It’s been a long eight months of predicting, analyzing and wondering what the Bears will look like in 2018. 

From hiring Matt Nagy to adding Allen Robinson, Trey Burton and Taylor Gabriel, to drafting Roquan Smith and Anthony Miller, to trading for Khalil Mack and all the moves in between, the Bears have had one of the busiest and most aggressive offseasons in the NFL. We’ll finally begin to find out how all those pieces fit — with Mitch Trubisky still the focal point of this team — on Sunday night. 

“Sky's the limit,” Trubisky said. “I have very high goals for myself and this team, but you try not to look ahead. And then you don't look at things like a success or failure, you try to look at it one game at a time and we've got a great opportunity this week.”

It’s important to keep context of Sunday night’s curtain-lifter against the Green Bay Packers as one of 16 games. If the Bears lose, it’s more of the same — the Packers would move to 17-3 against the Bears in their last 20 meetings. If the Bears win, it would be statement win for Nagy (though his four predecessors also won their first game at Lambeau Field) but wouldn’t mean this team has arrived on the playoff scene just yet. 

So as we look at a realistic expectation for 2018, let’s view it in these sub-categories:

1. The growth of Mitch Trubisky

While the addition of Mack justifiably rocketed the Bears’ defense back into the spotlight, the majority of the big moves made by Ryan Pace since firing John Fox were with the quarterback in mind. The Bears believe the right structure is in place around Trubisky, both on the field and in the Halas Hall quarterback room, for the 2017 second overall pick to make a significant step forward in his development this year. 

 

Trubisky has gone from having a dearth of weapons surrounding him to a wealth of options, from Robinson to Burton to Gabriel to Miller to Jordan Howard to Tarik Cohen. Chase Daniel was brought in to not only back up Trubisky, but to be a resource for him with his extensive knowledge of Nagy’s system. Dave Ragone was retained as the lone holdover from last year’s offensive coaching staff, while Mark Helfrich — another former quarterback — was hired to help build the offense with Nagy. 

All those moves point to the Bears giving Trubisky the best platform possible to improve in his second year in the league. It’s now on the quarterback to follow through. 

What can that follow through look like? Since 2008, there have been 20 former first-round quarterbacks who’ve started at least 10 games in their second season in the NFL. The median numbers for those guys:

Completion percentage: 60.1
Yards: 3,294
Touchdowns: 20
Interceptions: 10
Passer rating: 84.2

That actually looks like a fairly realistic projection for Trubisky’s numbers this year. At one end of the second-year spectrum, there’s the 2017s put together by Carson Wentz and Jared Goff, who are the only two quarterbacks in that 10-year span with a passer rating over 100. At the bottom are guys like Jake Locker (passer rating: 74), Tim Tebow (72.9) and Sam Bradford (70.5). And in the middle: Andrew Luck (87), Jameis Winston (86.1, 10th) and Ryan Tannehill (81.7, 12th). 

Trubisky very well could be better than the average second-year, first-round quarterback. It’s more likely he’s better than average than down in the range of Locker, Tebow and Bradford (who ineffectively operated a dour offense for 10 games with the St. Louis Rams in 2011). 

But if those average numbers are what Trubisky spits out in 2018, that would represent a positive step in his development and could give the Bears shot at playing meaningful games in December. 

2. An improved defense

Three of the Bears’ most important defensive players will begin the season without being 100 percent: Khalil Mack, Leonard Floyd and Roquan Smith. 

Those three players will play on Sunday in Green Bay, and very well could make a significant impact on the outcome of the game. But the larger point here is this: All three players should be better versions of themselves by mid-October than they will be in early September. 

The Bears set their sights on being a top five defense before  Smith and Mack were added. The belief inside Halas Hall has been the continuity achieved by retaining Vic Fangio and his coaching staff, as well as cornerbacks Prince Amukamara and Kyle Fuller in free agency, would vault this group from being a top 10 group that wasn’t good enough to prevent 11 losses to a top five group good enough to compete for the playoffs. 

 

Given how much money Pace has poured into this defense — capped by Eddie Goldman’s four-year contract extension — it’s not unfair to expect the Bears to be a top-five defense. That’s a bold shout for a team that hasn’t had a defensive Pro Bowler since 2013, but only three teams will spend more on defense than the Bears in 2018:

At the least, this defense should be better it was last year, when it ranked ninth in points allowed but was closer to the middle of the pack in DVOA. 

3. Growing pains

Nagy has stressed his offense will take time to be fully grasped and implemented — after all, it took five years for that to be the case with the Kansas City Chiefs. Here’s how Helfrich summed up the offense’s play leading up to Sunday Night Football:

“At times, extremely sharp,” he said. “At times, extremely dull.”

Nagy, Helfrich, Ragone and the rest of the coaching staff have a plan in place for Sunday, and have spent the last few weeks narrowing things down to determine what plays work for Trubisky and what plays don’t. 

Even the Goff-Sean McCoy pairing last year had a lull (a three-week stretch between Weeks 5 and 7 in which Goff managed only two touchdowns against three interceptions). The same could happen for Trubisky, and if and when that happens, it’ll be a prime opportunity for the defense be tested (again — they couldn’t prevent the Bears from losing 11 games in 2017, and that’s something that has to change in 2018).  

How quickly and effectively Trubisky comes out of that nadir will be telling in his development, too. Goff, for what it’s worth, was lights out to end the 2017 season, throwing 12 touchdowns against 13 interceptions with a passer rating of 103.6. 

The larger point here, though: The Bears have found ways to lose games more frequently than win games in the last few years. Until they prove that the roots of losing are gone, these growing pains will be to be expected. 

4. A loaded NFC

The Bears could very well be a significantly improved outfit in 2018…and still finish well outside the playoff picture. A 16-game schedule lends itself to parity, but the NFC has a number of stacked teams on paper.

 

To wit: The Philadelphia Eagles, Minnesota Vikings and Los Angeles Rams look like the class of the conference; the NFC South should be a competitive three-team race between the New Orleans Saints, Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers, all of whom made the playoffs in 2017. Rodgers is back for the Packers, and if he's healthy, it's dangerous to bet against Green Bay. The San Francisco 49ers will ride a wave of momentum into the season. 

With only six playoff spots up for grabs, here’s how a playoff scenario could play out:

NFC East: Eagles
NFC North: Vikings
NFC South: Falcons
NFC West: Rams
Wild Card 1: Saints
Wild Card 2: Packers

That would knock the Panthers and 49ers out of the picture. It’s not inconceivable that 10 wins will be required to make the playoffs — and even then, there’s a possibility a 10-win team could still be left out of the playoffs, based on the talent of the first and second tier in the conference. 

The point being: The Bears will need an awful lot to fall in place — and not go wrong — to be legitimate playoff contenders in 2018. It’s not out of the question, it’s not impossible, but a more realistic optimistic projection would be for the Bears to be playing meaningful games in December (a month that ends with the Rams and Packers at home, and the 49ers and Vikings on the road). 

But if the Bears see positive development from Trubisky, get strong play out of a defense that has a young core locked down and plays competitive football even when losing, that would represent an encouraging season. The window to win for this franchise was pried open in 2018 with the Mack trade, but will stay open long after the final game of this regular season. 

So with that being said, here’s an official prediction of the Bears’ record — one that comes with encouraging play, but play not quite good enough to make the playoffs just yet: 

8-8.