When I signed on at NBC Sports Chicago, I had no idea I was about to be put in home confinement for a month. I spent exactly three days on the job before being instructed to work from home.
For sports writers, this has been a challenging time, especially those losing jobs because of the COVID-19 pandemic. My problems (which include having permanent writer’s block in my own office and juggling a five-year-old) pale in comparison to what is happening in the real world.
That said, each one of us is still dealing with our own complications during this difficult time. It’s important to keep our minds right. For me, writing has always been therapeutic and that includes this “10 Bears Things” column, which I’ve been producing since 2014. It’s a space where I can organize my many thoughts on the Bears while also hitting multiple topics that tend to circulate in the Twitter mentions. I’m excited to bring “10 Bears Things” over to NBC Sports Chicago and if you’re new to the column, I hope you enjoy it.
At this point, there’s been a ton written and said about the Nick Foles-Mitchell Trubisky quarterback competition, so I’m going to concentrate on everything else that is getting overlooked with the Bears.
1. Robert Quinn is a clear upgrade over Leonard Floyd. Other than the quarterback position, the pass rush is the most important weapon on the football field. Kudos to Bears general manager Ryan Pace for not ignoring an area that ranked 22nd in pass rush win rate (40 percent) last season. Pass rush win rate (or PRWR) is a metric ESPN Analytics compiles using NFL Next Gen Stats and it measures how often a pass-rusher is able to beat his block within 2.5 seconds.
Guess who had the No. 1 PRWR among all NFL edge defenders in 2019?
Quinn beat his block within 2.5 seconds 33 percent of the time, which was five percentage points higher than Steelers edge rusher T.J. Watt, who was No. 2. Of course, it’s very notable that Quinn’s teammate, DeMarcus Lawrence, was No. 3 (27 percent) and that certainly helped both face more favorable blocking combinations.
“One of the first things that comes to mind as you strengthen your team is your pass rush affecting the opposing quarterback,” Pace said. “We just feel like Quinn’s a proven pass rusher. He’s got excellent edge speed. He’s got outstanding ability to bend the corner and I think we can take a position of strength on our defense and make it even stronger and more dangerous when you add Quinn and you combine him with the players that are already up there, especially up front.”
That’s the thing. If you’re an offensive coordinator tasked with “defending” the Bears’ pass rush, where will Quinn rank on the list of weapons you have to stop? With Khalil Mack and Akiem Hicks to worry about, Quinn will be No. 3, at best. And I’d argue that he’s No. 4 when Eddie Goldman is out there. Simply put, Quinn should have plenty of favorable pass rush situations.
Of course, the same could be said about Floyd and he rarely took advantage. He was a very good player against the run and had a unique ability to drop into coverage, but the Bears really needed a pass rusher and Quinn brings the proven productivity that Floyd lacked.
My concern is Quinn’s lack of versatility, as he does not seem comfortable rushing from anywhere other than the right side. According to Pro Football Focus, all 374 of Quinn’s pass rush snaps came from the right side in 2019.
“If you look at my career, I’ve never really played the left side,” Quinn said. “So I mean, I think we’ve got a comfortable understanding that hopefully I get to stay on the right side.”
But while Mack likes the left side, defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano does move guys around and that versatility always keeps opposing offensive lines on edge, especially when you have the threat of Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith blitzing. When the Rams switched to a 3-4 defense in 2017, Quinn didn’t really like it, but he says that’s because he was forced to play on the left side a lot more.
“If we’ve got to flip-flop, I guess I’ve got to get more comfortable playing on the left,” Quinn said. “As I get older, I realize that you’ve got to be a little multi-talented or be able to change. I don’t want to say I felt uncomfortable, it was just really the first time I’ve really played the left a lot. I think I had 8.5 sacks that year, not to talk about myself.”
For the record, 8.5 sacks would have been second on the Bears last year. Mack had nine.
2. What is the plan at strong safety and corner? Look, most of the criticisms of the Bears’ offseason so far leave out the fact that there’s a salary cap. It exists for a reason. The Bears’ biggest problem is that Trubisky hasn’t worked out and they had to allocate more money at the quarterback position. That doesn’t mean the decisions they’ve made this month are wrong. In fact, many of the contracts they’ve written have been very creative to make it all work.
Pace called this “a technical free agency” and I believe that’s what he was referring to. The GM had to pick his spots and couldn’t address every position.
But that has left two starting spots on the defense unresolved. Right now, Deon Bush and Jordan Lucas will battle it out for the strong safety spot. At cornerback (opposite of Kyle Fuller), the options appear to be Artie Burns, Kevin Toliver, and maybe Tre Roberson. Perhaps if Duke Shelley emerges as a reliable option in the slot, Buster Skrine could kick outside, where he has some experience.
