Chicago Bears 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Last off-season, the Bears made two aggressive moves for quarterbacks, signing ex-Tampa Bay backup Mike Glennon to a 3-year deal worth 45 million with 18.5 million guaranteed and trading 4 picks to move up one spot to grab North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky with the 2nd overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. Glennon ended up being money down the drain, as Glennon made 4 mediocre starts before being benched for Trubisky and then released this off-season. Glennon completed 66.4% of his passes for an average of just 5.95 YPA, 4 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions.

Trubisky wasn’t much better though, completing just 59.4% of his passes for an average of 6.65 YPA, 7 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions. In fact, the Bears moved the chains at a mere 30.45% rate in Trubisky’s 12 starts, even worse than the 33.86% rate at which they picked up first downs in Glennon’s 4 starts. They finished with the highest 3 and out rate in the NFL at 29.7% and ran the 2nd fewest plays in the NFL (934). Trubisky can obviously get better and he has a high upside, but he drew mixed reviews coming out of college because of his limited experience, so he’s far from a sure thing to develop into a franchise quarterback.

The Bears followed the Jared Goff model this off-season to try to get the most out of Trubisky in his 2nd season, firing old school defensive minded coach John Fox and replacing him with a young offensive mind, 40 year old ex-Kansas City offensive coordinator Matt Nagy, and then adding talent around Trubisky in free agency. That doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to work, Nagy is not necessarily going to be as good of a head coach as Sean McVay and Goff had much more of a proven track record coming into the league than Trubisky, but at least they’re giving Trubisky every opportunity to succeed. With only veteran journeyman Chase Daniel behind him on the depth chart, Trubisky is their only quarterback option.

Grade: C

Receiving Corps

Trubisky’s rookie year struggles were not completely his fault, as he had little to work with in the passing game. Cameron Meredith, Kevin White, and Markus Wheaton were projected to be their top-3 wide receivers in 2017, but injuries limited them to a combined 5 catches. In their absence, the Bears tried numerous different combinations at wide receiver. Slot receiver Kendall Wright was the only Chicago wide receiver to play more than half the snaps, leading the way with 581 snaps on the season. He was also their only receiver to earn a positive grade from Pro Football Focus and he led the team with 59 catches for 614 yards.

Wright is no longer with the team, but the Bears added Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, and Anthony Miller this off-season and they could easily be their top-3 receivers. Robinson was by far their biggest addition, coming over from the Jaguars on a 3-year, 42 million dollar deal, and he should be locked in as the #1 target. He could have easily been franchise tagged by the Jaguars, but he missed all but week 1 last season with a torn ACL and the Jaguars proved to have pretty strong wide receiver depth in his absence, so they moved on from him and spent the money elsewhere.

Robinson was a risky signing, and not just because of the injury. In 2016, before the injury, he put up an 73/883/6 slash line, which is hardly what you expect out of a #1 receiver. He dealt with poor quarterback play, but the Jaguars had the 4th most pass attempts in the league that season and Robinson caught just 48.3% of his 151 targets (7th most in the NFL). He also finished just about average on PFF. That being said, it’s obvious why the Bears were willing to give him the money they gave him. Not only does he fill a massive need, but he’s a former 2nd round pick who is still only going into his age 25 season and he showed his upside in his 2nd season in the league in 2015, when he put up a 80/1400/14 slash line and finished as PFF’s 10th ranked wide receiver. He’s inconsistent and coming off of a major injury, but he comes with obvious upside.

Taylor Gabriel also comes over on a relatively big contract, signing a 4-year, 26 million dollar deal with 14 million guaranteed as a free agent coming over from the Atlanta Falcons. It’s unclear why he got that much money though. Undrafted in 2014, Gabriel was a part-time player in his first 4 seasons in the league, playing just 47.9% of the snaps. He still had a couple decent seasons, posting a 36/621/1 slash line in 2014 and a 35/579/6 slash line in 2016, but he earned negative grades from PFF in his other 2 seasons and was actually released by his original team the Cleveland Browns ahead of final cuts in 2016. He bounced back in Atlanta, but was underwhelming with a 33/378/1 slash line in his contract year. He also doesn’t have traditional wide receiver size at 5-8 165.

Making that contract even more head-scratching is the fact that they were unwilling to match the 2-year, 9.5 million dollar deal the Saints gave to restricted free agent Cameron Meredith this off-season, even though Meredith posted a 66/888/4 slash line in 2016, before missing all of 2017 with a torn ACL. He would have been a much better value than Gabriel. Markus Wheaton is also gone, so Kevin White is the lone holdover who could earn a role in this receiving corps. He’ll compete with Gabriel and 2nd round rookie Anthony Miller for playing time.

