Chicago Bears at Baltimore Ravens: 2017 Week 6 NFL Pick

Chicago Bears (1-4) at Baltimore Ravens (3-2)

The Ravens are 3-2, but their 3 wins have come against the Bengals, the Browns, and the Raiders, who were without Derek Carr, right guard Gabe Jackson, and their top-2 cornerbacks. Meanwhile, their 2 losses (Jacksonville and Pittsburgh) came by a combined 58 points, giving them a -7 point differential on the season, despite the winning record and the easy schedule. They were alright to start the year, but have not been the same team since losing right guard Marshal Yanda and defensive tackle Brandon Williams to injury. They rank just 22nd in first down rate differential, just one spot ahead of their opponents this week, the Chicago Bears.

I also have these two teams close in my roster rankings as well, with Chicago getting Danny Trevathan back from suspension this week, so we’re getting good line value with the Bears as 6.5 point underdogs. I have this line calculated at 3.5, as these two teams are much more similar than the general public realizes. I’m holding out for this line to go back to 7, where it briefly was at the beginning of the week, but the Bears are still worth a bet at 6.5. If this line jumps back to a full touchdown between now and game time, I’ll make this a higher confidence pick.

Baltimore Ravens 17 Chicago Bears 13

Pick against the spread: Chicago +6.5

Confidence: Medium

Minnesota Vikings at Chicago Bears: 2017 Week 5 NFL Pick

Minnesota Vikings (2-2) at Chicago Bears (1-3)

The Vikings have had some of the worst injury luck in the league over the past couple seasons and the injury bug struck again in last week’s loss to the Lions, when promising rookie running back Dalvin Cook tore his ACL, ending his season. The good news is they get quarterback Sam Bradford back from a 3-game absence with a bone bruise on his knee. The Vikings were incredibly cautious with Bradford, who has had two surgeries on that knee, so he’s probably close to 100% if they’re letting him play.

That’s bad news for the Bears, as Sam Bradford had arguably the best game of his career in week 1 before getting hurt. The Bears’ defense isn’t as bad as the defense of the New Orleans Saints, the Vikings’ week 1 opponent, but they’re not nearly as talented as they were when they entered the season, with middle linebacker Jerrell Freeman, safety Quintin Demps, and outside linebacker Willie Young out for the season and middle linebacker Danny Trevathan suspended for this game for an illegal hit in last week’s loss to the Packers.

Bradford should have a good game against them, as he has been playing the best football of his career since arriving in Minnesota last year and he has an improved supporting cast around him in 2017, even with Dalvin Cook out. His top-2 receivers, Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, have both taken steps forward and the Vikings have better running backs and offensive linemen this season, after making several additions this off-season, including left tackle Riley Reiff, right tackle Mike Remmers, and new starting running back Latavius Murray.

The Vikings also have a strong defense, so if they can stay healthy, they could be one of the more complete teams in the league. Against a banged up Bears team with a first-time starting quarterback in Mitch Trubisky, the Vikings should be favored by more than 3 points. I have this line calculated at -6.5 in favor of the Vikings, so we’re getting good line value with an underrated Vikings team. The only reason this isn’t my Pick of the Week is because the Vikings could get caught looking forward to Green Bay next week, but I still give them a good chance to cover both this week and likely next. This is a high confidence pick.

Minnesota Vikings 20 Chicago Bears 13

Pick against the spread: Minnesota -3

Confidence: High

Chicago Bears at Green Bay Packers: 2017 Week 4 NFL Pick

Chicago Bears (1-2) at Green Bay Packers (2-1)

Typically, I love going against significant week-to-week line movements because they tend to be an overreaction to a single week of play. This case is no different. The Packers were favored by 11.5 on the early line last week, but now are favored by just 4.5, a massive line movement. It’s not hard to understand why, as the Packers needed overtime to beat the winless Bengals, who entered as 7.5 point underdogs, while the Bears pulled out the overtime home victory over the previously undefeated Steelers, who entered the game as 7.5 point favorites. However, the line movement is still a major overreaction.

The Bears’ win was impressive, but it came against a Pittsburgh team that always plays down to the level of their competition in non-divisional road games. The Steelers are just 2-10 ATS as non-divisional road favorites of 7 or more in the Ben Roethlisberger era and they lost 6 of those 12 games straight up. Winning in Lambeau, where the Packers are 28-15 ATS as favorites of 7 or more in the Aaron Rodgers era, is going to be a different test.

The Bengals nearly pulled it off last week, but that was because the Packers had so many injuries. They were without starting wide receiver Randall Cobb, stud left tackle David Bakhtiari, and arguably their two best defensive players, defensive end Mike Daniels and outside linebacker Nick Perry. They won’t get everyone back, as Bakhtiari is expected to be out again and right tackle Bryan Bulaga will join him on the sideline, but Cobb will play and Perry and Daniels sound like they have a good chance to be out there as well, which would be a huge help for this defense. Even with the Packers not at 100%, I have this line calculated at around 10, so we’re getting significant line value with the home team as a result of the undeserved line movement.

