The Bears were the most improved team in the league last season, going from 5-11 in 2017 to 12-4 in 2018. There were a lot of reasons for their improvement, but a big one was the improvement of their passing game. Rookie quarterback Mitch Trubisky started 12 starts in 2017, but completed just 59.4% of his passes for an average of 6.65 YPA, 7 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions. In 2018, he started 14 games and completed 66.6% of his passes for an average of 7.43 YPA, 24 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. Largely as a result of that, their offense went from 25th in first down rate in 2017 to 14th in 2018.
It’s unclear how much of Trubisky’s statistical improvement is because of his own improvement though and how much is a result of the added help he had around him. Trubisky spent his rookie year with nothing to work with in the receiving corps and played in an uninventive offense, but he got an entirely new top-3 receivers and starting tight end in 2018 and got to work with new head coach Matt Nagy, who was able to get the ball out of Trubisky’s hands faster with more predetermined throws. Trubisky himself actually fell from 28th out of 42 qualifying quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus as a rookie to 33rd out of 39 qualifying in 2018.
Going into his 3rd season in the league, Trubisky has yet to show himself as being worth the 2nd overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, especially ahead of quarterbacks like Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes. He obviously still has upside though, still only going into his age 25 season, and he has a strong roster around him. If he does take a step forward in his 3rd season in the league, this could be a very dangerous team.
Chicago’s record last season is even more impressive when you consider that backup Chase Daniel had to make a pair of starts while Trubisky rested a shoulder injury. The Bears had just a 35.07% first down rate in Daniel’s 2 starts, as opposed to 37.32% in Trubisky’s 14 starts, but the Bears could do worse than Daniel as a backup quarterback. He’s only thrown 154 career passes in 10 seasons in the league, but has a solid 85.5 QB rating and is well regarded around the league. As good as the rest of this team is, Daniel could probably hold down the fort for a little while if Trubisky was to suffer an injury.
As mentioned, Trubisky basically got an entirely new receiving corps from 2017 to 2018, which was a big help. His 2017 receiving corps had its projected top-3 receivers go down with injury and combine for 5 catches and no pass catcher on the team topped 614 receiving yards. His 2018 receiving corps added wide receivers Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel and tight end Trey Burton in free agency, as well as wide receiver Anthony Miller in the 2nd round of the draft. All four players finished in the top-5 on the team in receiving, joined by passing down back Tarik Cohen, who had a breakout season with a 71/725/5 slash line.
Allen Robinson was the big off-season prize, coming in on a 3-year, 42 million dollar deal. Robinson’s 55/754/4 slash line is underwhelming for a highly paid player, but that’s largely the result of the Bears spreading the ball around in the passing game, with Robinson’s 94 targets (42nd in the NFL) leading the team. Robinson still earned an above average grade from Pro Football Focus, the 3rd straight healthy season in which he’s done that (a torn ACL limited him to 3 snaps in 2017), and finished as PFF’s 31st ranked wide receiver overall. He also missed another 3 games with injury, which deflated his stats a little bit, but he could easily see an uptick in 2019 if he can play more games, especially if Trubisky takes a step forward as a passer.
The rest of this group returns as well. Anthony Miller is the potential breakout player of the group. He had just a 33/423/7 slash line as a rookie, but played just 576 snaps as the 3rd receiver and received just 54 targets. He also played most of the year through a serious shoulder injury. He could easily take a step forward in his 2nd season in the league in 2019. Taylor Gabriel led this wide receiver group with 830 snaps played in 2018, with Robinson missing time with injury, but Miller could easily overtake him for the starting job, putting Gabriel into the 3rd receiver role. Miller can play outside in two-wide receiver sets and move inside to the slot in 3+ wide receiver sets, with Gabriel playing outside opposite Robinson.
