The Chicago Bears are staring down the barrel of competency. It’s a low bar to clear but a big one for a team that’s been in the cellar of the NFC North for three years in a row.
With the (very important) exception of the quarterback position, the offense doesn’t look half bad. After his rookie season, it’s fair to call running back Jordan Howard a building block. The University of Indiana product went for 1,313 yards (5.2 per carry) and six touchdowns, ranking fifth among running backs in DYAR and tenth in DVOA. With 29 receptions, he also showed himself to be a capable receiver. That part of his game needs further development but was encouraging in Year 1.
Howard is running behind a good line as well. The Bears ranked inside the top 10 in adjusted line yards, power success and adjusted sack rate last season. Center Cody Whitehair — another rookie last season — was an instant success, ranking sixth at his position with an 85.9 PFF grade. The Bears have built their offensive line from the inside out, with two Pro Bowlers — Josh Sitton and Kyle Long — at guard. Sitton didn’t slow down much last season, blowing just six blocks in 13 games, per Football Outsiders Almanac. Long was hit with the injury bug — along with seemingly half the team — but had a solid 78.2 PFF grade when healthy. Tackles Charles Leno and Bobby Massie are the least reliable players on the line, especially in pass protection. Leno blew 13 pass blocks and Massie blew 12 last season, per FOA. However, a big part of Chicago’s offense is getting the ball out quickly. If the Bears continue to emphasize that — and given their quarterback situation they likely will — the negative effects of Leno and Massie could be limited.
Speaking of the quarterback situation, it’s time to talk about the elephant in the room. The Bears first tried to address it by handing Mike Glennon — who has thrown 11 passes in the last two seasons — $18.5 million in guaranteed money. That was stupid on its own, but the Bears went even further on draft night by trading a treasure chest of draft picks to move up to second overall, where they picked UNC quarterback Mitch Trubisky.
Glennon will start the season, but he’s a lame duck. The Bears don’t have much of a chance to contend for anything serious, so at a certain point it becomes nonsensical to limit Trubisky’s development by limiting his snaps. Unlike most quarterbacks who get picked that early in the draft, however, it’s hard to get excited about Trubisky. At UNC, he rarely went past his first read. When that was covered, Trubisky usually opted to check down rather than go to his second read. Though the arm talent is there and is perhaps better than any other QB in this class, Trubisky has to learn almost everything there is to know about being an NFL quarterback. He played almost exclusively out of the shotgun and was heavily dependent on the spread offense and RPOs.
That’s nowhere near as bad as it was ten years ago. Every team plays more out of the gun than under center — the Bears did so 63 percent of the time last season, per FOA, which was relatively low — and most teams incorporate RPOs and other spread principles into their offense. However, there will be an adjustment period for Trubisky. Expect him to struggle for a while in his rookie season while he learns to translate arm talent and good mechanics into success.
The receiving corps won’t provide either quarterback with a ton of help. Cameron Meredith had a surprisingly decent 2016, going for 888 yards on 66 receptions. If Alshon Jeffery hadn’t left and Meredith was still the second option, there would be room for optimism. However, the 25-year old may struggle when opponents pit their best corners against him.
After Meredith, things go downhill fast. Kendall Wright had only 29 receptions last season and could be their second option. It’s easy to say that Kevin White will fill that role, but at this point, we should believe what we see when it comes to White. The 2015 first-rounder has played four games in two years and wasn’t particularly good during those games. At a certain point, college tape stops mattering. He has to show us that he can stay healthy and play in the NFL.
If Markus Wheaton can be the same player he was in 2015 — unlikely given the drop-off from Ben Roethlisberger to Trubisky — he could add some depth. He’s getting off to a slow start after an emergency appendectomy, too. Tight end Zach Miller is reliable, ranking 12th at the position in DVOA last season, but he isn’t going to be the focal point of an offense anytime soon.
Chicago managed to rank 16th in offensive DVOA last season and it’s a reasonable goal to duplicate that. If they do, it will be on the back of the running game, the interior offensive line and a passing game designed to minimize mistakes.
The biggest thing working in the Bears’ favor will be injury regression. Per FOA, the Bears had 155.1 adjusted games lost last season — more than any team since 2000. It’s tough to imagine that number won’t regress.
On the defensive side, injury regression is especially relevant. Akiem Hicks and Willie Young are the only two starters who played all 16 games last season. If Chicago gets healthier, its defense could approach average.
Hicks, who had seven sacks, 11 hits and 30 hurries last season, was the best rusher on the defensive line. His run defense was lackluster, but if nose tackle Eddie Goldman stays healthy, he could be a capable anchor in that area. Mitch Unrein had an 86 percent run stop rate, inside the top-20 among defensive ends, per FOA. Expect him to play the first two downs, but the Bears lack a pass rusher on third downs. Jaye Howard and Jonathan Bullard had only one sack each last season. Despite that hole, the Bears can depend on outside linebacker Leonard Floyd for pressure. Floyd had seven sacks and 21 hurries in his rookie season, per FOA, and will only get better. Willie Young had 7.5 sacks as well. Despite his age, Young can still contribute as a pass rusher.
If Pernell McPhee and Danny Trevathan stay healthy (McPhee is already dealing with a knee injury), they can buoy the run defense. In 2015, both ranked among the top-25 in run stop rate, per Football Outsiders. That won’t make them a great run defense team, but an improvement from 28th in run defense DVOA could be in the cards.
Coverage-wise, Travathan is far from the best linebacker in football, but Jerrell Freeman could lay reasonable claim to that title. He ranked fourth in success rate and seventh in adjusted yards per target last season, per FOA, and had a 94.0 PFF coverage grade. Freeman’s 93.9 overall grade ranked first among linebackers. At 31 years old, he may not be in Chicago’s long-term plans, but he’s the best defender right now.
The secondary’s success depends largely on the health of Kyle Fuller. Fuller missed all of last season with a knee injury but showed good development in 2015, giving up 7.3 adjusted yards per target in his second year, per Football Outsiders. This is a prove-it year for Fuller, whose fifth-year option was declined this offseason. He could still be a part of Chicago’s future and will likely start this season. Prince Amukamara figures to be the other outside corner for the Bears, who primarily played Cover-3 last season. Amukamara is another player who’s dealt with injuries in the past, but he was healthy for most of last season and struggled. He had a 45 percent success rate in Jacksonville, as did Marcus Cooper in Arizona, who could also compete for the position. Bryce Callahan looks like the most reliable piece in the secondary at nickel back. Callahan’s 60 percent success rate was fourth among corners last season, per FOA.
Quintin Demps and Adrian Amos are a solid duo at safety. Demps was top-10 at the position with an 86.7 PFF grade last season. Amos had an 80.6 grade and gave up 8.7 adjusted yards per target, according to FOA, both numbers ranking in the top 30.
It’s tough to figure out the long-term direction of this team. It seemingly made plans on the fly at quarterback during the offseason, and other than Howard, Whitehair and Floyd, not many of their best players are young. Despite that, the Bears are good enough to be respectable this season. Expect them to climb out of the cellar.