White was actually the 7th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, but he remains a complete mystery, as injuries have limited him to 5 games in 3 seasons in the league. He’s broken his leg twice and missed all but 1 game last season with a fractured shoulder blade. Still only in his age 26 season, White has theoretical upside, but he has yet to show it on the field and is a major injury concern going forward. The Bears predictably declined his 5th year option for 2019, which would have guaranteed him 13.924 million for injury. Miller is reportedly locked in as the slot receiver, so White could easily open the season as the 4th receiver. Either way, this is a much deeper wide receiver group in 2018.

The Bears also added at tight end, signing ex-Eagle Trey Burton to a 4-year, 32 million dollar deal. That deal makes him the 7th highest paid tight end in the NFL in average annual salary, so it’s a ton of money to give to a player as unproven as Burton. The third tight end in Philadelphia, Burton has never played more than 325 snaps in 4 seasons in the league, after the Eagles signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2014. He’s made 5 career starts and he’s flashed in limited action, averaging 1.50 yards per route run on 420 career routes, but he’s a projection to a larger role. He’s also undersized at 6-3 235 and was not asked to block much in Philadelphia. He’ll be featured in the passing game, but will likely prove to be an overpay.

When Burton was signed, it looked like the Bears would be moving on from Dion Sims, but they kept him on the roster despite 4 million of his 6 million dollar salary guaranteeing in late March, so he’s likely locked in a roster spot. The Bears were not strapped for cap space, but it’s unclear why they kept him. He’s a 6-4 268 pound blocking specialist with a career high of 26 catches in a season in 5 years in the league and a career 9.88 yards per catch average. He’s also not even that great of a blocker and finished last season as PFF”s 60th ranked tight end out of 72nd eligible overall, while catching just 15 of 29 targets for 180 yards and a touchdown.

The Bears also have 2nd year tight end Adam Shaheen, who flashed on 239 snaps as a 2nd round rookie last season and, earlier this off-season, looked poised for a bigger role in 2018. With Burton and Sims locked in at sizeable salaries though, it’s unclear what Shaheen’s role will be this season. The 6-6 275 pounder was primarily a blocking tight end last season, but he’s very athletic for his size and caught 12 passes for 127 yards and 3 touchdowns on 66 routes run. He has a high upside, but he came into the league very raw out of Division II Ashland and may have to wait until his 3rd season in the league to get a shot at a big role.

Passing down back Tarik Cohen also figures to play a role in the receiving corps. Of the 212 routes he ran last season, 67 of them came on the slot and 57 came out wide. New Bears head coach Matt Nagy has compared him to Tyreek Hill, who he coached in Kansas City. Cohen has the same kind of straight line speed as Hill, but, other than that, I don’t think that comparison holds up. Cohen caught 53 passes last season, but averaged just 6.66 yards per catch and 4.97 yards per target. He also is very undersized at 5-6 181, which makes even the 5-10 185 pound Hill look big.

A 2017 4th round pick, Cohen finished his rookie season as PFF’s 6th ranked running back in terms of pass catching grade and broke 23 tackles on 53 catches, and, based off the praise he’s been given by his new coaching staff, he should have a big role in the passing game in 2018, but he probably won’t live up to his coaching staff’s high expectations. This is also a much better receiving corps than last season, so he might not have as many targets as he did last season, when he finished 2nd on the team with 71 targets. They are largely better by default though, as they had arguably the worst receiving corps in the league last season. Now they are merely passable.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

Cohen will also have a role on the ground, after averaging 4.25 yards per carry and breaking 10 tackles on 87 carries as a rookie. At his size, he’s only a chance of pace back, but he could see a bigger role on the ground in his 2nd season in the league. Jordan Howard will remain the lead back regardless. The 2016 5th round pick has averaged 264 carries per season in 2 seasons in the league and should be right around there again on run heavy offense that should run more plays this season.

Howard’s average dropped significantly from 2016 to 2017, as he averaged 5.21 YPC as a rookie and 4.07 YPC as a sophomore. In terms of carry success rate, he fell from 17th at 49% to 35th at 42% and he also had just 364 yards on carries of 15+ yards, after 485 yards on carries of 15+ yards as a rookie. He also dropped significantly on Pro Football Focus, after finishing 4th in run grade in 2016, though he still finished with a positive run grade.

