Chicago Bears 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Perhaps no team has had a long standing need at one position longer than the Bears have needed a legitimate franchise quarterback. The Bears haven’t had a quarterback elected to the Pro Bowl since Jim McMahon 1985, which also happens to be the last time this franchise won the Super Bowl, wasting numerous high level defensive seasons in the process. Just since 2004, the Bears have finished in the top-10 in first down rate allowed in 9 of 17 seasons and in total they rank 3rd in the league in first down rate allowed over that stretch, as opposed to their offense which has ranked 28th in first down rate.

The Bears thought they solved their quarterback need in 2017, when they selected Mitch Trubisky 2nd overall, moving up from the 3rd pick to secure him, following a 3-13 season the previous year. However, Trubisky’s four years in Chicago were less than inspiring. Trubisky led the Bears to 12 wins in 2018 and made the Pro-Bowl as an alternate in what looks like a misprint now, but Trubisky largely rode a dominant defense and an easy schedule and he was an obvious limiting factor for this team taking the next step in the post-season, struggling in a wild card home loss to the Eagles.

The Bears defense has continued to play well over the past two seasons, but hasn’t reached the heights of 2018’s dominant unit and has been held back by a struggling offense, en route to back-to-back 8-8 seasons. The Bears added veteran competition for Trubisky prior to 2020 in Nick Foles, but Foles was even worse than Trubisky in limited action last season. In total, Trubisky completed 64.0% of his passes for an average of 6.73 YPA, 64 touchdowns, and 37 interceptions, while going 29-21 in 50 starts, despite being supported by a top-12 defense in all 4 seasons.

With Trubisky set to hit free agency with his 5th year option (which would have paid him a whopping 24.8 million) getting declined, the Bears decided to wipe the slate clean at the position and start over yet again. Nick Foles remains on the roster by virtue of a 4 million dollar guaranteed salary that would be tough to move in a trade, but the Bears added a pair of quarterbacks to the mix that both have better chances to start games in 2021.

Their first addition was veteran free agent Andy Dalton. A 2nd round pick of the Bengals in 2011, Dalton was a serviceable starter for 9 seasons with the Bengals, starting 133 games and completing 62.0% of his passes for an average of 7.10 YPA, 218 touchdowns, and 126 interceptions, but never played at a high enough level to elevate the team around him and only found success when surrounded with a lot of talent. His best seasons came in 2015 (PFF’s 7th ranked quarterback) and 2018 (PFF’s 13th ranked quarterback), but he was consistently a middling starting quarterback throughout his tenure in Cincinnati. After the Bengals bottomed out in 2019, they opted to replace the aging, expensive veteran Dalton with #1 overall pick Joe Burrow, leading to Dalton’s release when they were unable to find a trade partner for his salary.

Dalton had opportunities to compete for a starting job in several places last off-season, but opted to sign a true backup quarterback contract in Dallas, signing for just 3 million to hold the clipboard behind an established quarterback in Dak Prescott. It was a bit of an odd move from a football perspective, but Dalton is from Texas originally and the situation worked out for him, as Dak Prescott suffered a season ending ankle injury in week 5, leaving Dalton to make 9 starts and 11 appearances the rest of the way. 

Dalton had a weak offensive line in front of him with the Cowboys’ top-three offensive linemen all missing significant time with injury last season, but he was still able to get the ball to the Cowboys’ talented skill position players, finishing the season with a 64.9% completion percentage, 6.52 YPA, and 14 touchdowns to 8 interceptions. Dalton’s track record of being a steady, but unspectacular hand intrigued the Bears in free agency, particularly with few other starting options available on the open market, and the Bears opted to not only sign him to a fully guaranteed 1-year, 10.5 million contract for his age 34 season in 2021, but also to immediately announce him as their starting quarterback on social media.

That may have been premature, however, as the Bears also had their eyes on finding a potential long-term franchise quarterback in the draft and, when a couple of the top quarterback prospects started to fall, the Bears, originally picking at 20 and seemingly out of range of a top quarterback prospect, traded away a future first round pick among other picks to swap picks with the Giants and select Ohio State’s Justin Fields with the 11th overall pick. Dalton may remain their starting quarterback for now, but it’s a matter of when not if Fields becomes the starter and if recent history is any indication, I would expect Fields to be out there sooner rather than later, possibly even as soon as week one. 

Fields might not quite have the upside of the three quarterbacks selected ahead of him (Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, and Trey Lance), but he’s an experienced starter who has played at a high level for several seasons in a major conference. Outside of #1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence, Fields seems like the cleanest and most NFL ready of the top-5 quarterback prospects from this draft class, so he could definitely win the starting job in training camp, even competing against an experienced veteran in Andy Dalton.