Gabriel is probably best as a 3rd receiver. He didn’t have a bad 2018 season with a 67/688/2 slash line, but he had never exceeded 617 snaps in a season prior to last season and the 5-8 165 pounder is probably overstretched as an every down player. He was only signed to a 4-year, 26 million dollar deal in free agency, so his salary isn’t cost prohibitive for a 3rd wide receiver. He averaged a 33/455/2 slash line in his first 4 seasons in the league prior to last season and could be closer to those numbers than his 2018 numbers this season.
Tight end Trey Burton had a decent 54/569/6 slash line, but the Bears were probably expecting more when they signed him to a 4-year, 32 million dollar deal last off-season that makes him the 8th highest paid tight end in the NFL in average annual salary. It was a risky move because Burton had only played 696 snaps in 4 seasons in the league as the Eagles’ 3rd tight end, but he showed promise with a career 1.50 yards per route run and the Bears were desperate for playmakers. In his first season in a large role, he managed just 1.16 yards per route run and only earned about an average grade from PFF. I wouldn’t expect much more from him in 2019.
Third year tight end Adam Shaheen will be the #2 tight end. The 2017 2nd round pick flashed on 239 rookie year snaps, but was limited to 160 nondescript snaps in 6 games by a foot injury last season. He’s very unproven, but still has plenty of upside and, with veteran blocking tight end Dion Sims gone, he’s locked into the #2 tight end role. He might not be that productive in a crowded receiving corps, but could still see a somewhat significant role, especially as a run blocker. This is a solid group overall.
As mentioned, running back Tarik Cohen also had a big impact in the passing game. A 4th round pick in 2017, Cohen had a 53/353/1 slash line as a rookie, but then took that to the next level in 2018 and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked running back in pass catching grade. Matt Nagy comes from the Andy Reid coaching tree, so it’s no surprise that he’d use a running back heavily in the passing game. Jordan Howard was their clear lead running back last season with 250 carries, but he managed just 20 catches and was sent to the Eagles for a conditional 2020 late round pick this off-season. His 3.74 YPC average last season was unimpressive, but he did a good job keeping this offense on schedule, ranking 17th among running backs with a 50% carry success rate.
He’ll be replaced by a pair of running backs who fit Matt Nagy’s offense better. Veteran Mike Davis was signed in free agency to a 2-year, 6 million dollar deal, while Iowa State’s David Montgomery was added via the third round of the draft. Davis averaged 4.59 yards per carry on 112 carries with the Seahawks last season and added 34 catches, but he had just a 2.85 YPC average on 122 career carries in 3 seasons prior to last season and also had just 25 catches total in those 3 seasons.
It looked like Davis was in line for a big role when Howard was traded, but the addition of Montgomery in the draft definitely hurts his chances. Montgomery has earned positive reviews this off-season, both as a runner and a receiver, and it would be a surprise if he didn’t play ahead of Davis, even as early as week 1. Montgomery underwhelmed at the combine (4.62 40 time), which is he why he fell in the draft, but he’s a violent runner on tape and led college football in broken tackles last season.
The addition of Montgomery and Davis could cut into Tarik Cohen’s passing game production a little bit, but the Bears had 101 catches by a running back last season even with Howard as the lead back and could easily surpass 110+ catches by running backs in 2019, so there will be plenty of balls to go around. Montgomery and Davis could also cut into Cohen’s role as a runner (186 carries in 2 seasons in the league), but the 5-6 181 pounder is probably best as a sparingly used change of pace back on the ground anyway. This is a solid group, even without Howard.
Mitch Trubisky was also helped by a strong offensive line, which finished 2nd in pass block efficiency and allowed Trubisky to be sacked just 24 times in 14 starts. The Bears return all 5 starters in 2019, though it looks like they will be flipping the positions of incumbent left guard James Daniels and incumbent center Cody Whitehair. A 2nd round pick in 2018, Daniels entered the starting lineup at left guard week 8 in his rookie year and wasn’t bad in 10 starts, but his natural position is center and it looks like he’ll get a shot there in his second season in the league in 2019. Whitehair, meanwhile, made 4 starts at guard in 2017, but has primarily been a center in 3 seasons in the league and he’s been a good one, finishing in the top-12 among centers on Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons, so changing his position is kind of risky. If it doesn’t work out, the Bears could flip their positions back pretty easily, so it’s not a huge risk.