He also struggles mightily in the passing game. He has just 52 catches for 423 yards and a touchdown on 82 career targets, with 14 dropped passes. He’s earned negative grades for pass catching in both seasons in the league and finished last season 59th out of 60 eligible running backs in pass catching grade, earning him a negative overall grade on the season, despite a solid year running the ball. Cohen should play the vast majority of passing downs and mix in as a speed complement as well. It’s a solid running back duo.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

The Bears have also had good offensive line play in 2017. They might not quite be as good this season though, as they lost arguably their best offensive linemen this off-season. Josh Sitton is going into his age 32 season and would have been owed 8 million, but it’s still a surprise that the Bears declined his option this off-season, considering he finished last season as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked guard. He’ll be replaced by 2nd round rookie James Daniels.

Daniels’ best position in college was center and current center Cody Whitehair can also play guard, but it looks like the Bears are going to start Daniels at guard for now and keep Whitehair at center. Whitehair was also a 2nd round pick, back in 2016, and has finished 6th and 9th among centers in 2 seasons in the league. It’s probably best that he stays at center, but it’s unclear how the undersized Daniels will adjust to playing guard in the NFL. He played under 300 pounds in college, while Whitehair is 6-3 310.

With Sitton gone, the Bears will need a bounce back year from right guard Kyle Long to avoid a big drop off upfront. Long has missed 15 games in the past 2 seasons and is recovering from elbow, neck, and shoulder surgeries this off-season. He’s also had ankle and triceps injuries. He finished in the top-18 at his position in 2014 and 2015, but he’s already going into his age 30 season and is far from a lock to ever return to form, as he seems to be falling apart physically. The Bears don’t have a good backup behind him, so they’ll need him to stay healthy.

At tackle, the Bears return Charles Leno and Bobby Massie, after they made 16 stats and 15 starts respectively. Leno has made 45 starts on the blindside over the past 3 seasons. He hasn’t always been good, but he’s gotten better in all 3 seasons and finished last season as PFF’s 19th ranked offensive tackle. He’s a one-year wonder in terms of being a top level player and he needs to clean up the penalties (28 over the past 3 seasons), but the 2014 7th round pick is in the prime of his career in his age 27 season and could easily continue playing well in 2018. The Bears locked him up prior to the final year of his rookie deal last off-season, giving him a 4-year, 38 million dollar deal that could look like a bargain if he keeps playing at a high level. He’s just the 16th highest paid offensive tackle in the NFL and will only get comparatively less expensive over the course of his 4-year extension as salaries rise around the league.

Massie, meanwhile, was signed to a 3-year, 18 million dollar deal as a free agent two off-seasons ago, after spending his first 4 seasons in Arizona. He’s not as good as Leno, but he is more proven, as he’s been a capable starter for each of the past 4 seasons and has 76 starts in his career. In his age 29 season in 2018, he should continue being a capable starter. Losing Sitton hurts, but this is still a solid offensive line.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

Not only were the Bears able to add a bright young offensive mind as head coach, but they were also able to keep defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who was the best part of ex-head coach John Fox’s staff. An accomplished play caller with 18 years of experience as a defensive coordinator in the NFL, Fangio consistently gets the most out of his players. The Bears finished last season 9th in first down rate allowed at 32.53%. As a result, they were able to finish 21st in first down rate differential at -1.16%, despite a stagnant offense.

They wnte just 5-11 last season, but some of that was because of bad luck, as they went 2-6 in games decided by 8 points or fewer. They also faced the toughest schedule in the NFL in terms of opponents’ DVOA and opponents’ record. If they can continue playing well on defense with what should be an improved offense, this team could compete for a playoff spot against a slightly easier schedule in 2018.

All 3 starters return on Fangio’s 3-man defensive line, led by Akiem Hicks, whose 900 snaps led all interior defensive linemen in the NFL last season. He was also very effective on those snaps, finishing 5th among 3-4 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus. The 6-5 332 pounder isn’t just a big run stuffer, as he added 8.5 sacks, 9 hits, and 31 hurries on 539 pass rush snaps, despite 92.2% of them coming from the interior. He has rare athleticism and durability for his size, playing 85.8% of the snaps over the past 2 seasons and missing just 3 games with injury in 6 seasons in the league.

Hicks has been a good player throughout his career, making 65 starts in 6 seasons in the league and finishing with a positive grade on PFF in 5 of 6 seasons, but he’s been especially good in the past 2 seasons with the Bears. He also finished 8th among 3-4 defensive ends in 2016. Still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season and clearly comfortable in Fangio’s system, Hicks should continue playing at a high level in 2018.

