Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2018 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 1, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.
Before you laugh at the notion of Michell Trubisky being the next Carson Wentz — yeah, we’re going to get a little crazy with this preview — remember that a year ago nobody thought Wentz would turn into “MVP candidate Carson Wentz.”
It’s a leap of faith, but there are similarities between Wentz last year and Trubisky as he enters his second season. Both were relatively inexperienced No. 2 overall picks. As rookies, they were stuck with horrendous supporting casts. The numbers for their rookie seasons weren’t impressive, but for those who watch games and don’t simply scan fantasy stats, you could see flashes of potential from both of them. Wentz had more buzz last year than Trubisky does this offseason, but there were some questions about Wentz too. He answered them all with an amazing second season. And the stats do tell a story, as well:
Wentz, 2016: 16 games, 3,782 yards, 16 TDs, 14 INTs, 6.2 yards per attempt, 79.3 QB rating, 150 rushing yards, two rushing TDs.
Trubisky, 2017: 12 games, 2,193 yards, 7 TDs, 7 INTs, 6.6 yards per attempt, 77.5 rating, 248 rushing yards, two rushing TDs.
In Trubisky’s case, his head coach was NFL fossil John Fox, which didn’t help the rookie quarterback’s numbers or his development. There are probably some 2018 Bears/2017 Rams comparisons to be made that way, but let’s stick with the Eagles for a moment.
Last offseason, the Eagles realized they had a poor supporting cast and spent heavily to upgrade around Wentz. This offseason, the Bears paid Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Trey Burton in free agency, and drafted intriguing receiver Anthony Miller. Wentz ran a creative, forward-thinking offense devised by former Andy Reid assistant Doug Pederson. Trubisky gets to work with former Reid assistant Matt Nagy, hired as Chicago’s new coach this offseason.
Of course, the next step on this crazy Wentz-Trubisky path is the hardest to take. Wentz became a superstar last season. He was having an MVP-level season when he got hurt, and the Eagles were 11-2 in his starts. Nobody is predicting Trubisky will be as good as Wentz or jump in the MVP conversation, and you won’t find a soul who believes the Bears will win a Super Bowl. But, again, nobody thought Wentz was going to have the season he did in 2017. I liked Wentz at this time last year, and I like Trubisky to take a big step this season.
The Bears should be fun to watch. We don’t associate the Bears with a spread-em-out, high octane offense. Chicago hasn’t had an All-Pro quarterback since 1950. The style the Bears play this season might cause a culture shock.
Nagy used a lot of spread option concepts last season after he took over play-calling with the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs led the league in run-pass option (RPO) usage. If you had any remaining doubt if RPO was going to be a big part of Nagy’s offenses in Chicago, he hired former University of Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich as his offensive coordinator. That should drive the point home: This isn’t the ground-and-pound Bears anymore.
“Matt’s innovative,” Chiefs general manager Brett Veach said, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. “You see the Super Bowl and the spread stuff and the RPO stuff, Matt’s on top of that trend, always studying tape, always looking for new ideas, not afraid to dive into all the college concepts.
“I’d walk into his office on a random Monday or Tuesday, and he’d be studying some different schematic stuff from different colleges. I think Matt will push the envelope with regards to being innovative and being creative.”
Chicago, steeped in tradition that includes a long history of boring offense, seems to be an unlikely place for an NFL revolution. Hopefully Nagy feels empowered to push the envelope. Many teams, including the defending champion Eagles, run some spread/option concepts but there’s still a stigma attached to running a “college” offense. But the spread and RPOs have had massive success in college, have worked when we’ve seen them in the pros, so why not try it as a foundation?
Nagy’s offense, assuming it will be different than we typically see in the NFL, needs to work, and fast. NFL gatekeepers don’t like change. Critics wanted to run Chip Kelly out of Philadelphia from his first day, mostly because he was unapologetic about doing things differently (then Kelly gave them all the ammunition they needed by ruining the Eagles’ roster). If Nagy fields an offense that looks more like the Oregon Ducks than the ’85 Bears and it doesn’t work, he won’t be given any patience. The NFL is a conservative league, and innovators are not welcomed … unless they’re wildly successful right away and everyone steals their ideas.
