Joey Ricotta | January 31st, 2020 The 2019 Bears season can be summed up by your choice of two words – disappointing failure or regression bug. Following the 2018 season, hopes were high. The Bears had a dominating defense and a progressing young offense with an offensive-minded coaching guru to navigate the ship. That was until all of those aforementioned positives took a step back this season. With an 8-8 record and third-place finish in the NFC North, it’s safe to say the Bears didn’t live up to the hype. However, there were some positives, along with some things to look forward to. Let’s take a look at what happened, the plan this offseason, and the expectations for next year.
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What Went Right
Individual seasons. Most notably, Pro Bowl snub Allen Robinson had the best season of his career in terms of catches, grabbing 98 passes for 1,147 yards, and seven touchdowns. Khalil Mack had another Pro Bowl season, although it was underwhelming in comparison to 2018, he led the Bears with 8.5 sacks, eight tackles-for-loss, and 14 quarterback hits. The same thing goes for Eddie Jackson. He didn’t have as good of a season stat-wise but was voted to his second straight Pro Bowl. Standout special teamer Cordarrelle Patterson was voted to his third Pro Bowl and excelled as a kick returner and gunner on the punt coverage unit.
Despite the Bears not having a good overall running game, David Montgomery showed flashes and ranked sixth in the NFL in broken tackles with 28. The Bears might’ve actually found a kicker. Eddy Pineiro hit 23 of 28 field goal attempts, including a thrilling last-second game-winner in Denver. Nick Williams had a breakout type of season after getting the opportunity to play and start five games. He registered six sacks after coming into the season with zero for his career.
Linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski stepped up in a major way after all of the injuries set in. He covered as well as he ever has in his NFL career and made big stops. Kwiat might’ve proved he can be used as a starter if the Bears want to go that route. Kevin Pierre-Louis showed flashes as well. Other notables include unsung heroes, cornerback Kyle Fuller and nose tackle Eddie Goldman.
The defense wasn’t a big problem. They definitely took a step back this season, but a lot of the blame can be placed on injuries and being on the field too much due to the offense’s ineptness. Despite a lack of turnovers, which we will touch on shortly, the Bears’ D did a decent job of limiting damage, allowing the fourth-fewest points per game and eighth-fewest yards per game.
What Went Wrong
THE ENTIRE OFFENSE, other than Robinson. Okay, it wasn’t literally all of the players other than Robinson, but the execution and fluidity of the offense as a whole were severely defective. Many thought Mitchell Trubisky would take a step forward, and instead, he took a step back. Hence, the two words in the opening paragraph, regression bug. The offense ranked 31st in yards per play (4.7), 32nd in yards per pass attempt (5.7), and 27th in rushing yards per game (91.1). In addition to their inability to move the ball, they were unable to score a first-half touchdown in 11 of 16 games.
Injuries hurt. The defense took a big hit and regressed initially when Akiem Hicks went down with a gruesome elbow injury in week five against the Oakland Raiders. He didn’t return until week 15 but was then sidelined for the remainder of the season, limiting him to only five games played for the year. His presence was definitely missed, as the defensive line took a step back stopping the run and getting to the quarterback. In his first three years with Chicago, Hicks averaged over seven sacks, over 12 tackles-for-loss, and more than 17 quarterback hits per year.
Right tackle Bobby Massie went down with an ankle injury in week 12 and didn’t play well before that. Right Guard Kyle Long, looked like a shell of himself before being put on injured reserve with a hip injury prior to week seven. Guard Ted Larsen went down in week four and missed four games. Rashaad Coward was forced into a starting role and wasn’t all that effective, grading out as the 68th ranked guard, according to PFF. Speaking of the offensive line, after a 2018 Pro Bowl season, Charles Leno also caught the regression bug. Midway through the season, the Bears switched center James Daniels and left guard Cody Whitehair back to their positions from a year ago.
As already mentioned, the pass rush suffered. In 2018, the Bears ranked eighth in the league with a 7.22% sack percentage. This past year, they dipped down to 28th (fifth-worst) with a 5.31% sack percentage. However, they did a better job of getting pressure than what many believe, as they ranked seventh in the NFL in pressure rating (25.3%). However you slice it, the fact remains that the Bears didn’t get nearly enough sacks, tying for the eighth-fewest number of total sacks with 32.
Looking at it on the surface, Mack’s productivity dipped, as his sack total dropped from 12.5 in 2018 to 8.5 this past season. However, Mack was on the field for 29 of the 32 sacks the Bears obtained and he was always guarded by multiple blockers. When he wasn’t double-teamed, he generally got the sack. A big part of that can be chalked up to the Bears not having another dynamic pass-rushing threat to alleviate some of the pressure and the opposing offensive line’s focus.
Turnovers took a hit. In 2018, the Bears led the NFL with 36 takeaways and ranked third with a +12 differential. This season, they ranked 22nd in the league with 19 takeaways and middle of the road with a zero differential.