Overall, things are definitely looking up for the Bears, as Fields represents their most promising quarterback prospect in many years, but even a relatively pro ready quarterback like Fields is hardly a lock to come in and start playing at a high level from the word go. This is still a position of concern in the short-term, even if the long-term outlook looks a lot better than it did a year ago. The Bears will likely need to support whoever their quarterback is well on both sides of the ball if they’re going to be a contender this season.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

The Bears’ offensive issues weren’t just limited to the quarterback position last season, as they had issues in several places en route to finishing just 26th in first down rate over expected. The Bears were also limited in their ability to address various needs this off-season, as not only did they have next to no financial flexibility in free agency, but, after their trade up for Fields, they were left with only one other pick in the top-150 on draft day. They used that pick, 39th overall, on Oklahoma State offensive tackle Teven Jenkins, who is tentatively expected to start for the Bears week one.

It originally looked like Jenkins would start at right tackle, replacing Bobby Massie, their long-time starting right tackle, who was released this off-season ahead of 8.1 million non-guaranteed owed to him in 2021, but, after the draft, the Bears opted to release left tackle Charles Leno, ahead of the 9 million non-guaranteed he was owed this season, meaning the second round rookie will likely be the week one starter in a key spot on the blindside. Leno and Massie had been the Bears’ starting tackles for several seasons, making 94 starts in 7 seasons with the team and 64 starts in 5 seasons with the team respectively, and they had generally been above average, but the Bears’ cap situation forced their hand with both of them.

Massie’s release was not surprising, as he missed 8 games with injury last season and was heading into his age 32 season, but Leno made all 16 starts at left tackle last season, as he had for 5 straight seasons, and he earned his fourth above average grade from PFF in those 5 seasons, so it was surprising to see him be released as well, even after the selection of Jenkins. If the Bears needed to free up additional cap space, they could have done so by releasing tight end Jimmy Graham and his 7 million dollar non-guaranteed salary, which for some reason remains on the books.

With Jenkins likely starting at left tackle, that will leave Germain Ifedi and Elijah Wilkinson as their options at right tackle, with whoever does not start at right tackle likely to then start at right guard. Ifedi made the final 6 starts of last season at right tackle, after starting the first 10 games of the season at right guard, moving over after Massie’s season ending injury. He wasn’t bad and was brought back on a 1-year, 4.25 million dollar deal in free agency, but he was only a middling starter and, prior to last season, was a complete bust of a 2016 first round pick with Seattle.

Ifedi saw plenty of playing time in his 4 seasons with the Seahawks, making 60 starts, but he consistently struggled, receiving a below average grade from PFF in all 4 seasons. It’s possible the former high draft pick has turned a corner as a player and will remain a capable starter, but it’s worth remembering he was considered a reach by most when he was drafted and even if he has turned a corner, there is no guarantee he continues getting better. Wilkinson, meanwhile, signed this off-season from the Broncos, where he made 26 starts in 4 seasons after going undrafted in 2017, with 19 of those starts coming at right tackle and 7 coming at right guard. However, he’s been pretty mediocre throughout those starts. 

Before the Bears cut Leno, it seemed like Wilkinson would likely be the 6th offensive lineman, which he is well qualified for because of his versatility, but without Leno, Wilkinson seems likely to be forced into the starting lineup as a season long starter, which not only likely creates a weak spot upfront for the Bears, but also leaves them with minimal depth, with top remaining reserves Sam Mustipher and Alex Bars both struggling mightily in 553 snaps and 617 snaps respectively last season. Wilkinson has been slightly better at guard than tackle in his career, but it’s unclear where the Bears are planning on playing him.

When the Bears’ offense was at its best in 2018, their offensive line was a big part of the reason why, but they’re down to just a pair of starters from that group in left guard James Daniels and center Cody Whitehair. Whitehair is a versatile player who has seen starts at left guard (15), right guard (3), and center (60) in 5 seasons since the Bears drafted him in the 2nd round in 2016 and he’s generally been an above average starter, earning an above average grade from PFF in 4 of 5 seasons in the league. Now in his age 29 season, I would expect more of the same from him in 2021. He’ll start the year at center, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him move to either guard spot for one reason or another.

Daniels, meanwhile, was just a 2nd round rookie in 2018 and held his own in 10 starts, before taking a leap forward in 16 starts his 2nd season in 2019, when he finished 19th among guards on PFF, especially playing well down the stretch, seeming to imply more promise to come. Unfortunately, Daniels’ third season in the league got off to an underwhelming start before he missed the final 11 games with injury, but he has a good chance to bounce back in 2021 if he can stay healthy. Like Whitehair, he has some history at center and it wouldn’t be a shock to see him see action there at some point this year, on an offensive line that could use several different combinations throughout the season, trying to find one that works.

Health will be key in general for this offensive line because their depth is very suspect. Having Daniels back should help this unit, but the Bears didn’t have an unusual amount of lost games to injury last season and injuries are part of the game, so the Bears can’t expect to have better health overall this season. If everyone can stay healthy, this could be a serviceable group, but it’s not hard to see how they could end up as one of the worst offensive lines in the league if a couple things go wrong.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

While the Bears didn’t have much financial flexibility this off-season, they made sure to keep their top free agent, #1 wide receiver Allen Robinson, even if they had to guarantee him 17.88 million in a shrunken cap season (about 9.8% of the cap if he remains on the roster at his current number). A 7-year veteran, Robinson’s stats haven’t always jumped off the page, but he’s finished in the top-15 among wide receivers on PFF in 3 of his last 5 seasons and his per 16 game slash line of 84/1118/8 over the past 6 seasons is impressive for a player who has never had anything better than middling quarterback play. 