I’m less worried about strong safety because I think Eddie Jackson playing more free safety benefits the entire defense. The Bears can still address corner in the draft and I can tell you with certainty that they believe an improved pass rush will cover up some of the deficiencies in the secondary. That’s a big reason they paid Quinn what they did.
3. The offensive line is concerning. I don’t think a day went by without talking about the offensive line during the 2019 season. And to this point, the only significant move the Bears made was signing 25-year-old tackle Germain Ifedi, who will kick inside to guard.
“He’s a guy we liked coming out in the (2016) draft,” Pace said. “We’ve kept close tabs on (him). He’s a talented player — 36-inch arms. Highly intelligent. I know (new offensive line coach) Juan Castillo is really high on this player, too, and how he feels he can make him better, which we’re confident in. So we’re excited to get him where we got him.”
Ifedi’s biggest issue has been penalties (especially false starts) and that’s theoretically something a new position coach can fix. The good news is that his strength is run blocking, but he’s been a below-average pass blocker.
It’s only a one-year, veteran salary benefit deal, which gives the Bears some cap relief. It’s a project that could pan out and Ifedi will compete with Rashaad Coward and Alex Bars at right guard. But it’s also a move that doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in the offensive line taking a big step forward. The Bears are banking on Castillo working his magic, but that’s a big gamble considering how much the running game needs to improve in 2020. Then again, maybe Pace will use a second-round draft pick on a true right guard.
4. Nagy believes Jimmy Graham fits his offense and that’s important. Like most, I’m skeptical about the Graham signing, but I already explained why the contract wasn’t as bad as many think.
If you think this was Pace just signing one of his old Saints players, think again, because Nagy is buying in too.
“When you look at the stuff that he's doing maybe when he's not catching the football, or maybe when he's not making a block, you see him within the play doing something that you like,” Nagy said. “Then you visualize that with what you can do with him and conceptually what you do and how it fits and that's the exciting part.”
Nagy often talks about how the U tight end is an adjustor in his offense. If the player playing that position commands attention, then it not only allows other weapons to get open, but it also helps the quarterback read the defense and anticipate which receiver is going to be open. Simply put, the Bears did not have an adjustor in that spot last year.
Can Graham still command that type of attention? Maybe. He’s still a big body and has a reputation.
“He's very, very motivated right now which I love and so it's just a fit for us of a big sized, 6-6 playmaker that you can get some mismatches with,” Nagy said. “I know me, personally, I'm very, very looking forward to being able to put him in some great situations.”
5. Well, that ends the preseason debate. With Trubisky and Foles in a legitimate quarterback competition, Nagy confirmed that they will play in the preseason.
“Absolutely. It’ll be equal reps and it’ll be a good competition for them. And that kind of goes in tune with what we’re doing really with our whole team,” Nagy said.
He’s not going to have Trubisky and Foles out there playing behind backups, so you can assume most of the starters will play in the preseason. Of course, there will be some exceptions, especially on defense (i.e. Khalil Mack and Akiem Hicks).
So what else are we going to talk about in the preseason? (Assuming there is a preseason.)
6. There was an interesting nugget Nagy slipped into his conference call. Going back to the middle of last season, I’ve been suggesting Nagy scale back the volume in his playbook to help Trubisky run the offense more efficiently. And in discussing how the COVID-19 pandemic will shorten the amount of practice time he’s going to get with his team this year, Nagy casually dropped this in:
“In a good way, it’s going to make you as a coaching staff probably limit the amount of volume that you usually try to get in in a normal situation. I look at it as a positive.”
7. Get ready for the NFL Draft, fantasy style. In the more immediate future, the pandemic is drastically altering this year’s NFL draft. Commissioner Roger Goodell notified teams on Monday that they will have to conduct the draft virtually from their own homes. That means no gathering of any staff in any location. Every person that would usually be in the draft room must be at home. It will be up to the individual teams to use their technology to create virtual draft rooms, have prospect tape available to everyone at the click of a button, and communicate with other teams during the draft.
Fortunately, this is one of the scenarios the Bears have been preparing for, and while you can certainly quibble with some of the personnel moves Pace has made as GM, technology is one of the many areas he has drastically advanced the franchise during his time in Chicago. From nutrition, to analytics, to strength and conditioning, to the incredible expansion of Halas Hall, Pace’s vision has been behind it all. And that includes the impressive draft room the Bears debuted last year, but unfortunately won’t have access to this year.
