Bears

Bears NFL Draft notebook: Starts may not be the whole story for Mitchell Trubisky

Bears NFL Draft notebook: Starts may not be the whole story for Mitchell Trubisky

Sweeping the notebook in the wake of the 2017 draft...

- Mitch Trubisky having only 13 starts coming out of North Carolina required the Bears to make a monumental leap of faith with their expensive trade-up to No. 2 overall and their choice. In this analysis, that would have been a deal-killer for that lofty level of his selection.

Not that it's a defining predictive measure necessarily: He wasn't drafted No. 2 overall, he wasn't a quarterback and his team didn't deplete their draft larder trading to get him, but Kyle Long had switched from defense to offense and had all of six starts coming out of Oregon and has been to the Pro Bowl three times.

- The Bears not selecting just one defensive back, in the fourth round, from a supposed talent-rich draft on that side of the football was only mildly surprising, given the money and roster slots invested in free agency on cornerbacks Prince Amukamara and Marcus Cooper, and safety Quintin Demps. And Ryan Pace hadn't drafted a defensive back higher than the fifth round in either of his first two drafts.

But the one he chose warrants questions, and for reasons beyond his coming off a broken leg of last October or that he was playing behind a defense that had six players taken in this year's first three rounds. Eddie Jackson comes out of Alabama, which the NFL beats a high-round draft path annually to Nick Saban's door for his players.

But defensively, many of those players and ones before Saban, while usually solid, arguably max out at Alabama: Of the 74 Alabama defensive players drafted since Derrick Thomas went to Kansas City in 1989, many of them 1's and 2's, seven (Landon Collins, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, C.J. Mosley, Don't'a Hightower, Marcell Dareus, Roman Harper, DeMeco Ryans) became Pro Bowl players, by unofficial count.
 
For comparison purposes: From 2006 through the third round of the 2011 draft, 16 Oklahoma offensive players were drafted. Five have been selected to Pro Bowls, each to more than one. On the other hand, none of the 26 Michigan Wolverines drafted since Jake Long went No. 1 overall in 2008 have graced a Pro Bowl, yet Michigan led all schools with 11 players selected in this draft.

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For the record: This is not only not a criticism of Alabama; it's actually a compliment. Some perspective here: For a long time, a widely held opinion of Penn State among NFL personnel folks was that you got solid players from there but because of the excellent coaching they'd gotten, only rarely did they go on to become NFL superstars. The thinking was that their coaching had gotten the max out of the players; they arrived with much of their upside already realized.
 
That said, those defensive players have been on 10 different Super Bowl champions. So maybe you DO want ‘Bama defensive guys around.

- North Carolina had five offensive players drafted, all skill-position'ers (two backs, two receivers), suggesting either that Trubisky had a pretty solid supporting cast, or that he made people around him really good.

The Tar Heels were a modest 8-5, which is either a credit or an indictment of Trubisky, depending on how you want to look at it. Using a standard popular with fans of Jay Cutler, Trubisky didn't have a lot of help from the UNC defense, which allowed almost 25 points per game. (Clemson's defense gave up 18.4 per game for Deshaun Watson, No. 12 nationally).

- Ryan Pace said to check back with him in three years for a grade in this draft. This reporter has never subscribed to the multi-year time frame for evaluating a draft. Final grades maybe, as in a school-course grade, but you know well before the report card how you're doing in Chemistry. It does not take three years or even the oft-cited two to know whether a Shea McClellin or Kyle Long or Kyle Fuller or Alshon Jeffery or Leonard Floyd (or Adam Shaheen) can play, and the players in the early rounds are ultimately the make-or-break for a franchise on its drafts.

In the 2017 case, because the cornerstone Bears piece is a quarterback who isn't slotted to start this season, and they do have a longer developmental gradient anyway, this draft may be harder to evaluate. But I've used this wine analogy before: You know pretty well from a barrel-tasting what a particular vintage is going to develop into, and if the Bears don't know until three years from now what they have in Mitch Trubisky, the folks who drafted him likely won't be around to get that report card.

