An exciting innovative coach in Matt Nagy and the addition of one of the league’s elite defensive talents in Khalil Mack saw Chicago claim the NFC North Division Title while boasting an impressive 12-4 record in 2018.
What does this team do for an encore after an offseason that saw major improvements from the rest of the division? Can Trubisky and the offense take the next step? Does the defense experience a drop off? Does Chicago have a reliable kicker? Let’s examine my preseason superlatives.
Breakout Guy: OL James Daniels
Daniels wasn’t an instant starter for the Bears as a rookie in 2018, but worked his way into the lineup and started ten games. A prospect I graded as a first-round talent in last year’s draft, I love how Daniels fits Matt Nagy’s scheme.
Daniels is a rare blend of mobility and power, featuring some of the most explosive movement skills I’ve ever witness from an interior offensive linemen. His range is elite, which opens the door for even more scheme multiplicity for the creative Nagy. With his rookie season out of the way, Daniels should blossom into a standout up front for Chicago and he’s primed to anchor the unit or year’s to come.
Comeback Kid: OL Kyle Long
Fingers crossed because Long has been a candidate for this superlative going into the previous three seasons as well. When healthy, the impact Long makes it abundantly clear. He’s powerful in the run game, reliable in pass protection and he’s dynamic when blocking on the move.
After being named to the Pro Bowl in each of his first three NFL seasons, Long has battled a long list of injuries. In 2016, he was limited to eight games because of a torn labrum in his left shoulder, strained triceps and and ankle injury. Shoulder, ankle and finger injuries only allowed him to play in nine games in 2017. His 2018 season only lasted eight games because of a foot injury.
This troubling pattern needs to end.
Rising Star: WR Anthony Miller
Leading all rookies in touchdown receptions in 2018, Miller’s first season in the NFL featured plenty of highlights. While the overall production wasn’t consistent, the flashes were those of a star in the making.
A perfect fit for the Nagy-Helfrich RPO-heavy creative offense, Miller is primed to cease opportunities in space and create big plays. A blend of fluidity, twitch and elusiveness combined with unbelievable hands, ball skills and a competitive demeanor, Miller’s production is capable of skyrocketing as a sophomore.
Don’t Forget About: Trubisky’s Growth
Everything hasn't been perfect for Trubisky since Chicago invested the No. 2 overall pick in 2017 on him. Entering the NFL as just a one-year starter in college, Trubisky was welcomed to the league with a lackluster supporting cast with the uninspiring John Fox as his head coach. Now paired with the innovative Matt Nagy at head coach and a much-improved offensive depth chart, Trubisky made strides last season. His passer rating increased form 77.5 to 95.4 while he completed 66.6 percent of his passes for 3,223 yards with 24 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in 14 starts. This statistical growth was all achieved while Trubisky finished third in the NFL in percentage of yards traveling at least 20 yards in the air. He isn’t a dink and dunk guy who is a product of a system.
In Year Two of Nagy's system and in Year Three of his career, Trubisky is primed to take another step forward.
Needs to Rebound: Kickers
It still feels like the Bears are dealing with the aftermath of last season’s playoff loss to the Eagles that officially ended in a 43-yards field goal attempt by Cody Parkey that was blocked. Matt Nagy continues to talk about it and Chicago has gone through great lengths to find its next kicker.
The race is down to Eddy Piniero and Elliott Fry, neither of whom has ever kicked a field goal in an NFL game. Perhaps a better solution would have been signing Pro Bowl kicker Jason Myers who was a free agent this offseason after making 33-of-36 field goals for the Jets in 2019 including 6-of-7 from over 50 yards. There has been so much discussion brought up over the place kicking situation in Chicago and more of a “sure thing” at the position should have been accomplished. It’s not unreasonable to be concerned that Nagy has placed too much stress on potential candidates and an enduring problem now exists like what we’ve witnessed in Tampa Bay over the years.
Dark Horse MVP: LB Roquan Smith
Even after a lengthy holdout, Smith delivered an exciting season for the NFL’s No. 3 defense. Tallying 121 tackles, 8 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 5 pass breakups and an interception, Smith played like a superstar in the making.
With a season under his belt, the game should slow down for Smith and allow him to play faster. Chicago looks to have secured its next great linebacker in a long history of elite defenders.
Under the Radar: Loss of Vic Fangio
A coordinators dream, this defensive unit has superstar talent and premiere defensive playmakers at every level of its defense. With Vic Fangio departing to become the head coach of the Denver Broncos, Chuck Pagano was hired to be his replacement.
Pagano has coached his share of great defenses and was a great option for Chicago to bring in. With that said, expectations for this unit are to not experience any drop off and continue its dominance from 2018. The personnel mostly remains intact and it’s believed that Pagano’s defense will feature more blitzing than what was called under Fangio. For a defense that features Khalil Mack and logged the third most sacks in the league, is it necessary to take guys out of coverage when you can generate pressure organically?
Everything could be just fine with this transition, but there is an adjustment to make after Fangio’s four seasons of chemistry and continuity to build Chicago’s defense into the unit we saw in 2018.