Eddie Goldman was 2nd on this defensive line in snaps with 608. The 6-4 320 pounder plays nose tackle in base packages, but also stays on the field in for some sub package snaps as well. He’s not as good of a pass rusher as Hicks, but he has 8.5 sacks and 6 hits in 36 career games and moves pretty well for a big guy. A 2nd round pick in 2015, he’s been a little bit better than an average starter in 3 seasons in the league, though he did miss 10 games with injury in 2016. He was healthy in 2017 though and, still only in his age 24 season, he could easily have the best season of his career in 2018. The Bears would be wise to lock him up this off-season, ahead of the final year of his rookie deal.

Jonathan Bullard is the 3rd starter in base packages. A 3rd round pick in 2016, Bullard developed into a solid run stuffer in a part-time role in his 2nd season in the league (437 snaps, 214 of which came on run plays), but he hasn’t gotten any pass rush thus far in his career, with just 2 sacks and 2 hits in 30 career games. The Bears lost Mitch Unrein, a talented reserve run stuffer who finished as PFF’s 6th ranked 3-4 defensive end in run stop grade on 389 snaps last season, so Bullard is locked into his role.

Without Unrein, the Bears have a depth problem upfront. Roy Robertson-Harris and John Jenkins are their top returning reserves, but they played just 212 snaps and 109 snaps respectively. Robertson-Harris went undrafted in 2016 and struggled in his first career action in 2017, so he’s unlikely to ever develop into a capable reserve. Jenkins has more of a shot, since he’s been a capable reserve in the past, but he’s been limited to 328 snaps in 17 games over the past 2 seasons and has dealt with weight and conditioning issues throughout his career. He’s a capable run stuffer when he’s in shape, but that’s far from a guarantee. Hicks and Goldman lead this defensive line, but their lack of depth could prove to be a big problem.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

The Bears also have depth problems at outside linebacker. They bring back starters Sam Acho and Leonard Floyd, but they lost veteran backups Pernell McPhee, LaMarr Houston, and Willie Young this off-season. They played just 385, 231, and 119 snaps respectively, but the Bears didn’t do much to replace them and now are very thin behind Acho and Floyd. Acho and Floyd are hardly proven starters either. Both earned negative grades last season, on 623 snaps and 582 snaps respectively.

Floyd has the upside to be a lot better, but the 2016 9th overall pick has had a disappointing start to his career. He’s struggled with injuries, missing 10 games, and has been underwhelming on the field, earning negative grades in both seasons. Known as a pass rush specialist coming out of the University of Georgia, he has just 11.5 sacks and 9 hits in his career. If he can stay healthy, he could easily have his best season yet in his 3rd season in the league in 2018, but that’s a far from a guarantee.

Acho, meanwhile, is a 2011 4th round pick and has struggled throughout his 7-year NFL career, earning negative grades from Pro Football Focus in 6 of those seasons. He has 57 career starts, but hasn’t played well and is now going into his age 30 season. He figures to continue to struggle, but the Bears lack a better starting option. Their top reserve is free agent acquisition Aaron Lynch, who has played just 379 snaps over the past 2 seasons due to disciplinary and conditioning problems and is far from reliable.

Lynch is a worthwhile flyer for the Bears, as he ranked 16th among 3-4 outside linebackers on 816 snaps in 2015 and he’s still only going into his age 25 season, but he’s not someone you want to rely on as your primary reserve. He does have familiarity in the system though, as he played for Fangio in 2014 in San Francisco, so maybe Fangio can get the most out of him. Lynch had 12.5 sacks and 21 hits in his first 2 seasons in the league, but just 2.5 sacks and 6 hits in the past 2 seasons.

At middle linebacker, things are better, with Danny Trevathan returning to an every down role and 8th overall pick Roquan Smith being added to the mix. Trevathan suffered a torn patellar tendon in 2016, missing the final 7 games of the season. That’s typically not an injury players return 100% from, but Trevathan was back in the starting lineup week 1 in 2017 and finished as PFF’s 10th ranked middle linebacker, though he was limited to just 12 games by a calf injury and a one-game suspension for a personal foul.

Injuries have been a concern for him throughout his career, as he also missed all but 100 snaps in 2014 with a fractured leg, but he’s finished in the top-10 at his position in each of his last 3 healthy seasons (2013, 2015, and 2017). Still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season and another year removed from the patellar tendon tear, Trevathan should have have another strong season in 2018 as long as he stays healthy. Smith, meanwhile, is a plug and play every down linebacker who should be an upgrade over the various linebackers they tried next to Trevathan in 2017. Trevathan and Smith are a talented duo inside, but their depth outside is very suspect.