Making matters worse for the Bears, they have to make this trip to Lambeau on a short week. Home favorites are 73-51 ATS on Thursday Night, including 38-24 ATS as home favorites of 6+ points. The better team understandably tends to cover on Thursday Night if they’re at home and Aaron Rodgers is 4-1 ATS unsurprisingly at Lambeau on Thursday Night. On top of that, road teams are just 2-16 ATS on Thursday Night after an overtime game. The Packers are coming off of an overtime game too, but they’re the home team and teams are a slightly better 2-6 ATS at home on Thursday after an overtime game.

I don’t think the Bears are a terrible team, but expecting them to travel to Lambeau and keep it close on a short week after an overtime game is too much. It’ll help their preparation on a short week that they’re facing a familiar opponent, but this is still a daunting task. It’s worth at least a small bet on the Packers as touchdown favorites. If Daniels and Perry are both definitely playing and this line stays around where it currently is, I might bump this up to a high confidence pick before gametime. This is also my Survivor Pick (BUF, OAK, NE, GB).

Also, by request, I’m going to be posting lines I lock in early in the week during my Thursday Night writeups this season, so readers can lock them in before they move. These are not all my picks for the week, just picks where I think the line may move in an unfavorable direction (usually underdogs). The rest of the writeups will continue to be posted over the weekend as normal.

NYG +3 @ TB

OAK +3 @ DEN

Thursday Update: Perry and Cobb are active for the Packers, but Mike Daniels is not, so I am leaving this as a medium conference pick. Daniels being out is also enough for me to switch my survivor pick, as there are two other good options later in the week (Atlanta vs. Buffalo and Seattle vs. Indianapolis).

Green Bay Packers 27 Chicago Bears 17

Pick against the spread: Green Bay -7

Confidence: Medium

Pittsburgh Steelers at Chicago Bears: 2017 Week 3 NFL Pick

Pittsburgh Steelers (2-0) at Chicago Bears (0-2)

This is a classic Steelers trap game. The Steelers are just 4-13 ATS as non-divisional road favorites of 4.5 or more in the Ben Roethlisberger era (since 2004). For whatever reason, this team always seems to play down to the level of their competition on the road outside of the division. That could easily happen again here. The Bears are one of the worst teams in the league, but this line is high enough for them to cover. They nearly beat the Falcons at home week 1, failing on 4 straight shots on the goal line at the end of the game in a 6-point loss. Something similar could easily happen here.

All that being said, I can’t be confident in the Bears because I hate the spot they are in. After this game, they have to turn around and play in Lambeau Field against the Packers in 4 days on Thursday Night Football. That a daunting task even on a normal week. The Bears are expected to be double digit underdogs in that game and teams are 44-70 ATS since 2012 before being double digit underdogs, as tough upcoming games tend to be a distraction for teams. Even if the Bears don’t end up being double digit underdogs, teams are 29-48 ATS since 2012 as 7+ point underdogs before being 7+ point underdogs again, which the Bears definitely will be. This is such a tough part of the schedule for the Bears that they could lose to the Steelers by double digits even if the Steelers don’t play all that well. The Bears are the pick, but only for pick ‘em purposes.

Pittsburgh Steelers 27 Chicago Bears 20

Pick against the spread: Chicago +7.5

Confidence: None

Chicago Bears at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2017 Week 2 NFL Pick

Chicago Bears (0-1) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-0)

Going into the season, the Bears were on my underrated list. They went 3-13 last season, but the framework of the team was much better than their record suggested, as they finished 13th in first down rate. Their record was largely the result of a 1-6 record in games decided by a touchdown or less and a league worst -20 turnover margin, two things that tend to be inconsistent on a week-to-week and year-to-year basis. The Bears were able to do that despite having the most adjusted games lost to injury of any team in the league, something that’s also pretty inconsistent on a year-to-year basis.

The Bears opened their season by nearly knocking off the defending NFC Champion Falcons, coming up short on 4 straight goal line plays to end the game. However, they continue to have injury issues. They get top cornerback Prince Amukamara back from a one game absence, which should help this defense, but they lost top receiver Kevin White and talented middle linebacker Jerrell Freeman for the season last week. Meanwhile, talented guard Kyle Long is likely to sit out again as he’s still not all the way back from off-season ankle surgery, while talented edge defender Pernell McPhee played just 2 snaps in the opener as he deals with knee problems. They still have a solid running game and defense, but their outlook does not look as good as it did a week ago.

