Vic Fangio’s return gives the Bears’ defense the best chance to be great in 2018

Vic Fangio’s return gives the Bears’ defense the best chance to be great in 2018

While Vic Fangio’s future didn’t gain any clarity until Friday, one thing has been abundantly clear for weeks: Fangio’s players wanted him back. 

Those players will get their wish, with the Chicago Tribune reporting Fangio is expected to return as the Bears’ defensive coordinator. ESPN reported Fangio was convinced to stay by head coach Matt Nagy and will receive a three-year deal. 

“I think players are a big part of any type of success, but coaching is huge,” cornerback Prince Amukamara said. “On our side of the ball, with defense, I think Vic is a huge part of why we were pretty good this year on defense. I feel like he’s a mastermind, one of the smartest DCs, most-detailed DCs I’ve been around. It’s hard to make him smile, but when he smiles you know it’s a good thing. Guys love him. We respect him. If I was here, I’d hope he stays.”

The Bears ranked 10th in total defense in 2017 and ninth in points per game, and did that without a Pro Bowler on their roster (though Akiem Hicks’ slap-in-the-face fourth alternate status is a separate diatribe; he played at a Pro Bowl level this year). This defense overcame season-ending injuries to two veteran captains in linebacker Jerrell Freeman and safety Quintin Demps within the first three weeks of 2017; outside linebackers Willie Young and Leonard Floyd were lost to injury later in the season. 

The point here: Fangio did a lot without much “elite” talent. But he (and defensive backs coach Ed Donatell) got a ton out of Kyle Fuller and Adrian Amos, two players who didn’t have starting jobs when the season began. Rookie safety Eddie Jackson had a solid debut season, while Hicks and Eddie Goldman were a stout run-stuffing duo in the defensive interior. Linebackers Nick Kwiatkoski and Christian Jones played well when asked, too. 

After the Bears’ season ended — with 11 losses — Fangio’s message to his team was optimistic. 

“(He told us) you guys are progressing, you guys are on the rise even though our record isn't what we wanted, you guys should still be proud of yourselves,” Amukamara said.

Another critical point here with regard to the Bears defense: Multiple players talked before the season about how a second year in Fangio’s system (specifically, for Hicks) would allow them to play faster and think less about the principles of the scheme and their assignments. Had the Bears changed coordinators — even if that coordinator still used a 3-4 — it could’ve slowed the progress this group saw in 2017. 

“I just think we could be as good as we want,” Goldman said on Jan. 1. “I can't talk too early because we don't know the situation we're going to be in. But as long as we just come in and adopt whatever system we're going to be under next and just go hard at it.”

The Bears won’t have to adopt a new defensive system. This defense still needs more talent — specifically, at outside linebacker — and needs to address the cornerback position, which starts with finding a way to keep Fuller after his breakout season (“I definitely feel like we’ve built a good relationship,” Fuller said of Fangio, who was sharply critical of him as he missed the 2016 season).

But the arrow is pointing up for the Bears’ defense. Keeping Fangio ensures that arrow will keep going in that same direction.

Three questions for Bears ILBs: What kind of an impact will Roquan Smith make?


Three questions for Bears ILBs: What kind of an impact will Roquan Smith make?

Pre-camp depth chart

1. Danny Trevathan
2. John Timu
3. Joel Iyiegbuniwe

1. Roquan Smith
2. Nick Kwiatkoski
3. Jonathan Anderson

1. How good can Roquan Smith be?

Making sweeping observations from shorts-and-helmets practices in OTAs is often a fool’s errand, but Smith looked the part while running around the practice fields of Halas Hall after being drafted in April. His quickness and instinctiveness stood out — as they did at Georgia — and his football intelligence and work ethic were praised by coaches and teammates. 

“He’s learning well,” Trevathan said. “He’s doing a good job of learning. He’s learning the little things that you need to learn in this defense. Now it’s all about putting on a show and going out there and rocking.”

And that’s what’s going to be fun to watch in Bourbonnais: How does Smith play with the pads on? Chances are, the answer to that question will be “well,” setting the eighth overall pick on a path to being a mainstay of this defense for years to come. 

