Bears hoping new coaching staff can bring out the best in second-year QB Mitchell Trubisky
New head coach Matt Nagy takes over a franchise that has suffered four straight seasons of double-digit losses and last-place finishes in the NFC North.
It’s the first head-coaching gig for the 40-year-old Nagy. His unbridled enthusiasm is a refreshing change from the taciturn John Fox, who presided over the last three cellar-dwelling finishes and who approached the media with all the eagerness of a trip to the dentist. Nagy is the last coach GM Ryan Pace will ever hire in Chicago, unless the once-proud franchise rebounds soon. Nagy’s enthusiasm is infectious, but only the most rabid fans would expect a Rams-like resuscitation. There are similarities, though. Like Sean McVay, Nagy is young and energetic, and he got the job largely because of his offensive chops. Quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, like Jared Goff last season, is entering his second season with high expectations after a pedestrian rookie campaign.
Given the subpar weapons Trubisky had to work with as a rookie, his numbers -- 77.5 passer rating, seven TD passes and seven interceptions -- were commendable but far from spectacular in 12 starts. The Bears addressed the most glaring of their offensive shortcomings in free agency by adding wide receivers Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel, along with pass-catching tight end Trey Burton. But Robinson is coming off a torn ACL in the 2017 season opener, so he may not be 100 percent by Week 1. With the upgrades, the Bears will get a better idea if Trubisky is the quarterback who can lead them for the next decade. Chase Daniel was brought in as the backup and a coach on the field. He played for three years in Kansas City when Nagy was the quarterbacks coach.
Robinson made the Pro Bowl off his monster 2015 season (80 catches, 1,400 yards, 14 TDs), saw his numbers dip (73-883-6) in 2016 and played just three snaps before his injury in 2017. But he’s just entering his age-25 season and has the size, strength, speed, hands and run-after-the-catch ability to be Trubisky’s go-to guy for several years. Gabriel has big-play potential in the slot with the kind of unique skill set that Nagy could utilize as a multifaceted gadget. He had seven touchdowns on just 39 touches in 2016 but scored just once last year. Gabriel and running back Tarik Cohen have similar speed, lightning quickness and field-stretching capabilities. Using them together could force opponents to cover every inch of the field, vertically and horizontally. The Bears are still waiting for Kevin White, the seventh overall draft pick in 2015, to make an impact. He’s played just five games in three years because of a variety of injuries.
In the undersized Burton, the Bears bet on potential and the expectation that he will thrive now that he’s out of the Zach Ertz-Brent Celek shadow in Philadelphia. The Bears had already invested heavily in tight ends a year before they got Burton, signing Dion Sims as a free agent and using a second-round draft pick on Ashland’s Adam Shaheen in 2017. Neither was very productive in their first year in Chicago, combining for just 27 catches and 307 yards. But both are big and physical enough to handle run-blocking duties, and both could have bigger receiving roles in 2018.
Jordan Howard’s 2,435 rushing yards are the most by a Bears running back in his first two years. Because he’s deficient as a pass catcher, there was speculation that he was not a fit in Nagy’s offense, which frequently utilizes the backs as receivers. But the new coach says Howard will remain the primary ball carrier. The electric Cohen is an ideal complement to the powerful Howard, and versatile veteran Benny Cunningham does a little bit of everything.
The offensive line has some questions. Left tackle Charles Leno is hard-working and athletic, while right tackle Bobby Massie is a functional road grader. Cody Whitehair has started all 32 games since he was a second-round pick in 2016, 28 of them at center. The plan is to keep him there while converting Iowa rookie James Daniels from center to left guard. The second-round pick is athletic and technique-sound, but it remains to be seen if he has the requisite size and anchor strength to play guard. Powerful right guard Kyle Long is a three-time Pro Bowler, but he has had three surgeries (neck, shoulder, elbow) since December. There isn’t much depth behind versatile veteran Earl Watford, so it’s imperative that the starters remain healthy.
The best move Nagy has made is rehiring defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and most of his staff. Despite the lack of any Pro Bowl players, last year’s defense was No. 10 in yards and No. 9 in points allowed. The biggest knock has been a maddening inability to create turnovers. In each of the past three years, they have had just eight interceptions, and no Bear has more than two interceptions in the past two years combined.
Left end Akiem Hicks has been the defensive MVP in both of his two seasons in Chicago. He’s stout vs. the run, showing unexpected agility, and he’s produced 15.5 sacks, easily the most on the team. Powerful Eddie Goldman is a young building block on the nose, and he has enough athleticism to create havoc in opposing backfields. With blue-collar battler Mitch Unrein gone via free agency, Jonathan Bullard has an opportunity to claim a starting job at the other end. He could be challenged by rookie Bilal Nichols, a fifth-round pick from Delaware. Athletic Roy Robertson-Harris is in the mix as well after flashing talent late last season, but he needs to turn potential into production. One of those three must step up to keep that spot from being a weak link on the front of Fangio’s 3-4 base.
If the Bears can get pressure off the edge from their outside linebackers, they can improve from a top-10 defense to top five. Leonard Floyd has the speed, quickness and agility to be an impact pass rusher. But injuries have kept him out of 10 games in his two seasons since he was the ninth overall draft pick in 2016, limiting him to 11.5 sacks. The Bears gave Aaron Lynch a one-year, make-good deal, hoping he’ll recapture the form that helped him get 12.5 sacks in his first two seasons. But he’s had just 2.5 sacks in the two years since. They took a sixth-round flyer on Utah’s Kylie Fitts, who has the pass-rush skills to be impactful but was hurt for much of his college career. Veteran Sam Acho has been considered a backup in his three seasons with the Bears, but he’s started 25 games. First-round pick Roquan Smith should make inside linebacker a team strength paired with Danny Trevathan. Nick Kwiatkoski and fourth-rounder Joel Iyiegbuniwe provide solid depth.
The Bears spent $83 million to re-sign starting cornerbacks Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara, while holdovers Bryce Callahan and Cre’Von LeBlanc are both effective nickel corners.
Placekicker Cody Parkey was brought in to solidify a position that has been in flux the past two years. An upgrade over punter Pat O’Donnell was considered, but he’s back for a fifth season with lots of room for improvement. Cohen is a threat on kickoffs and punts, despite occasionally questionable decisions.
Nagy seems to be more in sync with Pace than Fox ever was. This year’s additions in free agency did an excellent job of specifically addressing weaknesses, although Pace’s track record in the market has been uneven at best. Everything revolves around making Trubisky the franchise quarterback, from personnel to staff. Nagy’s presence as an offensive mastermind, along with innovative offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich and holdover quarterbacks coach Dave Ragone, should help. Pass-catching talent was added in free agency, but Trubisky will be throwing to several players with whom he’s never taken a snap in an NFL game. He’ll also be operating in his third system in as many years. That’s a lot to handle for a young quarterback. But the defensive improvement should continue under Fangio, and the Bears should improve on last year’s 5-11 record.