Takeaways from Bears ‘18 coordinators: Mitch Trubisky affecting more than offense, kudos to hiring process

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USA TODAY

Takeaways from Bears ‘18 coordinators: Mitch Trubisky affecting more than offense, kudos to hiring process

Head coach Matt Nagy conducted his first press conference on Thursday, introducing the coordinators for his three phases (Mark Helfrich, offense; Vic Fangio, defense; Chris Tabor, special teams). The session was predictably short on hard news, given that the hirings were just completed within the last several days, but some takeaways were there to be had, ranging from impressions to firmer indications of some directions the post-John Fox Bears may be trending:

Mitch Trubisky is going to be one seriously coached young quarterback.

Nagy is a former quarterback. Helfrich is a former quarterback. And the Bears are expected to bring back quarterbacks coach Dave Ragone, per Brad Biggs over at the Tribune; “Rags,” as his charges have dubbed him, is a former quarterback.

Forgive Trubisky if he develops neck problems nodding at all the advice he might be getting from three guys who by their quarterback training pretty much have had to know everything about their offenses. But it is a whole lotta QB mindset swirling around the young man.

The coaching corps is still sorting out exactly who does what, which will involve the hands-on coaching of Trubisky. “We’re finishing out the staff,” Helfrich said, “and once we have that, then we’ll start to kind of slot in those responsibilities.”

This kind of concentration of coaches from a similar background is actually a little unusual, the current vogue notwithstanding. Carson Wentz did bloom in his year two under a Philadelphia Eagles staff topped by former quarterbacks Doug Pederson, Frank Reich and John DeFilippo. And the Los Angeles Rams loosed Jared Goff’s talents with an all-former-quarterback triumvirate in Sean McVay, OC Matt LaFleur and QB coach Greg Olson.

But just for comparison’s sake, back in Kansas City, Nagy mentor Andy Reid was an offensive lineman at BYU. Down in New Orleans, Sean Payton is a former quarterback, but OC Pete Carmichael went through college on a baseball scholarship and QB coach Joe Lombardi was a college tight end, so Drew Brees hasn’t been info-swamped. Bill Belichick was a center and tight end, Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy was a college tight end and Case Keenum has flourished under former offensive lineman Pat Shurmur.

Helfrich has been on the job exactly one week and already has done some advanced evaluation of Trubisky, with an eye toward inevitable comparisons with Marcus Mariota, who starred at Oregon while Helfrich was a member of that staff.

“I see a lot (of similarities),” Helfrich said. “Mitchell has a tight release. He’s an accurate passer. They also have a couple things similar that makes them inaccurate. Their feet take them out of position. I sense from talking to a couple of offensive linemen, and this was unsolicited, when your offensive linemen are talking about how hard your quarterback works, that’s a great sign. So he needs to do that and continue to challenge himself and improve."

Football involves ego but not always to a fault

Keeping Vic Fangio as defensive coordinator may not rank yet with the organization retaining Buddy Ryan in that job when Mike Ditka was hired, but some intangibles make this a very big deal and reflect well on a spectrum of individuals.

GM Ryan Pace interviewed but didn’t elevate Fangio to the head-coaching slot. Yet whatever was said during the interview process didn’t alienate or create awkwardness for Fangio or whomever was hired ultimately. Point for Pace. Players made their feelings abundantly clear that they wanted Fangio back, and Fangio did not let a 20-year age difference between Nagy and himself ruin a good thing. Points to a lot of folks.

“I like our (players),” Fangio said. “I think I said it here during the season at a point that I really like coaching the group that we have. My favorite time during the week was being in front of them like I’m in front of you and going over practice watching the opponents’ tape, installing the plan for the week. I really liked being in front of our guys. They’re a good group collectively and as individuals and that part was appealing to me.”

And while Ditka and Ryan barely spoke, relationships in this administration have a different air.