If Fields can get in the lineup early and impress as a rookie, Robinson could easily be the best quarterback he has ever had throwing him the football, which could also have the benefit of convincing Robinson, previously hesitant to sign a long-term deal, to stick around for the long haul. Only going into his age 28 season with a relatively limited injury history (all 16 games played in 4 of the past 6 seasons), Robinson should remain a #1 receiver for several more seasons. Robinson has benefitted from having at least 150 passes thrown his direction in 4 of 7 seasons in the league, but he’s also seen frequent double teams and his 7.64 yards per target average in his career is well above the average of the quarterbacks he’s played with.

Robinson should continue seeing a lot of targets and double teams this season because the Bears didn’t have the opportunity to upgrade their receiving corps and only added a 6th round pick (Dazz Newsome) on draft day. Instead, the Bears will be hoping to get more from some of the wide receivers they’ve drafted in recent years. Darnell Mooney, a 2020 5th round pick from Tulane, would seem to have the most potential of the bunch. Mooney did not look like a 5th round pick as a rookie, playing more than half of the snaps in every game except week one and earning a slightly above average grade from PFF, while finishing 2nd on the team in receptions (61), yards (631), targets (98), and third in touchdowns (4). 

The fact that the league let him fall to the 5th round may be indicative of a lower ceiling for Mooney than most rookies who produce like he did and his lack of explosive plays is a bit concerning, but he should continue playing a big role in this offense as a possession receiver and the de facto #2 wideout, even if only for lack of a better option. That could easily translate to improved counting stats for him in his second season in the league if he can get more consistent quarterback play.

Anthony Miller, a second round pick in 2018, was the highest drafted of the bunch, but that hasn’t translated to more than mediocre play, averaging just 1.18 yards per route run and 33.2 yards per game in his short career. He looks to be the #3 receiver by default and he could take a step forward in his 4th season in the league and put together a decent statistical season with more consistent play under center, but he could just as easily fall down the depth chart, as the Bears seem less than satisfied with him and reportedly explored the trade market for him ahead of the final year of his rookie deal.

Other options at wide receiver for the Bears include 2019 4th round pick Riley Ridley and 2018 7th round pick Javon Wims, but neither have done much in their limited careers thus far. Wims has operated as the 4th receiver the past two seasons, but has averaged just 0.57 yards per route run over that time and has graded among PFF’s worst wide receivers, while Ridley hasn’t even been able to overtake Wims on the depth chart, with just 149 snaps played in 2 seasons in the league. 

Free agent addition Marquise Goodwin is a veteran option, but the 31-year-old journeyman has topped 30 catches just once in 8 seasons in the league and would only be a situational deep threat if he made the roster. The Bears also added fellow veteran wide receiver Damiere Byrd in free agency, but he’s not much more promising, as his 47/604/1 slash line when forced into action for a New England team with the thinnest receiving corps in the league last season more than doubled his career totals, as he was nothing more than a depth receiver in his first 4 seasons in the league. Byrd underwhelmed in his first extended action and has a career 1.20 yards per route run average, which is very underwhelming as well.

With question marks at wide receiver, the Bears figure to continue targeting their tight ends frequently in the passing game, something they did on 135 pass attempts (22.0%) last season. Veteran Jimmy Graham (76 targets) and rookie Cole Kmet (44 targets) were the top-2 at the position in targets, which they should remain in 2021, but those target numbers could easily be closer or even flipped. Graham was once one of the best receiving tight ends in the league, but he’s now going into his age 35 season and, never a good run blocker, he has seen his receiving production dwindle to 32.1 yards per game and 6.84 yards per target over the past 3 seasons. 

The 8 touchdowns Graham scored last season and his 6-7 frame would suggest that he could still be an effective red zone and short yardage target, but the fact that he had 3 or fewer touchdowns in 3 of his previous 5 seasons prior to last season, despite playing with Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson, suggests that he’s far from a lock to remain a red zone threat and his touchdown total will almost definitely fall, even if just from Kmet getting more involved. 

Kmet didn’t show much as a rookie, but the 2nd round pick was one of the best tight ends in his draft class and second seasons are almost always better than the first for talented tight ends like him. There is also a possibility the Bears release Graham and his non-guaranteed 7 million dollar salary, which stands out like a sore thumb among ways the Bears could free up cap space. Either way, Kmet figures to see more targets this season, in a receiving corps that has a lot of question marks overall. 

Grade: B-

Running Backs

One target the Bears will get back is pass catching running back Tarik Cohen, who caught 203 passes from 2017-2019, including 150 in 2018 and 2019 combined, but then was limited to just 6 in 3 games before tearing his ACL last season. Cohen is expected to be back for week one of 2021, but he comes with a lot of uncertainty and not just because of his injury situation, but also because he’s been pretty inconsistent in his 4-year career. 

