The Chicago Bears had an impressive 12-4 record under the leadership of new head coach Matt Nagy last season.
The team was never expected to make any noise in the playoffs. But they were expected to show strong improvement as a springboard to the 2019 season.
Now that it’s here, there won’t be any “learning curve” excuses. The Bears cannot rest on their laurels or expect to coast to success in 2019. They need to show improvement across the board and continue to make plays.
Here are — arguably — the 10 most important players for the 2019 Bears season.
10. The Kicker Position
It took me a long time to get over the gravity of Cody Parkey’s “double doink” heard ‘round the world. I kept replaying the video clip of Parkey’s miss set to the tune from the Titanic the way that Jimmy Fallon’s character from Fever Pitch kept rewinding and watching the Bill Buckner tape.
Gone is Parkey and here is … Elliott Fry and Eddy Pineiro?
Doesn’t matter. They’re just bodies. Neither one might be the kicker by midseason anyway.
The bottom line is, the 2019 season cannot conclude the same way that 2018 did. There are no guarantees that whoever is kicking the football in 2019 won’t clang one off the upright at the most inopportune moment. But the Bears can do themselves a favor by playing better on both sides of the ball and not leaving it up to the kicker to decide the fate of their season.
9. David Montgomery
The Bears have insisted that they’re going to diversify the workload for their three-headed backfield. And maybe that will hold true early in the season as rookie David Montgomery picks up the playbook.
But let’s not be mistaken: Tarik Cohen and Mike Davis are bodies. They’re role players.
Cohen is a scatback best suited as an extra receiver out of the backfield. He cannot handle a full workload as a ball carrier. Davis, the free agent acquisition formerly of the Seattle Seahawks, can do a little bit of both, but is not particularly excellent at either.
This offense will excel if Montgomery proves his worth. Montgomery has good hands to contribute in the passing game, but he made his name in college football by breaking tackles and keeping plays alive. The Bears need him to receive the majority of snaps and to be productive.
8. HaHa Clinton-Dix
The Bears had more pressing needs to fill than to give safety Adrian Amos a big contract, which is why they let him walk to rival Green Bay this offseason.
Exit Amos, enter Clinton-Dix, the former Packer first-round draft pick who was a Pro Bowler in 2016.
The Bears signed Clinton-Dix to a one-year, “prove it” deal because it is still their intention to grow the football team through the draft. They have a number of players on their defense — including fellow safety Eddie Jackson — who will be coming up for contract renewal soon and need to focus on retaining them.
Clinton-Dix has had his struggles the past few seasons which is why the Packers elected to part ways with him. But playing alongside better defenders in Chicago could help him find his form again.
7. Roquan Smith
The Bears’ second-year inside linebacker had a phenomenal rookie season. He led the team in tackles and recorded five sacks. Veteran Danny Trevathan remains one of the leaders of the defense, but this will be an important next step for Smith.
First, the question is whether Smith can improve from Year 1 to Year 2. I see a Pro Bowl — or two, or three — in Smith’s future, but that can only come to fruition if he improves his game each season.
Second, Smith needs to be one of the leaders of that defense. The Bears have done a great job building through the draft, so there are plenty of young players in need of a commanding voice out on the field. It’s only logical for Smith to fill that role (one of them, anyway).
6. Kyle Fuller
Fuller signed a four-year $56 million offer sheet with the Packers last offseason, which the Bears quickly matched. Generally when players get paid, there are a few unsettled nerves over whether that player will “take it easy” and lose the fire and passion they exhibited while playing for a new contract.
That would not be the case for Fuller.
Fuller was a ballhawk last season, leading the team with 7 interceptions and was a big reason for the success of the defense. Fuller was tested by a lot of good receivers but he stood his ground and help shut down some good offenses a year ago.
This year, the Bears need the same level of production from him. Some of the receivers he’ll be facing? Davante Adams, Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen, Antonio Brown, Michael Thomas, Keenan Allen, Alshon Jeffery (if he’s not sidelined by a hangnail), Kenny Golladay, Amari Cooper, and the entire Rams and Chiefs receiving corps.
Needless to say, Fuller and Prince Amukamara have their work cut out for them.
5. Leonard Floyd
A lot of the national “experts” claim that Floyd needs to eclipse double-digit sacks this season or else he’ll be considered a bust.
I think that’s nonsense and a bit of an overstatement.