The Bears are also in a tough spot here as they have to turn around and host the Steelers, who are one of the best teams in the league. The Bears are projected to be 6 point home underdogs on the early line and teams are 45-98 ATS since 2012 before being home underdogs of 4.5+ or more, as big upcoming home games like that tend to be a distraction for teams. On top of that, underdogs of 6+ like the Bears are 50-83 ATS since 2012 before being underdogs of 6+ again. The Buccaneers are coming off of a week 1 Hurricane Irma bye week and are in a much better spot with Minnesota on deck. The Bears still have a good chance to make this another close game, but I can’t take them with any sort of confidence. I’ve flipped flopped on this one all week, so this is probably my lowest confidence pick of the week.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 27 Chicago Bears 21

Pick against the spread: Chicago +6.5

Confidence: None

Atlanta Falcons at Chicago Bears: 2017 Week 1 NFL Pick

Atlanta Falcons (0-0) at Chicago Bears (0-0)

Despite losing last season’s Super Bowl in heartbreaking fashion, the Falcons still have a lot of reason to be hopeful. They enter the season with their core intact, with little off-season roster turnover, and are among the most talented teams in the league. Their offense might not be quite as efficient as they were last season, when they finished with a first down rate of 43.94%, 3.20% higher than any other team in the league, but their young defense stepped it up in the second half of last season and should finish better than last season’s 27th in first down rate allowed, especially with top cornerback Desmond Trufant returning from a pectoral injury that ended his season after 9 games in 2016.

Unfortunately for them, the track record of Super Bowl losers is not great. A Super Bowl loser hasn’t made it back to the Super Bowl since the 1994 Bills and a Super Bowl loser hasn’t won the Super Bowl since the 1973 Dolphins. On top of that, Super Bowl losers are just 2-15 ATS in week 1 games since 2000. Whether it’s mental or physical or a little bit of both, there seems to be some sort of hangover effect of going that far, playing all those games, and coming up just short. The Falcons should still have a strong season, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they came out of the gates a little slow.

Their opponent this week is no pushover either, despite being touchdown underdogs. The Bears went 3-13 in 2016, but are a prime candidate to make a leap forward in wins. Their record last season was largely the result of a poor record in close games (1-6 in games decided by a touchdown or less), a league worst -20 turnover margin, and the most adjusted games lost to injury in the league. Turnover margins, records in close games, and injuries tend to be inconsistent on a year-to-year basis and if the Bears can stay healthier, pull out a couple more close victories, and play more turnover neutral football, they could easily make a significant jump in wins. They finished last season 13th in first down rate differential. Their passing offense and secondary leave a lot to be desired, but they have a strong run game and front 7. They could easily make this a much closer game than people are expecting, especially if the Falcons come out flat. It’s worth taking the touchdown with the Bears.

Atlanta Falcons 24 Chicago Bears 20

Pick against the spread: Chicago +7

Confidence: Medium

Chicago Bears 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

At the end of last season, the Chicago Bears were on my list of teams that I expected to be significantly improved in 2017 in terms of wins. The Bears won just 3 games in 2016, but finished the season with 2 more first downs than their opponents and ranked 13th in first down rate differential. They went 3-13 because of a 1-6 record in games decided by a touchdown or less and a -20 turnover margin, but both those are both metrics that tend to be inconsistent on a year-to-year basis.

Outside of 20 snaps, this was a competitive football team last season and if they can play more turnover neutral football and execute a little better in close games, that alone will give them a few more wins. On top of that, the Bears were set to get a ton of reinforcements back from injury in 2017, after leading the league in adjusted games lost to injury in 2016, and they had the 3rd pick in the draft and among the most cap space in the league. They checked all the boxes of a team poised for a big jump in win total.

All that being said, I wasn’t impressed with a lot of the moves the Bears made this off-season, so I’m less confident in a big win improvement than I was a few months ago. The most questionable moves they made were at the quarterback position where they used a big chunk of their cap space to sign Tampa Bay backup Mike Glennon to a 3-year, 45 million dollar deal and then used their first round pick to select Mitchell Trubisky. Not only did they spend pick #3 on Trubisky, but the Bears also sent another 3 picks to the 49ers (including #67) to move up from 3 to 2 to secure Trubisky, even though, as it was reported later, the 49ers didn’t have another offer on the table for the #2 pick and the Bears could have just drafted him at 3.

On the surface, the moves make a little bit of sense. Mike Glennon’s deal contains just 18.5 million in guaranteed money, so the Bears could conceivably move on from him after this season and get out of the remaining 26.5 million owed to him. Trubisky can spend a year learning behind Glennon and then take over as the starter in 2018. Quarterback is the most important position in the game, so it makes sense to spend a lot of resources to upgrade the position. However, I’m just not sold on either of the two quarterbacks they brought in and it’s very likely they overpaid for both.