While Cohen had a dominant 2018 season as a receiver, averaging 7.97 yards per target and posting a 71/725/5 slash line, his yards per target has been a miniscule 4.97 in his other 3 seasons. On top of that, he hasn’t been that efficient as a runner either, averaging 4.17 yards per carry on an average of 5.18 carries per game. The 3-year, 17.25 million dollar extension the Bears gave Cohen before his ACL tear last year obviously suggests they view him as having a role long-term, but that may have changed with Montgomery breaking out last season and it doesn’t guarantee Cohen will fare well in that role if he continues seeing significant action.

In fact, it’s possible Cohen’s return could hurt this offense if he takes too many snaps away from David Montgomery, a 2019 3rd round pick who broke out as a three down running back in Cohen’s absence last season. Montgomery couldn’t get much going as a rookie, averaging 3.67 yards per carry on 242 carries, but that was in part because of lack of talent around him and his 2.33 yards per carry after contact suggested that Montgomery ran better than his overall YPC suggested. 

That was again the case in 2020, when Montgomery rushed for 1,070 yards and 8 touchdowns on 247 carries (4.37 YPC) with 3.15 yards per carry after contact and finished as PFF’s 9th ranked running back overall. Perhaps his biggest improvement from year one to year two was as a receiver, where he went from 25 catches and 5.28 yards per target to 54 catches and 6.44 yards per target. Cohen should still spell Montgomery on some passing downs, even if only because it’s the best time to get Montgomery some rest, but Montgomery should otherwise be a three down back.

Another threat to Montgomery’s workload is free agent acquisition Damien Williams. Williams was decent as a rotational back with the Chiefs in 2019, rushing for 4.49 yards per carry on 111 carries, but that was in large part due to the talent around him in Kansas City and, prior to joining the Chiefs in 2019, the veteran journeyman had averaged just 3.59 yards per carry. On top of that, Williams opted out of the 2020 season, adding even more uncertainty to his projection.

The Bears will almost definitely be hurting this offense by giving Williams more than a few touches per game, or by giving Cohen more than a few carries per game. Montgomery is clearly the second best offensive player on this team and should be used as close to a three down back as possible, without tiring him out. Even if they get better quarterback play this season, this offense has a long way to go before being a consistently effective unit and if they don’t use their best running back effectively, it will only make things worse.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

With the Bears still having question marks on offense, they will need their defense to continue playing at a high level if they’re going to be a real threat to make and be competitive in the post-season. However, there are reasons to suspect that they won’t be as good defensively next season. For one, defensive play on average tends to be significantly less consistent on a year-to-year basis than offensive play, meaning a team that ranks highly on offense is more likely to repeat that performance the following season than a team that ranks highly on defense. 

The main reason for this is, while an offense can be elevated by a quarterback playing at a high level and franchise quarterbacks tend not to change teams often, a defense typically needs 7-9 starters all playing at a high level to be an elite defense and it’s much tougher to have that every year than it is to have a consistent high level quarterback because, inevitably, key players on defense either regress or they leave in free agency or are unable to be retained for financial reasons.

That shows with the Bears, who have lost 3 of their top-4 players and 6 of their top-13 players in terms of snaps played from their dominant 2018 defense, and, despite that, the Bears still have among the least remaining cap space in the league as of this writing. We saw the Bears take a step back from the 1st ranked defense in first down rate allowed in 2018 to 8th and 9th ranked in 2019 and 2020 and this season I would expect them to take another step back as they have continued to shed talent on defense.

The strength of this defense is their front, which has largely retained it’s key players from 2018. In fact, they could be even better this season than 2020, with the return of defensive tackle Eddie Goldman from opt-out. The Bears lost some reserves at the interior defender spot this off-season, with Brent Urban (370 snaps), John Jenkins (223 snaps), and Roy Robertson-Harris (245 snaps) no longer with the team, but Goldman has a higher upside than any of those three. 

In 5 seasons prior to last year’s opt out, the 2015 2nd round pick had earned an above average grade from PFF in each seasons, including a career best 14th ranked finished among interior defenders in 2018, which is an outlier in his career, but also shows the peak for a player who is still only in his age 27 season. The 6-4 320 pounder is obviously a good run stuffer, but he’s not a bad pass rusher either, with 12.5 sacks, 8 hits, and a 7.2% pressure rate in 67 career games. Durability and conditioning are the concerns for him, especially after a year off, as he’s never played more than 608 snaps in a season, but he’ll be a welcome re-addition to a Bears team  that lacks to rotate players at his position anyway. He’ll primarily play on the nose in base packages, but has the pass rush ability to stay on the field in sub packages as well.

Akiem Hicks and Bilal Nichols led the Bears’ 3-man defensive line in snaps played last season with 795 and 618 and both figure to have significant roles again, even with Goldman returning. Hicks has been the lone every down player on this unit over the years, joining the Bears in 2016 as a free agent after being primarily a rotational player prior, and immediately developing into an above average every down player who has averaged 52.9 snaps per game in 68 games (all starts) in 5 seasons with the Bears.

However, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see that snap count scaled back noticeably, as Hicks is now going into his age 32 season and coming off of a season in which he received his lowest grade from PFF since before breaking out with the Bears, back in 2014. He still earned about an average grade, but it was a steep drop off for a player who had finished in the top-36 among interior defenders on PFF in 4 straight seasons, including a dominant 2018 campaign in which he finished 4th at his position. He isn’t totally over the hill yet and he could bounce back a little bit from last year’s down year, especially if kept fresher by limiting his snap count, but he’s still a declining player whose best days are almost definitely behind him.

Nichols, meanwhile, actually ranked higher than Hicks last season, finishing as PFF’s 27th ranked interior defender on 618 snaps, holding up against the run, while adding 5 sacks, 8 hits, and a 9.3% pressure rate. A 5th round pick in 2018, Nichols saw some action in the first 2 seasons of his career, but averaged just 387 snaps per season over the two seasons and was highly inconsistent. His improvement in his third season may be him permanently turning a corner, but he’s a bit of a one-year wonder and is not necessarily a guarantee to repeat last season’s play. He figures to start in base packages at 3-4 defensive end with Goldman on the nose and Hicks opposite him and all three figure to see significant sub package action as well.

Reserve Mario Edwards was also retained this off-season and, on a per snap basis, he was as good as anyone on this defense last year, albeit on just 256 snaps in 15 games. Edwards was a 2nd round pick of the Raiders in 2015 and showed a lot of promise in his first season in the league, finishing 35th among interior defenders on PFF on 598 snaps, but then he missed almost all of his second season in 2016 with injury and his career got derailed. 

Edwards was not the same on 475 snaps upon his return in 2017, which caused the Raiders to cut him ahead of the 2018 season, starting Edwards on a journey bouncing around the league, seeing action with the Giants, Saints, and Bears over the past 3 seasons, but not playing more than 293 snaps in a season with any of them. Edwards didn’t make much of an impact with the Giants or Saints, but really impressed in limited action with the Bears. 

Despite his limited playing time, he ended up with 4 sacks, 4 hits, and a 12.1% pressure rate, while also playing the run at a high level, and he seemed to earn more playing time as the season went on for his efforts, with 152 of his 256 snaps coming in the second half of the season. Edwards is suspended for the first two games of the 2021 season, but could see a further expanded role upon his return, after being locked up by the Bears on a 3-year, 11.55 million dollar deal this off-season, even after the announcement of his suspension. Edwards is far from a guarantee to be as efficient as he was last season, but he could easily remain an effective reserve in a larger role.

The Bears also brought in veteran reserve Angelo Blackson this off-season to give them some additional depth, but he’s struggled throughout his 6-year career, since being drafted by the Titans in the 4th round in 2015. Over those 6 seasons, he’s also played for the Texans and most recently the Cardinals in 2020, with whom he set a new career high in snaps with 550. However, he struggled mightily, finishing 126th out of 138 eligible interior defenders, a year after finishing 120th out of 121 eligible on 427 snaps in 2019 with the Texans. He should not be considered a roster lock and, even if he makes the roster, he should get more than a very limited rotational role. In a deep position group, he won’t be expected to play much, but there is still concern with long-time top interior defender Akiem Hicks seemingly on the decline.

Grade: A-

Edge Defenders

The Bears defense hasn’t been quite as good over the past two seasons as they were in their dominant 2018 campaign, but one player who hasn’t fallen off is Khalil Mack, who has remained perennially one of the top defensive players in the league. Mack’s acquisition from the Raiders before that 2018 campaign is a big part of what led to the Bears having that dominant defensive season. The price has been steep, as they gave up their first round pick in back-to-back years and have already paid him 73.7 million over 3 years as part of a contract extension that is set to pay him 154.846 million over 7 years, which is a factor in the Bears’ cap issues and their lack of blue chip young talent, but Mack has arguably been worth it. 

Mack hasn’t really gotten the Defensive Player of the Year attention that he got in 2018 over the past couple seasons with the Bears’ defense no longer as dominant, but that’s not his fault, as he finished last season as PFF’s #1 ranked edge defender, continuing a streak of seven consecutive seasons in the top-13 among edge defenders on PFF to begin his career, since being selected 5th overall by the Raiders in 2014. He also already had a Defensive Player of the Year award to his name, winning in 2016 with the Raiders. Even as good as most fans know he is, he might be underrated.

His sack numbers don’t always jump off the page, but he’s arguably the best run stopping edge defender in the league and he has added 70.5 sacks, 63 hits, and a 13.9% pressure in his career as well, despite being one of the most double teamed players in the league and dropping into coverage on about 10% of his pass defense snaps, another aspect of the game where he impresses. His age is starting to become a concern in his age 30 season, but he’s shown no signs of declining, he’s been incredibly durable in his career, missing just 2 games in 7 seasons and averaging 58.7 snaps per game, and even if he does decline a little, he likely would still remain one of the top players in the league at his position.

On the other side, however, Robert Quinn was a massive disappointment in his first season in Chicago, after signing a 5-year, 70 million dollar contract last off-season that guaranteed him 30 million in total, including his entire 11.6 million dollar salary for 2021. Quinn has typically struggled against the run in his career, but, prior to last season, he had always been a consistently good pass rusher, totaling 64 sacks, 67 hits, and a 12.1% pressure rate in 94 games over the previous 7 seasons from 2013-2019. The idea was simple: plug him in opposite the frequently double teamed Khalil Mack and either the defense would have to pull some of the double teams off of Mack or face a consistently good pass rusher one-on-one regularly. 

