The Bears have made a lot of changes this offseason. General manager Ryan Pace fired John Fox and replaced him with Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy. Nagy in turn, hired Mark Helferich to be his offensive coordinator, who was fired as head coach at Oregon after the 2016 season. They retained Bears quarterbacks coach Dave Ragone, and brought in several other new coaches to fill out their staff, most notably offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.
Hiestand was the line coach at Notre Dame, and is kind of a legend in the business. Nagy also retained defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, after he had interviewed for the top job. It’s believed Fangio got a pretty decent raise as incentive to stay. The Bears also cleaned house in regard to their strength and conditioning program.
All of these moves in the offices at Halas Hall are well and good, but it’s the players who count the most toward wins and losses. There is a belief of many enthusiastic Bears fans that the young, charismatic Nagy, with his voluminous playbook, and quarterback Mitchell Trubisky can lead the Bears back to the playoffs.
Injuries and lack of depth are probably the two biggest contributors in the downfall of any teams year. In my opinion, these are the most important Bears players, based on their talent and quality of depth behind them, as we head into the new season. They will not be successful or sniff the playoffs without:
Akiem Hicks–left defensive end. Is not only the Bears best defensive player but also their most physically imposing at 6″5′ and 330 lbs. If Hicks were to go down to injury this would represent the Bears greatest drop off in terms of talent and size. The Bears did not address defensive end depth issues directly, instead they drafted defensive tackle Bilal Nichols in the 5th round, who will backup right end Jonathan Bullard, a new starter at right defensive end. The actual backup for Hicks is Roy Robertson-Harris, who had 12 total tackles in 13 games , 2 tackles for a loss and 2 sacks. The reason Robertson-Harris’s numbers are so low is that Hicks never left the field. The Bears should give Hicks more rest this year, as his production tailed off at the end of an almost Pro Bowl season last year. He had 8.5 sacks, but only 1.5 after week 8. The Bears need him to be fresh and dominate next to…
Eddie Goldman–defensive tackle. Goldman is the anchor of the Bears defense, almost as physically imposing as Hicks, often drawing double teams that free up other defenders. Next to Hicks they are a great combination, but they don’t get enough help from the right side of the line. Goldman has a quick first step for a 6″4′, 320 pounder and has the ability to get sacks and push the pocket. Injury in his 2nd year appears to have slowed him down a bit. Had 5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks his rookie year. In 21 games since, has 5 TFL’s and 4 sacks. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio doesn’t help matters with his conservative nature. He relies on his 3 man front to bring pressure to often. He needs to bring a fourth or fifth rusher at times and disguise where that player is coming from, to free up Hicks and Goldman from double teams.
Danny Trevathan–middle linebacker. In the last two seasons since he followed John Fox here as a free agent, Trevathan has missed 11 games from injury or suspension. The performance of the Bears thin linebacking corps has been a barometer of success for years. It seems to be no coincidence that last year Trevathan played in all five victories the Bears had. He has been a demonic presence in the front 7 since he arrived. Against Green Bay in week four, he almost killed wide receiver Davante Adams with a hit that earned Trevathan a two game suspension, reduced to one on appeal. When he isn’t on the field, middle linebacker has been a glaring weakness. Perhaps that’s why the Bears drafted Roquan Smith in the first round. They can’t afford a Trevathan injury this year now that Christian Jones signed as a free agent with Detroit.
Jordan Howard–running back. Say what you want about Howards pass catching ability, which cost them game one, a year ago against Atlanta. He was instrumental in the Bears sweeping the AFC North division last year; 140 yards rushing and 2 touchdowns against Pittsburgh, 167 yards against Baltimore, 147 yards and 2 td’s against Cincinnati, and only 44 yards against Cleveland’s tough front, but scoring two more touchdowns. He has single handedly been the Bears offense in his record setting two year career. He has played like a player who felt slighted by being drafted in the 3rd round of the draft. Howard obviously feels has has first round talent. One thing is for sure, he has first round toughness. With the diminutive Tarik Cohen behind him, the Bears lose a lot of physicality to their overall team identity. As tough a runner as there is in the league!
Kyle Fuller–cornerback. Played a full season last year after missing previous season with injuries, only two interceptions though. Needs to regain the bravado and confidence he had during his rookie year when he had 4 interceptions, and was a standout defender. Bears went 5-11 with Fuller and Prince Amukamara not creating many turnovers. A few more turnovers from them could be the difference in the Bears record by a couple of victories. The drop off in talent behind Fuller is significant. They need him to stay healthy and continue his development, as he is being paid among the top 5 at his position in the league.