Glennon may prove to be a low-end starting quarterback and an adequate stopgap, but he has thrown just 11 passes in the last 2 seasons as the backup to former #1 overall pick Jameis Winston, who replaced Glennon as the starter following the 2014 season. Glennon, a 3rd round pick in 2013, made 18 starts in 2013 and 2014 combined, completing 58.8% of his passes for an average of 6.50 YPA, 29 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions, and showed some potential, but never finished outside of the bottom 3rd of quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus.

Glennon is not an upgrade over Brian Hoyer, who the Bears had last season. Hoyer would have been a cheaper stopgap option, getting just 9 million guaranteed on a 2-year deal worth a maximum of 18 million from the 49ers this off-season, and he completed 67.0% of his passes for an average of 7.23 YPA, 6 touchdowns, and 0 interceptions. There was no need to give Glennon that kind of money, especially since no other teams were offering more than 10 million annually to him.

As for Trubisky, he has more upside than Glennon, but is not NFL ready and is a boom or bust prospect. He has a good arm and impressive accuracy, but he played in a simplistic spread offense in college and made just 13 starts, all of which came last season. At this time last year, he was behind quarterbacks no one has ever heard of on North Carolina’s depth chart, before winning the starting job. He was Pro Football Focus #1 ranked quarterback prospect in a weak quarterback class, but he’s unlikely to have a year 1 impact and the Bears were the only team willing to take him as high as they took him, much like how they were the only team to offer Glennon what they offered him. Quarterback figures to be a position of weakness again in 2017.

Grade: C-

Receiving Corps

In addition to the mistakes the Bears made at the quarterback position this off-season, they also spent their cap space poorly and failed to noticeably upgrade their roster, despite entering the off-season with among the most cap space in the league. In fact, the Bears’ roster after free agency was arguably worse than it was before free agency because they lost top free agent Alshon Jeffery to the Eagles and he’s a more valuable player than anyone they signed at any position this off-season. Jeffery was one of the best wide receivers in the league over the past 4 seasons. His #33 finish among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in 2016 was his worst in 4 seasons and he maxed out at 3rd among wide receivers in 2015. Jeffery dealt with durability issues and was suspended for 4 games in 2016, but he will definitely be missed.

To replace Jeffery, the Bears took flyers on Markus Wheaton, Rueben Randle, and Kendall Wright, three receivers who have had success in the league in the past, but who came cheap this off-season for a variety of reasons. The trio has some potential, but, even though all 3 players came relatively cheap, they will make combined this season more than Alshon Jeffery, who signed a 1-year, 8.5 million dollar deal (plus incentives). That’s assuming Randle even makes the roster. None of them will be able to replace Jeffery.

Randle is the worst of the three and is far from a lock to even make the roster. Randle was out of the league entirely in 2016 and has bad knees, but he was Pro Football Focus’ 19th ranked wide receiver as recently as 2014 and is only going into his age 26 season so he was worth the minimum deal the Bears signed him to. Wright has had the most success of the three, as the 2012 1st round pick had 1000 yards in his 2nd season in the league in 2013 and finished 18th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus, but he has averaged just 513 yards per season in the 3 seasons since, partially thanks to injuries that limited him to just 35 of a possible 48 games over that time period. He actually graded out above average for just the second time in his career last season, but was buried on the depth chart and played just 308 snaps in 11 games. Still only going into his age 28 season, a fresh start and could do him well and he’s definitely worth the 1-year, 2 million dollar deal he received in free agency, but he doesn’t have that high of an upside.

Markus Wheaton was the most expensive of the three, getting 6 million guaranteed on a 2-year, 11 million dollar deal and probably has the inside track for the #3 receiver and primary slot receiver role. Wheaton is also young, going into his age 26 season, and coming off of injury, catching just 4 passes in 3 games last season due to an injured shoulder. Prior to his injury, the 2013 3rd round pick was a capable complementary receiver for the Steelers, but never topped 749 yards (2015) or 45th on Pro Football Focus. If he can stay healthy, he’s a capable 3rd receiver, but probably little else.

With that trio of free agent acquisitions being underwhelming, holdovers Kevin White and Cameron Meredith figure to play the majority of the snaps in 2-wide receiver sets. White is someone they could really use a breakout year from, as they try to replace Jeffery. The 7th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, White has barely been able to get onto the field because of injury thus far in his career. After missing his entire rookie season with a broken leg, White was limited to 4 underwhelming games (19/187/0) thanks to more leg injuries in 2016. If he can stay healthy, he has the potential for a breakout year in his 3rd year in the league, but he’s a huge question mark.

Fortunately, the Bears have an undrafted free agent from 2015 who has picked up White’s slack, as Cameron Meredith, formerly of Illinois State, actually led them in receiving in 2016 with Jeffery missing 4 games with suspension, catching 66 passes for 888 yards and 4 touchdowns and finishing 53rd among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. Meredith is a one-year wonder and probably isn’t anything more than a solid #2 receiver long-term, but he’s easily the Bears’ most reliable pass catcher with Jeffery gone. The Bears desperately need someone else other than him to step up in the passing game, but there’s a good chance he finishes the season as the Bears’ leading receiver for the 2nd straight year.

