It’s training camp week! The Bears report to Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais on Wednesday with the first practice set to take place on Thursday morning.
The biggest change to a football program is said to take place in the second year of a head coach’s tenure, so all eyes will be on John Fox’s team this season to see where this franchise is headed.
Here are eight of the most compelling story lines to follow, beginning with training camp, extending through the preseason, and continuing into the regular season.
How good can the Bears’ revamped linebackers be?
The biggest story line and source of anticipation for the 2016 season — at least in this one man’s opinion — is the unveiling of the Bears’ revamped linebacking corps. A year ago, the Bears were going into training camp with Shea McClellin — the wandering nomad who was a man without an NFL position — and Christian Jones — the undrafted product — as the starting inside linebackers. The Bears brought in pass rush specialist Pernell McPhee, but opposite him was a rotation of Sam Acho, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young — the latter two who were converted defensive ends. … Fast forward to this year, and the Bears’ linebacking corps — a clear weakness last year — has become their deepest and most exciting position. The team signed a pair of inside linebackers in prize free agent Danny Trevathan — he of the Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos — and former Colts ‘backer Jerrell Freeman. McPhee will be back wreaking havoc at outside linebacker but now he has help with the addition of rookie first-round draft pick Leonard Floyd crashing into the backfield from the opposite side. Not only does that group create a fearsome foursome, but the Bears have solid depth at the position, too, and will attack opposing quarterbacks in continuous, rotating waves. Houston and Young will be back to build upon their fairly successful transitions from ends to linebackers. And Jones — who started 13 games at inside linebacker in 2015 — will move outside where the Bears are hoping his speed is better utilized. The Bears also have some interesting young prospects in John Timu, Jonathan Anderson, and rookie Nick Kwiatkowski, but they are fringe roster players and special teamers at best.
Can Jay Cutler continue his progression under Dowell Loggains?
Although he didn’t put up astronomical, fantasy-football-like numbers, Cutler had one of his best seasons as a pro in 2015 under former offensive coordinator and current Miami Dolphins head coach Adam Gase. He had a career-high 92.3 passer rating, a 64.4 percent completion percentage (second-best in his career), and he tied his career-high for yards per pass attempt. Was Cutler’s success in 2015 more a product of the offensive system? Or was it largely due to Adam Gase’s play calling? And can Cutler still have success without his favorite checkdown weapons, Matt Forte and Martellus Bennett?
Is Kevin White the ‘real deal’ and worthy of letting Alshon Jeffery walk?
The Bears essentially “redshirted” their first-round draft pick last year as White sat out the entire season with a fractured shin. It’s as if they have an additional first-round pick this year, with White expected to have his ups and downs much like a rookie would. Meanwhile, the contract situation with receiver Alshon Jeffery is complicated. The receiver will play the 2016 season under the franchise tag after he and the Bears were unable to agree on a long-term contract. Some think Jeffery, who is from the south, doesn’t really want to live and play in Chicago while others think it’s the Bears who were hesitant to give Jeffery a lucrative deal due to his plethora of injuries. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s a little bit of both. So, Jeffery’s tenuous situation with the team puts added pressure on White to prove he’s a legitimate NFL wide receiver.
Is Jeremy Langford ‘the guy’, or will the Bears use a committee at running back?
When Matt Forte signed with the New York Jets this offseason, it appeared as though the Bears were ready to hand over the reigns to Forte’s heir apparent, Jeremy Langford. Langford possesses many of the same skills that Forte had with the Bears and it seemed logical that the second-year back would slide right into the starting lineup and pick up where Forte left off. After all, it appeared that the Bears were grooming Langford as they gave him plenty of playing time last year while giving Forte breaks throughout games. … or were they doing something else? It just so happens that Coach Fox has long been an advocate of a balanced run game utilizing multiple running backs. So, what appeared to be the team “grooming” Langford to be the featured back might actually have been the Bears employing a two-back attack with Ka’Deem Carey sprinkling in some duty to make it a “committee” approach. I’m guessing we’re going to see much of the same this year with Langford sliding up the depth chart to replace Forte and rookie Jordan Howard fulfilling the complementary role that Langford played last season.