However, it didn’t work that way at all, as Mack continued to be one of the most double teamed players in the league and Quinn could not make the most of frequent single blocking, managing just 2 sacks, 6 hits, and a 9.2% pressure rate, while taking up a significant chunk of the cap for one of the most cap strapped teams in the league. Combined with his struggles against the run, Quinn finished the season as PFF’s 85th ranked edge defender out of 125 eligible on 548 snaps. He could bounce back in 2021, but he’s also going into his age 31 season, so it’s very likely his best days are behind him and he could easily continue struggling. With his salary locked in, the Bears will have no choice but to hope he can bounce back.

Mack rarely comes off the field, so depth isn’t that important, but the Bears signed veteran journeyman Jeremiah Attaochu to replace fellow veteran journeyman Barkevious Mingo, who played 391 snaps as their top reserve last season. Attaochu should be a minor upgrade in a similar role, as Mingo was underwhelming, while Attaochu has consistently been a good reserve throughout his career. He’s only averaged 285 snaps per season in 7 seasons in the league since the Chargers drafted him in the 2nd round in 2014, in part due to injuries, but he’s been a capable run defender and has added 20.5 sacks, 27 hits, and a 10.5% pressure rate in 74 career games, despite his limited action. He should be able to continue that into 2021 in a similar role.

The Bears also brought back James Vaughters and Trevis Gipson, who played 243 snaps and 47 snaps respectively in the first significant action of both of their careers, but both of them figure to be non-factors if they can even make the final roster. Gipson, a 5th round pick in 2020, has more upside between the two, but he’s still highly unproven, while Vaughters went undrafted went back in 2015 and had played just 26 career defensive snaps before getting a chance at minor action last season. The Bears will need Khalil Mack to continue playing well and staying healthy to elevate an otherwise underwhelming group, but Mack is about as close to a sure thing as any defensive player in the league outside of Aaron Donald.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

Middle linebackers Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith remain from their dominant 2018 defense, but their careers have gone in different directions since then. Trevathan was PFF’s 23rd ranked off ball linebacker in 2018, as part of a stretch of seven straight seasons as a starter where he earned an average or better grade from PFF, but he fell all the way to 84th out of 99 eligible off ball linebackers in 2020 and now heads into his age 31 season. It’s also worth noting he has a significant injury history as well, missing 32 games over the past 7 seasons, and he seems to be especially slowed after his most recent injury which limited him to just 9 games in 2019. He’s another contract the Bears may be regretting, re-signing him on a 3-year, 21.75 million dollar deal last off-season that will guarantee him 7.125 million in 2021.

Meanwhile, Smith has developed into one of the better middle linebackers in the league, after earning a middling grade from PFF as a rookie in 2018. The former 8th overall pick also earned a middling grade in 2019, but he broke out in his third season in the league in 2020, finishing 20th among off ball linebackers on PFF. He’s still a one-year wonder, but he entered the league with a ton of upside and, still only going into his age 24 season, could even get better going forward and develop into one of the top off ball linebackers in the league. That’s far from a guarantee, but he has a huge ceiling.

The Bears will need a good season from Smith, not just because Trevathan is declining, but also because they completely lack depth at the position as well. They used to have good depth, but lost Nick Kwaitkowski and Kevin Pierre-Louis last off-season and didn’t replace either of them, leaving inexperienced 2018 4th round pick Joel Iyiegbuniwe as their top reserve. Both Smith and Trevathan played all 16 games and hardly ever came off the field last season, so it wasn’t really an issue, but that good injury luck could easily not remain in 2021 and Iyiegbuniwe is basically just as inexperienced as he was going into last season, having played just 51 snaps on defense in 3 seasons in the league. The Bears also signed veteran journeyman Christian Jones this off-season, but he’s earned a below average grade from PFF in 4 of the past 5 seasons and is now going into his age 30 season. Roquan Smith elevates an otherwise underwhelming group.

Grade: B-

Secondary

The unit on this defense that has lost by far the most since their dominant 2018 season is their secondary, which was arguably the best unit on that defense. Their top three cornerbacks Kyle Fuller, Prince Amukmara, and slot man Bryce Callahan finished 8th, 13th, and 11th respectively among cornerbacks on PFF, while starting safeties Eddie Jackson and Adrian Amos ranked 1st and 10th respectively. The decline began when Callahan and Amos signed contracts with the Broncos and Packers respectively after their big 2018 seasons and were replaced by significantly inferior players in Buster Skrine and Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix.

Clinton-Dix was solid in 2019, but Skrine struggled mightily and Clinton-Dix also left as a free agent following 2019, as he had only been signed to a one-year deal. The Bears replaced him with fellow veteran Tashaun Gipson, who wasn’t a significant downgrade, but the exodus continued with cornerback Prince Amukamara becoming a cap casualty after having a significantly worse season in 2019 compared to 2018. 