In addition to the three wide receivers they signed, the Bears also signed a tight end in free agency, giving Dion Sims a 3-year, 18 million dollar deal. Much like most of the Bears’ signings this off-season, it was an overpay. The 6-4 271 pound ex-Dolphin is an adequate blocker, but isn’t a threat in the passing game. Sims caught just 26 passes last season, despite being the Dolphins’ primary pass catching tight end for most of the season after Jordan Cameron went down for the season with a concussion, and he’s averaged just 9.45 yards per catch on 74 career catches since entering the league as a 4th round pick in 2013. He’s never once graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in those 4 seasons and ranked 38th among tight ends in 2016. He wasn’t worth half of what the Bears paid him.

He’ll compete for playing time with veteran holdover Zach Miller and 2nd round rookie Adam Shaheen. Shaheen is an incredible athlete at 6-6 278 and has great upside, but would ideally spend his whole rookie season as the 3rd tight end as he transitions from Division II Ashland. Whether or not the Bears have the luxury to be patient with Shaheen depends on how Sims performs and whether or not Miller can stay healthy, which he unfortunately has never been able to.

A 2009 6th round pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars, Miller never had more than 21 catches in a season in 3 seasons with the Jaguars and then missed 3 whole seasons from 2012-2014 with injury, but has shockingly played well in each of the past 2 seasons for the Bears, finishing 8th among tight ends on Pro Football Focus in both seasons. He’s never played more than 579 snaps in a season and there are plenty of reasons to questions his ability to perform in 2017, given that he’s going into his age 33 season and coming off yet another foot injury, but he does have some upside. Expect him to be the “move” tight end, with Sims playing the inline role. Miller might be their 2nd most reliable pass catcher behind Cameron Meredith, which is reason for concern with Mike Glennon’s receiving corps.

Grade: C

Running Backs

The one strength of the Bears’ offense last season was the running game, led by 5th round rookie running back Jordan Howard, who burst onto the scene with 1313 yards and 6 touchdowns on 252 carries last season, finishing 7th on Pro Football Focus among running backs. He was overshadowed by fellow rookie Ezekiel Elliott, but finished 2nd in rushing yards and 3rd in first downs behind him on a worse offense, despite 70 fewer carries and despite not taking over as the starter until week 4. His 5.21 YPC average was a tenth of a point higher than Elliott’s and second highest in the league. If not for Elliott and teammate Dak Prescott having outstanding rookie years, Howard would have been the easy Offensive Rookie of the Year choice.

Howard was the biggest reason why the Bears finished 13th in first down rate last season, despite issues at the quarterback position and in the receiving corps. Considering they have issues at quarterback and in the receiving corps once again, the Bears will need him to repeat his 2016 season if they’re going to have any chance at being respectable offensively this season. Howard is a good player, but that’s easier said than done. Not only is he a still unproven former 5th round pick, but repeating what he did last season is hard for any running back.

In fact, the only players in NFL history to have 250+ carries and average 5+ yards per carry in back-to-back seasons are Tiki Barber (2005-2006), Marshall Faulk (1999-2001), Clinton Portis (2002-2003), Barry Sanders (1989-1990, 1996-1997), and OJ Simpson (1973-1974). Howard could definitely have another strong season and average 4.5-4.7 yards per carry on 250-300 carries, but he’s unlikely to be as efficient as he was in 2016 and there’s definitely major downside here because the running back position tends to be inconsistent and injury prone.

The Bears’ depth behind Howard is pretty poor too, as the Bears averaged just 3.40 yards per carry on carries by running backs other than Howard last season, 1.81 yards per carry less than Howard. His primary backups are Jeremy Langford, owner of a career 3.51 YPC average on 210 carries, and Ka’Deem Carey, owner of a career 3.99 YPC average on 111 carries. The Bears also used a 4th round pick on Tarik Cohen out of North Carolina A&T, but he’s very undersized at 5-7 179 and isn’t anything more than a gadget player. Howard seems to have a very bright future, but he can’t be the Bears’ only playmaker.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

Howard isn’t the only reason why the Bears had success on the ground last season though, as they got pretty solid play from the interior of their offensive line, especially in run blocking. They were unable to block for big gains for any of the Bears’ backup running backs, but that was more the fault of the backs. When healthy, the Bears’ interior offensive line of Josh Sitton (left guard), Cody Whitehead (center), and Kyle Long (right guard) is one of the best in the NFL. Unfortunately, both Sitton and Long did deal with injury problems last season, as did many members of this Bears’ team.

