2021 NFL Preview: Bears have exciting new QB, with a coach and GM trying to survive
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 2021 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 4, the day before the Hall of Fame Game.
One tweet summed up the Chicago Bears' pre-draft offseason excitement, or lack thereof.
— Chicago Bears (@ChicagoBears) March 25, 2021
It was a meaningless late March tweet (which everyone outside of Illinois got a laugh out of), presumably to get fans excited, but how were Bears fans ever going to get fired up about Andy Dalton as their quarterback? Nothing against Dalton, but he's no longer in the "preferred starter" phase of his career. He's either a really good backup or the starting option when you have nobody else.
Through late April, the Bears were a mediocre team that failed on yet another try at quarterback with Mitchell Trubisky, with a coach and general manager who everyone seemed to want out but surprisingly got another year. They weren't going to get a good quarterback with the 20th overall pick, either. The Bears were nowhere near the dire situation some other teams find themselves in, but it was getting hard to drum up any real optimism.
Then came draft night.
It would be hard to find a fanbase more excited about a pick than Bears fans were about Justin Fields. The Bears came into the draft with no real hope of landing a difference-making quarterback. Then Fields started falling. He got past the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos, two teams that might regret not taking the Ohio State quarterback. Finally the Bears found their partner to trade up, with the New York Giants at No. 11. They drafted Fields and reenergized their fanbase. Fan excitement shouldn't be the reason a team takes any player in the draft, but it doesn't hurt.
Fields gives the Bears hope of finally having a great quarterback. It's a franchise that, somehow, hasn't had a first-team All-Pro quarterback since 1950, and only a few Pro Bowlers in the Super Bowl era. Expectations will be huge.
It's good the Bears got Fields, because the rest of the equation is shaky.
Matt Nagy probably set the record for quickest time between a coach of the year award and landing on the hot seat. A very good first year as Bears coach has mostly been forgotten. Nagy has struggled to establish an offensive identity. GM Ryan Pace's draft missteps have been dissected often in Chicago and he has gotten plenty of blame for the Bears' 42-54 record since he took over. Both were in danger of being fired after last season. Neither was.
It was a reprieve, and both seemed to realize it. If you didn't already know how the news went over in Chicago, check out the comments from Bears chairman George McCaskey.
"We understand your frustration. We're frustrated, too," McCaskey said, according to the Bears' site. "And it would be a perfectly natural reaction to say, 'Back up the truck, major overhaul,' whatever you want to call it. After one particularly dispiriting loss this season, a season-ticket holder sent me an email that read: 'Fire somebody. We deserve better.' I get it. You deserve your Bears being winners. The decisions we're announcing today might not be the easiest or most popular, but we believe they're the best decisions for the Bears."
That's not exactly the quote you wish to hear as the offseason starts.
The Bears enter a strange season. Pace and Nagy are clearly on borrowed time. They're also tasked with doing what's right to develop the quarterback of the future. Cynically, what's best for them might not be best for the Bears. If Nagy waits until midseason to make the change to Fields, it'll be viewed — right or wrong — as one to generate some late-season momentum and buy him another year. The easiest way for Pace and Nagy to save their jobs is to make the playoffs. They'll need to exhaust all other options if that doesn't happen.
Fields creates a diversion. That wasn't the goal but it's the result. If this was Dalton for a full season, Bears fans would focus on the future of their embattled coach and GM all season. That hasn't been the story since the draft.
And who knows, perhaps Fields will get his chance early in the season and lead the Bears to enough wins to save both their jobs.
Moving up to draft Justin Fields was clearly the right move, but the cost was high. The Bears gave up the 20th pick, a fifth-round pick and first-and fourth-round picks in 2022 to move up nine spots. Nobody will care about the cost if Fields works out, however. The Bears' draft got an "A" grade from Yahoo Sports' Eric Edholm, and not just for Fields. There were other good picks, like Oklahoma State offensive tackle Teven Jenkins in the second round. Free agency grades aren't as kind. The team lost cornerback Kyle Fuller, defensive lineman Roy Robertson-Harris, left tackle Charles Leno and excellent kickoff returner Cordarrelle Patterson. Not much came back. Andy Dalton signed for $10 million, which was necessary before the Bears drafted Fields and an overpay once the draft was done. A lot of money was spent giving the franchise tag to Allen Robinson II, a necessary move. We'll give a little extra credit for the draft, but free agency brings down the grade.
Matt Nagy was asked on Cris Collinsworth's podcast about Justin Fields' chances to start Week 1 over Andy Dalton. Here's the question and answer, via NBC Sports Chicago.
Collinsworth: Is there a possible scenario where Justin Fields plays on opening night?
Nagy: No, I mean Andy is our starter. Again, I can’t predict anything. You know how it goes. There’s so many things that can happen in between today and Week 1, but Andy is our starter and Justin’s our No. 2, and we’re going to stick to this plan.
There was a lot said by Nagy days after that comment about everyone competing, but it sounds like Fields will need to change Nagy's mind in August. He could, but it seems the Bears are falling into an outdated trap.
