Summer is here, the weather is hot, and the Bears kick off the 2018 preseason in two weeks when they take on the Baltimore Ravens in the Hall of Fame Game.
With every new season, fresh hope springs eternal. But the 2018 season brings even more reason for optimism as the Bears kick off the coaching career of Matt Nagy.
Here are 9 Chicago Bears storylines to monitor as the 2018 training camp begins.
Matt Nagy’s stamp on the franchise
“Defense wins championships” is an old adage that still holds water, but it’s only half true. The Philadelphia Eagles defeated the New England Patriots in last season’s Super Bowl, a game that set a record for producing the most yards in NFL history with 1,151. There wasn’t a whole lot of defense going on, as the two teams combined for just one punt. Still, the Eagles’ pass rush stepped up on the final drive and got to Tom Brady when it mattered most.
Enter new head coach Matt Nagy, the one-time offensive coordinator of the Kansas City Chiefs and a former quarterback with an innovative offensive mind. The Bears’ offense this season will look dramatically different than it did the past three years under John Fox’s tutelage.
The Bears will be attempting to join the 21st Century by instilling an offense that will be up-tempo and dynamic, one that seeks to put up a lot of points, not just take an early lead and protect it with a strong run game. The Bears tried this approach once before in 2010 when they brought in former Rams offensive coordinator and head coach, Mike Martz, he of the “Greatest Show on Turf” fame.
But that experience failed miserably. The difference between the two is that Martz’s seven-step drop offense was badly outdated at the time of his arrival while Nagy’s offense is on the upswing.
Mitch Trubisky’s progression in Year 2
The plan for Mitch Trubisky heading into last season’s training camp was to sit on the bench behind “bridge quarterback” Mike Glennon while studying and learning the game at the NFL level.
That plan was crumpled up and tossed into the garbage can after the first quarter of the season as the Glennon experience went so poorly.
Personally, I felt that was the right move to insert Trubisky immediately and allow him to get his feet wet in a season with so little to lose. That doesn’t mean his growing pains are finished, but that his growth got a head start.
Now, we watch and wait to see what kind of progress Trubisky has made from seasons one to two. What kind of leader will he be? Can he take the reigns of Nagy’s offense and master the intricacies? Can he show poise to step up in the pocket and make all the right throws?
These are things that matter for arguably the most important person in the Bears’ franchise right now.
Tarik Cohen’s role in the offense
Fantasy football statistics aside, Jordan Howard has been one of the best running backs in the NFL over the past two seasons. The Bears have rode him like the thoroughbred that he is, albeit to little team success.
The one area in which Howard has struggled is the passing game, as drops have hindered his ability to make a difference. The Bears drafted Tarik Cohen last year and the scatback immediately made a difference with his game-breaking ability.
As is the question with all diminutive running backs, it is unknown if Cohen can shoulder the load as a standard, between-the-tackles running back. It is for this reason that trade rumors surrounding Howard this offseason were completely unfounded.
We know that Cohen will have a role in the passing game because he can really stretch a defense thin. But will he be used as a complementary piece, brought in on passing downs to provide a spark? Or, is he going to steal even more of Howard’s playing time? Or, will they appear on the field at the same time in several sets?
Will Trey Burton resemble Travis Kelce?
While a member of the Chiefs’ coaching staff, Nagy oversaw the ascension of one of the league’s best tight ends not named Gronkowski.
Travis Kelce led all tight ends with 83 receptions last year, was second behind only New England’s Rob Gronkowski with 1,038 receiving yards, and was tied for second with 8 touchdown receptions. Kelce was a versatile threat and arguably the most potent offensive weapon behind rookie running back Kareem Hunt.
After the Bears hired Nagy, the team signed former Philadelphia Eagles tight end Trey Burton via free agency, and comparisons between him and Kelce immediately began to sprout.