Long’s injuries were worse, as he was limited by a shoulder injury early in the year and then went down for the season with an ankle injury after just 8 games. Long’s recovery has had some complications this off-season, but he is still expected to be ready for training camp, which would be a big boost to this offensive line. Despite the shoulder injury, Long was Pro Football Focus’ 28th ranked guard when he was on the field and he was their 12th ranked guard in 2014 as well, with an underwhelming stint at right tackle in 2015 between. Barring further injury, he should play at a high level again in his age 29 season in 2017.

Sitton’s injury was less serious, but he did miss 4 games with an ankle injury. He was Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked guard when on the field. That’s impressive, but what’s even more impressive is that’s his lowest rank since 2008, as he finished in the top-8 among guards on Pro Football Focus in 7 straight seasons prior to last season. Going into his age 31 season, his best days might be behind him, but he’s still a very valuable interior offensive lineman. He’s also been an ironman over the years, missing just 2 games from 2009-2015 before the 4 games he missed last season, so he should be more available this season than he was last season. The Packers likely regret cutting him to save 6.85 million last off-season, now that he’s continuing to play at a high level with a division rival.

Whitehair, fortunately, did not miss a game last season and he was arguably the best of the three, finishing 6th among centers on Pro Football Focus in 2016, as a mere 2nd round rookie. A collegiate left tackle at Kansas State, Whitehair seamlessly transitioned from left guard to left guard and then to center when Josh Sitton was signed. Like fellow rookie Jordan Howard, Whitehair far outplayed his draft slot as a rookie and, though he’s unproven, he has a very bright future. If he, Long, and Sitton all stay healthy this season, this is a very strong interior offensive line.

Unfortunately, the same can not be said about the tackle position for the Bears, where Charles Leno and Bobby Massie are underwhelming starters. Both are experienced (30 career starts for Leno, 61 for Massie), but their experience hasn’t been very good, as neither has ever graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in a single season. It’s a bit surprising that the Bears didn’t add a single offensive tackle in the draft, especially with Leno going into the final year of his rookie deal, but when you trade 4 picks to get Mitchell Trubisky, it’s tough to address all your needs. It’s a solid offensive line, but one that’s going to be susceptible to pressure off the edge.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

In addition to the injuries they had an offense last season, the Bears also had several key players injured on defense, including nose tackle Eddie Goldman. A second round pick in 2015, Goldman looked on his way to a promising breakout second season before injuries limited him to 197 snaps in 6 games. When on the field, he was a top-26 interior defensive lineman, after finishing 36th at that position as a rookie. If he can stay healthy in his 3rd year in the league, he could easily have the breakout year that injuries robbed him of in 2016. A 6-4 320 pounder, Goldman is primarily a run stuffer, but moves well for his size and can play a little bit in sub packages as an interior pass rusher. His ceiling is probably around 650-700 snaps, but he can still be a difference maker for them inside if healthy.

In Goldman’s absence, free agent acquisition Akiem Hicks was the Bears’ best defensive linemen in his first season with the Bears. The former Saint and Patriot, Hicks had the best season of his career in his 5th season in the league in 2016, playing 931 snaps and finishing 6th among 3-4 defensive ends. A true every down player, Hicks moves well for his size at 6-5 336 and plays well both as a run stuffer and a pass rusher. Hicks was the Bears’ defensive MVP on a unit that actually ranked a respectable 17th in first down rate allowed, despite a poor secondary. Hicks is not a one-year wonder either, as he’s graded out above average in every season he’s been in the league, since going in the 3rd round in 2012. He figures to have another strong season in 2017, just his age 28 season.

Free agent acquisition Jaye Howard will likely be the 3rd defensive lineman. Re-signed to a 2-year, 12 million dollar deal last off-season by the Chiefs, Howard is an above average player when healthy, but was limited to 8 games by injury last season and was subsequently cut by the Chiefs this off-season, who would have owed him 6 million. He’ll make less than half of that with the Bears this season and he’s a bounce back candidate, considering he’s graded out above average in 4 straight seasons on Pro Football Focus and made 24 starts in 32 games for the Chiefs in 2014 and 2015. Howard will be backed up by 2016 3rd round pick Jonathan Bullard. Ballard struggled on 296 snaps as a rookie, but figures to have a bigger role in his second season in the league. Ballard was widely regarded as a steal in the third round and many expected him to go in the top-50 picks.

The Bears also like to line up outside linebackers Pernell McPhee and LaMarr Houston inside on passing downs, since both are bigger linebackers at 270+ and both have experience rushing from the inside. Both had injury plagued seasons last year though, particularly Houston, who was limited to 2 games by his second torn ACL in 3 seasons. Prior to the injuries, Houston was a solid player for the Raiders, but he’s graded out below average in each of the last 2 seasons since the first ACL tear. Now going into his age 30 season and coming off a second ACL tear, his best days are likely behind him. He’ll play a rotational role at most, assuming he stays healthy and even makes the final roster.