Floyd’s importance to the Bears cannot be measured merely by his sack total. His athleticism is uncanny for a guy of his size. Floyd showed that versatility with a pick-six off a deflection against the Bills last season. He’s also applied pressure on opposing quarterbacks even if he hasn’t closed the deal with a sack. Simply disrupting the flow of the offense helps his teammates make plays.
But, what is important for Floyd is his next contract. The Bears picked up his fifth-year option this offseason and want to see him take another step forward before inking him to a long-term deal. Wreaking havoc in 2019 will go a long way toward securing that extension.
4. Offensive Tackles
I could have chosen either one, but both Charles Leno and Bobby Massie are of equal importance.
I have no concerns about the strength of the middle of the offensive line. Yes, I suppose you could say Kyle Long’s health could be a concern. But even with Long missing 22 games over the last three years, the Bears have done just fine up the middle.
It’s the edges that need to stay secure if the Bears want Matt Nagy’s offense to operate as intended. The Bears run a lot of stretch plays that need a secured edge in order to work. On top of that, if the Bears are going to push the ball down field more this season, Mitch Trubisky will need a clean pocket.
I’d like to see Trubisky take off running less this season and only resort to that when absolutely necessary. Part of that is Trubisky learning to be more patient with his reads. The other part is making him feel comfortable by avoiding heavy pressure off the tackles.
3. Eddie Jackson
Jackson had a great sophomore season, picking off six passes, scoring twice off those, and earning a Pro Bowl spot. It will not be his only trip to the All-Star game, rest assured.
Having a ballhawking safety is indescribably invaluable. Bears fans understand this well and point to Mike Brown as one example of this fact. But new Bears defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano takes it a step further. Pagano says he sees similarities between Jackson and newly-minted Hall of Famer Ed Reed, who played for Pagano in Baltimore.
“From a talent standpoint? Very, very similar,” Pagano told the Chicago Sun-Times. “Great instincts. Great range. Great ball skills. … He’s very similar to Reed.”
In a pass-heavy league, the importance of the secondary is enormous. Jackson can help his guys get lined up in the right spot and he can make plays on the ball with the best of them. Defending the pass is one of the most important factors to a successful Bears season in 2019.
2. Khalil Mack
How do you sum up how good Mack really is? I could give you clichés like “Khalil Mack is 1 of 4 players with a 99 rating in Madden 20,” or that Mack is aptly named because he plays like a truck that shares his last name.
But let’s boil it down to the brass tacks. Mack has the ability to change a game by himself. The Bears last had a player like that in Julius Peppers. But Peppers was on the downside of his career by the time he became a Bear — Mack is in his prime.
Clearly, without general manager Ryan Pace’s bold move to trade for Mack, the Bears would not have finished 12-4 last season. Mack proved his worth and justified the trade in his first game alone — a devastating opening week loss to the Packers, but one in which Mack had a sack, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, and a pick-six.
Mack finished the season with 12.5 sacks and six forced fumbles. He’s a one-man wrecking crew who gives opposing offensive coordinators nightmares. The true worth of a player not only comes from statistical output but from the impact on his teammates and the game in general.
Without Mack on the field, the Bears still can have a good defense, but they will spend more time on the field than on the sideline.
With Mack, the Bears are a championship defense just waiting for the offense to do its part.
1. Mitch Trubisky
Was there any doubt who’d be No. 1?
Let’s face it: while there are some exceptions to the rule, a team does not win a Super Bowl without a great quarterback. At the very least, the quarterback has to be extremely efficient, complete high-percentage passes, and make plays when the game calls on him to do so.
I’m not saying Trubisky needs to be in the same echelon as Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and the like. But he does need to complete closer to 70% of his passes, trim down his interceptions to about one every two games (as opposed to the nearly one-per-game in 2018), and improve the accuracy of his intermediate-to-deep throws.
In his second season under Nagy, I expect Trubisky to make important strides. I think he’ll see the field better which will give him the confidence to stand in the pocket longer and not tuck-and-run at the first hint of trouble.
I like that he can make plays with his legs. Some of the best quarterbacks in the league know when to do that and it’s infuriating to opposing defenses. It’s truly a back-breaker for defenses when they force offenses to third-and-longs only to give up a first down to a quarterback who scrambles.
But the true signal of whether this Bears season can end with a Super Bowl championship is if Trubisky can make more plays with his arms and rely less on making plays with his legs.