Fuller and Jackson also saw their play fall off after 2018, with Fuller finishing 71st and 55th among cornerbacks on PFF in the two seasons and Jackson finishing 49th and 67th among safeties. Jackson still remains a part of this defense, but Fuller’s decline and large salary led to him becoming the next member of this secondary to leave town, as he was released this off-season ahead of a non-guaranteed 14 million dollar salary for 2021, replaced by the far cheaper, but far less reliable Desmond Trufant.

Trufant will start outside at cornerback opposite 2020 2nd round pick Jaylon Johnson, who was originally drafted to replace Amukamara. Johnson had an up and down rookie season, getting off to a hot start and compiling 13 pass deflections on the season (4th in the NFL), but he also didn’t have an interception and had a propensity to give up big plays, leading to him finishing the season below average on PFF, 91st among 136 eligible cornerbacks. Johnson could easily take a step forward in 2021, but that’s not a given.

Trufant, meanwhile, is coming off of an even worse season, finishing 133rd among 136 eligible cornerbacks on PFF across 324 snaps in an injury plagued season. Trufant was one of the better cornerbacks in the league in his prime and had earned an above average grade from PFF in each of his first 7 seasons in the league before the last season, so he has some bounce back potential, but he’s also going into age 30 season and has a growing injury history, including missing 17 of 32 games over the past two seasons. He wasn’t a terrible flyer on a relatively cheap 1-year, 1.075 million dollar deal, but the Bears will be relying on him as a sure starter and he can be relied on in that capacity.

The Bears also lost Buster Skrine this off-season and, though he struggled throughout his two seasons as the replacement for Bryce Callahan on the slot, the Bears didn’t replace him and instead will be counting on some long shots to step up. Kindle Vildor and Duke Shelley are recent draft picks, going in the 5th round in 2020 and the 6th round in 2019 respectively, but they weren’t high draft picks and both struggled in the first significant action of either of their careers last season, while playing just 136 snaps and 209 snaps respectively. Both have some theoretical upside, but it’s hard to rely on either in a significant capacity.

The Bears will get Artie Burns back from a torn ACL that cost him all of 2020, but he’s hard to rely on as well, as he was nothing more than a flyer when the Bears signed him last off-season and that was before his injury. Burns was a first round pick of the Steelers back in 2016 and was a solid starter in his first two seasons in the league, but injuries, ineffectiveness, and issues with the coaching staff led to him playing just 375 snaps in 2018 and 2019 combined and the Steelers letting him walk as a free agent last off-season. Still only going into his age 26 season, Burns may still have upside, but he’s going to be four years removed from his last season as a starter in 2017 and he’s spent a lot more time sidelined with injury than actually playing since then. The Bears will need one of their long shot cornerbacks to step up for this to even be a serviceable group.

At safety, Eddie Jackson remains from this 2018 defense, but, as I mentioned, he saw his play drop off pretty significantly over the past two seasons, earning middling grades in 2019 and 2020 after a dominant 2018. A 4th round pick in 2017, Jackson’s 2018 campaign stands out as an obvious outlier when you look at his career, as he’s been about a middling starter in his other three campaigns, so, while he could be an above average starter in 2021, it’s hard to expect him to resemble his 2018 form.

Fellow starting safety Tashaun Gipson is an even less impressive option. Gipson is plenty experienced, with 120 career starts in 9 seasons in the league, including all 16 for the Bears last season, but he’s only a middling starter and his age is becoming a concern, with him heading into his age 31 season. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him decline this season, in which case he would likely be a liability on the backend. This is a very underwhelming secondary overall, especially in comparison to their dominant unit from just a few years ago.

Grade: C+

Kicker/Punter

The Bears had above average special teams in 2020, ranking 8th in special teams DVOA. One of their biggest strengths was place kicking, with kicker Cairo Santos earning PFF’s 3rd highest grade and making 36/37 extra points and 30/32 field goals. However, there is a lot of reason to suspect he won’t be able to match that in 2021. Not only does he have just a 80.6% field goal percentage aside from last season, but he played for five different teams in three seasons prior to 2020, including a 2019 season with the Titans where he made just 4 of 9 field goals. He’s also been underwhelming as a kickoff specialist across his career.

The Bears clearly believe he’s turned a corner as a place kicker permanently, locking him up with a 3-year, 9 million dollar contract that guarantees him 4.575 million, despite his history, but it’s still highly unlikely Santos will be as good again in 2021. He could still remain a solid kicker and is not necessarily going to regress to his 2018-2019 level of play, but this is an obvious area where the Bears are likely to be noticeably worse in 2021. Undrafted free agent Brian Johnson was added behind him, but Santos’ contract ensures he will be their kicker in 2021, with Johnson competing for a practice squad spot at most.

Punter Pat O’Donnell also seems likely to be unchallenged, with no competition for him added this off-season, despite finishing below average on PFF in 3 of the past 4 seasons, including a 2020 in which he finished dead last among eligible punters on PFF, which was a big part of the reason why the Bears had negative punting DVOA last season. With Santos likely regressing in 2021 and O’Donnell likely to continue struggling, there are concerns with this group.

