By Robert Zeglinski
It’s early for prognostications, but the Bears are going to be a chic 2019 Super Bowl pick. Any time you have defensive stars like Khalil Mack and Eddie Jackson and a young quarterback like Mitchell Trubisky coming into his own, you have the makings of a championship dark horse. Betting odds in Las Vegas already reflect that sentiment. Chicago possesses the fifth-best odds to win Super Bowl LIV in Miami behind only the Kansas City Chiefs, Los Angeles Rams, New Orleans Saints, and New England Patriots. In public circles, the Bears are back.
So, with expectations at Halas Hall for a Lombardi trophy justifiably high, it’s time to find a way to meet them.
General manager Ryan Pace and head coach Matt Nagy talked about the sting of defeat at their season-ending press conference last Monday. They elaborated on the accomplishments of a 12-4 campaign in 2018, and how dissatisfied they were with the end result. Nagy in particular looked quite antsy, as if he knew his team should still be playing after a painful playoff defeat to the Philadelphia Eagles.
The 2019 off-season presents a challenge for these two men as it should be the last launch platform for championship contention. The only problem is that the Bears are limited in draft picks (they don’t have their first or second-rounder in April due to trades for Mack and Anthony Miller), and have less than $20 million in cap space. If the Bears fall short of a title, that won’t be seen as a legitimate excuse. There’s too much talent for them to add to playoff misery.
For the Bears, it’s put up or shut up time.
Here’s how Chicago should attack the 2019 off-season.
Find a multi-faceted running back
In the past two years, Jordan Howard (2,327) and Tarik Cohen (1,862) have combined for 4,189 yards from scrimmage along with 29 touchdowns. The duo comprises one of the NFL’s best backfields. Howard, the reliable workhorse, patiently plows his way through seven and eight-man boxes. Cohen, the explosive talent that’s more receiver than running back, is a matchup nightmare for any defender. They’re the latest cliche iteration of “Smash and Dash.”
They’re not enough.
For all of his rushing production through three NFL seasons, Howard isn’t fast enough to excel in what should be more of a dynamic offense under Nagy. For every way he’s improved his hands, he’s not a reliable enough receiver out of the backfield because he’s too slow and because he rounds his routes off. He can’t create separation on linebackers, and puts his quarterback and teammates in precarious positions when he’s asked to be a pass target. He’s a useful player for what he is – a grinding bruiser – nothing more.
Cohen, meanwhile, can’t be relied upon enough to be a stable running back. For every big play he creates downfield, he stretches out running plays looking for a seam that isn’t there before it turns into a loss. He’s a useful player for what he is – when lined up on the outside, in the slot, running routes of the backfield – nothing more.
This backfield dichotomy hurts the Bears’ offense because it facilitates predictability. When Howard’s in the game, you know not to fear him as a receiver and can focus your attention on more pertinent players. When Cohen’s in the game, it diminishes what the Bears want to accomplish in the other direction.
If the Bears want to take their offense to the next level, they don’t need a Rams’ Todd Gurley type that’s getting 25-plus touches. Having that kind of player would diminish their offensive goals as it’d take the ball away from players like Allen Robinson. But they do need a back that can handle the responsibility of both being a reliable runner and explosive receiver. They need a back that can create separation on linebackers effortlessly and of which can run well in between the tackles at the same time.
There will be options to find someone as free agents like the Falcons’ Tevin Coleman along with a bevy of usual competent draft prospects. Anything less, and the Bears are stuck in a Howard and Cohen platoon that’s running thin.
Running backs don’t matter, but the Bears still need one.
Anchoring the offensive line
Watch how the NFL playoffs unfolded with some of football’s best offensive lines in the Rams, Saints, Patriots, and Chiefs dominating the trenches and the Bears’ needs up front look dire. For proper juxtaposition, this is a Bears position group that was bullied by the former defending champion Eagles for a good portion of their NFC Wild Card Game.
Guys like 27-year-old left tackle Charles Leno Jr., who was just selected to his first Pro Bowl as an alternate along with 26-year-old center Cody Whitehair, are perfectly fine for a contending line. They might not progress much more in the coming years, but who they are as anchors in the immediate moment is enough for the foreseeable future.
That should also go for 21-year-old James Daniels, who just finished his rookie NFL season. Where he has strength deficiencies that were exposed against Philadelphia, it’s nothing Daniels can’t work on in the weight room. His athletic traits and impeccable intelligence can’t be taught. Daniels, when it comes down to it, should become the foundational piece of the Bears’ offensive line, perhaps as early as next fall.
No, the Bears’ issues up front stem from the right side where veteran Kyle Long hasn’t played a full season since 2015 and where Bobby Massie is a pending unrestricted free agent. Long, for as good as he was in his early career, is a shell of himself. It could be high time to consider football life without him. The right tackle Massie has played a solid past two seasons and should be ready to cash in on one last major free agent contract. A contract that the Bears will almost certainly not be able to afford barring a mythical hometown discount.
There are an abundance of interior offensive linemen the Bears in both the 2019 NFL Draft and free agency to begin preparations for life without Long. Guys like Wisconsin’s Michael Deiter, Northern Illinois’s Max Scharping, and Penn State’s Connor McGovern come to mind in regards to the draft.
Where the Bears’ issues are exacerbated is as to who replaces Massie in the event of his departure. Good tackles don’t hit the open market. If Chicago elects to pull the trigger on someone in the draft, it’ll likely be a project selection in consideration of a third-round slot that the Bears don’t have time for. This is where the rapid development of a Rashaad Coward could come in, but don’t bet that on so soon.
You win championships up front. As much as the NFL has evolved to favor the offense, that won’t change. If anything, it should be more of an emphasis if the Bears want to be able to compete with other heavyweights.
Beyond personnel upgrades, players already on the Bears’ roster have to grow up if they’re going to win a Super Bowl. Teams with as little cap space and draft capital like the Bears that have most of their core locked in experience most of their growth internally.
Next season, Trubisky can’t leave anything to doubt as to his place among NFL passers. In 2018, Trubisky had four performances with a passer rating below 75 and four with a passer rating above 120. Trubisky can’t continue to be red hot and ice cold in intermittent periods. His bar of performance in an attack with playmakers designed specifically for him has to have the third-year passer firing on all cylinders for an entire year. Trubisky has to make the progression towards a legitimate top 10 quarterback, and be the reason the Bears win games when their defense has a misstep that’s bound to happen for any special unit.
This also goes for young players such as Miller and Adam Shaheen: two players that figure to be a major part of the Bears’ plans, but have to show it. Miller was the self-proclaimed “best receiver” in the 2018 NFL Draft, and then had seven receptions in the Bears’ last six games. The 24-year-old is oozing with talent, and can’t have disappearing acts like that don’t show it.
As for the tight end in Shaheen, the ability’s there. The size at 6-foot-7 is there. The production and health to this point hasn’t been present. Shaheen’s NFL career calling card to this stage is turning eating Chipotle into the blandest of Internet jokes. That and the occasional red zone catch, which is disappointing for a former second-round pick.
If the Bears offense is going to become championship level, core pieces like Trubisky, Miller, and Shaheen have to realize their potential. They’re in a position to thrive, and it’s time to seize that opportunity. It’s an aggressive way of thinking that should go for the Super Bowl-minded Bears on the whole.
Robert is an editor, writer, and producer. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.