Expectations understandably are high as the 2019 Bears training camp kicks off.
Last year’s squad, under the guidance of new head coach Matt Nagy, defied most forecasts. The innovative first-year head coach instituted a creative scheme that brought the franchise out of the offensive doldrums. Nagy retained defensive coordinator Vic Fangio from John Fox’s staff and allowed Fangio to “do his thing.” Fangio led the Bears defense to, arguably, the most successful season of any defensive unit in the league.
But that was then, as they say, and this is now.
Fangio exited Chicago and took his first head coaching gig in Denver. Chuck Pagano, former Colts head coach and Ravens defensive coordinator, has taken his place. And while Pagano is fully capable, change can sometimes cause kinks in an otherwise well-oiled machine.
As for Nagy’s offense, the growth last year was undeniable. But the offense finished just 21st overall and received a big boost from 6 defensive touchdowns, tops in the NFL. Clearly, there is room for growth on that side of the ball.
As the Bears report to training camp, here are five questions to ponder about the 2019 season.
Question: Do the Bears have the right kicker in camp?
I know, I know. I’m as sick of writing about it as you are of hearing about it. But when the kicker position is one of your team’s biggest weaknesses, you know you’re doing something right.
The nice thing about a new season is that it buries memories of the past. There still might be a smattering of Bears fans holding on to the hurt that Cody Parkey’s infamous “Double Doink” may have caused for them in last year’s Wild Card round of the playoffs. But it should be safely placed behind us and our focus should instead be on this year’s kicking competition.
Robbie Gould signed a four-year deal with the San Francisco 49ers just before the deadline for franchised players to sign long-term deals. Thus, any semblance of hope of a Bears-Gould reunion was squashed with the squiggle of a pen.
Instead, Bears fans will be closely monitoring Elliott Fry and Eddy Pineiro as they square off in training camp and the preseason. Frankly, I’m not confident saying either one definitively will be the Bears kicker this season. The Bears won’t hesitate to pull the trigger on signing another player if either kicker falters in the preseason.
Question: How will the Bears deploy their array of receivers?
The Bears have not had such wealth at the receiver position in more years than I care to remember. The combination of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery might have been one of the best in the NFL. But even then, the depth was not as good as it appears to be now.
Allen Robinson returns for his second season as a Bear and the leader of the receiver room. He and Mitch Trubisky were developing a rapport last season and that can only grow this year. He provides a wonderful safety valve for the young quarterback as a guy who can catch difficult balls in traffic and other tight spaces.
Anthony Miller had a solid rookie campaign despite playing with a shoulder injury for much of the season. Dislocated shoulders have a tendency to be recurring, thus that could be a cause for concern. But assuming health — which is all you can do when projecting any player — he will be a force to contend with opposite Robinson.
Those two receivers appear to be the most “sure things” as it pertains to playing time and reps. From there, it gets interesting.
The Bears signed veteran Cordarrelle Patterson as much for his offensive versatility as his kickoff return prowess. He’s more of a gadget player on offense as opposed to an every-down receiver. The team also drafted Georgia’s Riley Ridley — younger brother of the Falcon’s Calvin Ridley — in the fourth round of April’s draft. Riley is not a gamebreaker by any means but he’s a savvy route runner and technician of the game.
The Bears have veteran Taylor Gabriel returning as well as second-year pro Javon Wims. I can’t imagine the Bears releasing Gabriel unless one of their youngsters really steps up and proves himself. Wims, meanwhile, has been hyped up by the out-of-town media as a potential sleeper this year, but I just don’t see it.
Other receivers to watch out for: Veteran speedster Marvin Hall and undrafted free agent Emanuel Hall. The team might keep up to six receivers, but some tough cuts will have to be made.
Question: What will the defense look like under Chuck Pagano?
As much as it pained me to see Fangio take the Broncos’ head coaching gig, the Bears defense remains in good hands. Pagano was the defensive coordinator of the Ravens in 2011 for one season before he was hired as Colts head coach the next year. In that one season, Pagano’s defense finished third overall in both yards and points allowed. They also finished third in sacks and first in fumbles returned for touchdowns.
Pagano runs an aggressive, attacking-style defense. You can expect him to show a wide range of fronts and blitzes with all the weapons he has at his disposal.
Prior to becoming the Ravens’ defensive coordinator, Pagano spent the previous three seasons as the team’s secondary coach. In that time, he worked closely with Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed, to whom Pagano has relatively compared Eddie Jackson.
“From a talent standpoint, very, very similar,” Pagano said of the comparison of Jackson to Reed. “Great instincts, great range, great ball skills. He’s only three years into it. Ed has a lot more time on task, obviously. He’s got a lot of the same traits. He loves football. He’s a football junkie.”
Jackson won’t be the only player to benefit from Pagano’s arrival. Opportunities to make plays will be given to Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara as well as new safety HaHa Clinton-Dix.
I’m also curious to see how Leonard Floyd’s sack total increases with not just the presence of Khalil Mack but with Pagano’s scheme and play calling.
Question: How will the Bears running back picture shake out?
Almost from the day Nagy was hired to be head coach of the Bears, former running back Jordan Howard was rumored to be on the outs. Howard was the square peg to the round hole known as Nagy’s offense.
Howard lasted the full season with the Bears. Give kudos to Nagy for finding a way to utilize Howard’s talents, even if he wasn’t the ideal fit for the scheme. The Bears traded Howard to the Eagles in the offseason for a 2020 sixth-round draft pick.
The first move to address the running back position was to sign free agent Mike Davis, formerly of the Seattle Seahawks. Davis was a better fit, but clearly not the desired workhorse many Bears fans were hoping for.
That’s when general manager Ryan Pace got aggressive in the draft — as he tends to do — and traded up 14 spots in April’s draft to select Iowa State running back David Montgomery with the 73rd pick.
Montgomery is a do-everything back who is both a solid rusher as well as reliable pass catcher out of the backfield. But perhaps what he does best is keep his feet, shed tacklers and pick up yards after contact. Montgomery set a Pro Football Focus record for broken tackles.
How does Nagy intend to use Davis and Montgomery, as well as Tarik Cohen?
I’d expect Davis to get a lot of work early as Montgomery gets acquainted with the offense and the NFL game. How long that arrangement works depends largely on how quickly Montgomery adapts to the NFL level. If Montgomery becomes the stud I expect him to be, he’ll be the featured back before long.
As for Cohen, his role will remain as the gadget back who runs routes and sweeps that stretches defenses.
Question: Has Mitch Trubisky taken the next step?
All eyes will be on Trubisky as he enters his second season under the tutelage of Nagy.
Trubisky took a big step in his second season as a pro, completing 66.6% of his passes for 3,223 yards, 24 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He also rushed for 421 yards and 3 scores on his way to a Pro Bowl. Trubisky, of course, was a Pro Bowl alternate, but it represented a change in the quarterback position for a franchise hungering for stability.
It’s clear to anyone with a pulse that the quarterback position is the most important in football, and perhaps in all of organized team sports. The Bears have been unable to get it right for — well, most of their existence. If the Bears are to be Super Bowl contenders this season, it all starts with Trubisky.
We are unlikely to get an answer to the question, “has Trubisky taken the next step?” in training camp alone. And that won’t even come during the preseason. It’ll take several regular season games for him to prove that he has become a better passer.
But rest assured, his every pass and decision will be scrutinized and reported ad nauseam throughout the Bourbonnais heat. And then amplified thereafter when the season kicks off Thursday, September 5 against the rival Green Bay Packers.