2016 NFL Preview: After good coaching hire, Bears keep building

Shutdown Corner

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per day in reverse order of our initial 2016 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 6, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

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The 2015 Chicago Bears didn’t produce the kind of results that would lead to John Fox getting NFL coach of the year votes, but Fox did a pretty good job.

Early on the Bears looked terrible. They were 0-3 and lost those three games by a combined 59 points. Then they were 2-5, with a two-point win and a one-point win, after seven games. Injuries piled up and the personnel deficiencies seemed clear.

And from that point on, Fox turned the Bears out of that skid. For a stretch, they weren’t a bad football team.

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The Bears won three of their next four, including a surprising Thanksgiving upset at Green Bay. A tough overtime home loss to a Blaine Gabbert-led San Francisco 49ers team was awful, ended the Bears’ brief playoff dreams and effectively led to another slump, but that midseason stretch was important. It gave Fox something to build on.

Fox has proven to be a good NFL coach. His career record is 125-99 and won conference championships with both franchises he has coached. He was unfairly fired by the Denver Broncos after winning four straight division titles. He was fired, in part, for not being aggressive enough. It had to kill him to watch the Broncos win Super Bowl 50 with a very conservative offensive plan. Denver used an extreme version of the derided “Foxball” to win a title a year after basically blaming Fox’s conservative nature for its playoff failures. Fox landed in a good spot, however, and he can coach. Now the Bears know that too. And they added some key defensive pieces to play the way Fox wants.

A departure elsewhere on the coaching staff is concerning. Before last season Jay Cutler had never posted a passer rating above 90, which is pretty incredible. With offensive coordinator Adam Gase, Cutler posted a 92.3 rating last season. Gase left after one Bears season to become the Miami Dolphins’ head coach. The Bears wanted continuity so Dowell Loggains was promoted from quarterbacks coach to replace Gase. We’ll have to see if Cutler gives back some of the gains he made.

Cutler cut out a lot of the mistakes that have defined his career. He eased back on the high-risk passes he can make at times, but that was probably due to injuries to every one of his projected starting targets: Alshon Jeffery, Eddie Royal, Kevin White, Martellus Bennett and Matt Forte. That Cutler could have his most efficient season with all of them missing significant time is noteworthy.

If Cutler can continue to improve despite the losses of Gase, Forte and Bennett (the latter two left in free agency), the offense should be fine. The defense should be better. There are still major concerns in the secondary, but the front seven has a lot more talent. After years of trying to figure out a post-Brian Urlacher world at inside linebacker, the Bears invested twice in the position, signing Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman. The Bears also drafted Leonard Floyd in the first round to help the pass rush, a year after signing outside linebacker Pernell McPhee. McPhee was outstanding last year before injuries cut his season short.

Fox likes a tough defense and his should be better this season, at least up front. If his quarterback has finally evolved, with or without the offensive coordinator who helped him to a breakthrough, then maybe the Bears can take another step with a coach who is used to winning.

John Fox has the Bears going in the right direction (AP)
John Fox has the Bears going in the right direction (AP)

I like that the Bears identified their weakness at inside linebacker and attacked it by signing two strong veterans in Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman. That’s a massive upgrade. Defensive end Akiem Hicks, who was with the New England Patriots last year, should help too. The Bears could have used some help in the secondary, but you can’t fill every hole in one offseason. The losses of Forte and Bennett won’t help the offense, but Forte is 30 and Bennett entirely wore out his Chicago welcome. Maybe those losses won’t be as bad as they seem on paper. Grade: B-

The Bears graded out pretty well last season in every area but run defense. Chicago ranked 32nd in Football Insiders’ DVOA per-play metric in stopping the run. Adding Jerrell Freeman, Danny Trevathan and Akiem Hicks to the front seven will help, as will nose tackle Eddie Goldman being better in his second season and Pernell McPhee being healthy again. If all of the Bears’ other gains from 2015 stick and the run defense is much improved, there’s a lot of room for growth.

Teams might not have to run the ball. At cornerback, 2014 first-round pick Kyle Fuller is still up and down, and trying to squeeze another year out of Tracy Porter is risky. There’s not much behind them either. Adrian Amos is a promising safety but the spot opposite him is unsettled and there isn’t much proven experience among the candidates. Even Amos is no sure thing despite a nice rookie season. The Bears did OK against the pass last season, but the personnel can’t inspire much confidence for a repeat.

Fear of the unknown at quarterback causes NFL teams to make suboptimal decisions. That’s why the Bears didn’t give up on Jay Cutler the past few years. They gave Cutler a huge contract extension in 2014 and he had a typical up-and-down season. But then Cutler actually took a step forward last year. How often does that happen for a 32-year-old player? There’s no great developmental quarterback behind Cutler, so he’ll presumably be the starter the next few seasons. The question is, can he ever put together a season in which we see the best of his strong-armed big plays while he also limits the costly mistakes?