That’s not to say Smith doesn’t have plenty on which to work during training camp. But he left Georgia as a sort of “safe bet” in the draft, and nothing he’s done to this point has changed the view of him that he’s likely going to be a good one. 

2. Can Danny Trevathan stay healthy?

In terms of size and athleticism, Trevathan and Smith profile similar to NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis, the inside linebacking tandem that was the spine of the San Francisco 49ers defense during Fangio’s time there. But for Trevathan and Smith to reach that lofty bar — or even to come close to it — Trevathan needs to be more available than he was his first two years with the Bears.

This isn’t questioning Trevathan’s toughness — far from it. That he returned for Week 1 of the 2017 season 10 months after rupturing his patellar tending (an injury that can be a career-ender) was impressive, and that he was immediately productive upon returning was even more extraordinary. But Trevathan missed three games in November due to a strained calf, and coupled with a one-game suspension and the seven games he missed in 2016, the 28-year-old has only played in 21 of 32 games since signing with the Bears. 

Trevathan is confident he can improve his production in 2018, given he wasn’t able to participate in last year’s offseason program practices. He’s entering his third year in Fangio’s defense and feels better prepared after going through OTAs and minicamps this year. It’s just now about him staying on the field to make sure that work pays off.

“I’m more comfortable with this defense, I’m more comfortable with the guys and the calls that we make,” Trevathan said. “I take pride in being correct and working my tail off and making the defense better. And the more that I can be out there — which I plan on being out there a lot — it’s going to help us tremendously.” 

3. How big a role will Nick Kwiatkoski have?

The Bears didn’t draft Smith because they felt like they absolutely needed to upgrade over Kwiatkoski, who’s acquitted himself well in 25 games since being picked in the fourth round of the 2016 draft. But Kwiatkoski has dealt with some injury issues, and for as solid a player as he may be, the Bears’ defense needed (and still needs) more great players. Drafting Smith gave the Bears a shot at adding a great player.

It also leaves Kwiatkoski in the same spot he was in a year ago, when the Bears entered the 2017 season with Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman as their unquestioned starting inside linebackers. Smith still has to earn that starting spot, but the safe bet is he will, relegating Kwiatkoski again to reserve duties.

And that’s a positive for the overall health of this defense, having a player good enough to start ready to play if needed. But it also raises this question: What do the Bears do with Kwiatkoski if he’s one of their four best linebackers, but isn’t one of their two best inside linebackers? 

So for the purposes of watching training camp practices, seeing if Kwiatkoski gets any reps at outside linebacker will be an interesting storyline to follow. 

Bears shutout in poll of NFL's best starters under 25

USA Today

Bears shutout in poll of NFL's best starters under 25

Maybe this is what happens when a team is coming off a 5-11 season and has won only 14 games over three years. Maybe it's just another example of the Chicago Bears being overlooked and underrated. Regardless of the 'why,' a recent poll of NFL experts has provided more fuel for the Bears in 2018.

ESPN's Field Yates asked 43 insiders and former players for their list of the top under-25-year-old starters in the NFL and not a single Chicago Bear made the cut.

No Jordan Howard. No Mitchell Trubisky. No Allen Robinson.

Not a single Bear.

The most shocking omission is Howard, who finished second in the NFL in rushing in 2016 and sixth last year despite facing defenses that focused their entire game plan on stopping him every single week. At only 23 years old, he's clearly one of the top young running backs in the NFL and warranted a spot on this list. 

Instead, the Rams' Todd Gurley, Cowboys' Ezekiel Elliott and Giants rookie Saquon Barkley got the nod.

Howard has more rushing yards than Gurley over the last two seasons and trails Elliott by only 179. Barkley has yet to take a snap in the NFL.

The Bears were recently named the most underrated team in the league heading into 2018 and this is just another piece of evidence justifying that claim. A winning season will change the national perception of players like Howard, who with another year of high-end production should find himself at or near the top of many of these lists next offseason.