Rookie first-round quarterbacks don't need to sit anymore, and they rarely do. Carson Palmer and Aaron Rodgers sitting for a year happened ages ago, in NFL terms. If Fields shows he's ready, he should play. Then again, that presumes rational coaching. Bill O'Brien once started Tom Savage over Deshaun Watson in Week 1; coaches still sometimes put too much belief in strategies that made sense 20 or 30 years ago. Also, coaches who need to save their jobs often make decisions with that in mind. If Fields is ready, he should play as soon as possible. But will he?
The Bears' win total at BetMGM is 7.5, and I don't love the over. It could happen because the defense is still good and perhaps Justin Fields gets his shot earlier rather than later. He can transform a dull offense. But it's still a team that will be relying on a rookie quarterback who was passed in the draft by multiple teams with QB needs, or a veteran who probably isn't leading an offensive revolution. I like the Fields pick and it will pay off, just not this season.
From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "David Montgomery went bonkers in the final third of the 2020 season. driving some managers to championships, but the public isn't chasing that run. He's merely the RB21 in early Yahoo drafts, and an affordable RB19 in NFFC formats.
The return of Tarik Cohen and the addition of Damien Williams might seem like a crowding issue, but Cohen is a mildly-overrated satellite back and Williams steps into his age-29 season. Although Montgomery's late-season run last year was aided by a host of easy matchups, I still expect him to command a heavy market share this year. The Bears also have their share of weak opponents, for whatever summer SOS means to you. At the current price, Montgomery is a reasonable fallback as your second fantasy back."
After four straight double-digit sack seasons, including a great 15-sack season in 2015, Khalil Mack hasn't reached double digits in two straight seasons. He has come close, with 8.5 in 2019 and 9 in 2020. Mack is still one of the best defensive players in the NFL and his impact goes beyond sack totals. There's nothing that indicates he has dropped off at all. If anything, he's due for some positive regression and his sack total could spike again this season. That would be great news for the Bears. Perhaps new defensive coordinator Sean Desai will have some ideas on how to put Mack in advantageous positions.
What does David Montgomery's hot streak mean for 2021?
When it looked like Montgomery might never be the lead back the Bears wanted him to be, the final six weeks of the regular season happened.
Montgomery had the hottest streak of his young career. The final six games: 598 rushing yards with a 5.2-yard average, 226 receiving yards and eight total touchdowns. The Bears won three in a row in that stretch, and that's the reason they made the playoffs. Montgomery benefited from a soft schedule late in the season, but it's impressive to put up those numbers no matter who you're facing. Montgomery seems energized by the late-season surge. He said he has been working on his speed, among other things.
"It wasn't enough for me last year, just knowing the untapped potential that I had within myself," Montgomery said, according to the Bears' site.
It's reasonable to assume, even with pass-catching back Tarik Cohen back from injury, the Bears will start the season giving Montgomery all he can handle to see if 2020 carries over. The Bears have questions at quarterback and have been looking for help from the running game for years. Whether Montgomery can duplicate the production is a question, but he's likely to get the chance.
The 8-8 Bears sneaking in the playoffs as a No. 7 seed is the exact reason the NFL shouldn't have expanded the playoffs. Nevertheless, Chicago still was a playoff team. Making it back to the playoffs isn't a big stretch. Maybe the Bears can be more than a mediocre team backing in thanks to a watered-down field. Chicago's defense is still very good. Depending on how long it takes for the Bears to realize Justin Fields needs to play, it's possible he could transform the offense. You can't depend on that from any rookie, but it's within the range of outcomes for the talented Fields. If the Green Bay Packers can't figure out the Aaron Rodgers situation, maybe it's the Bears that can take advantage and win the division.
The Bears' postseason media conferences were weird. Matt Nagy and Ryan Pace stated without much doubt that they knew their jobs were on the line in 2021.
"Ownership has given us an opportunity," Pace said, according to the Bears' site. "They've given us all the resources we can ask for. And now, that's on Matt and I to prove them right."
"We need to do everything we can to get this thing right," Nagy said. "We're gonna exhaust ourselves. It's a production-based business."
That makes for an awkward season. Coaches have saved their jobs when they had one foot out the door, but more often it's a distraction and the team realizes changes should have come a year earlier. Nagy might lead a list of coaches most likely to be fired in midseason. If the Bears get off to a slow start, that could end up being the outcome.
I get the feeling the Bears have already decided Justin Fields will sit and wait, and they're going to waste some early-season games on Andy Dalton. I don't think the Bears will be bad, just not much better than last season and without the late-season kick to sneak into the playoffs. The Bears' future should be bright with Justin Fields. I just don't think that the excitement for that pick leads to more wins this season. Things are looking up at quarterback, but building up a contender around Fields might take some time.
32. Houston Texans
31. Detroit Lions
30. Jacksonville Jaguars
29. New York Jets
28. Cincinnati Bengals
27. Philadelphia Eagles
26. Carolina Panthers
25. Atlanta Falcons
24. Las Vegas Raiders
23. New York Giants