After a disappointing season, Mitchell Tribusky has much to prove as the Bears make plans for 2020
To say that the Chicago Bears' 2019 season didn't go as planned is an understatement. Yes, they finished the season with a .500 record (8-8), but the Bears came into their 100th season of play as a favorite to repeat as NFC North champions and to advance well into the postseason. That didn't happen, thanks to a mixture of both mishaps on the field and questionable coaching decisions. A lack of production from specific positions also played a role in the Bears' shortcomings this season.
Whether it was poor execution on offense, miscues on defense, or disappointment on special teams, all three of the Bears' units experienced issues at some point or another this past season. Players who were expected to take Chicago to the next level can also share blame in this regard. Yes, there were injuries, but overall, the Bears underperformed. With the franchise now shifting its focus to 2020, here are five positions that will get a second look during this offseason.
Mitchell Trubisky's numbers — 3,138 passing yards, 222.1 yards per game, 17 touchdown passes, 10 interceptions, 63.2 percent completion rate, 6.1 yards per attempt, 193 rushing yards, 2 rushing touchdowns — were deceiving in 2019. In addition to his passing numbers, he also took 38 sacks, looked uncomfortable and rattled in the pocket, was indecisive in his decision-making, struggled to make the big downfield throws, lost yards on many of his rushing attempts, and was a far cry from the quarterback in 2018 that looked like a future cornerstone. While head coach Matt Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace have stated that Trubisky is "the unquestioned starter in 2020," it wouldn't hurt to have another competitive signal-caller on the roster to push him to be better.
Whether that be a veteran or a rookie, having Trubisky looking over his shoulder could light a fire under him. Social media has been abuzz over the pending free agency of future Hall of Famer Tom Brady, but I don't see him coming to the Bears. But at the same time, I don't see Chase Daniel (950 passing yards, 6 TDs in a Bears uniform) being that veteran arm that gives Trubisky that push. I think that Teddy Bridgewater (1,384 yards, 9 TDs, 2 INTs, 67.9 percent completion rate, 7.1 ypa ), whom the Bears got a firsthand look at in a loss to the Saints this season, could be perfect for this role. This, of course, is providing that the Bears can pay him as he's likely to have many suitors.
Younger and more affordable options in the 2020 NFL Draft could potentially include Oklahoma's Jalen Hurts and Iowa's Nate Stanley, both of whom are projected to be picked no earlier than the second round. In the Bears' meaningless Week 17 win over the Vikings, the Bears ran the ball 34 times for 158 yards (23 att., 113 yds. by rookie David Montgomery). If they can adjust their offense to be more invested in the rushing attack, it'll take a huge load off of Trubisky's shoulders.
Another part of the equation is new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, who the Bears reportedly have tabbed as Mark Helfrich's replacement. Lazor has more than a decade's worth of experience as a coach in the NFL, including stints as the offensive coordinator for both the Dolphins and Bengals. Nagy will continue to call the plays moving forward, but Lazor will play a key part in the offense's overhaul, which needs to start with the quarterback position.
2. Tight end
This was probably the most problematic position for the Bears in 2019. It was a position that only produced 46 receptions for 416 yards and two touchdowns in 16 games. Trey Burton went on injured reserve in November after playing in just eight games and totaling 84 receiving yards. His recovery from offseason sports hernia surgery didn't go as planned and clearly impacted him on the field. When he did play, he wasn't explosive in his route running, struggled to beat coverages, and looked even worse when trying to block.
With Burton's health now a major concern, the Bears need an insurance policy heading into 2020. At this point, it appears that neither Adam Shaheen, Ben Braunecker, nor Eric Saubert (460 combined career receiving yards) will be part of the solution and are longshots to be with the team next season. The experiment to move Bradley Sowell from offensive tackle to tight end is likely over as well. Jesper Horsted and J.P. Holtz, on the other hand, should get another chance based on their late-season contributions (178 receiving yards over the final five games of the season).
Veteran Tyler Eifert (2,152 receiving yards and 24 touchdowns for the Bengals from 2013-19) could be an option in free agency and the draft features the likes of Washington's Hunter Bryant and Iowa State's Charlie Kolar. The Bears have already signed former college basketball standout Darion Clark to a reserve/future contract as a tight end. While he hasn't actually played the position since high school, his size (6-7, 225), speed and athleticism are intriguing enough for the Bears to bring him on and see what he can bring the table. Only time will tell to see if it's a move that pays off.