At tackle, Charles Leno and Bobby Massie both made all 16 starts on the left and right side respectively and finished 18th and 34th respectively among offensive tackles on PFF. Both are proven starters, making 61 starts in 4 seasons as a starter and 76 starts in 5 seasons as a starter respectively, and both have earned average or better grades from PFF in all of those seasons, maxing out at 12th and 33rd respectively. Massie is getting up there in age a little bit in his age 30 season, but Leno is still only in his age 28 season and they should remain a solid starting tackle duo for at least another season.
Right guard Kyle Long is their only starting offensive lineman who missed time with injury last season, finishing the season with just 511 snaps played in 8 starts. Unfortunately, injuries are becoming expected from him. After missing just 1 game with injury in his first 3 seasons in the league from 2013-2015, Long has played in just 25 of 48 games over the past 3 seasons. Now going into his age 31 season, injuries seem to be catching up with him, as he earned a middling grade from PFF in 2018, after being one of the better guards in the league earlier in his career. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he was in the lineup for more games in 2019 and he seems to be having a healthy off-season, but his best days are likely behind him and if he misses time with injury again the Bears don’t have a good replacement. In fact, depth is an issue all across this offensive line, though the starting 5 is an impressive group.
The improvement of the Bears’ offense was a big part of why they improved significantly as a team from 2017 to 2018, but the Bears’ defense led the way for this team, finishing with the lowest first down rate allowed in the league at 30.38%, over 2% better than any other defense in the league (Baltimore was second). The Bears were a solid 9th in that metric in 2017, but their defense took it to the next level in 2018. There are a few reasons for this, but the biggest was the addition of edge defender Khalil Mack, who was acquired the week before the season started.
The Bears paid a steep price for him, surrendering a pair of first round picks to the Raiders and giving Mack a 6-year, 141 million dollar extension that makes him the highest paid defensive player in the entire league, but he is one of the top defensive players in the NFL and is an annual candidate for Defensive Player of the Year (which he won in 2016). The 5th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Mack has started 77 of a possible 80 games in 5 seasons in the league and has finished in the top-6 among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus in all 5 seasons, including first place finishes in 2015 and 2016. He dominates against the run and has totalled 49 sacks, 41 hits, and a 15.3% pressure rate in the past 4 seasons. In his first season in Chicago, he had 12.5 sacks, 6 hits, and a 14.5% pressure rate in 14 games and finished as PFF’s 4th ranked edge defender. Still very much in the prime of his career in his age 28 season, there’s no reason to expect any sort of dropoff from Mack in 2019.
Former first round pick Leonard Floyd remains as the starter on the other side. Floyd hasn’t quite become the player the Bears expected when they drafted him 9th overall in 2016. He’s developed into a strong run stuffer and coverage linebacker, but hasn’t been a great pass rusher, with just 15.5 sacks, 18 hits, and a 10.9% pressure rate in 38 career games. Floyd was an older rookie and is already going into his age 27 season, so he might be maxed out as a player. He’s not a bad starter, but he is a bit of a disappointment.
Aaron Lynch also remains as the 3rd edge defender, playing 353 snaps in a reserve role last season. That’s not a big role, but it was the most he had played since 2015 and he was a pretty effective player. Lynch looked like a promising young edge defender early in his career, playing 1,310 snaps in his first 2 seasons with the 49ers from 2014-2015 and earning an average or better grade from PFF in both seasons, but injuries and off the field issues limited him to 379 snaps in 14 games in 2016-2017.
