Once again, the Bears are faced with the question of whether the current team is closer to head coach Matt Nagy’s first group, which went 12–4 in 2018, or to the disappointing 8–8 models of the past two seasons. Hanging in the balance is the future of Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace, who are not expected to survive another mediocre campaign. The Bears have never had a losing record under Nagy and have made the playoffs in two of his three years. But the 2020 team only made the postseason due to an expanded format, and the window is closing on a stellar defense.
Nagy will return to calling the offensive plays this year, a job he ceded last season after a poor start. Regardless of who calls the offensive plays, defense will be this team’s strength. That group will be under the direction of its third coordinator in four years — Sean Desai, who has been with the Bears for nine seasons but has never been a coordinator.
Andy Dalton was named the starting quarterback after agreeing to a one-year, $10 million deal. But then the Bears traded up from No. 20 to No. 11 to snag Justin Fields, their quarterback of the future. The brevity of Dalton’s deal only encourages speculation over how quickly that future arrives. “Andy is our starter,” Pace said on draft night, “and we’re going to have a really good plan in place to develop Justin.”
Injury-prone Nick Foles, who has started just 20 regular-season games in the past five years, is still around as a backup, but his pricey contract makes him a question mark. As in past seasons, the streaky Foles was spectacular at times but underwhelming at others.
Running back David Montgomery, a 2019 third-round draft pick, got the touches that his tackle-breaking abilities deserve, and he responded with 1,070 rushing yards and eight TDs on the ground and 54 receptions for 438 yards. Multi-tool Tarik Cohen is back after missing most of the season with a torn ACL, but he may struggle to find a role in the offense with the addition of former Chief Damien Williams.
Lanky speedster Darnell Mooney started slowly but finished with 61 catches for 631 yards and four touchdowns, providing a complement to Allen Robinson II and a much-needed deep threat. A goal this season is to better utilize Mooney’s ability to stretch the field vertically, which has been a team weakness for years. Robinson caught 102 passes for 1,250 yards and six touchdowns, and he remains the clear-cut go-to guy in the passing game. The Bears used the franchise tag on Robinson in hopes of reaching a long-term deal. They also traded Anthony Miller, the team's second-round pick in 2018, to Houston prior to the start of training camp. After posting seven touchdowns as a rookie, Miller could never take that next step because of inconsistent attention to detail and failure to make progress as a route runner. Tight end Jimmy Graham showed last season that he still has some red zone magic with a team-best eight receiving TDs on 50 catches. The Bears’ top 2020 draft pick, second-rounder Cole Kmet, displayed brief glimpses of talent but still has a ways to go before he’s considered a reliable option.
The maligned and frequently changing O-line showed some improvement late last season before leveling off. But much more improvement is needed before this group can be considered a team strength. To that end, the Bears traded up in Round 2 for Teven Jenkins, who was considered a first-round talent by many evaluators. He was originally expected to be a Day One starter at right tackle but now seems destined for the left side with the release of Charles Leno Jr. The return of James Daniels should help the interior after he missed most of last season with a torn pectoral. Daniels is undersized but smart and technically sound. Sam Mustipher’s work in the middle allowed Cody Whitehair to stay at left guard. Whitehair has been invaluable, missing just two starts in five years while shuttling between center and guard. He’s the only above-average player on the line. Alex Bars played well enough at right guard to remain in the starting lineup last year, but he’ll likely be replaced by Daniels and wind up as a solid backup, along with free-agent pickup Elijah Wilkinson. Germain Ifedi helped solidify the group last year when he moved from right guard to right tackle, and he should keep that job if Jenkins is inserted at left tackle.
Desai will have a valuable resource in veteran senior defensive assistant Mike Pettine, who will act as a sounding board and assist in game-planning. The defense will continue to operate in a 3-4 base, but it took a slight step back last year in Chuck Pagano’s final season before his retirement, finishing 11th in total yards allowed.
The return of run-stuffing nose tackle Eddie Goldman, who opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns, should provide a big boost. The seven-year veteran anchored the run defense in his first five seasons, frequently absorbing double-teams and displaying an ability to push the pocket. Reuniting Goldman with Pro Bowler Akiem Hicks should give the Bears dominant play up front. With Goldman out in 2020, Bilal Nichols got more opportunities and made the most of them, emerging as a solid starter in his third season with a career-best five sacks. He can function inside or outside. Quality depth is a concern, although free-agent journeyman Angelo Blackson should help.
Khalil Mack’s play has tapered off a bit from his sensational 2018 debut in Chicago, but he’s still amassed 17.5 sacks in the past two seasons and must be accounted for on every passing play. Mack has been to six straight Pro Bowls, and he has 14 forced fumbles in his three seasons in Chicago. Robert Quinn was a huge disappointment last season in his projected role as a complement to Mack, and the defense needs a bounce-back year from him. On the inside, Danny Trevathan willed another solid season out of his battered body and is a steadying influence on Roquan Smith, who emerged as an impact player and led the team in tackles. Smith, Chicago’s 2018 first-round pick, continued to improve as an all-around force and was named second-team All-Pro.
Jaylon Johnson’s play as a rookie last year made the decision to dump Pro Bowl cornerback Kyle Fuller’s salary a bit more palatable. Johnson missed the last month of the season with a shoulder injury but is expected to make a full recovery. The hope is that veteran free-agent addition Desmond Trufant still has some production left in him. But he turns 31 shortly after opening day and has played just 15 games the past two seasons because of injuries. He was productive in those games, though, with five interceptions. Nickel corner Buster Skrine was released, so youngsters Kindle Vildor and Duke Shelley should battle for that spot. Pro Bowl safety Eddie Jackson, a premier athlete, is looking for a bounce-back season after slumping a bit in 2020, although he did set a career high with 81 tackles. The Bears re-signed journeyman Tashaun Gipson Sr. to man the other safety spot.
Cairo Santos is coming off the best statistical season for a kicker in team history. He set Bears records by making 27 straight field goals and connecting on 93.8 percent of his field-goal attempts (30-of-32). Punter Pat O’Donnell had another solid season (45.7 yards per punt). Four-time All-Pro kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson is gone, and an open audition is expected for the vacancy with no clear-cut favorite. If he is fully recovered, Cohen will handle punt returns, a role in which he has excelled.
The QB position will get the headlines. But the Bears’ success will rely heavily on the defense, as it has for the past several years. With many question marks remaining on an offense in transition, the D needs to return to prominence after falling off from elite status last season. Pace’s and Nagy’s jobs depend on it.