Grade: C+

Return Specialists

Along with place kicking, kickoff returns were a big strength of the Bears last season, unsurprising, given that they had one of the greatest kickoff return specialists of all time in Cordarrelle Patterson, who averaged 29.9 yards per return and finished as PFF’s highest ranked return man overall. Patterson is gone, however, and the Bears don’t have a clear replacement for him, especially since they’ll need to find a new punt returner as well. Their punt return game was below average last season in DVOA and it won’t be hard for them to be better in 2021, but they still lost every player who returned a punt for them last season and will need to find a replacement, alongside replacing Patterson.

Running back Tarik Cohen has returned both kickoffs (31) and punts (96) in his career, but he is coming off of a serious injury and the Bears may not want him to be used in both roles, in addition to his offensive role. Rookie wide receiver Dazz Newsome returned 48 punts for 11.1 yards per and a touchdown in college, but he returned just 7 kickoffs. One option would be to have Newsome return punts and Cohen return kickoffs, but Cohen has been a lot more effective on punts, with a 10.3 yards per return average, as opposed to 20.3 on kickoff returns. 

Veterans Marquise Goodwin and Damien Williams have some return experience, but their career averages of 21.3 yards per on 22 kickoff returns and 19.5 yards per on 30 kickoff returns respectively are underwhelming and they haven’t returned a kick since 2015 and 2017 respectively, so they would likely struggle in 2021, in their age 29 and age 31 seasons respectively. It won’t be hard for the Bears to be better in punt returns in 2021, but they should see a steep dropoff on kickoff returns, regardless of who wins the job.

Grade: B

Special Teamers

The Bears had more turn-over than most in the rest of their special teams, losing four of their top-10 in terms of snaps played on special teams in 2020. Some of those, like Barkevious Mingo (365 snaps) and Brent Urban (157 snaps), who finished below average on PFF, will not be missed, but Demetrius Harris (162 snaps) was PFF’s 7th ranked special teamer, while Sherrick McManis (200 snaps) also finished above average on PFF. 

The Bears will get some help from reinforcements, as veteran linebacker Christian Jones has some experience on special teams and is coming off of the best special teams season of his career across 158 snaps, as is tight end Jesse James across 170 snaps, but their only other special teams addition this off-season was linebacker Austin Calitro, who has earned a below average grade from PFF in all three seasons in which he’s seen action on special teams.

Fortunately, the Bears top-5 returning special teamers in terms of snaps played all earned above average grades from PFF, DeAndre Houston-Carson (364 snaps), Joel Iyiegbuniwe (363 snaps), Ryan Nall (287 snaps), Josh Woods (266 snaps), and JP Holtz (207 snaps), with Woods leading the way as PFF’s 21st ranked special teamer. Nall and Iyiegbuniwe are one-year wonders on special teams, but the other three are all proven over multiple seasons.

They also have Deon Bush (189 snaps) and James Vaughters (151 snaps) who gave them decent play last season and should be able to continue that into 2021. This group might not be as good as a year ago, but they should still be a solid group overall and they’ll benefit from having the same coaching under Chris Taylor, who has 10 years of experience as an NFL special teams coach, including the past 3 seasons with the Bears.

Grade: B

Conclusion

Going into the off-season, the Bears seemed to be in prime position to decline from the past two seasons, as an aging, veteran, expensive, defense heavy roster remained without a quarterback and seemed to be without the financial flexibility or draft capital to add a quarterback or to address the other needs on both sides of the ball. Things did not get better as players like Charles Leno, Bobby Massie, and Kyle Fuller were released for financial reasons, while declining veteran quarterback Andy Dalton was given a significant sum of money to likely be their starting quarterback. 

However, the Bears lucked out on draft day when Ohio State’s Justin Fields dropped out of the top-10 of the draft, allowing the Bears to move up from 20 to 11 to select him. The Bears had to give up all but one of their other picks in the top-150, as well as a future first round pick, but it will be worth it if Fields pans out. That’s far from a guarantee, but Fields gives this team a much higher upside for 2021 than anyone else the Bears could have realistically added in the first round.

If Fields and/or Dalton struggle as the starting quarterback, there are enough problems around on both sides of the ball for this team that they could end up among the worst in the league, which would lead to them handing the Giants a high draft pick in next year’s draft to complete the Fields trade. However, if Fields has an Offensive Rookie of the Year caliber season and plays like a top-15 quarterback, this team could still find itself very much in contention for a playoff spot in the NFC, possibly even a division title if a few things go right in their division (including Aaron Rodgers leaving). It’s possible no team enters 2021 with a wider range of realistic scenarios. I will have a final prediction for the Bears at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.

8/8/21 Update: Not much changes for the Bears, who are unlikely to get much impact from their special teams either way.

9/4/21 Update: Starting Justin Fields from the beginning of the season would give the Bears their best chance to make the post-season, but the Bears are sticking with the veteran Andy Dalton at least for week one. Even if Fields take over the job early, he would need a strong performance for this team to be a playoff contender, given the state of their offensive line, who will also be without Teven Jenkins due to injury, and their declining defense, which will be without linebacker Danny Trevathan for at least the beginning of the season.

Prediction: 6-11 3rd in NFC North

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s