The Bears haven’t been consistently good in decades. The last time they made the playoffs three seasons in a row was 1988, when Mike Ditka was their coach and Jim Harbaugh was a second-year quarterback. They went against the grain with their quarterback plan last offseason — and yes, they were mocked for doing something different — and got creative with their coaching hire this year. At least they’re trying something new. The old way hasn’t been working.
Eagles coach Doug Pederson isn’t afraid to do different things, and that paid off. It certainly helped Wentz too. Now Chicago finds out if their Nagy-Trubisky combination can work similar magic.
I like teams that aggressively attack an area of weakness. I appreciated how the Bears overhauled their receivers. Allen Robinson was a star with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2015. If you blame his down 2016 on Blake Bortles, he seems like a good gamble as long as he is recovered from ACL surgery. Former Atlanta Falcon Taylor Gabriel can stretch a defense. Tight end Trey Burton is light on experience, but everything he showed in a small sample with the Eagles was promising. Memphis receiver Anthony Miller was very productive in college, and a potential steal in the second round. The Bears were awful at receiver last season, and now that area looks like a strength. Linebacker Roquan Smith, the team’s first-round pick, gives the defense a boost. It’s hard to argue with what the Bears did.
One of the biggest moves of the Bears’ offseason was convincing defensive coordinator Vic Fangio to stay. Fangio is one of the most respected defensive minds in the game, and the Bears took a nice step forward in Fangio’s third season there. Of the 10 defensive players who started 10 or more games last season, nine are back. And Roquan Smith replaces departed Christian Jones, which should be a huge upgrade. If the Bears’ offense doesn’t work for whatever reason, at least the defense should rank in the top half of the league again.
A lot more is riding on Allen Robinson than you’d like for a receiver coming off ACL surgery. If Robinson doesn’t bounce back or he plays like he did in 2016, when he had just 883 yards, the Bears will be left with mostly slot receivers and not much on the outside. That’s assuming former top-10 pick Kevin White doesn’t have a career-saving season, which can’t be ruled out but is unlikely. I like the Robinson signing, even at $42 million over three years. In 2015 he had 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns, and his size and speed made him look like a future superstar. But it’s also OK to note that there’s a lot of risk attached in the Bears’ biggest addition.
We’ll see how Matt Nagy’s approach works out in Chicago, but Mitchell Trubisky is on board.
“The offense I wanna run is the offense we’re installing right now,” Trubisky told NFL Network, via the Chicago Sun-Times. “Just after a couple days of installing it and actually being able to talk with coaches, I really feel like I was built for this offense. It’s just dynamic, it’s creative and it’s always balanced — and that’s what you want.
“We’re gonna get the ball out quick. we’re gonna deceive the defenses and we’re gonna spread the field and we’re going to get it all over to our playmakers … We’re gonna spread the field every which way.”
It sounds like Nagy might have an entertaining offense, if he sticks to what he wants to run. If enthusiasm for a scheme is an indicator of future quarterback success, Trubisky is in a good spot.
“It feels natural to be more in this kind of offense,” Trubisky said later in the offseason, according to the Chicago Tribune. “You have the [run-pass option] game, the play-action, the quick dropback, getting the ball out quick, stuff I’ve done in my past from high school to North Carolina. And then you have the West Coast, pro-style concepts grooved in with that. So I feel like this offense is going to utilize my talents and use what comes natural to me.”
The Bears, despite finishing in the top half of the NFL in most key defensive categories, didn’t have a Pro Bowl player (or any player, from offense or defense, on the NFL Network’s “Top 100 Players” list). Supremely underrated end Akiem Hicks and cornerback Kyle Fuller had good arguments but were denied. If there’s a defensive player who could emerge as a star this season, it might be edge rusher Leonard Floyd. Floyd, a 2016 first-round pick, had a promising rookie season with seven sacks, then a knee injury cost him the final six games last season. Floyd, who has missed games in each of his two NFL seasons, is reportedly healthy heading into training camp. If he can stay healthy, perhaps a third-year breakout awaits.
