Bears

2018 Bears preseason contains particularly interesting 'test kitchen' for Matt Nagy offense

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USA TODAY

2018 Bears preseason contains particularly interesting 'test kitchen' for Matt Nagy offense

The 2018 Bears schedule contains an unintended reference standard for loosely gauging whether the Bears have gained or lost relative ground since last season, vis a vis both the NFC North and a chunk of the rest of the NFC. That’s in the form of eight games, half of the schedule, against teams (San Francisco, Tampa Bay) that were on the 2017 Bears schedule and which defeated the Bears.

The 2018 Bears all-AFC preseason has a special little pop quiz of its own for new coach Matt Nagy.

That little let’s-see game comes in the de facto game three of the preseason, when the Bears visit the Kansas City Chiefs and Nagy faces his mentor and former boss, Andy Reid.

(Actually that’ll be game four because of the Bears playing in the Hall of Fame game; how much Mitch Trubisky and the starters play in that one remains to be seen, because of different teams and different QB situations. Last year Carson Palmer and Dak Prescott were DNP’s in the Arizona-Dallas HOF game, while Aaron Rodgers and Andrew Luck both started in 2016 when Green Bay and Indianapolis met. A rookie Teddy Bridgewater started for Minnesota in 2015 but Ben Roethlisberger was a Steelers DNP. Nagy may want to get a little more work in for Trubisky, while the Ravens likely will rest Joe Flacco and get Robert Griffin III in for an extended look.)

But the “normal” game three this preseason is when the starters play into the third quarter and coaches conduct some semblance of game-planning. Nagy will have spent this offseason installing the playbook and mindset that he and coordinator Mark Helfrich want in their offense and the Kansas City game will be the largest test-kitchen for them and it.

What adds to the interest in the moment is that Kansas City’s defensive coordinator is Bob Sutton, who has been the Chiefs’ DC throughout Nagy’s time as QB coach and O-coordinator on the other side of the ball under Reid.

Put another way: Sutton “knows” Nagy and his offensive tendencies. He coached “against” Nagy every KC training camp. Nagy may indeed bring new creativity to a Bears offense that running back Jordan Howard and other criticized as predictable last year, but Sutton knows a little about how Nagy thinks and something of what Nagy’s idea of creative is.

As John Fox did with his first preseason, Nagy may want to use the preseason as not only a series of evaluation sessions, but also as on-field opportunities for culture-building. Fox and GM Ryan Pace wanted to eradicate the losing ennui that had set in under Phil Emery and Marc Trestman, and while Fox did not radically alter player usage, the 2015 Bears won three of their four in preseason and did start toward changing the culture (if not the scoreboard results).

Nagy is not inheriting the broken culture that Fox and Pace did in 2015. But every coach brings his own imprinting to the job, and the 2018 preseason, particularly game three against Nagy’s old team (and coaching buddies), projects to be a little more interesting than just another preseason game.

2018 Bears preseason

Aug. 2                vs. Baltimore Ravens

Aug. 9-12          at Cincinnati

Aug. 16-19        at Denver

Aug. 23-26        vs. Kansas City Chiefs 

Aug. 30             vs. Buffalo Bills 

Stankevitz: Why the Bears should draft Quenton Nelson with the 8th overall pick

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USA Today Sports Images

Stankevitz: Why the Bears should draft Quenton Nelson with the 8th overall pick

The majority of the decisions made by Ryan Pace since New Year’s Day have been centered around Mitch Trubisky. 

He hired a young, offensive-minded, quarterback-driven coach in Matt Nagy — who hired Mark Helfrich and retained Dave Ragone — to pair with Trubisky. He guaranteed $66.2 million to Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Trey Burton in March to dramatically improve the weapons at his young quarterback’s disposal. He guaranteed $5 million to Chase Daniel, who’s only thrown three regular season passes since the end of the 2014 season, to give Trubisky a backup who knows the nuances and language of Nagy’s offense.

So why would the Bears deviate from that approach in the NFL Draft, specifically with their first-round pick?

That’s why the Bears should draft Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson with the eighth overall pick on Thursday night. 

Nelson is regarded as one of the best offensive line prospects in recent memory, and those who were around him at Notre Dame see him as a Pro Bowler from Day 1. He’s an aggressive mauler in the run game who doesn’t play out of control, and has a highlight reel of pummeling opposing defenders to prove it. He’ll immediately help the Bears effectively run the ball, especially on the inside zone plays that are a staple of Nagy’s offense. He’s a sturdy, consistent pass blocker who will keep opposing defenders out of Trubisky’s face, allowing him to step up in the pocket and connect with all those shiny targets added by Pace in March. 

The “problem” with Nelson is that he’s a guard, a position traditionally not valued as worth such a high draft pick. But the league is changing: Three of the 15 contracts with the most guaranteed money handed out in free agency this year went to interior offensive linemen (Andrew Norwell, Weston Richburg and Ryan Jensen). Yes, left tackle Nate Solder got more than those guys, but the point here is that quality offensive line play is not easy to find. 

