The last twelve months have seen a bipolar division of emotions in Chicago, which can be neatly divided into ‘pre-draft’ and ‘post-draft’ extremities.
Following a widely diagnosed as fraudulent 5-1 start to the 2020 season, the Bears hit a six-game losing skid that culminated in three calamitous weeks where they lost to all their NFC North divisional rivals in consecutive games, the icing on the cake being a 30-34 loss to the Detroit Lions, who had just fired head coach Matt Patricia.
Yet the vagaries of the NFL schedule then threw up plum winnable fixtures against the Texans and the Jaguars, and following a wafer-thin victory over a Vikings team whose dynamic offense had a rare off-day, all of a sudden the Bears were heading for a wildcard spot and an 8-8 record.
However, the Bears playoff hype-train was swiftly derailed 9-21 by the New Orleans Saints, to the surprise of absolutely no one, in a game where they could only manage 239 yards of total offense and converted just 1/10 3rd down attempts.
If there was an argument against the authenticity of the expanded NFL playoffs, featuring a seventh team from each conference, the 2020 Chicago Bears were exhibit ‘A’.
Much-maligned GM Ryan Pace and head coach Matt Nagy were now in little doubt that their jobs were firmly on the line in 2021. A strong off-season battle-plan was essential for the embattled duo, starting with finding a replacement for errant QB Mitch Trubisky, for whom the writing was firmly on the wall after the Bears declined the 5th year option on his rookie deal.
After the widely reported but ultimately failed attempt to lure the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson to Soldier Field, word on the NFL rumour mill was that Pace had reputedly been prepared to trade defensive stalwarts Khalil Mack and Akiem Hicks to the Seahawks as well as a whole bunch of draft capital to secure their much-coveted franchise QB.
Coupled with the terminally underwhelming signing of journeyman quarterback Andy Dalton in a $10 million free-agency deal, disgruntled Bears fans were pitched into a frenzy of discontent, further exacerbated by the bizarre decision by Pace to double-down on the Dalton acquisition by announcing him as their QB1.
If that PR disaster wasn’t enough, Pace’s decision to cut two-time Pro Bowler Kyle Fuller to free up cap space after failing to find a trade partner for the cornerback, who was due to receive a $14 million salary in 2021, led to further disquiet.
Bears safety Eddie Jackson tweeted, then quickly deleted a facepalm emoji, as a source close to the Bears locker room described the players as “pissed”.
Meanwhile, Pace was embarking on a dumpster-dive of ex-Lions players in free agency, including Desmond Trufant who arrived as Fuller’s replacement; a veteran corner who struggled with injuries as a member of a hapless Lions secondary, Trufant allowing 12.9 yards per catch in the six games he actually made it onto the field in 2020.
Thank goodness for the magical healing properties of the NFL draft.
Due to pick at number 20, Pace pushed his chips all-in with a monster trade-up with the NY Giants to acquire their 11th overall pick. Pace’s head had been turned by Ohio State’s Justin Fields, an exciting QB prospect with an explosive arm and the athleticism to do damage on his feet.
Fields was seen by many draft experts as the second-best QB option in his draft class behind Trevor Lawrence, with all the attributes to be an instant star in the NFL, and it was widely expected that with Lawrence likely to go to Jacksonville with the first pick, Fields would be long gone by the time the Bears were on the clock.
Three QBs were taken with the first three picks of the draft, but none of them were named Fields, and from then on the draft board went frosty on QBs. When the Giants turn came, Pace moved swiftly, and the Giants claimed the Bears' first and fifth-round picks in this year's draft and their first and fourth-round picks in 2022 in return for the Bears getting their man.
Despite a roster filled with holes, Pace and Nagy have mortgaged the farm to replace Trubisky, making it crystal clear to all observers that they are undeniably in ‘win now’ mode.
The fundamental flaws in this strategy are the dearth of depth in the current roster, and the cap issues that hamper the Bears’ ability to fix this.
The acquisition of Oklahoma State tackle Teven Jenkins, projected to be taken mid-to-late in the first round, but somehow still on the board for the Bears to pick at 39 in the second round of the draft, should have given the Bears the opportunity to solidify their offensive line.
With a dominating 6’6” 315lb build, the well-versed run-blocker with commanding strength and an aggressive playing style gives the Bears a second talented rookie to breathe life into a misfiring offense, but financial pressures meant they were forced to cut starting left tackle Charles Leno, saving $9 million in cap space but placing a huge burden of expectancy on rookie Jenkins.
If Jenkins struggles to acclimatise to the intensity of the NFL, their backup left tackle is Elijah Wilkinson, a right tackle and sometime guard, who has never played on the left. Although Cody Whitehair improved when he switched from center to left guard last season, ranking 7th in his position via PFF, the rest of the offensive line was average at best and the Bears will require a solid performance from this unit if they are to offer a credible threat on the ground.
Last season David Montgomery rushed for 1,070 yards at 4.3 YPA but behind him help from the rest of the RB room was sparse. Neither Andy Dalton, who struggled in Dallas last season, or untested rookie Fields will relish having the weight of the entire offense on their shoulders if the Bears cannot establish a run game.
Similarly, the depth chart looks problematic at wide receiver. The departure of the Bears’ former 2018 second-round pick Anthony Miller to the Texans leaves Allen Robinson and Darnell Mooney as the clear-cut No. 1 and 2 receivers going into training camp. With Robinson playing on the franchise tag after an excellent 2020 campaign that saw him rack up 1,250 yards and 6 TDs at 12.3 yards per reception, sophomore Mooney will be expected to make the leap to be a regular contributor at WR2.
They will be joined by veterans free-agent acquisitions Damiere Byrd and Marquise Goodwin who will add some downfield speed and adaptability, but little reliability. Byrd, was latterly with the Patriots and is now with his fourth team in four seasons, and Goodwin’s career has been blighted due to nagging injuries.
Perhaps the final question for the offense will be over the role that Justin Fields plays this season. Despite his public backing, will Matt Nagy stick with Andy Dalton as the starter for the Week 1 opener against the Los Angeles Rams?
Whilst many observers doubt that the Bears traded up for Fields just to sit him for his entire rookie season, it would be negligent to toss an undercooked rookie QB into the firing line of Sunday night primetime TV against Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey.
Nagy arrived in Chicago with a reputation for developing quarterbacks, but the Trubisky experiment failed miserably, and the eyes of the NFL will be watching intently to see if he can coach Fields to success; however Nagy will also need to focus attention on a defense that has been quietly slipping in efficiency since its peak in 2018.