Outlook for the Offseason
It’s already been an eventful offseason for the Bears. The front office struck a deal with Jackson on a four-year $58.4 million extension, which made him the highest-paid safety in NFL history. Also, we now know what some of the changes will be. Notably, the team has moved on from offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich, offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, and tight ends coach Kevin Gilbride.
Bill Lazor has been hired as the Bears’ new offensive coordinator. A move that doesn’t warrant a ton of reaction, either way, considering Matt Nagy will likely continue to assume the offensive play-calling duties. Lazor will likely act as a reinforcer and consultant of Nagy’s. Juan Castillo was hired as the new offensive line coach. Clancy Barone was hired as the new tight ends coach. John DeFilippo was hired as the new quarterbacks coach.
Interestingly, the Bears did not get rid of quarterbacks coach Dave Ragone. Instead, they elevated him to passing game coordinator. It certainly looks and feels like a demotion. Nonetheless, I interpret the move as an effort to keep communication strong between the rest of the coaching staff and the foreseeable starter, Trubisky. Also, letting go of Ragone would send a message of failure with no hope of building upon what little progress Trubisky has made and what he’s learned from Ragone in the process.
As of now, spotrac.com shows the Bears have just under $15 million in cap space for 2020. To open up space, the Bears could decide to restructure some contracts as well as cut ties with some players who have lower dead cap hits. The players who look to be potential cap casualties are wide receiver Taylor Gabriel and cornerback Prince Amukamara. If both of them are released, the Bears would save $13.5 million.
After suffering a hip injury and missing most of the 2019 season, Long has decided to call it quits and step away from football. With his departure, the Bears save $8.1 million against the cap.
The Team’s Free Agents
UFAs – Danny Trevathan, Kwiatkoski, Pierre-Louis, Williams, Chase Daniel, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Sherrick McManis, Aaron Lynch, Larsen, Bradley Sowell, Cornelius Lucas, Deon Bush, Patrick Scales, Brent Urban, T.J. Clemmings
ERFA – J.P. Holtz
Some of the lesser-known names could be brought back as reserves and special teamers. The key names on the list are all on the defensive side of the ball – Trevathan, Clinton-Dix, Pierre-Louis, Kwiatkoski, and Williams. Trevathan has been solid his entire time with the Bears and I think the team views him as a leader. My guess is the Bears will make an attempt to bring him back.
Over the course of his career, Kwiatkoski has been rather inconsistent and many thought of him as “just a guy.” This past season, when injuries set in, he stepped in and stepped up, recording 68 combined tackles, three sacks, and eight tackles-for-loss, while playing in all 16 games and starting eight of them. The worry here is that it was just a flash in the pan type of season. Overpaying is something general manager Ryan Pace and the Bears organization are going to have to strongly evaluate and be wary of. I do expect him to be cheaper than Trevathan, but how much? Ultimately, I think the Bears will hang on to Kevin Pierre-Louis and there will be a decision to be made between Trevathan and Kwiatkoski.
After signing a one-year prove-it deal with the Bears, Clinton-Dix played well. Nothing spectacular, but solid for the most part. I don’t think Ha Ha will command that much money in free agency, but maybe just enough to keep the Bears from bringing him back. It would make sense to find a strong safety that would allow playmaker Jackson to move over to his more natural position of free safety. Jackson, while still having a solid year and being selected to a second consecutive Pro Bowl, had only two interceptions compared to six in 2018.
I mentioned Williams earlier, and his asking price has certainly risen, but we’ll have to wait and see how much. Hicks and Goldman are locked up. Assuming Hicks doesn’t get hurt again, Williams might not be a necessity unless he’s cost-efficient. If Clinton-Dix walks in free agency, Bush could be a potential gap filler at strong safety. In fact, I expect the Bears to retain him, at the very least, as a backup.
Open Market Free Agents
The Bears are already dipping their toes into the free agency pool. According to Adam Schefter, the Bears signed Calgary Stampeders’ Tre Roberson to the largest CFL-to-NFL deal since the Miami Dolphins signed Cameron Wake. Roberson is thought to be one of the top CFL free agents on the market and reportedly chose the Bears over nine other interested teams. Roberson spent most of the 2016 season on the Minnesota Vikings’ practice squad and was released prior to the 2017 season, after which he joined the CFL.
The rest of the free agents on the team’s target list remains to be seen, however, there are more positions of need than there were at this time a year ago. Among the positions the Bears can improve and should look to address are quarterback, wide receiver, tight end, offensive line (guard and tackle), edge rusher, cornerback and safety. Some of this is based on who I believe will be leaving and others are just flat out needs regardless. Where the new players come from is a mystery as of now. They could address the issues in free agency, but we know they’ll also be looking to improve through the draft.
While Nagy’s former quarterback Alex Smith has been a rumored target by some of the big media members in town, his contract and terrible 2018 injury are concerning. Even if he’s healthy, he’s set to account for $21.4 million against the cap in 2020, creating difficult hoops to jump through in order to make it feasible. I don’t see them taking the risk.