Lynch seems to have gotten back on track, but it’s a concern for him that he’s losing defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who was also his defensive coordinator in San Francisco and now is the head coach of the Denver Broncos. Fangio’s absence could be felt across this entire defense, as he’s been one of the best defensive coordinators in the league over the past decade. New defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano isn’t a bad replacement, but it’s tough to replace arguably the best. They still have plenty of talent though, including at edge defender, though obviously they’d be in trouble if Mack were to ever miss extended time with injury.
The Bears also have continuity on the interior of their 3-4 defense, returning their top-5 interior defenders in terms of the amount of snaps they played last season. Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman lead the way and they were among the best interior defenders in the entire league last season, finishing 4th and 15th respectively among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus. It was a career best year for both players.
Hicks has been in the league for 7 seasons and had some solid seasons in the past, but never anything like last season, as he previously maxed out as PFF’s 21st ranked interior defender in 2016. In addition to dominating against the run, Hicks also had 7.5 sacks, 10 hits, and a 9.9% pressure rate last season and played 74.1% of the Bears’ defensive snaps. Going into his age 30 season, it may be tough for him to match his career best year, but he could easily have another strong season.
Goldman, meanwhile, was a 2nd round pick in 2015 and is still only in his age 25 season. The 6-4 320 pounder lines up at nose tackle in base packages, but is not just a base package player, playing 552 total snaps last season and adding 3 sacks and an 8.0% pressure rate as a pass rusher. Goldman showed a lot of promise in his first 3 seasons in the league, but could never stay healthy. In 2018, he played all 16 games for the first time and had a breakout season. His durability long-term could still be a concern, but at his age he could easily continue developing into one of the best nose tackles in the league.
The trio of Roy Robertson-Harris, Bilal Nichols, and Jonathan Bullard will compete to be the 3rd starter on this defensive line in base packages. They played 354 snaps, 329 snaps, and 298 snaps respectively last season and will all likely continue playing a rotational role, regardless of who is the nominal starter. Nichols had the best year of the bunch last season, playing well against the run and flashing as a pass rusher as well, with 3 sacks, 5 hits, and an 8.5% pressure rate. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the 2018 5th round pick take a step forward in his second season in the league, after a promising rookie year.
Robertson-Harris also had a solid year in limited action. He barely played against the run, but had 3 sacks, 8 hits, and a 10.4% pressure rate as a situational pass rusher. The 2016 undrafted free agent is very unproven and could regress a little bit in 2019, but the Bears don’t need him for a large role. Bullard, meanwhile, was a 3rd round pick in 2016. He’s developed into a decent run stuffer, but doesn’t get any pass rush with a career 5.0% pressure rate. He won’t be needed much either on a very deep defensive line.
The Bears also return both starting middle linebackers Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith. Trevathan was the better of the two last season, finishing 23rd among off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus, his 3rd season in the top-23 in the past 4 seasons. Injuries have been a concern for him in the past though, as he’s missed 25 of 80 games in the past 5 seasons. He played all 16 seasons in 2018, but he’s far from a guarantee to do that again in 2019. Smith, meanwhile, was a middling starter last season in 14 starts, but the 2018 8th overall pick still has a huge upside and could easily take a step forward in his second season in the league in 2019.
Reserve linebacker Nick Kwiatoski isn’t a bad fallback option if either Trevathan or Smith get hurt. The 2016 4th round pick only played 112 snaps last season, but he’s held down the fort in 14 career starts, especially playing well against the run. He’ll likely be limited to special teams unless injury strikes, but he’s good depth to have. Going into the final year of his rookie deal in 2019, Kwiatoski could easily end up getting starter’s money on the open market next off-season, so the Bears essentially have three starting caliber middle linebackers on the roster.
The Bears were able to bring back their entire front 7 more or less this off-season, but, like all teams built around defense, it’s tough for them to keep all their talent together under the cap long-term. The Bears were unable to re-sign safety Adrian Amos and slot cornerback Bryce Callahan this off-season and had to settle for cheaper replacements in HaHa Clinton-Dix and Buster Skrine. Even still, the Bears are already 26 million over the cap for 2020. The Bears spent aggressively last off-season to try to maximize their chances of winning while Trubisky is on a cheap rookie deal, but at some point it becomes tough for teams to keep all of their talent together.
