By Robert Zeglinski
There’s been a heft of warranted optimism surrounding Matt Nagy’s Bears for the past eight months. The coach has instilled a palpable energy into the franchise. The Bears themselves are more in tune to maximizing an abundance of youthful talent and players in their primes. It’s an organization clearly on the upswing. And until now, it’s largely been fluff and no substance.
Finally, in a little over a week that fact dramatically changes as the Bears are set to visit the rival Packers at Lambeau Field on “Sunday Night Football.”
The Bears players previously in the reported ‘best shapes of their lives’? We’ll actually be able to see that come into fruition.
Is Mitchell Trubisky ready to make a second-year leap? Only time will tell, and that time comes in the form of valuable game repetitions.
And Nagy: is he the next first-year head coach to take his team to the postseason? Perhaps, with some lucky breaks on his side.
The mindless draft evaluation insanity, training camp campfire bonding, and preseason snaps exhibition fervor are firmly in the rearview mirror. As the Bears are set to launch their initial campaign under Nagy with the brunt of extremely high expectations, here are bold (and not-so-bold) predictions for the 2018 season.
Leonard Floyd plays all 16 games
Chicago’s first round pick from two years ago has a wealth of star-level ability as an athletic coverage and pass rushing outside linebacker. Floyd, for everywhere he still has to improve, is one of the NFL’s brighter young defensive players. In order to reach his potential, though, he’ll have to stay relatively healthy through an entire season for the first time in his three-year career. Missing 10 games combined – as Floyd did in 2016 and 2017 – isn’t going to cut it for a player viewed as a franchise cornerstone.
Already slightly hampered by a broken hand suffered halfway through Chicago’s preseason, it appears Floyd’s injury fortune hasn’t yet been altered for the better. In a crucial contrast from the past, the cast he’ll wear early in 2018 shouldn’t keep Floyd from missing any valuable action.
As he enters his physical prime at 26-years-old coincidentally right as the Bears visit Green Bay, Floyd’s broken hand will be the only major detraction from his march en route to a full slate of activity this year. That’ll pay off with extremely productive dividends for the edge rusher. Remember: availability is the best ability.
Trubisky’s progress is more measured
There’s considerable hope in Trubisky replicating the tremendous success of recent second-year quarterbacks like the Eagles’ Carson Wentz and Rams’ Jared Goff last year. Wentz and Goff skyrocketed in their NFL sophomore campaigns, so naturally Trubisky is supposed to do the same. Seeing as how a rapid leap of Wentz and Goff’s caliber actually happens so rarely, Trubisky will merely take a quality step forward, not a gigantic base jump.
And that’s OK.
Trubisky doesn’t have to be an elite quarterback for the Bears in 2018. There are too many mitigating factors like the installation of Nagy’s complex offense and a bunch of offensive moving parts to expect the 23-year-old to consistently light defenses up before he’s made a full evolution.
What Trubisky has to do is show this season is reasonable growth, that he can command and manage a relatively humming offense for four months, and put himself in position to morph into a star signal caller down the line. It doesn’t have to be an MVP-caliber year. It just has to be solid and capable.
Trey Burton leads Bears in receiving
While free agent signing Allen Robinson was grabbing headlines in the spring, and second-round pick Anthony Miller was stealing the show during camp and the preseason, it’s actually been one of the Bears’ other major free agent signings in Burton that’s routinely shown up as Chicago’s No. 1 offensive safety valve. It was Burton lying in wait for a sleeper season in his first as the de facto No. 1 tight end of an offense. And it will be Burton that ends up leading the Bears in most relevant receiving statistical marks, most notably in yards.
Having a “U” tight end as Chicago’s leading 2018 receiver could seem far-fetched in lieu of the bevy of weapons the Bears have at their disposal. That’s exactly why someone such as Burton takes advantage: there won’t be a classic No. 1 talent eating up most of the passing game. The wealth will be spread around evenly, making the security blanket in Burton a dynamite, balanced terror downfield.
Take into account that Burton’s effective 1B at tight end in Adam Shaheen is likely to miss a few games with a sprained ankle and foot, and Burton will maximize that edge of an increased temporary workload.
Roquan Smith leads Chicago in tackles
I know, I know: Smith has to feature in an NFL game before any proclamations are made on his rookie season. A 29-day holdout and subsequent hamstring tightness have limited what we’ve been able to see from the rookie No. 8 overall pick. Come the regular season as the Bears push it into full throttle, that’ll no longer be an issue.
That knack for terrific pass coverage? You’ll see Smith help lock down the middle of the field as if he hasn’t missed a beat.
His closing ability and instincts in the running game? You’ll see opposing running backs think they have an edge before Smith comes flying in to stuff plays for no gain.
That immediate impact Smith was touted for when Chicago drafted him in April? You’ll see it, and in spades.
Smith is already the Bears’ most naturally gifted linebacker. Danny Trevathan, the incumbent veteran partner, hasn’t played a full season since 2013 with the Broncos. To expect that trend to change at 28-years-old is foolhardy. Trevathan’s ongoing health issues is what will vault Smith into a leadership role as Chicago’s most vaunted linebacker. Gifts in tandem with availability go a long way.
By the end of 2018, Smith will firmly be in the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year conservation, if not the front runner. Anything less is a disappointment. Smith has been exceeding expectations his entire football playing career, so there’s no issue to meet a bar.
Prince Amukamara has career resurgence at 29-years-old
Eddie Jackson could transform into a superstar safety in his second NFL season. Kyle Fuller, the Bears’ new megabucks cornerback, also should continue a stellar run from a consistently great 2017 campaign. But it’ll be Amukamara that shines the brightest in accordance of what’s presumed of his original play.
As the quintessential No. 2 cover cornerback, Amukamara has never been a game-breaker by any measure. He doesn’t accumulate interceptions or turnovers in general, and has struggled to stay on the field in the past. Fresh off his own long term extension that ensures he stays with the Bears for the next two seasons, Amukamara will make great on the Bears’ commitment to him.
Does that mean Amukamara leads Chicago in interceptions, or that he develops more of a ‘shutdown’ reputation? Probably not. This is more about a well-rounded exemplary performance from the Bears’ most underrated defensive back. Previous Bears veteran cornerbacks such as Tim Jennings remade themselves into playmakers late in their Chicago careers. Amukamara is the next in line to make that transition and more. R.
Robert is an editor, writer, and producer. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski and reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.