Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2019 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on July 31, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.
In almost every sport, we assume progress will be linear. That goes for teams and players. If someone has a breakout season, we talk ourselves into bigger and better things the next season.
That does happen on occasion, of course. Sometimes the sudden emergence we see from a player or team in is the start of something really big. But not always.
With that, let’s talk about the 2019 Chicago Bears.
The Bears were a great story in 2018. The fantastic preseason trade for all-world edge rusher Khalil Mack took the defense to a phenomenal level. The offense, with first-year head coach Matt Nagy, was fun and exciting. The Bears went 12-4 and while they lost a heartbreaking playoff game to the Eagles, the season was a success. And for the most part, people figure the Bears will pick up where they left off and maybe even get better. Players seem to figure that last season was just the start.
“Our goal right now for defense is to be No. 1 across the board,” safety Eddie Jackson told SiriusXM. “Like I told them earlier, shout out to the ’85 Bears, but we want to top everything they’ve done.”
Teams sometimes take a step back after a huge improvement, especially when the foundation of success is defense. A great defensive performance doesn’t always carry over to the next season. Football Outsiders Almanac said every one of the last 10 defenses to lead the league in FO’s DVOA per-play metric got worse the next season. One only needs to look at the 2018 Jacksonville Jaguars and Minnesota Vikings for proof that a great defensive performance is hard to carry over. The Jaguars and Vikings had the top two defenses in 2017, in some order. Both defenses were still good in 2018 but neither was top two in any meaningful category, despite few personnel changes for either unit. Each team won five fewer games in 2018. The Jaguars and Vikings made their respective conference championship games two seasons ago, and missed the playoffs last season. The margin of error in the NFL can be really slim.
There are other reasons to believe the Bears can’t repeat their nearly historic season on defense. They picked off 27 passes, and that’s very hard to do again. The Bears were the third luckiest team in the NFL when it came to injuries, according to Football Outsiders’ adjusted games lost metric, and injury luck is mostly random (and very important). Chicago should plan on a few more injuries this season. And the Bears defense took some hits this offseason, particularly at the top.
Vic Fangio was perhaps the best coordinator in the league last season, and we can’t just ignore the impact of him leaving to coach the Denver Broncos. His schemes were a huge part of Chicago’s success. Former Colts coach Chuck Pagano replaces Fangio. Defensive backs coach Ed Donatell and outside linebackers coach Brandon Staley left for Denver with Fangio. The Bears didn’t retain inside linebackers coach Glenn Pires or assistant defensive backs/safeties coach Roy Anderson. That’s a lot of turnover. Safety Adrian Amos and slot cornerback Bryce Callahan were big parts of the Bears success as well, and they both left in free agency.
The Bears won’t turn into an average defense. The Bears defense will still be good, but probably not as great as last season. They’ll need to improve in other areas to counter-balance that almost certain regression. And the most obvious way is through quarterback Mitchell Trubisky.
Trubisky is the wild card for the Bears. To some he’s still a raw and improving talent who showed real signs of progress last season, at least before a shoulder injury in November. For others, he’s too inconsistent and he hasn’t really shown upside like Deshaun Watson or Patrick Mahomes, two future stars the Bears passed on to take Trubisky. Trubisky doesn’t profile as the type of quarterback who can carry a team by himself and be a top-five quarterback. But the Bears don’t need that. They need a quarterback who can make enough plays to support a defense that, while it might not be miles ahead of the rest of the NFL again, will be very good. For most of last season, Trubisky was that kind of quarterback. An improvement is certainly possible, given his relative lack of experience and draft pedigree. Having the innovative Nagy calling plays is a plus, as well.
The Bears were so much better on defense than any other NFL team, they could regress in a significant way and still be the best defense in the league. And perhaps the offense, with its young quarterback, improves enough to make up for whatever step back the defense takes. Chicago should feel it can be one of the best teams in the league again. It just might not look exactly the same as last season.
We won’t count the loss of Vic Fangio in the offseason grade, though clearly that is the biggest loss the team had. The Bears lost safety Adrian Amos and slot cornerback Bryce Callahan in free agency and replaced them with Ha-Ha Clinton Dix and Buster Skrine. The Bears probably got worse at both positions. Jordan Howard was a productive back but not a great fit for Matt Nagy’s scheme, and he was traded to the Eagles. The Bears signed Mike Davis and drafted David Montgomery, and those players are probably better fits. Those two, along with Tarik Cohen, make an intriguing backfield. Cordarelle Patterson gives the Bears’ return game a nice boost. The Bears didn’t have a first- or second-round pick; they gave up the first-round pick in the Khalil Mack trade and sent a second-round pick to move up in the 2018 draft for receiver Anthony Miller. Overall, it’s hard to say the Bears got better.
While there are reasons to believe the Bears won’t repeat what they did on defense in 2018, there’s still a load of talent on that side of the ball. Safety Eddie Jackson, cornerback Kyle Fuller and edge rusher Khalil Mack were first-team All-Pros. Defensive lineman Akiem Hicks finally got some due and made his first Pro Bowl. Others like middle linebacker Roquan Smith, defensive tackle Eddie Goldman and edge rusher Leonard Floyd have a lot of talent too. The Bears defense ranked at or near the top in practically every category last season. They stopped the run, rushed the quarterback, forced turnovers and shut down passing games at remarkable levels. When your foundation is a defense with this much talent, things are looking good.
