Bears at the Bye: Khalil Mack fueling team's LBs in 2019

Bears at the Bye: Khalil Mack fueling team's LBs in 2019

Sometimes, one player can be the difference between an average, middle-of-the-road team and a legitimate playoff contender. The Bears are evidence of this after flipping their roster from a promising squad with upside to a preseason favorite to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl because of the impact made by Khalil Mack.

Mack's Bears tenure kicked off in the most remarkable of ways in Week 1 against the Packers last season. In case you've forgotten, here's a quick refresher and just one of Mack's many highlights that night:

Mack made his mark with Bears fans in that rivalry game less than one week after GM Ryan Pace's trade with the Raiders, a move that continues to be his watermark moment. 

Most of the hype surrounding this year's Bears team was due to Mack and how much he's elevated the players around him. Chicago was arguably the best defense in the NFL last season, and aside from Week 5's shocking loss to the Raiders, they've lived up to their reputation in 2019.

Mack, especially, is having a great season. He's the Pro Football Focus' highest-graded player on the Bears' defense (90.7) and is the NFL's highest-graded edge defender with a minimum of 100 snaps played. His pass-rush grade (91.5) is tops in the league and he's seventh in total pressures with 29. 

But let's go beyond the analytics for a moment. Mack is just a monster. He's a flat-out beast. Double-teams don't work, triple-teams stand little chance. He's a quarterback's worst nightmare and the greatest thing that's happened to this franchise since Brian Urlacher. With Mack on the field, the Bears always have a chance.

Opposite Mack is fourth-year pro and former first-round pick, Leonard Floyd, who after a hot start against the Packers in Week 1, hasn't made much of an impact as a pass rusher. He hasn't recorded a sack in four straight games and has just 11 total pressures this year. Now 27 years old, Floyd is who he is at this point: a solid all-around outside linebacker who, in spurts, can provide a spark as an edge rusher. But it appears safe to say he isn't destined to become the Von Miller-type edge rusher he was expected to be by the Jon Fox regime. It doesn't feel like he was worth the ninth overall pick in 2016, either.

The Bears could do a lot worse than Floyd, but their chances at a Super Bowl would certainly increase if he can get on a hot streak down the stretch.

At inside linebacker, veteran Danny Trevathan has been everything the Bears for and more when he was signed as one of Pace's first big free-agent acquisitions in 2016. He's having another strong year against the run and in coverage and had one of the real highlights of the season when he lulled a Broncos offensive lineman to sleep with an elite pass-rush move that turned into a sack.

Trevathan's steady presence both on the field and in the locker room has been a key to Chicago's turnaround in recent seasons, and his play in 2019 is falling right in line. He has the Bears' fourth-highest pass-rush grade and the fifth-highest tackling mark. He has seven quarterback pressures through five games, which puts him on pace to tie his career high (22).

Then there's the curious case of Roquan Smith, the suprememly talented second-year linebacker who entered 2019 as a player ready to take his place among the elite names at his position. Then came the mysterious situation in Week 4 when Smith was deactivated with no explanation from the team or Smith himself. And while speculation ran wild on Twitter and other social media platforms, it's still unclear as to what really happened. Hopefully, Smith is OK and whatever was going on at the time is behind him. 

Between the lines, Smith hasn't been great. He's one of the flashiest players on the field, often shooting the gap like a runaway missile and arriving at the ball carrier before any other Bears defender. But he's struggling on plays when it's not so obvious where the ball is or where it's headed. This is especially true in pass coverage, where he's given up 20 receptions on 26 targets (76.9 percent completion rate) for 205 yards. Not great. He was especially bad against the Raiders when Derek Carr when 6-for-6 for 63 yards when targeting Smith.

The one positive that came from Smith's unexpected absence in Week 4 was the play of Nick Kwiatkoski, who proved he has starter's ability during the Bears' shutdown of the NFL's leading rusher at the time, Dalvin Cook.

Kwiatkoski didn't receive any reps on defense against the Raiders, and when considering how poorly Chicago's defense played in that game, it has to make you wonder whether he should be given more opportunities to play, especially with Trevathan's future a big question mark right now. Trevathan is in the last year of his deal and Pace will have to choose between him and Kwiatkoski as the linebacker he commits to in 2020 and beyond.

Overall, the Bears' linebackers have played well and have capiltalized off of opportunites created by the team's stout defensive line. Could Mack use a little more pass-rush help from Floyd? Absolutely. Does Smith have to become a more consistent all-around football player? Yes, no doubt. But this is an extremely talented bunch, who through five games this season, have proven once again to be one of the NFL's elite linebacker units.

