The Bears will have to evaluate talent without the luxury of preseason games
The Chicago Bears have a hectic start to training camp this year. Before they can even get to game-planning, they have a few tasks to complete. Undergoing COVID-19 testing comes first, even before acclimating the rookies. And strength and conditioning drills become even more important since minicamps had to be canceled this spring. It'll be well into August before the Bears do any major on-field work.
Soon, the Bears can officially begin the work of preparing for the grind of the 2020 season. This will be a crucial training camp for the Bears as they have their eyes on a return to the playoffs. They'll have to address several positions that either had issues in 2019, or became positions of need during the offseason. Then there's the issue of keeping the facilities clean, making sure the team is healthy, and following all health protocols.
Because of health concerns, the NFL and the NFLPA agreed to several new protocols that will inevitably limit how well teams can evaluate players. There won't be any preseason games in 2020, and in an effort to socially distance whenever possible, training camp rosters this year will be limited to 80 players instead of the usual 90.
So the Bears will need to get creative with the evaluation process, as they won't play a game until the season is scheduled to open on Sept. 13. Training camp will ultimately decide who makes the 53-man roster come Week 1. So the Bears will have a lot on their plate this summer, and here are five burning questions that will need to be answered over the next month.
1. Who starts at quarterback?
It's the most obvious, but also the most important question that the Bears will have to answer. Mitchell Trubisky is fighting for his future in Chicago after the team declined the fifth-year option on his rookie contract this offseason. His numbers (63.4 percent completion rate, 8,554 passing yards, 6.7 ypa, 48 TD passes, 29 interceptions, 85.8 passer rating, 862 rushing yards, 7 rushing touchdowns) are quite deceiving. Trubisky's career has been marred by indecisiveness in the pocket and questionable decision making, which contributed to him taking a lot of unnecessary hits.
He's also thrown double-digit interceptions in each of the last two seasons, and he's had his share of injuries after taking more than 30 sacks in two of his three NFL seasons (2017, '19). Trubisky's up-and-down style of play forced the Bears to bring in competition for this season. And if Trubisky wants a new contract, he'll need to have the best season of his career. Adding to this story is that Trubisky is coming off of offseason shoulder surgery.
That competition will come in the form of Nick Foles. A proven veteran when healthy, Foles has both a Super Bowl ring and a Super Bowl MVP award (LII) to his credit. He also has the numbers to back it up (61.9, 11,901, 7.0, 71, 35, 88.2). But Foles has also been bitten by the injury bug at times during his career, and he's never played a full 16-game season. A shoulder injury caused him to lose his starting job in Jacksonville to Garnder Minshew II last season.
Foles will need to stay healthy and display durability if he is able to take the starting job from Trubisky. One advantage that he does have over Tribusky is that he's played in this offensive system longer, dating back to his days in Kansas City when Matt Nagy was the Chiefs' offensive coordinator. Consistency at quarterback is what the Bears need to succeed in 2020.
2. Who grabs the coveted slot receiver position?
The dependable Taylor Gabriel (96 catches, 1,041 yards, and 6 touchdowns in a Bears uniform) was a salary cap casualty this offseason, so now the Bears are starting over at the position. And they'll have plenty of suitors going after the job as the Bears are stacked at the receiver position this year. Among those contending for the job will be fifth-round draft pick Darnell Mooney (2,572 receiving yards, 19 touchdowns at Tulane), journeyman veteran Ted Ginn Jr. (15,687 all-purpose yards, 42 total TD's), and youngsters Javon Wims and Riley Ridley (25 combined games played). Next to quarterback, this will be the most competitive position for the Bears in training camp.
3. Who will be the featured tight end?
Despite the offseason departures of Trey Burton, Adam Shaheen, and Ben Braunecker, the Bears still have depth at this position. 43rd overall pick Cole Kmet (691 receiving yards at Notre Dame), and top free-agent grab Jimmy Graham (74 career TD receptions) are most likely to be at the top of the depth chart. Veteran Demetrius Harris (72 catches in 86 career games) will also get his chances but will most likely be used in run-blocking situations. The rest of the group is rounded out by second-year players J.P. Holtz and Jesper Horsted (178 combined receiving yards last year), along with Eric Saubert (was recently under COVID-19 protocol). The Bears will only be able to keep three or four tight ends max, but each of them will make an argument for a roster spot.
4. Will this offensive line improve?
This unit gave up 45 sacks last season and dealt with injuries and inconsistency along the way. Then there was the offseason retirement of Pro Bowl right guard Kyle Long who dealt with a multitude of injuries/surgeries. Starting tackles Charles Leno Jr. and Bobby Massie are back, but Massie missed six games last year, while Leno committed 12 penalties. Center James Daniels and left guard Cody Whitehair, who gave this line much-needed stability in 2019, are also back.
There will be quite a few names looking to grab the vacant right guard position. The Bears signed Germain Ifedi in free agency after Seattle let him walk. He can play guard in addition to tackle and had a 91 percent pass block win rate in 2018. The Bears used their two seventh-round picks this year on Colorado's Arlington Hambright (226th overall), and Tennessee State's Lachavious Simmons (227th).
Simmons played guard and tackle on both sides during his collegiate days, while concerns about Hambright's collegiate experience (just 17 starts) and footwork will force the Bears to decide if he better suits the team at tackle or guard. There's also the Notre Dame pair of Alex Bars and Sam Mustipher who provide interior depth but have limited NFL experience. The Bears added guard Corey Levin and tackle Jason Spriggs in the offseason, along with an additional pair of undrafted rookies in tackle Badara Traore and guard Dieter Eiselen. And, of course, we can't forget tackle Rashaad Coward, who has flourished since converting from defensive end. But in the end, it won't matter who's at quarterback if this offensive line isn't firing on all cylinders.
5. How will the new chess pieces on defense fit in?
The biggest edition to this unit is the $70 million man in Robert Quinn, who's expected to make the Bears' pass rush even more dangerous. Quinn's specific job will be to provide the production opposite of Kahlil Mack that Leonard Floyd was unable to provide. Rookies Trevis Gipson, Ledarius Mack (Kahlil's brother), and LaCale London (29.5 combined sacks in college) hope to be right behind them on the depth chart and perhaps push Isaiah Irving (one career sack) in the process. Then there will be a handful of new faces looking to fill Eddie Goldman's shoes.
Rookie free agent Rashad Smith and veteran Barkevious Mingo will have to navigate a crowded depth chart at inside linebacker that is stacked with talent. Rookie cornerback Jaylon Johnson (50th overall selection) will be a contender for the nickel back job, while fellow rookie corner Kindle Vildor, and offseason edition Artie Burns will push for playing time. The Bears will have to do some shuffling at the safety position after Jordan Lucas decided to opt out due to coronavirus concerns this week.
— 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.
(Top photo courtesy of @ChicagoBears)