McPhee, on the other hand, has much more upside and having him back healthy could be very valuable for this defense, after he was limited to 9 injury plagued games in 2016 by knee problems. McPhee has never posted great sack numbers, but plays the run well and is one of the most efficient pressurers of the quarterback on a per snap basis over his career. The 2011 5th round pick has graded out above average in all 6 seasons in the league and has been a top-3 player at his position three times (2014 and 2015 at outside linebacker, 2011 at defensive tackle). He’s never played more than 594 snaps in a season, as he was a rotational player in Baltimore for the first 4 years of his career and has had knee issues in his 2 seasons in Chicago. If he can stay healthy, he’s a versatile piece for this defense that can play outside linebacker, defensive end, and defensive tackle and rush the passer both from the inside and the outside. The Bears have an underrated defensive front with McPhee and Goldman back healthy.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

In base packages, McPhee and Houston will primarily play outside linebacker, with Willie Young and Leonard Floyd, their best edge rushers, playing in sub packages. The veteran Young led all Chicago outside linebackers in snaps last season with 715. Proven in both a 3-4 and a 4-3 defense, Young has graded out above average in 5 of 7 seasons in the league, since going in the 4th round in 2010, maxing out at 13th among 4-3 defensive ends in 2013 and 13th among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2015. The one concern with him is he’s already heading into his age 32 season, so he could be on the decline.

With Young aging, the Bears need last year’s first round pick Leonard Floyd, 9th overall out of Georgia, to step up in his 2nd year in the league, after grading out slightly below average on 537 snaps as a rookie. Floyd has potential long-term, but is still raw and remains undersized at 6-6 244. The Bears also have Sam Acho as a deep reserve, but they’ll want to avoid having to give him 500 snaps like they did last season, when he struggled mightily. He’s graded out above average just once in 6 seasons in the league.

At inside linebacker, the Bears have another player coming off of injury, but one that might not be ready to go for the start of the season, as talented linebacker Danny Trevathan tore his patellar tendon in week 12 last season. The list of players that returned to form after a patellar tendon tear is pretty short and Trevathan will be just 9 months removed from the injury by week 1. If he contributes at all in 2017, I don’t expect him at full strength, a shame because he’s finished in the top-32 of linebackers on Pro Football Focus in his last 3 healthy seasons. The good news is he has youth on his side, only going into his age 27 season.

Fortunately, the Bears have a capable replacement on the roster in Christian Jones, who has 20 career starts. Thirteen of those starts came in 2015, when he actually graded out above average on Pro Football Focus, 38th among linebackers. He’s good insurance for Trevathan inside next to Jerrell Freeman, another talented veteran linebacker. Freeman has broken out in the past 2 seasons, finishing 4th among linebackers on Pro Football Focus in 2015 and 1st in 2016. That came after he finished just 39th among 60 eligible middle linebackers in 2014. He’s no spring chicken, going into his age 31 season, and he missed 4 games at the end of last season after failing a performance enhancing drug test, which makes his sudden leap in play over the past 2 seasons suspicious. I’m skeptical he can continue to play at as high of a level in 2017, but he should still be an asset for this team, especially with Trevathan injured. Freeman is the best linebacker in a solid group.

Grade: B

Secondary

Not all of the Bears’ off-season signings were overpays that likely won’t help this team, as the Bears did add a couple nice pieces to their secondary, a big need this off-season. The Bears’ front 7 was solid last season even with injuries, but both cornerback and safety were big problem positions for them last season. Prince Amukamara, signed from Jacksonville this off-season, will slot in immediately as the Bears’ #1 cornerback, while Quintin Demps, signed from Houston this off-season, will fill a big hole at safety next to Adrian Amos.

Amukamara is a talented cornerback, but the Bears only signed him to a one-year deal, so he’s not exactly the franchise building block the Bears needed to find in free agency this off-season. The reason he was limited to a one-year deal for the second straight off-season is his durability, as he has missed 27 games in 7 seasons in the league and has only once played more than 14 games. He was paid pretty well on a one-year deal, as he’ll make 7 million this season. While durability is certainly a concern, he doesn’t lack talent, as the former first round pick has graded out above average in all 6 seasons he’s been in the league, including 32nd in 2015 and 41st in 2016. He’s easily the Bears’ best cornerback.

Quintin Demps, meanwhile, was signed to a 3-year, 13.5 million dollar deal. He’s not exactly the franchise building block they needed either, as he’s going into his age 32 season, but he should be a big help. Despite his age, he’s actually coming off arguably the best season of his career, finishing 12th among safeties on Pro Football Focus. It’ll be tough for him to repeat the best season of his career again in 2017 given his age and he’s graded out above average in just one other season in his 9-year career (2015). Still, he’s an experienced starter (41 career starts, including 26 in the last 2 seasons) and a needed addition to this secondary at a reasonable price.