Do the Bears have enough at tight end with Zach Miller atop the depth chart?
Arguably the weakest position on the Bears’ depth chart is tight end. The Bears traded Martellus Bennett in the offseason to the New England Patriots to rid themselves of the headaches that he brought to the program. They then signed the 31-year-old Miller (who will turn 32 mid-season) to a two-year deal as he now becomes their starter. There are pros and cons to Miller’s game. He happens to be a very solid pass-catching weapon and he developed a rapport with Cutler as the 2015 season progressed. He caught five touchdowns in a span of six weeks and he also averaged 6 catches for 70.3 yards in a three-week span when he took over for Bennett as the starter. It’s not Miller’s role in the passing game that Bears fans should worry about, it’s how he blocks opposing defensive ends in the run game that will be an area of concern. And, of course, the big question is can Miller stay healthy? Although he’s 31 years old, he has just four seasons on his resume and only a career 48 games played. Behind Miller, the Bears have what amounts to a bunch of extra bodies.
Is the Bears offensive line as bad as some make it out to be?
In a recent article from Pro Football Focus, the Bears’ offensive line was ranked 30 out of 32 NFL teams. To me, it seemed like a snub considering fifteen quarterbacks were sacked more than Cutler was last season and the Bears had the 11th-most rushing yards. Those aren’t great numbers, but they’re far from being in the league’s cellar. The Bears arguably improved their offensive line while bringing in potential starters Ted Larsen and Bobby Massie via free agency, selected Kansas State guard Cody Whitehair in the second round of the draft, and moved three-time Pro Bowler Kyle Long back to his natural right guard spot. There are question marks about Charles Leno at left tackle and Hroniss Grasu at center, so those are two players — in addition to how the entire line functions together — to keep an eye on.
Did the Bears improve their defensive line enough?
When general manager Ryan Pace and Coach Fox took over the Bears prior to the 2015 season, the defense was in a muddled mess. Not only was it bereft of talent, but it also had the wrong pieces because the Bears were switching from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4. Surprisingly, the Bears played some solid defensive football last year even though they were still moving pieces around and had holes at a variety of positions. This offseason, the Bears made plenty of moves, but there’s still questions as to whether they got the right pieces along the 3-man defensive line. Second-year pro Eddie Goldman will return at nose tackle as he looks to build upon what was a solid rookie campaign. The Bears signed veteran Akiem Hicks, he of the New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots, to start at one end. What the Bears do at the other defensive end is still up in the air. Veteran Mitch Unrein could get the first look, but despite his high motor, he seems to be just a rotational player. Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton, both of whom were drafted to play as 4-3 defensive tackles under Phil Emery but were moved to defensive end last year, will battle for playing time and roster spots. The Bears also drafted Jonathan Bullard out of Florida in the third round of this year’s draft. The Bears plan on rotating their defensive linemen, anyway, but it would give fans a lot more peace of mind to see one guy step up and prove to be the legitimate starter next to Goldman and Hicks.
How will the muddled safety position play out?
With each and every passing year, Mike Brown continues to solidify his spot as a trivia question among Bears fans. And no, I’m not just talking about his back-to-back, game-winning interception returns for touchdowns in 2001. No, Brown represents the last time the Bears had a stable safety position — and even that seems laughable given that Brown couldn’t stay healthy the latter half of his career. Since Brown, the Bears cycled in rookie safeties year after year, trying to find the best combination at the position. As the expression goes, you fling enough [crap] against the wall and see what sticks. The latest crop of safeties the Bears will deploy includes last year’s rookie starter Adrian Amos, who played fairly well but is not on the verge of a Pro Bowl anytime soon. Rookies Deon Bush and DeAndre Houston-Carson and veterans Chris Prosinski, Harold Jones-Quartey, and Demontre Hurst all will be in the mix. Prosinski and Jones-Quartey both started a handful of games last year for the Bears, but the team might want to try to get their rookies up to speed and in the lineup as soon as they can.