Bears LB grade at the bye: B+

Four players Ryan Pace should target to fix the Bears

Four players Ryan Pace should target to fix the Bears

The Chicago Bears have a 1 percent chance to make the playoffs in 2019 after falling to 4-6 following Sunday night's 17-7 loss to the Los Angeles Rams. As a result, it's time to start looking ahead to 2020 and the necessary moves GM Ryan Pace must make in order to take advantage of the Bears' already championship-worthy defense.

Pace will face some obvious challenges in the offseason, most notably the salary cap where the Bears won't have much flexibility. According to Spotrac, Chicago will be in the bottom-five teams in the league in cap space which will make shopping in free agency a limited endeavor. 

But as we've seen many times in the NFL, creative general managers can move money around in ways to free up the dollars for new contracts to make sense, and it's on Pace to make sure he does that in order to land at least two big-ticket free agents to fix two of this team's most pressing needs.

The NFL draft will also provide Pace with a great opportunity to add young, starting-quality talent in the second round. The Bears will end up with two of this year's top-60(ish) players and they have to make those picks count.

Here are four players Pace should target in order to turn the 2020 Bears into the contender they were supposed to be this season.

Sign QB Teddy Bridgewater (Saints)

Bridgewater would be the perfect target for Pace and the Bears in free agency to bring stability and reliability to the quarterback position. The former first-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings has resurrected his career after a devastating knee injury in 2016. Now three seasons removed, Bridgewater proved he's ready to take on a starting job after playing five games in relief of Drew Brees after the future Hall-of-Famer suffered a hand injury.

Bridgewater won all five starts and completed nearly 68 percent of his passes along the way. He racked up 281 yards and two touchdowns in Week 7 against the Bears and displayed the kind of accuracy and decision-making that Matt Nagy's offense calls for.

The Bears won't be the only suitors for Bridgewater's services, but the appeal of starting in Chicago with a defense that's proven it can win games on its own will at least be enticing for the former Lousiville star.

Sign TE Austin Hooper (Falcons)

Hooper will command a contract similar to what Chicago paid Trey Burton in 2018 (four years, $32 million), so it will be hard to justify tying up that much money in the tight end position. But as 2019 has proven, there's no way for Nagy's offense to reach its potential without a weapon at tight end in the passing game.

Hooper missed Week 11 with an MCL injury and could be on the shelf for a few more weeks, but he's been one of the league's better playmakers at tight end this season. He has 56 catches for 608 yards and six touchdowns and has shown steady improvement over each year of his career. He had 71 catches for 660 yards and four scores in 2018.

Draft OT Prince Tega Wanogho (Auburn) in 2nd round

It'll take a little bit of luck for 'Prince' to fall to the Bears' first of two second-round picks, which right now sits at No. 46 overall. But the Bears have to be aggressive in upgrading the offensive line this offseason. While Charles Leno, Jr. and Bobby Massie are serviceable offensive tackles, a player like Tega Wanogho has the kind of traits that could eventually develop into a top-tier starter on either side of the offensive line.

The Bears could decide to prioritize the interior of the offensive line in the draft, and that's fine. But the best (and cheapest) way to land a high-end offensive tackle is through the draft, and Pace has to swing for the fences on a pick like this in 2020.

Draft EDGE Yetur Gross Matos (Penn State) in 2nd round

Pass rushers like Gross Matos are often pushed up the draft board because of the premium placed on the position, but with several teams expected to take a quarterback in the first round and with the number of ridiculously talented wide receivers in the 2020 class, a player like Gross Matos could suffer a bit of a fall.

Gross Matos has six sacks so far this season, which is a respectable total but has fallen a tad short of expectations entering the year. He had eight sacks in 2018 and was a popular pick to explode as a sack artist this fall. Still, he has the athletic profile Pace loves in his pass rushers and would be an instant upgrade over Leonard Floyd, who's failed to live up to his first-round billing since joining the Bears in 2016.

Sports Talk Live Podcast: What happens with Mitch Trubisky going forward?


Sports Talk Live Podcast: What happens with Mitch Trubisky going forward?

Hub Arkush, JJ Stankevitz, and Ben Finfer join the birthday boy on today's show.

0:00 - Sunday's debacle in L.A. continues to dominate headlines. So what happens with Mitch Trubisky going forward? Is Matt Nagy's offense fixable? And how did a team that was one of the favorites for the Super Bowl fall apart this quickly?

16:00 - Jeremy Roenick joins Kap to talk about Kirby Dach's hot streak and if the Jeremy Colliton saved his job by making one tweak to his scheme.

24:00 - Dave Wannstedt joins Kap to discuss the fallout from Sunday's Bears loss to the Rams. How would Wanny handle Eddy Pineiro's confidence? Plus he talks about how to keep a team motivated with the playoff hopes essentially gone.

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Sports Talk Live Podcast