If you think the local angst over the Bears’ quarterback situation is extreme, you should see some of the disrespect the Chicago Bears are receiving from those in the national media.
The consensus is in and most think the Bears are going to be bad. Not just like 8-8 or 7-9 bad, but like picking in the top 8 of the NFL Draft bad.
NFL.com ranks the Bears No. 24 in their Week 1 power rankings.
The MMQB rankings, which polls six different NFL writers, has the Bears No. 25.
And CBS Sports has the Bears No. 26, behind the Cincinnati Bengals. Ouch.
In fairness, the Bears haven’t done a whole lot on paper to suggest they’ll be remarkably better than their 8-8 record last season, but they also haven’t done much to suggest they’ll be significantly worse either.
You won’t be getting a rosy 13-3 prediction from me this year, but let’s examine a few reasons to be optimistic about the Bears in 2020:
1. 2020 looks like a re-do of 2019 for Matt Nagy.
So the Bears didn’t go out and sign Tom Brady. On paper, quarterback still looks like a weakness and there are depth questions at running back. The offensive line doesn’t look significantly better and the offense is relying on 33-year-old Jimmy Graham to make a difference at tight end.
These are all factors in the pessimism surrounding the Bears, but they ignore the big admission the organization made in the offseason: the coaching wasn’t good enough in 2019. Head coach Matt Nagy, to his credit, has shouldered that blame. New coaches – offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo and offensive line coach Juan Castillo – are here to get more out of what the Bears have on that side of the ball. There will be tweaks to the scheme, different packages and better playcalling. At least that’s the idea.
You have the right to remain skeptical, but most predictions out there don’t seem to take into account the coaching upgrades.
2. The quarterback room is better.
No, seriously, it is. Nick Foles is an immediate upgrade over the 2019 version of Mitch Trubisky, and right now, he’s the backup quarterback. Thus, as a baseline, the Bears should get at least slightly better quarterback play in 2020, which should lead to a more efficient offense.
The best-case scenario is that Trubisky improves. If he doesn’t, Foles is waiting and he’s better than what the Bears got out of that position last year. Yes, it’s a low bar, but it’s also a bar that should be easily exceeded in 2020.
3. The tight end room is better and that’s going to make the quarterback better.
The most significant development in training camp was the improved play of the tight ends. Graham may not hold up for a full season, but he sure looks good right now. And second-round pick Cole Kmet is passing the rookie eye-test with flying colors.
“Kmet might be one of the more football-intelligent rookies that we’ve ever been around. I mean, you felt it right away,” Bears general manager Ryan Pace said Monday.
Meanwhile, one surprising observation in camp was the pass-catching ability of Demetrius Harris, who is known more for his blocking. He actually has good hands and will be a weapon in the red zone. Even Eric Saubert was very involved in practices and is a clear upgrade over Ben Braunecker. J.P. Holtz is more of a fullback, but he too has a sneaky ability to catch the ball and get upfield if defenses ignore him.
And here’s why this is all very significant:
1. Tight ends line up closer to the quarterback and provide quicker targets if they are legitimate weapons as the first or second read. Trubisky simply didn’t have this safety net last year.
2. You should see more two-tight end sets this year, which means opponents using their base defense more. That will create mismatches, not only for the tight ends, but also for Tarik Cohen, whose 2019 struggles can be traced back to opposing defenses keying in on him instead of a dynamic tight end. According to Football Outsiders, the Bears used “12” personnel (one back, two tight ends) just nine percent of the time in 2019. Their usage of 2+ TE/6+ OL formations ranked 31st in the league. That number will surely go up in 2020.
3. More tight ends mean fewer wide receivers. Allen Robinson doesn’t get enough respect as a No. 1 wideout, but it can easily be argued that the Bears don’t have a true No. 2 wide receiver. Perhaps Anthony Miller will develop into one, but in the meantime, the Bears won’t be forced to use “11” personnel (one back, one tight end) as much. According to Football Outsiders, the Bears used 3+ WR sets 72 percent of the time last season, which ranked No. 8 in the league.
4. It’s more likely the Bears will make the playoffs than be one of the worst teams in the league.
Despite all the reasons for offensive optimism I just listed, it’s completely rational to skeptical. In fact, I’m skeptical. Even if the Bears do improve offensively, they’ll still be fortunate to be middle of the pack on that side of the ball. I also tend to think the defense will look more like the 2019 unit that was very good instead of the 2018 unit that was the best in the NFL. Still, that could be a formula good enough to win the NFC North and make the playoffs. It’s not a formula that would land the Bears a top five draft pick.