Grade: B-

Secondary

The Bears also return their top-7 defensive backs and should have a strong secondary again as a result. Safety Adrian Amos is probably their best defensive back, even though he didn’t become the starter until week 4, after veteran Quintin Demps went down for the season with a broken arm. Amos played just 1 snap in the first 2 games of the season. Despite that, he finished as Pro Football Focus #2 safety on 670 snaps.

It’s a surprise that he opened the season on the bench, as the 2015 5th round pick made 30 of 32 starts in his first 2 seasons in the league and earned positive grades from PFF in both seasons, but he’s definitely proven himself now and is locked in as a starter. He’s a one-year wonder in terms of being as good as he was last season, but he’s still only in his age 25 season, so he could easily continue being one of the better safeties in the NFL.

Demps is no longer with the team, so 2nd year safety Eddie Jackson is locked in as the other starter. Like Amos, Jackson appears to be a mid round steal. Despite falling to the 4th round in the 2017 NFL Draft, Jackson played all but 3 snaps last season, even beating out Amos for the starting job in training camp, and was about a league average starter. He needs to prove it again and he fell in the draft because of concerns about his durability long-term, but he appears to have a bright future and could easily continue being a capable starter.

At cornerback, Prince Amukamara and Kyle Fuller return as the starters after being re-signed to deals worth 27 million over 3 years and 56 million over 4 years respectively. Both played pretty well last season, finishing 41st and 36th respectively among cornerbacks on PFF. Amukamara has had injury problems in his career, missing 29 games in 7 seasons and only once playing all 16 games, but he’s finished with a positive grade on PFF in 5 of the past 6 seasons and is a solid value as the league’s 20th highest paid cornerback in average annual salary.

Fuller’s contract, on the other hand, is an overpay and it was an avoidable one. Fuller was the 14th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, but he missed all of 2016 with a knee injury that the Bears thought he could return from. They declined his 5th year option for 2018, which would have guaranteed him 8.526 million for injury, and there was talk he might not make the final roster. He ended up winning a starting job in camp, making all 16 starts, and having the best season of his career.

Had the Bears picked up his option, he could have been under contract for significantly cheaper this season and the Bears would have had more leverage in negotiations on his long-term deal. They could not reach a long-term deal with him before free agency started and they tried to save a little bit of money by giving him the 12.971 million dollar transition tag instead of the 14.975 million dollar franchise tag. The transition tag let him seek other offers though and only gave the Bears the right to match.

When the division rival Packers offered him a 4-year, 56 million deal, the Bears were forced to match a deal that guarantees him 19 million dollars in the first year. Fuller is a former first round pick who is still only in his age 26 season and he also played well in 2015 prior to the lost season in 2016, but at this time last year the Bears were questioning his toughness and now they’ve made him the 5th highest paid cornerback in the NFL.

Slot cornerback Bryce Callahan also remains. An undrafted free agent in 2015, Callahan is undersized at 5-9 188, but he’s developed into a solid slot cornerback. He played just 8 snaps outside last season and has played on the slot on 74.28% of his career coverage snaps, but he’s improved in all 3 seasons in the league, going from 0.90 yards per slot coverage snap allowed to 0.89 to 0.81 and earned the first positive coverage grade from PFF of his career last season. Now in the final year of his rookie year, he’s their next cornerback who will need to be paid. He could push to be one of the highest paid slot cornerbacks in the NFL, upwards of 6-7+ million dollars annually. His one issue is durability, as he’s played just 32 of 48 games in 3 seasons in the league.

If any of their top-3 cornerbacks get hurt, Marcus Cooper and Cre’Von LeBlanc return as their top reserves, after playing 246 snaps and 212 snaps respectively last season. Cooper was actually released this off-season, originally owed 5 million, but he was brought back on a one-year deal worth 1.5 million. Cooper has made 28 starts in 5 seasons in the league, but has earned negative grades from PFF in all 5 seasons. LeBlanc, meanwhile, played 696 snaps as an undrafted rookie in 2016 and wasn’t bad, but saw a much smaller role in his 2nd season in the league. This is still a strong secondary.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

The Bears were better than their 5-11 record suggested last season, as they played a tough schedule and went 2-6 in games decided by 8 points or fewer. They should be better offensively this season, which should push them closer to a .500 team. They have the upside to be more than that if Mitch Trubisky takes a big step forward in his second season in the league, but they also still play in the much tougher conference and figure to have a tough schedule again this season. They’re unlikely to make a leap into the post-season in the NFC, but they won’t be an easy opponent.  I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC North

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