From Yahoo’s Andy Behrens: “Chicago was a statistical black hole last season, a dense place from which no fantasy points could escape. The team finished dead-last in passing offense (175.7 yards per game) and next-to-last in plays per game (58.4). Head coach Matt Nagy is going to drag this team into modernity, but it’s going to take some time. The Bears offense has a new system, new coaches and several new pieces, so let’s not get too frustrated if this team isn’t lighting up scoreboards in September and October. Eventually, this group will get fun.
“The breakout player in Chicago is likely to be the tight end who threw one of the most important passes in Philadelphia history. Trey Burton is a terrific athlete with excellent speed (4.6 in the 40-yard dash), and he’ll play a version of the tight end/receiver hybrid role that sent Travis Kelce to three Pro Bowls. Burton can overpower most safeties and out-quick most linebackers. He’s going to be fun. Chicago paid him like a star ($32 million over four years), so he clearly won’t be a mere supporting receiver. If Mitchell Trubisky makes the leap that many expect, Burton is going to finish as a top-eight (top-five?) fantasy tight end. Draft him aggressively.”
[Booms/Busts: Fantasy outlook on the Bears.]
The Bears might as well shake things up. They have one playoff appearance over the past 11 seasons, and four straight last-place finishes in the NFC North. They’ve finished higher than 15th in yards gained or points scored just once in the past 11 seasons, in 2013 when guided by new coach Marc Trestman (another non-traditional coaching hire who got run out of the NFL as fast as possible). Matt Nagy is coming to Chicago with some fresh new ideas, and the best news for him might be that the bar isn’t too high.
HOW WILL THE JORDAN HOWARD-TARIK COHEN BACKFIELD COMBO WORK?
Howard is a very good back. He has 2,435 yards in two seasons with a 4.6-yard average, and that’s with a lot of defensive attention focused on him. Yet, there was a lot of speculation Howard would be traded this offseason, though it didn’t come to pass. When you look at how the Bears’ offense might look — go back and read the quotes about spreading the field and getting the ball out fast — and it seems like the fast but undersized Cohen is a more natural fit. Cohen is insanely quick and would presumably do very well operating in an offense that wants to space the field. Yet, the Bears also seem to know Howard is valuable, and don’t plan to leave him behind. Matt Nagy said Howard will be the “featured back,” though he acknowledged they’ll use multiple backs. Cohen faded last season after a hot start, though a lot of blame probably goes to an overmatched coaching staff that was never going to figure out the right ways to use him. That shouldn’t be an issue this season; Cohen told “The Jim Rome Show” that the coaches have him lining up “everywhere.”
Figuring out how to balance playing time between Cohen and Howard is a good problem to have.
It’s crazy to think the Bears could pull off anything like the Eagles did … though you can see the similarities. Mitchell Trubisky is going to be a very good quarterback. I like what Matt Nagy is selling and hope he has the conviction and courage to run the offense he wants. The Bears’ offensive overhaul was what they needed, and the defense will benefit from continuity. It’s a strong division, but didn’t we say that about the 2017 NFC East as it related to the Eagles? Fine, no more 2017 Eagles comparisons for the Bears, but it would not surprise me to see Trubisky and the Bears make a big leap.
As optimistic as I might be, Matt Nagy has only a handful of games as a play-caller in the NFL after Andy Reid gave him those duties last December, and Mitchell Trubisky has just seven career touchdown passes. There’s a lot that can go wrong with that marriage. If Trubisky doesn’t play well, you have to assume general manager Ryan Pace’s job isn’t safe. And it’s a lesson worth repeating: If Nagy comes in with ideas unique to the stodgy NFL and it doesn’t work out, he will be replaced far more quickly than an old out-of-touch coach going by the boring NFL book would be.
I like where the Bears are headed. I think Matt Nagy will devise a fun offense, and Mitchell Trubisky will ultimately be a true franchise quarterback. He made some plays last season that bad quarterbacks typically can’t make. Yet, for all my optimism, the Bears still have a tough schedule in a competitive division. Chicago will get in the seven-win range, and by the time the season is done, we’ll be excited for the breakout potential of the 2019 Bears.
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