“I am going to be in Vic’s office a lot,” Helfrich said. “He’s going to be annoyed by me trying to get in his head and know what might help me transition from college to the NFL. I would be an idiot if I didn’t walk 24 feet down and ask a guy like that.”

A “Trubisky factor” may be in the offing

Free agents have taken less money to sign elsewhere, as recently as last season. Alshon Jeffery wanted out of Chicago, not so much for the weather (Philadelphia is less than 2 degrees lower latitude than Chicago and not many degrees warmer on average) as for the Bears never getting quarterback and offensive consistency that could max out his talents.

Trubisky already has started to have a positive impact. “Mitchell is a part of the equation,” Fangio said of his own decision to return as coordinator. “Because I think he has a chance to be a really good player, regardless of who is coaching him. So that part was positive.”

And that’s from a defensive guy.

Vic Fangio delivers some refreshing honesty about the state of the Bears' defense

Vic Fangio delivers some refreshing honesty about the state of the Bears' defense

Vic Fangio took the podium at Halas Hall on Thursday after coach Matt Nagy and offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich fielded questions for about 30 minutes, and began his press confernece with a classic quip. 

“Alright, let’s continue this lovefest,” Fangio said. 

For a Bears team coming off a 5-11 season — the fourth consecutive double-digit loss season for the franchise — there’s been plenty of positivity pinging around Halas Hall since Nagy was hired last week. But Fangio showed up with a reality check on Thursday, at least as it relates to the defense he’ll return to coach for a fourth year. 

“There’s no doubt strides were made," Fangio said. “Not enough. I think it’s a wrong picture to paint that the defense was great and the rest of the team wasn’t. We were 5-11. 

“If we were a great defense we’d have more than five wins. There’s a lot of room for improvement there — a lot — and we need to do that.”

The Bears opted for continuity in enticing Fangio to return to coach their defense, which ranked 10th in total defense and 9th in points last year, but was 14th in defensive DVOA. This was a good, not great defense that won the Bears a few games (most notably, the 17-3 win over the Carolina Panthers) but struggled at times, too. 

A great defense? That’d be the Jacksonville Jaguars, which on the back of one of the league’s best pass rushes and secondaries has vaulted Blake Bortles into the AFC Championship game. A great defense wouldn’t have let Brett Hundley post a 110.8 passer rating against it in Week 10; a great defense wouldn’t have allowed Matthew Stafford to scythe through it on two occasions. 

And that Fangio — who’s generally honest and brings a no-B.S. attitude to his press conferences — acknowledged that eight and a half months before the 2018 season starts was refreshing to hear. It’s almost been easy to forget the Bears lost their 11th and final game of the 2017 season less than three weeks ago with a new, young, offensive-minded coach stepping into Halas Hall. 

There will be plenty of turnover on the offensive side of the ball — possibly an entirely different receiver corps than was regularly on the field in 2017 — but the defense will have some consistency, starting with Fangio and extending to his defensive coaches, who he said Thursday he expects to be back. This is a group that needs more talent at edge rusher and cornerback, but Fangio is more concerned with developing the guys who are already here — and were why this was a “good” defense last year. 

“Guys like Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, Danny Trevathan, Leonard (Floyd), Eddie Jackson, I know I’m going to miss some, I think they all have a lot more to give to us than we’ve seen,” Fangio said. “And it’s our job to get them to improve and become even better players. That will be more important to us than anybody we can acquire between now and whenever our first game is. 

“So, and I know it’s always sexy to talk between now and the first game, you know, who are you going to draft, who’s in free agency, etc., but we’ve got to get our so-called good players playing even better. And that will be critical.”

And that approach — more so than his lengthy experience in the NFL — is why retaining Fangio made so much sense for the Bears. Nobody knows the strengths and flaws of the Bears’ defense better than Fangio; and keeping Hicks, Goldman, Trevathan, Floyd, Jackson etc., in the same scheme with the same coordinator and same coaches gives this Bears’ defense the best chance to go from being “good” to great.