New tight ends coach Clancy Barone (who replaces Kevin M. Gilbride) knows he has his work cut out for him this offseason. Hopefully, the team will give some talented options to work with.
3. Offensive line
This group allowed 45 sacks last season, ranking 21st, but part of that was due to injuries. The other part was due to the constant shifting of both Cody Whitehair and James Daniels back and forth between guard and center. Guard Kyle Long only played in four games before landing on injured reserve and earlier this month announced that he likely has played his last game as injuries have taken their collective toll on his body.
Some chicagoans are probably happy to hear I’m finally stepping away and getting my body right. Some Chicagoans may be sad to hear this. Either way ufeel about it, I want u to know how lucky I am to have spent time in your city. I became a man while playing in Chicago.Thank youâ¤ï¸— Kyle Long (@Ky1eLong) January 6, 2020
Long's departure frees up some cap space but it just adds to the pressure general manager Ryan Pace is under to address his offensive line this offseason.
Offensive tackles Bobby Massie and Cornelius Lucas also dealt with injuries this season, while Charles Leno Jr. had some issues with consistency (7 sacks allowed). Rashaad Coward — a converted defensive end — was a nice surprise in the wake of injuries to this unit. Ted Larsen brought a stable, veteran presence, while Alex Bars showed promise with his opportunities after starting the season on the practice squad. Bars should be back next year, while Larsen, Lucas, Coward are all about to hit free agency. Out of those three, the Bears should make Larsen and Coward their priorities.
Offensive line is another position group that will have a new coach following the dismissal of Harry Hiestand. Juan Castillo has already been hired as his replacement. Once the position group is finalized, Castillo's focus will be on figuring out the best spot for everyone, particularly Whitehair and Daniels, and then maximizing the group's abilities.
4. Outside linebackers other than Khalil Mack
Mack didn't have the best of seasons in 2019 (47 tackles, 8.5 sacks, 4 pass deflections, 5 forced fumbles), and not helping matters was the lack of production from his fellow outside backers. Leonard Floyd (40 tackles, 3 sacks) continues to produce modestly, Aaron Lynch (6 tackles, 2 sacks) continues to struggle even when he's healthy, and Isaiah Irving (14 tackles) spent most weeks on the inactive list. Lynch and Irving will be free agents in March, and it's probably more likely that Irving gets another shot with the team while Lynch will move on. But the clear priority is to give Mack more help in the pass-rushing department.
Free agents-to-be Jadeveon Clowney and Shaquil Barrett (combined for 31 sacks over the past two seasons) figure to be well out of the Bears' price range (esp. with Mack's cap number currently set at $26.6 million for next season), but Dante Fowler Jr. or Bud Dupree (combined for 29 sacks this past season) could be potential options. Names to watch in the draft include Chris Orr and Zack Baun, both from Wisconsin.
For the second straight offseason, kicker figures to be a popular topic for the fan base. After parading in a bunch of different kickers throughout last offseason, the Bears traded for Eddy Pineiro, who ended up winning the job during the preseason. But plenty of questions remained for Pineiro, who hadn't kicked in an NFL game prior to Week 1, and he looked the part of an unproven kicker throughout the 2019 season. While he had some highlights and had to deal with some injuries, Pineiro was largely inconsistent, finishing the season 23-for-28 on field goals and 27-of-29 on extra points.
The misses are enough for fans to want yet another change at kicker. But chances are Pineiro will get at least one more season to show he's the long-term answer at the position. For one, this season was Pineiro's first after spending all of 2018 on injured reserve. So he has a grand total of 16 games of NFL kicking experience under his belt. He also finished strong, connecting on his final 11 field goal attempts over the last six games. He went 4-for-4, including the game-winner in the 21-19 Week 17 victory over Minnesota. Pineiro also is under contract for the 2020 season for a reasonable $660,000. With more pressing needs elsewhere on the roster to address this offseason, the kicking job is probably Pineiro's to lose in training camp.
— 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.com)