Andy Dalton played under new offensive coordinator hire Lazor during his time in Cincinnati. Dalton wouldn’t be asked to do much, but his veteran awareness and understanding of how an offense is supposed to run at the NFL level, would help tremendously, and he’d immediately challenge Trubisky for a starting job.
It’s fair to say Trey Burton hasn’t exactly lived up to his contract to this point. After being unable to go for the 2018-19 wild card playoff game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Burton struggled to stay on the field this past season and was non-existent when he was on the field. Hunter Henry and Austin Hooper will most likely command top dollar and I don’t see the Bears spending a ton of money on a tight end. With Henry, injuries are also a concern. Eric Ebron has expressed or teased his interest in playing for Chicago, with his rather interesting tweets. Ebron struggles to catch passes regularly but has shown playmaking ability.
Yesterday, news broke that the Carolina Panthers and tight end Greg Olsen have agreed to part ways. The former Bear has yet to make up his mind on whether he wants to continue playing football or not, but it’s been reported that he would like to continue playing as long as the situation is right. If the dollar amount is reasonable, a short-term reunion could be in order.
If the Bears create cap space by dumping Amukamara, they’ll need to address the starting cornerback position opposite of Fuller. Ross Cockrell of the Carolina Panthers could be a solid under-the-radar salary saving acquisition. After not starting to begin the season, Cockrell wound up starting 11 games. When targeting him, opponents had a 55.2% completion percentage for a 68.6 passer rating. He also had two interceptions, while allowing only one touchdown pass with eight passes defended.
The right guard position could be a priority in free agency, although I’m not sure who they will target. Brandon Scherff and some of the other big names are probably out of their price range.
Projecting the NFL Draft
The Bears 2020 draft picks have been set. While the Bears don’t have a first-round pick because they traded it to the Oakland Raiders as part of the Mack deal, they do own picks number 43 and 50 overall. The 43rd pick is from the Raiders and it would’ve been a lower pick, but the Raiders helped them out by losing five of their last six games.
It’s too early to predict where everyone will fall in the draft or who will be available when the Bears go to make their selections. With that said, and the uncertainty of what direction they plan to take in free agency, I’ve listed a couple of options at each selection. All four of these are positions of need, and they are interchangeable. The players I predict at 43 could fall to 50 and vice versa.
Round 2, Pick 43: Wide Receiver or Edge
The Bears definitely need another weapon on offense to complement Robinson. Gabriel only has a $2 million dead cap hit and my thought is, the Bears will part ways with him. Denzel Mims showed flashes during the Senior Bowl practices and in the game. He also put up solid numbers at Baylor with two 1,000-yard receiving seasons, including 12 touchdown catches this past year.
Leonard Floyd hasn’t exactly been the 2016 ninth overall draft pick the Bears were hoping for. He’s been solid in pass coverage and against the run, but hasn’t developed into the pass-rushing force they thought he would. After seven sacks in his rookie season in 2016, Floyd has declined every year in that department. Josh Uche is a Michigan University product that’s continued to pop as a pass-rushing threat, especially during the Senior Bowl game and the practices leading up to it. He also has the ability to drop back into coverage.
Round 2, Pick 50: Tight End or Offensive Line
Brycen Hopkins showed big-play ability, catching 61 passes for 830 yards and seven touchdowns this past year. The Purdue Boilermaker has a big frame standing at 6-foot-5 and he was among the players the Bears met with at the Senior Bowl.
Temple interior offensive lineman Matt Hennessy was said to have stood out during practices and one-on-one drills. The Bears are searching for right guard help. Hennessy is mainly a center but has the ability to shift over to guard. He possesses good size, balance, and pass-blocking skills. Reportedly, Hennessy, like Hopkins, caught the Bears eye at the Senior Bowl.
This one takes a lot of reevaluating. The expectations were sky high heading into this past year, and an 8-8 season has to be looked at as a failure. The defense should remain solid, even with some of the departing players because they will look to fill those gaps this offseason. The offense is and always has been the big question. Most of the offensive line is expected to return, but there are major questions. Will Massie and Leno have bounceback years? Who fills the right guard void? Do they have a quarterback?
Trubisky has already been named the starter for next season, which might be the most ridiculous thing to say this early, especially given the way he played most of the season. However, you have to understand why they said that. As of now, the Bears don’t have another solid option to start in his place or compete for his job. Given his contract, we knew going into the offseason, Trubisky was returning.
Will Nagy FINALLY adjust and start using Mitch the way he kind of did towards the end of the year? Will Nagy adjust and FINALLY begin to use his running backs? There seem to be way more questions going into this offseason than there were a year ago. It’s extremely hard to give a definitive answer this early, without knowing what moves will be made. As the roster is currently constructed, and with the assumption that they will attempt to address the positions of need, I think they can bounce back and be a playoff team next year. They could also, very easily, take more steps back and fall below .500. Unlike most teams, there is a very wide range of outcomes for the Bears.
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