Plus, as Nelson eloquently argued at the NFL Combine, having strong interior line play is more important in today’s defensive landscape than ever before. 

“You have guys that are dominating the NFL right now in Aaron Donald, Geno Atkins and Fletcher Cox that have just been working on interior guys and you need guys to stop them, and I think I’m one of those guys,” Nelson said. “You talk to quarterbacks, and they say if a D-end gets on the edge, that’s fine, they can step up in the pocket and they can throw, a lot of quarterbacks if given the opportunity can do that. 

“That’s what I give is a pocket to step up in, and I think I also help the offense establish the run through my nastiness and establishing the run also opens up the
passing game, so I think it’s a good choice.”

And we haven’t even got to the Bears hiring Nelson’s college position coach, Harry Hiestand, to coach their offensive line. Hiestand recruited Nelson to Notre Dame and developed him into an elite player over their four years together in South Bend. If there’s anyone that can make Nelson an even better player in four years than he is today, it’s Hiestand. 

“He’s known me since I was an immature freshman that wasn’t good at football, until now being a lot more mature and responsible and doing the right thing and a good football player,” Nelson said at Notre Dame’s Pro Day last month. “He knows everything about me. … He’s always pushed me to be the best at everything I’ve done and I couldn’t be any more thankful and grateful for him.”

Do the Bears need to address their red-line need for a pass rusher? Of course. Does Vic Fangio’s defense need more playmakers? Absolutely. Those needs will have to be a focus of this week’s draft. Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds or Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick or Georgia’s Roquan Smith would all be fine picks. 

But if Pace is sticking to his strategy of building around Trubisky and drafting the best player available, there’s only one player that makes sense. And that’s the bruising, powerful guard who played his college ball two hours away in South Bend. 

“As a blocker my mindset is being dominant,” Nelson said. “I want to dominate all my opponents and take their will away to play the game by each play and finishing them past the whistle.”

John "Moon" Mullin's counterpoint: Why the Bears should draft Virginia Tech linebacker Tremaine Edmunds

  
 

Moon: Why the Bears should draft Tremaine Edmunds with the 8th overall pick

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USA Today Sports Images

Moon: Why the Bears should draft Tremaine Edmunds with the 8th overall pick

The late and legendary New York Giants GM George Young once described the first 15 picks of the NFL draft as the “dance of the elephants,” a reference to the premium the game placed on size, particularly when all other factors were somewhere close to equal.
 
For that reason, given the choice between linebackers Tremaine Edmunds from Virginia Tech and Georgia’s Roquan Smith, the Bears will hand in the name of Edmunds (6-5, 253 pounds) rather than that of Smith (6-1, 238).
 
It is far from the only reason and not the biggest (pun intended).
 
For purposes of perspective, the Bears are more than capable of selecting neither Edmunds nor Smith. GM Ryan Pace said that the Bears had identified eight players for their “cloud” of candidates worthy of the No. 8-overall pick in the 2018 draft. None of those eight are quarterbacks, Pace said.
 
Not that Pace would lay down smoke or engage in misinformation or misdirection, of course; but one interpretation of that “eight” declaration would be that Pace is advertising that he has operators standing by to take trade calls from teams below the Bears who were just told that the Bears have enough attractive options that they would be happy to trade down, secure in the knowledge that one or more of their eight will be there as late as No. 12 or even further.
 
Edmunds and Smith are among the top eight non-quarterbacks in a wide sampling of rankings by draft experts. Best guess here is that both linebackers are in Pace’s cloud.
 
Grades/rankings are the primary component of “best player available” evaluations. If Pace was being straight about having eight for No. 8, then rankings and grades are within an acceptable range.
 
What tips the decision toward Edmunds and Smith over the others in the eight is need.
 
The Bears need to protect Mitch Trubisky (Quenton Nelson). They need more takeaways (DB’s Minkah Fitzpatrick, Denzel Ward). But the dire need, after exits of Lamarr Houston, Pernell McPhee and Willie Young and even after signing ex-49er Aaron Lynch, is for pass rushers and those are too rare to pass on when the chance is there.
 
North Carolina State’s Bradley Chubb isn’t expected to last until No. 8, so View from the Moon has moved to the others in Pace’s eight with that skill set. Edmunds has length and size for 3-4 OLB or possible ILB when Bears go nickel. The decision between Edmunds, with length and size and 10 sacks over last two years, and Smith, with better ’17 production (6.5 sacks, 14 TFL), is difficult because both could develop into elite players.
 
But Edmunds “might have the highest ceiling of any defender in this draft,” according to USA Today draft analyst Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz. Smith is more polished than Edmunds, but Pace is about upside, and for that final reason, “With the eighth pick of the 2018 NFL draft, the Chicago Bears select…
 
"Tremaine Edmunds, linebacker, Virginia Tech.”

JJ Stankevitz's counterpoint: Why the Bears should draft Notre Dame offensive lineman Quenton Nelson