job went to Jameis Winston. Glennon lacks both the mobility that Cutler often needed to survive and Cutler’s rocket arm, but he can spin it and is considered a quick study with some upside. Mark Sanchez was signed to replace last year’s backups Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley, who both landed in San Francisco.
To replace Jeffery, the Bears added free-agent wide receivers Markus Wheaton and Kendall Wright, both of whom fit best as slot receivers and are young enough to duplicate promising seasons they enjoyed earlier in their careers. They also add some much-needed speed to complement 6'3" Cameron Meredith, an undrafted free agent in 2015 who had a breakout sophomore season in 2016 with 66 receptions for 888 yards.
The x-factor in the Bears’ passing game is wide receiver Kevin White, the seventh overall pick in the 2015 draft. The 6'3" White runs a 4.35 40 but missed his entire rookie season with shin splints that required surgery. In the first four games last season, White was just beginning to tap into his massive potential when a fractured left fibula and high ankle sprain ended his season.
Tight end should be much improved with the return of talented pass catcher Zach Miller and the addition of ascending, three-down player Dion Sims in free agency. The Bears also used a second-round pick on 6'6", 277-pound Adam Shaheen, who could also contribute on all three downs provided he can make the jump from Division-II Ashland.
The run game is in excellent hands. Jordan Howard may have been the biggest steal of the 2016 draft after Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott. The fifth-round choice from Indiana rushed for a Bears rookie-record 1,313 yards and had a higher average per carry (5.2 yards) than Ezekiel Elliott.
There is plenty of depth here, including former fourth-round picks Jeremy Langford (2015) and Ka’Deem Carey (2014), plus free-agent pickup Benny Cunningham, along with this year’s fourth-rounder, Tarik Cohen.
The interior of the O-line, including four-time Pro Bowl left guard Josh Sitton and center Cody Whitehair, will be a team strength — if right guard Kyle Long, a three-time Pro Bowler, returns to form after missing half the 2016 season with shoulder and ankle injuries. Whitehair was a tackle at Kansas State who never played center until he got to the NFL, but he made a seamless transition. The tackles, Charles Leno on the left and Bobby Massie on the right, are not as talented but are more than adequate.
Coordinator Vic Fangio would be thrilled with a repeat performance from Akiem Hicks, who was probably the Bears’ defensive MVP in his first season with the team. Known as a stout run defender, the 6'5", 336-pound Hicks also added a career-best seven sacks and played an amazing 86.5 percent of the defensive snaps. For the Bears to make progress up front this season, they need more than the five starts they got last year from 2015 second-round nose tackle Eddie Goldman, who is a solid D-line anchor when healthy. As a rookie, Goldman was a force against the inside run, and he also has the ability to push the pocket. Massive John Jenkins (6'3", 359 pounds) was added in free agency to provide another run-stuffing wide body. More is expected from end Jonathan Bullard, a disappointing 2016 third-round pick.
The Bears acquired the upgrades they needed at inside linebacker last year in free agency in veterans Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman. Both played well when they were in the lineup, especially vs. the run, but Freeman was suspended for four games because of a positive PED test. Trevathan missed seven games and finished on IR with a ruptured right patellar tendon, and he could start the season on the PUP list. Last year’s fourth-round pick, Nick Kwiatkoski, got some valuable starting experience filling in when the two veterans were out, but he needs to take another big step to become an effective starter.
Outside linebacker Leonard Floyd overcame multiple nagging injuries as a rookie to tie Hicks for second on the team with seven sacks. A healthy Floyd, with the benefit of a little more time in the weight room, should be an impact pass rusher. Because of knee injuries, Pernell McPhee may never be the player and pass rusher the Bears thought they were getting prior to the 2015 season. With 10 sacks in two years, he hasn’t lived up to his $38.75 million, five-year contract, but he brings an emotional spark when he’s on the field and is still just 28. Unsung Willie Young has 24 sacks in his three seasons in Chicago, and he led the team with 7.5 last season, although six came in the first six games.
The secondary has been remade after it was the prime culprit in a second straight season with only eight interceptions. Last year’s top cover corner, Tracy Porter, was cut. Veteran corners Prince Amukamara and Marcus Cooper were added in free agency, as was safety Quintin Demps, who is coming off a six-pick campaign with the Texans. But Amukamara is on a one-year deal, and Demps turns 32 in the summer. Fourth-round safety Eddie Jackson was the only defensive player the Bears drafted, and he could emerge as a Day 1 starter.
After 11 years, during which he became the ninth-most-accurate field goal kicker in NFL history (85.4 percent), Robbie Gould was abruptly cut and replaced by Connor Barth, who converted 78.3 percent of his field goal tries. Gould was 10-for-10 after he was picked up by the Giants, but he missed three extra points. Punter Pat O’Donnell and the punt-coverage unit both have room for improvement, as does the return game. But Cunningham is an upgrade on kickoff returns, and Jackson was exceptional last year as Alabama’s punt returner.
Fox had a strong track record of guiding his previous teams — the Panthers and Broncos — to monumental growth in Year 2 under his command. But last year’s Bears team plummeted from 6–10 to 3–13. There are whispers that the relationship between Fox and Pace is fraying, and with a difficult early schedule, this operation could unravel in a hurry.