Not all of the Bears’ free agent additions to the secondary were smart moves though, as they also signed Marcus Cooper to a 3-year, 16 million dollar deal. A 2013 7th round pick, Cooper struggled mightily in the first extended starting experience of his career in 2016, finishing 100th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks in 15 games (13 starts) with the Cardinals. There’s a reason the Chiefs traded him to the Cardinals for a conditional 2018 7th round pick prior to final cuts last season. If they had been unable to trade him, they probably would have released him outright. I don’t know what he’s done in the year since to make him worth 16 million dollars on a 3-year deal. He’ll replace free agent departure Tracy Porter as a starting cornerback and figures to struggle again like he did in 2016.

Prior to last season, 2014 1st round pick Kyle Fuller was the Bears’ best cornerback. He seemed to have a bright future ahead of him, after finishing 37th among eligible cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in his second year in the league in 2015, but he has had a rough year since. Not only did he miss all of 2016 with a knee injury, but he appears to no longer be on good terms with the organization, who reportedly were unhappy with how slow his injury recovery was taking and questioned his work ethic.

Despite his talent and the fact that they used a first round pick on him just 3 years ago, the Bears declined his 5th year option for 2018 and are reportedly looking to trade him this off-season. If they are unable to move him, they might cut him, despite a very reasonable 1.6 million dollar salary. His 2015 season shows his upside when he’s healthy and he’s only going into his age 25 season, but that season was sandwiched in between a rookie season where he was hobbled by an ankle injury and last year’s lost season, so there’s definitely reason for concern with him even before you get into his work ethic.

With Amukamara and Cooper coming in, Fuller will be no better than 3rd on the depth chart, if he even makes the Bears’ final roster. He’ll compete with youngsters Cre’von LeBlanc (2nd year) and Bryce Callahan (3rd year), as well as journeyman free agent acquisition BW Webb. With Fuller injured, LeBlanc and Callahan actually finished 2nd and 3rd respectively on the Bears in cornerback snaps played last season, with 696 and 489 respectively, and both held up surprisingly well considering they’re recent undrafted free agents; both finished just below average among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus.

Callahan also held up surprisingly well on 329 snaps as a rookie in 2015 too. Both are probably better off as #4 cornerbacks, but it’s very possible one of them is their 3rd cornerback this year ahead of Fuller. Webb is just on the roster for depth purposes and should not play anywhere near the 588 snaps he played with the Saints last season again. Webb is on his 5th team in as many seasons in the league since the Cowboys drafted him in the 4th round in 2013. He’s finished below average on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons he’s played and he’s far from a lock to even make the Bears’ roster, even as thin as they are at cornerback. It’s strange that the Bears didn’t add a cornerback in the draft, though they did have other needs and only 5 picks after their trades.

As I mentioned earlier, Adrian Amos remains as the other starting safety next to Demps. Amos isn’t a big name, but he was Chicago’s best defensive back in 2017, finishing 26th among safeties on Pro Football Focus. A mere 5th round pick in 2015, Amos has far exceeded the expectations of his draft slot, making 30 starts in 2 seasons in the league and finishing in the top-29 safeties on Pro Football Focus in both seasons. He should have another similar season in 2017. Amukamara and Demps make this a better secondary, but they definitely still have issues on the backend of their defense.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

Like I said in early part of this preview, I was expecting a big jump in wins from the Bears from 2016 to 2017 until their off-season. They should have a better turnover margin, a better record in close games, and fewer injuries in 2017, but I just can’t get past the fact that they had one of the top picks in the draft and among the most cap space in the league and all they really have to show for it in terms of players who will make an impact in 2017 is Prince Amukamara, Quintin Demps, and maybe Jaye Howard.

Massive overpays of players like Mike Glennon, Markus Wheaton, Dion Sims, and Marcus Cooper were not wise uses of cap space. Add in the departure of Alshon Jeffery in free agency and the souring of the relationship between Kyle Fuller and the organization, following his absence due to injury for the entire 2016 season, and it’s tough to see this team being a real playoff contender. They should still have a decent sized jump in wins though, just because they weren’t nearly as bad as their record suggested in 2016, despite all their injuries, so taking the over on their odds maker projected win total of 5.5 makes a lot of sense. 

Final update: The Bears have already lost wide receiver Cameron Meredith, outside linebacker LaMarr Houston, and defensive end Jaye Howard for the season with injury, but the Bears will be getting middle linebacker Danny Trevathan back for the start of the season, which definitely helps. I wish the Bears did a better job this off-season, but it shouldn’t be hard for them to win a few more games than last season.

Prediction: 6-10, 4th in NFC North