OK, time to talk about the Bears kicking situation. That has been a story throughout the offseason, since the moment of Cody Parkey’s infamous “double doink” miss to end the Eagles playoff loss. Parkey was cut and the Bears can’t feel good about their candidates to replace him. The Bears brought in plenty of no-name kickers and none stood out. Eddy Pineiro and Elliott Fry are the last two standing, and unless you’ve followed the Bears kicking news closely, it’s likely you’ve never heard of either. Elliott came from the defunct Alliance of American Football, and Pineiro was acquired in a trade with the Raiders. Neither has kicked in an NFL game. This is a frightening situation for a team with big dreams, and the immense pressure and attention in Chicago surrounding the position won’t help.
If you want to tell yourself a story that Mitchell Trubisky is on the verge of a nice breakthrough, it’s not crazy. Trubisky was the second overall pick of the 2017 draft; he has obvious talent. He had only 13 college starts, so he needed more development time than many of his peers. He was with a coaching staff in 2017 that had no idea how to develop him. Then last season he was paired with Matt Nagy, in a complicated and new offense, and was doing well before a shoulder injury:
Pre-injury (10 games): 2,469 yards, 20 TD, 9 INT, 7.7 yards per attempt, 97.7 passer rating
Post-injury (4 games): 754 yards, 4 TD, 3 INT, 6.7 yards per attempt, 88.9 rating
You can explain the drop in play to the injury, and winter weather. Conversely, you can also say the numbers through 10 games were inflated by a six-touchdown game against a terrible Buccaneers defense. But mostly, Trubisky was fine in his second season. He added value as a runner, which has always been part of his overall package as a player. He could be more accurate and definitely needs to be more consistent, but if you believe that quarterbacks entering their third season should still be awarded a little bit of patience, Trubisky is on a positive path.
No need to waste anyone’s time here ...
From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “When it comes to rookie wideouts, it’s important to remember the Class of 2014 (which went bonkers) was a gigantic outlier. Usually, it’s encouraging simply to see a first-year receiver keep his head above water. And Anthony Miller was able to do that last year, with a handy 33-423-7 debut. Considering Miller had a nagging shoulder injury, which required offseason surgery, that’s not a bad return.
“Miller was limited through offseason work, but should be fine for summer camp. We can’t draft him as an assumed fantasy starter, but there’s all sorts of plausible upside here; I love that he was comped to Doug Baldwin a year ago. Miller is merely being selected as the WR52 in early Yahoo drafts, around the 125th overall pick. He’s one of my favorite targets for a WR 4-5, an upside play that I won’t necessarily need to start Week 1. Keep an eye peeled on Miller in August.”
If you want another reason the Bears could regress, just look at their strength of schedule. The Bears had the second easiest strength of schedule last season, via Football Outsiders’ DVOA per-play metric. That changes dramatically this season. The Bears are projected to have the fifth hardest schedule this season according to Warren Sharp, who uses Las Vegas over/under win totals to estimate schedule strength. The Bears play four projected top-five opponents, tied for the most in the league, and seven top-10 opponents, and only the Broncos play more than that. The Bears could be just as good this season and not finish 12-4, given the massive shift in strength of schedule.
CAN A BEARS RECEIVER TAKE A BIG STEP?
Part of getting Mitchell Trubisky to the next level is his receivers stepping up as well. That group wasn’t bad last season, but it still seems there’s a higher level for at least three of them: tight end Trey Burton and receivers Allen Robinson and Anthony Miller. Burton was OK in his first Chicago season, but can improve off a 54-569-6 line. Robinson and Miller should be healthier. Robinson had 754 yards a year removed from a torn ACL. He said he’s feeling much better this offseason, and 1,000 yards seems to be a fair expectation. Miller caught seven touchdowns as a rookie but had only 423 yards. He was playing through a bad shoulder injury and had offseason surgery. He has exciting potential. It seems fair to assume Robinson has a bigger season, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if Miller and Burton did too.
We can at least imagine a scenario in which the Bears defense remains the best in the NFL, and the offense takes huge strides. Matt Nagy is a creative playcaller, there are talented players all around quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and Trubisky has the ability to make a big leap. We saw flashes of what Trubisky can be last season. While Trubisky doesn’t seem like he has the upside of being an MVP candidate (though he was the most popular bet to win MVP in Las Vegas this summer, mostly because of the long odds), he can be a good, productive quarterback. The Bears could make a big improvement on offense now that Nagy’s scheme has been established and there’s a good amount of continuity on offense. A 12-4 team with a lot of room to grow on offense has to be considered a preseason Super Bowl contender.
In 2016, an Oakland Raiders team led by Khalil Mack went 12-4. We expected the Raiders to be on the upswing, because we don’t figure on teams winning 12 games and disappearing right after. The Raiders haven’t had a winning season since, and probably won’t have one this year either. That’s not to say the Bears were a total fluke or will go the way of the Raiders since that one magical season, but it’s possible. Maybe Mitchell Trubisky doesn’t take the next step. Perhaps the NFL figures out Matt Nagy’s offense. The defense won’t fall off a cliff, but the 2018 Jaguars had a very good defense and went 5-11. When a team coming off four double-digit loss seasons in a row suddenly goes 12-4, there should be some skepticism about that team’s staying power.
I wasn’t going to disrespect the Bears by putting a Packers team coming off a 6-9-1 season ahead of them in these rankings. The Bears should get the benefit of the doubt, and the Packers have a lot to prove. But when we make our season predictions, I’ll probably pick the Packers to win the NFC North. There are too many regression factors for the Bears to ignore. I don’t think the Bears will completely fall off. Mitchell Trubisky will continue to develop and the Bears should get a wild-card spot. I just don’t think they will improve upon last season.
– – – – – – –