It’s a little premature to anoint him the next Kelce, but there are good reasons for optimism that Burton will be used in similar fashion and will draw attention away from the Bears’ revamped receiving corps as well as from the run game.
The eye candy at wide receiver
If you haven’t yet repressed last season’s wide receiving corps to the abyss of your brain, just take a moment to compare this year’s group to the JV squad the Bears fielded a year ago after Cameron Meredith and Kevin White suffered season-ending injuries.
Allen Robinson is a former Pro Bowl receiver who will only be 25 when the season begins. He has an impressive catch radius and body control that will make Bears fans remember the “good” that Brandon Marshall brought to the team a few years back.
Taylor Gabriel is a player who can stretch the field and force defenses to be more lenient with underneath routes.
And rookie Anthony Miller might be the receiver most worth keeping an eye on. He has speed and quickness, good hands and a chip on his shoulder to prove that he’s the best player on the field every time he steps on it.
Can the Bears protect Trubisky up front?
Where would some of the best quarterbacks in the NFL be without a strong offensive line protecting them? On their butts, that’s where.
If the best in the game can’t do it alone, how much more difficult for a second-year pro in a brand new offense?
The Bears desperately need veteran guard Kyle Long to return healthy and be an anchor up front. Cody Whitehair needs to make strides in his third year as a pro. Rookie James Daniels needs to be the destructive force the Bears drafted him to be. And tackles Charles Leno and Bobby Massie have to protect the edges and keep Trubisky’s jersey clean.
The Bears hired Harry Hiestand to help coach up the offensive line, and he’s widely regarded as one of the best in the business. If he can help shore up this unit into one of the most dependable groups in the league, it’ll spell good success for Nagy’s offense.
Do the Bears have enough at outside linebacker?
Ever the optimist, rarely do I ever gripe about anything the Bears do. But if there is one nit to pick about the Bears’ offseason, it’s that I wish the Bears had done more to add to their pass rush.
The most important position in football — and all of sports — is the quarterback. The second-most important position is “pass rusher” — or “edge rusher.”
The Bears parted ways with Pernell McPhee, Willie Young, and Lamarr Houston and will open camp with Leonard Floyd, Sam Acho, and Aaron Lynch.
Floyd, if he stays healthy, has a chance to be a Pro Bowler this season. But he’s missed 10 games in two seasons and there’s not a whole lot of depth behind him. Acho is a valuable reserve and strong special teams player, but lacks the explosiveness that would be ideal for an every-down player.
The Bears brought in the veteran Lynch this offseason hoping to make him a reclamation project. Lynch had a successful rookie season with the San Francisco 49ers in 2014 under current Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. Since then, he has been unable to stay healthy and has underperformed. The Bears brought him in on a one-year contract to see if reuniting with Fangio could light a spark.
The playmaking ability of Roquan Smith
The 8th overall pick in April’s draft did not show up with his fellow rookies at the beginning of the week as he remains unsigned. I’m not concerned at the moment, but he needs to get to camp right away.
When he gets there, Smith is going to be fun to watch. He has great lateral quickness and gets to the ball in a hurry to make plays. He likely will be the most fun linebacker to watch since Brian Urlacher — although Lance Briggs was entertaining in his own right.
The combination of the former Georgia Bulldogs — Floyd and Smith — ought to help alleviate the thinness of the OLB position. With Fangio’s creativity, Smith could upgrade the pass rush in certain situations.
Continuity in the secondary
The Bears didn’t do much in the secondary this offseason, choosing to retain their own by bringing back cornerbacks Prince Amukamara and Kyle Fuller. Amukamara showed how steady a veteran he was last season and Fuller had a breakout year.
At safety, second-year pro Eddie Jackson is going to make huge strides in 2018. He flashed signs of being a dependable playmaker last season and he’s only going to get better.
Adrian Amos has had his ups and downs with the Bears, but he has been a contributor at the very least. With all four of these players returning, the secondary looks to be a dependable unit this year.