Let’s go back to the Football Outsiders well for a minute. They have a mean projection of 7.8 wins for the Bears, which isn’t great, but ranks 19th in the league. The Lions are at 8.0, the Packers are at 7.8 and the Vikings are at 7.6. It's a wide open division. Football Outsiders gives the Bears a 38 percent chance of finishing with 8-10 wins and a 35 percent chance of finishing with 5-7 wins. On the more extreme end, there’s a better chance the Bears will have at least 11 wins (16 percent) than they will have four or less wins (11 percent).
I realize this isn’t the most inspiring argument, but it’s further proof that the Bears don’t belong listed among the worst teams in the league. They are more of an average team with the upside of making the playoffs.
Now, let's move onto some keys for the Bears making a realistic playoff push...
5. Akiem Hicks and Bilal Nichols will be the difference between defensive dominance and just another good unit.
There’s plenty of talent on that side of the ball, but 2019 showed everyone how important Akiem Hicks is to the defense. When he wasn’t healthy, the entire unit suffered. The groin injury he dealt with in training camp is concerning and it’s only fair to point out that Hicks is now 30. Declines on the offensive and defensive lines happen quickly and there’s a reason why there’s only one year of non-guaranteed money left on his contract after 2020. I still believe that a healthy Akiem Hicks is one of the best defensive players in the NFL, but I am also skeptical that he’ll be available for all 16 games this season.
That’s where Bilal Nichols comes in. From my eyes, he looked great in training camp. He’s already filling a huge void left behind by Eddie Goldman opting out of the season, but Nichols’ long-term development continues to be a big storyline for the Bears. The former fifth round pick has a chance to be more than a good rotational player and he could take off this year. It wouldn’t surprise me if Nichols is knocking on the door of a long-term extension this time next year and the Bears would greatly welcome that.
6. It’s time for Roquan Smith to arrive.
Expectations shouldn’t be adjusted for the former No. 8 overall pick. Smith was one of the safest picks in the 2018 NFL Draft and registered a sack on his very first snap in the NFL. Last year, he came out of the gates flying with two tackles at the line of scrimmage on the first two plays of the season. In between those moments, there has been too much inconsistency.
Smith still has the ability to become one of the great Bears linebackers, but the jump needs to happen now. He seemed more focused and committed in training camp, which could lead to a big season. Smith has All-Pro talent, but needs to be playing like the guy flying to the football on every snap.
7. Don’t jump off the Anthony Miller train just yet.
Trust me, I was about to. He was a ghost during the first week of training camp, but when camp was over, I looked at my notes and Miller led all Bears wide receivers in catches (keep in mind Allen Robinson was dealing with an ankle injury).
"He started out a little bit slow, the beginning of training camp," Nagy admitted. "(But) he might have had the best training camp of a lot of players on this team."
So why the sudden change?
“I feel like I’m just more into what we have going as an offense,” Miller said Tuesday. “I know every detail of what every guy has on every play. And that’s just playing a big part in what I can do in each play. You never know where I’ll be on the field on Sunday. I could play multiple roles in the offense now. That’s what I mean by that freedom. Just me being more into what’s going on has opened a lot of doors for me within the offense.”
The Bears have constantly stressed the details with Miller. If he truly has started to catch on and is earning more freedom, then it would be a big development for the offense. Consider me skeptical until we see it on the field in a game.
8. The Bears appear to be riding with rookie Jaylon Johnson at cornerback.
When asked Tuesday by a reporter if he was told he’ll start against the Lions, Johnson said: “Correct.”
I pegged Johnson as a plug-and-play starter on draft night. He was selected by the Bears in the second round, but that was partially due to labrum surgery that was required after the NFL Combine. That surgery limited him early in training camp, which created some doubt about his readiness for Week 1, but the Bears have raved about Johnson’s study habits and knowledge of the game.
It’s certainly possible Johnson will still be somewhat limited and not play a full game, but it appears he’s the unquestioned starter. That’s different than Lions rookie cornerback Jeff Okudah, who was drafted No. 3 overall. The consensus in Detroit seems to be that Okudah will come off the bench and play sparingly against the Bears.
Johnson was picked No. 50 overall. Watching the usage and performance of those two rookie corners on Sunday will be interesting.
9. Don’t forget about rookie wide receiver Darnell Mooney.
I’ll be shocked if the fifth-round pick out of Tulane isn’t involved Sunday. That is all.
10. Final word
It’s been a bizarre offseason and an even more bizarre preseason without games. Everyone is guessing to some extent – including the coaches and personnel staffs. Pace admitted that when teams streamed their practices online, they were watching. Of course they were.
It all culminates in regular season games with either no fans or very few fans. I have no idea what it will look or sound like, but I’m certainly happy the games are being played. 2020 marks my 10th season covering the Chicago Bears and my first with NBC Sports Chicago. It will no doubt be the strangest. That doesn’t mean it won’t be fun though. Hopefully football can provide some normalcy in a completely abnormal year. I look forward to chatting with you along the way.