Still, the Bears have the staff to pull this off and Pace singled out many of the behind-the-scenes people who have helped the team get through free agency and plan for the draft at home. Those people include:
Director of football systems Mike Santarelli
Vice president of information technology Justin Stahl
Director of video services Dave Hendrickson
Director of video technology Dan Tuohy
Football analytics/research coordinator Brad Goldsberry
Director of team logistics Simon Gelan
“Our IT and video departments, they’ve been outstanding,” Pace said. “The silver lining is that I think it’s pushed us further from a technology standpoint. The virtual meetings, whether that’s Skype or Zoom, it’s actually been highly efficient and, in some ways, better. I checked this morning. I think it’s been two weeks since we moved out of Halas and been working from home. It’s really been seamless with the ability to watch video, the ability to have meetings and communicate and interview players. That part has been really good and I think it’s a credit to our staff.”
8. Rehabbing players are still on track. The one thing that hasn’t changed is that all players recovering from offseason surgeries can still rehab at Halas Hall.
“That’s the one exception. Those guys – Anthony Miller, Roquan Smith, Mitch, Trey Burton – those guys are still able to work from a rehab standpoint. We’ve been able to keep close tabs on that and we feel real good about where those guys are heading. Nothing has changed from an injury update standpoint. All those guys should be ready to roll for training camp.”
9. The impact of this unique draft will be felt in four years. You heard Pace mention it when he talked about the Ifedi acquisition. The Bears scouted the offensive lineman heavily in 2016 and that impacted their decision to sign him in 2020. All teams keep their draft information on every player and use it when those players hit free agency. Thus, the files on this year’s draft class will be a little thinner with fewer in-person visits and some incomplete medical information. I’m sure this is something that will be revisited in 2024.
10. Final thoughts:
· I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the Bears might be the best team in the NFC North. My pal Tom Oates detailed in the Wisconsin State Journal how the entire division has failed to improve. He noted that the Packers lost seven key players in free agency, including six starters — most notably: right tackle Bryan Bulaga and inside linebacker Blake Martinez. Meanwhile, after an entire year of talking about how Aaron Rodgers needed better wide receivers and tight ends, Green Bay’s only significant addition has been wide receiver Devin Funchess.
The Vikings, who are in an even worse cap situation than the Bears, traded away wide receiver Stefon Diggs and also said goodbye to defensive tackle Linval Joseph, defensive end Everson Griffen and cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes. It’s starting to look like a rebuild in Minneapolis — at least in 2020.
As for the Lions, well, as I often say, they’re just kind of the Lions.
Oates also broke down all the Bears’ moves, but I think the one thing he is underestimating is how much better off the Bears could be at quarterback. No one is expecting Trubisky or Foles to be anywhere near as good as Rodgers, but just competence and steady play at the quarterback position could make the Bears the favorite in the North right now.
· Usually at this point in the year, the owners have already voted on rule changes. But because the NFL Annual Meeting didn’t happen last week, that’s all been tabled until late May. Still, we got one piece of information Monday, via NFL.com’s Judy Battista.
Competition Committee continues to discuss rules ahead of still-on-schedule meeting at end of May, when votes would take place. PI replay almost certainly will NOT be extended, according to one person familiar with conversations.— Judy Battista (@judybattista) April 6, 2020
Hallelujah. The pass interference situation was a mess last year. It wasn’t consistently called and was rarely challenged anyway. My stance all along is that the pass interference replay review was a ridiculous overreaction to one horrendous call. It was bad and shouldn’t ever happen, but it wasn’t worth the nonsense the entire league went through last year. Let’s move on.
· As hectic as it must be for NFL coaches and front office executives right now, I can’t help but wonder if they are enjoying working from home. This time of year they are usually traveling to pro days or putting in long hours at the facility as they try to improve the roster. Now, they at least get to see more of their families.
Speaking for myself – and bringing this column full circle – most editions of “10 Bears Things” over the last six years have been written in coffee shops and not at my house. But I’ve adapted, learning how to quarantine myself in my office long enough to be productive. Because my wife is an occupational therapist and still has patients she needs to see, my mornings are spent homeschooling (a.k.a. entertaining) our five-year-old, but the amazing thing is that I’ve spent more time with him than I have in a long time. We have dinner as a family every night and I’ve been doing more cooking (which I enjoy) than I ever have. I’ve forced myself to get on a schedule and discovered the Peloton app, which has been very helpful for someone who hates working out at home.
Nothing about this pandemic is easy, and I’m constantly reminding myself that many people are in much, much worse situations, but it’s easy to get frustrated. My advice: find the silver linings. For me, I’m appreciating the family time. Don’t forget, the “normal” world is pretty crazy too and we tend to take way too much of it for granted.