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 

Bears grades and needs: The clock is ticking on Mitch Trubisky

Bears grades and needs: The clock is ticking on Mitch Trubisky

2018 depth chart

1. Mitch Trubisky
Usage: 14 games, 86.4 percent of offensive snaps
2019 status: $7,917,933 cap hit

The Bears spent last offseason building the best possible structure around Trubisky, from hiring Matt Nagy to signing Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, Trey Burton and Chase Daniel to drafting James Daniels and Anthony Miller. There don’t appear to be many more moves to be made now, outside of finding a solution to a lagging running game. 

So that puts the Bears’ necessary offensive growth squarely on Trubisky. His overall 2018 numbers were fine, completing two-thirds of his passes for 3,223 yards with 24 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and a passer rating of 95.4. Those made him roughly an average quarterback league-wide, with his rushing ability (68 carries, 421 yards) a sneaky asset. 

The optimistic view is Trubisky’s 2018 season — his first running Nagy’s offense — built a solid foundation on which he can build. Teammates noted Trubisky’s mastery of the “football 101” concepts by the end of the season, which should allow Nagy to move on to more advanced facets of his scheme. Having a full year of OTAs and training camp to build on that baseline knowledge, likely, will be beneficial for Trubisky and the entire offense. 

“I think it was just good to see the natural growth just in the offensive scheme as he gains more comfort and also more comfort with the players that are around him, that chemistry that developed,” general manager Ryan Pace said last month. “I was just talking to Mitch today about that, just the excitement about going into an offseason with the pieces in place around him and then year two in the same offensive scheme and how much growth can take place. So I just felt like you saw him playing more with his instincts because he was more comfortable in the system.”

The Bears are confident that growth will take place, but the team doesn’t have years upon years for him to develop — it has to be soon. His cap hit of just under $8 million in 2019, followed by about $9.2 million in 2020, means the Bears’ best window to win will be in the next two years. If the Bears pick up Trubisky’s fifth-year option for 2021, he’d likely cost somewhere in the range of $22 million, depending on what various extensions look like for the league’s top quarterbacks over the next two years (Jameis Winston’s fifth-year option for 2019 will cost the Buccaneers $20.922 million). 

The point is this: The Bears only have two years left of a cheap Trubisky before he gets expensive (or, if things go poorly, the Bears have to start over at the position). If Trubisky were to earn a salary around $22 million in 2021, he and Khalil Mack could combine to take up a rough estimate of 20 percent of the team’s salary cap. That doesn’t mean the Bears’ window to win will close after the 2020 season — it’ll stay open as long as Trubisky develops into the player the team thinks he can be. 

“Last year, he was so focused in on what do we do on offense,” Nagy said. “… Now he knows. He knows it all. And now he can take that next step of figuring out, okay, here they come. They have got a saw blitz, cover zero, now I know what to do or I know how to check to (a) protection, all that. That's going to be the big one for him.”

2. Chase Daniel
Usage: 5 games, 13.8 percent of offensive snaps
2019 status: $6 million cap hit

Daniel deftly quarterbacked the Bears past the Lions on Thanksgiving but was sloppy in an overtime loss to the Giants a week later, leaving him with a 1-1 record in the two games he started in place of Trubisky. Those games, combined with his extensive knowledge of Nagy’s offense and a good relationship with Trubisky, were likely enough to earn him a spot on the 2019 roster. It’s unlikely the Bears could find a better fit in a backup quarterback for less than the $3 million in cap space they’d save by releasing Daniel. 

“That’s why we have Chase,” Nagy said, tellingly, after Daniel led the Bears to that win over the Lions. 

3. Tyler Bray
Usage: 0 games, 0 percent of offensive snaps
2019 status: Unrestricted free agent

Bray fit with the Bears in 2018 as an additional voice with knowledge of Nagy’s offense, having spent an injury-plagued career in Kansas City prior to coming to Chicago. The Bears could look to retain him as a practice squad player and for depth in case of an injury, but perhaps Pace will explore bringing in an undrafted free agent or even a late-round quarterback as a third-stringer. 

2019 level of need (1-11, with 11 being the highest): 2

The only thing that matters is Trubisky’s development in 2019. That’s the Bears’ all-in bet for this year; if Trubisky makes the kind of improvement the Bears need to get back to the playoffs, they’ll be set. If not, serious questions will need to be asked a year from now about if Trubisky truly is worthy of being the Bears’ franchise quarterback of the future. 

Bears scouts keeping a close eye on new Alliance of American Football league

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USA TODAY

Bears scouts keeping a close eye on new Alliance of American Football league

The new Alliance of American Football league is giving fans more of what they love on the weekend, even if it isn’t quite NFL quality on the field.

As you might expect, the Bears are tuning in too, to get another look at some of the talent available that could be headed back to the big league.

“Our pro scouts are all over that,” Bears general manager Ryan Pace told ChicagoBears.com. “We had pro scouts at their training camps that we sent down there. It’s really too early to say how many players are going to come out of there, but we’re going to be looking closely at it like we do every league.”

Pace and his scouts should already be familiar with quite a few players in the AAF who spent at least a little time in Chicago.

Former draft picks Evan Rodriguez and Will Sutton might be the biggest names among the former Bears, but plenty of UDFAs from the past are suiting up again for the next eight weeks.

Wide receiver Rashad Ross was one of the AAF’s leading receivers after the first week, and he spent part of the 2014 season with the Bears.

On the other side of the ball, cornerback De’Vante Bausby had a strong debut, just over two years since leaving Chicago in 2016.

Other top names in the AAF include former third-overall pick Trent Richardson and former Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg.

And of course, Hall of Fame Bears linebacker Mike Singletary is the head coach of the Memphis Express.