Amos was Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked safety last season, while Callahan finished 11th among cornerbacks, so both will be missed. Amos will probably be missed the least, as the Bears did a good job finding a cheap replacement for him, signing HaHa Clinton-Dix to a 1-year, 3 million dollar deal. He’s not as good as Amos, but he’s made all 80 starts in 5 seasons in the league and has earned an average or better grade from PFF in all 5 seasons, including a career best 17th ranked season among safeties in 2018. It’s surprising he wasn’t able to get a bigger long-term deal on the open market, but perhaps he’ll find one he likes better next off-season.
Callahan, on the other hand, is being replaced by one of the worst slot cornerbacks in the league in Buster Skrine. He’s made 79 starts over the past 6 seasons and has averaged 59.7 snaps per game in 91 games, but he’s earned a below average coverage grade from PFF in 5 of those 6 seasons and is now going into his age 30 season. He’s a steep downgrade from Callahan. The 3-year, 16.5 million dollar deal with 8.5 million guaranteed that the Bears gave Skrine this off-season looks like wasted money for a team that needs to make savvy financial moves. They would have been better off with a draft pick or veteran Sherrick McManis, who was solid down the stretch last season when Callahan missed time with injury.
The rest of this secondary returns, which is a good thing since they had arguably the best secondary in the league last season. Safety Eddie Jackson led the way. Despite only being a 4th round pick in 2017, Jackson was a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate in his second season in the league in 2018, leading the league with 8 interceptions (on just 44 targets) and finishing as PFF’s 1st ranked safety. Jackson is a one-year wonder in terms of being an elite player, but he was solid in 16 rookie year starts as well and, still only in his age 25 season, could easily be one of the best safeties in the league for years to come.
At cornerback, the Bears had arguably the best starting cornerback duo in the NFL last season in Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara, who finished 8th and 13th among cornerbacks on PFF. That was a career best season for both players though, so one or both might not be quite as good in 2019. Amukamara had never finished higher than 34th in 7 seasons in the league prior to last season and age and injury are becoming a problem for him. He’s going into his age 30 season and has missed 30 games with injury in his career, while making it through all 16 games just once in 8 seasons. It could be tough for him to match his career best season in 2019 and he’ll likely miss time again.
Fuller is younger, still only in his age 27 season, which gives him a better shot at playing at the level he played at in 2018. A first round pick in 2014, Fuller was PFF’s 35th ranked cornerback in 16 starts in 2015, but then missed all of 2016 with injury, leading to the Bears surprisingly declining his option for 2018. That proved to be a mistake, as Fuller returned in 2017 to finish 31st among cornerbacks on PFF in 16 starts and the Bears had to give him a 4-year, 56 million dollar deal to keep him in free agency, rather than paying him 8.526 million on his 5th year option. Fuller proved to be well worth that contract in the first year of the deal though and he could easily continue doing so. Even with some key off-season losses, this is still a strong group.
The Bears finished last season first in the NFL with a +6.64% first down rate differential, but they could have a tough time qualifying for the post-season in 2019, for a few reasons. For one, they’re going to face a much harder schedule, after finishing with the 2nd easiest schedule in the last league last in terms of opponents’ DVOA. They go from a first place schedule to a last place schedule and their division is one of the toughest in the NFL, with Green Bay and Detroit looking likely to improve and all four teams potentially looking like playoff contenders.
The Bears also could have more injuries, after having the 3rd fewest in the league last season, and lost a couple key members of their secondary this off-season, as well as their talented defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. It wouldn’t surprise me if they ended up making it back to the playoffs, but it could be a tough road. A step forward in play from third year quarterback Mitch Trubisky would obviously go a long way towards making that happen.
Prediction: 9-7, 2nd in NFC North