Eddie Jackson–safety. Jackson proved to be so good during his rookie year that I think people take him for granted. He is already a leader and one of the best players on the Bears. He really showed his worth in last years game against Carolina, when he scooped up a fumble and caught an interception, both for touchdowns. He has a good combination of size and speed for the position, and came from Alabama, where he was coached by one of the best defensive back coaches of all time in Nick Saban. May have been tentative at times last year as he was learning Fangio’s system, and John Fox didn’t want to give up any big plays. He will play closer to the line of scrimmage this year and be more of a disruptive force than last year, when he only forced one other turnover, and had one tackle for loss.
Leonard Floyd–outside linebacker. Is supposed to be the pass rusher opposite Hicks. Since the Bears traded up to select Floyd, like they seem to do with most of their first round picks in the Pace era, he has been unable to stay on the field for a variety of injuries. This season will be no different, as Floyd already has two broken fingers on his left hand in the preseason, but is expected to play with a massively bandaged hand week one against the Packers. Coach Nagy has evaluated other players who have played with similarly wrapped hands and feels confident Floyd can be effective. No doubt Floyd has the size and speed to get around the corner of left tackles, but the hand will hinder his ability to grip a jersey or arm of any blocker for any inside moves. He will be somewhat one dimensional with the cast on. His backup Isaiah Irving is an undrafted free agent who made the Bears as a practice squad player last year. Two preseasons in row now, he has flashed ability to be a serious playmaker.
Kyle Long–right guard. An All-Pro three consecutive seasons to start his career has seen his body mangled the last two years, mirroring the Bears problems. With 15 games missed, his absence has really hindered the overall performance of the offensive line. When he plays and is somewhat healthy, the offensive line is a strength of the team. Last season he missed the first two games of the year still recuperating from ankle surgery, both losses. He came back for the third game which the Bears upset Pittsburgh behind Long and Jordan Howards 140 yards rushing. The Bears actually won 3 out of 5 games after Long’s return from off season ankle surgery. He got more nicked up and his shoulder, which has been bad for two seasons, finally gave out, and landed him on injured reserve to finish the season. That’s why he is the 2nd offensive player on this list. Oh, and his backup from last year, Tom Compton, is starting for Minnesota this year.
Cody Whitehair–center. Has been one of the league’s best centers since he joined the Bears as a guard out of Kansas, drafted in the 2nd round in 2016. A starter from day one at center, he still has the versatility to play guard, as he did on a couple of occasions last year when the Bears had multiple linemen hurt. He slid over to Kyle Long’s spot when Tom Compton had to move over and play left guard for an injured Josh Sitton, while Whitehair backup Hroniss Grasu played center. Whitehair is so important because of his quality as a starter and ability to also play either guard spot. I wrote a year ago that Grasu is not NFL caliber. That may be why the Bears drafted James Daniels, a natural center, and played him at guard at the start of training camp. Whitehair and Daniels could prove to be very versatile in an era where it’s harder and harder to navigate the 53 man roster.
Mitchell Trubisky–quarterback. Wasn’t a fan of his selection from the start. But his leadership and personality has won over the fandom and locker room of the Bears, and that counts for something. Says and does the right things as the anti-Cutler quarterback we all need. Has worked hard in the off-season to improve his arm strength, which was noticeable when I attended training camp. Haven’t seen all of the tools and escapability yet. Nagy was hired to get the most out of him and with Nagy’s help, Pace acquired a number of receiving weapons to help Trubisky out. Trey Burton will turn out to be a big time player like a Jason Witten or Travis Kelce. Mitchell must become at least like Tony Romo and Andy Dalton, as a consistent playoff caliber quarterback. If free agent wide receiver Allen Robinson regains his All-Pro form, Trubisky may turn into a quarterback that gets deep into the playoffs. Needs to finish drives and games
The only reason Trubisky isn’t higher is that backup Chase Daniels has proven in the preseason that he can run this offense effectively. Daniels has guided 5 touchdown drives in a row to finish the preseason, two at the end of the Denver game, and three against Kansas City’s 1st team defense. Daniels current knowledge and comfort with the offense has himself near Trubisky’s overall talent. Now Mitchell just needs the time and experience to have the opportunity to surpass all who have come before him in a Bears uniform.