Kyle Fuller has a good case here, as a former first-round pick at a very thin position. If he’s not better in 2016, the secondary might crater. But I’m picking receiver Kevin White, because of what he could mean to the offense. White was a top-10 pick last year but never played because of a shin injury. He’s the type of big, fast, sure-handed receiver who could make a great duo with Alshon Jeffery. If White is injured again or ineffective, the Bears don’t have any exciting replacement options. White is probably more important to this offense in 2016 than the Bears would like, considering he has yet to play a snap in the NFL. But the talent is clearly there.

“Offensively, I know everyone wants to start with Jay Cutler, but I think their most important selection was Jordan Howard, the running back from Indiana, with a fifth-round pick. Remember what [John Fox] did back in the Carolina days when they traded for Stephen Davis from Washington. And they also had DeShaun Foster in those days. They have a very similar setup here, with Jordan Howard, who is the hammer like a Stephen Davis, and with Jeremy Langford, who is a lot more like a DeShaun Foster. I think they’re building a John Fox team.”

[Click here for Greg Cosell’s podcast previewing the division]

From Yahoo’s Andy Behrens: “Jay Cutler is both a national punchline and also, statistically speaking, the best quarterback in Bears history. So there’s that. Cutler is coming off one of the best seasons of his 10-year career (92.3 rating), but his offensive coordinator Adam Gase has since relocated to Miami. This team has a few interesting weapons in the receiving corps — Alshon Jeffery, Kevin White, Zach Miller —  but all of them have worrisome injury histories. Jeremy Langford is the best of the bad ideas in Chicago’s backfield. So, um … Bear down.”

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When Matt Forte went down, people got excited about Jeremy Langford. On the whole, Langford was a good receiver out of the backfield but not an effective runner. He averaged just 3.6 yards per carry. He had 12 or more carries nine times and averaged more than 4 yards per carry in just three of those games. Langford seems to be more of a complementary back who is best as a weapon out of the backfield, though he was just a rookie last season. Maybe he improves. It will be interesting to see if big fifth-round pick Jordan Howard gets a shot at some carries if Langford doesn’t prove to be a true lead back. Howard is 230 pounds and had 1,213 yards on 6.2 yards per carry for the University of Indiana last season.

IS ALSHON JEFFERY WORTH A LONG-TERM CONTRACT?

When this was posted, the Bears and Jeffery had not come to a long-term contract agreement. The expectation has been that the July 15 deadline would pass and Jeffery would play this season on the franchise tag. The Bears seem hesitant to lock up Jeffery on a big deal, and I’m not sure why.

Jeffery might not be “worth” what franchise-tagged receivers Demaryius Thomas and Dez Bryant got a year ago, but what are we really talking about here? A few million dollars? Salaries have exploded this offseason throughout the NFL. The salary cap is going to keep going up. Today’s somewhat overpriced deal won’t look so bad in a year or two. No matter if we think Jeffery ranks 10th or 12th or 15th or wherever among NFL receivers, Jeffery is unquestionably good. Last season he played nine games and had 54 catches, 807 yards, four touchdowns and a 14.9-yard average. He had frustrating injury issues too, which seems to be a reason the Bears haven’t invested in him this offseason, but he played all 32 games the previous two seasons. Refusing to invest in a good player because he dealt with a hamstring injury the season before seems shortsighted.

Receivers who are comparable to Jeffery don’t hit the open market very often. The Bears might be balking at paying Jeffery “elite receiver money” but that’s nitpicking. The Bears likely won’t be able to re-invest the money earmarked for Jeffery into a better free-agent receiver. So is this standoff really worth it?

The Bears will presumably be healthier this season, and their run defense will almost certainly improve. Those were by far their two biggest problems last season. Just because a team fixes a problem doesn’t mean there won’t be regression elsewhere, but if the Bears — and especially Cutler — stay at their 2015 level in most areas and the additions on defense make a big difference, a winning record is possible this season. The Bears played in a ton of close games last season — 5-6 in games decided by a touchdown or less, 3-4 when those games were decided by a field goal or less — so they weren’t far off.

It’s possible that adding two inside linebackers doesn’t entirely fix the run defense, and the pass defense slips because of the holes in the secondary. Jay Cutler could revert to old habits, too. There are questions in the run game, and the passing game too if White doesn’t have an immediate impact.

I think Fox is a good coach and I like what the Bears are building. I still don’t see a huge leap this season. There are too many questions about Cutler and the secondary to assume a drastic improvement. But the Bears are slowly building the kind of team Fox likes, and you have to figure success isn’t too far off.

32. Cleveland Browns
31. San Francisco 49ers
30. Tennessee Titans
29. San Diego Chargers
28. New Orleans Saints
27. Philadelphia Eagles
26. Atlanta Falcons
25. Miami Dolphins
24. Los Angeles Rams

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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