Where the Bears’ five biggest storylines stand at the end of the offseason program 

Where the Bears’ five biggest storylines stand at the end of the offseason program 

Matt Nagy sent Bears players home on Thursday — after Eddy Pineiro and Elliott Fry each made kicks to end practice — for the NFL’s mandated five-week summer break, with the next time the full team is back together coming in late July in Bourbonnais. 

It’s been two months since the team reported to Halas Hall for the voluntary offseason program, and over that time we’ve learned a few things about five critical storylines to follow with this team heading into 2019:

1. The kicking battle

The Bears waived Chris Blewitt Wednesday morning, having seen enough of him to make that decision even in the middle of veteran minicamp. That leaves Fry and Pineiro on the roster, though neither of those players are guaranteed a roster spot when training camp opens at Olivet Nazarene University. There’s nothing stopping the Bears from replacing one of them before the pressure is ratcheted up in Bourbonnais. 

Ideally for the Bears, Fry or Pineiro will wind up being the answer to the team’s kicking woes. But what we’ve seen of them during OTAs and minicamp practices at Halas Hall leads to skepticism that’s the case: Neither Fry nor Pineiro has seemed to separate himself from the other, but there have been practices not open to the media the team is able to evaluate. 

So the kicking battle that’ll take place during training camp very well may not produce the team’s kicker when Sept. 5 rolls around. What took place during the Bears’ offseason program only bolstered that argument. 

“We know that it’s not going to be easy,” Nagy said. “We have two guys right now with us that are very, very inexperienced. And so we gotta keep that in mind and so again, that’s where we’re at, so we gotta just make sure that we’re evaluating as best we can just knowing that come Week 1, that’s a big hole that we gotta fill.” 

2. From the sick bay

Nagy disclosing Trey Burton’s sports hernia surgery came as a surprise, with the tight end not participating in any OTA or minicamp practices at Halas Hall. While Nagy expects him to be ready for the beginning of training camp, whether or not Burton will begin camp on the physically unable to perform list will be a key question to be answered in July. 

The Bears’ thin tight end depth means losing Burton for any amount of time would be a significant blow, just as it was when he missed January’s wild card game. It’s too early to be concerned yet, but we’ll re-evaluate that in a month and a half. 

“From where we’re at right now, we feel really good that he’s gonna be able to (be ready for camp),” Nagy said. “Now I don’t want to make a 100 percent prediction that that’s gonna happen. But I feel good about it.”

Miller’s recovery from offseason shoulder surgery seems more encouraging. He underwent the procedure after dislocating his shoulder multiple times his rookie year, and while he wasn’t technically participating in practices during the offseason program he remained involved and engaged. 

“He's done a really good job of staying involved in the meetings,” Nagy said. “I can already tell with him not being out there, he'll hit me in the back and ask me about a play, was it this play or was it that play, which tells me he's engaged. So mentally he's doing good.”

Undrafted offensive lineman Alex Bars returned to practice this week, his first time putting a helmet on since suffering a torn ACL and MCL last September while playing for Notre Dame. Getting to knock the rust off during veteran minicamp should be beneficial, he said, as he looks to make a push for the roster in training camp. 

“I couldn’t sleep the night before (Tuesday’s practice),” Bars said. “Trainers were joking, because they know how eager I am to get out there, that I was sleeping with my helmet. It was awesome. It was really cool.”

The status of undrafted receiver Emanuel Hall will be monitored, too, going into training camp after he underwent sports hernia surgery. The oft-injured former Mizzou speed burner was one of the more intriguing members of the Bears’ undrafted free agent class, but first needs to prove he can stay healthy before he can begin a difficult battle to earn a roster spot in 2019. 

3. How is the offense evolving?

If last year’s offseason program was about learning the offense, this year’s offseason program was about fine-tuning it. There have been plenty of descriptions of how much farther ahead the offense is in 2019 — “light years,” “drastically,” “literally night and day,” etc. — but this one example about how offensive meetings are going provided by backup Chase Daniel stood out. 

“Last year it was only coach Nags doing the teaching,” Daniel said. “And it’s still coach Nags doing the teaching, but if Mitch sees something that he wants, he speaks up now, because he’s seen it and he’s done it. So he knows exactly where the receiver should be. You can draw lines on paper all day long, but there’s a difference from playing actual football on the field to X’s and O’s, and I think he’s starting to learn that within the offense.”

Trubisky’s ability to be more demanding of his teammates is an important aspect of fine-tuning things within an offense that ranked 20th in offensive DVOA in 2018. That’s what a year of experience — and a quarterback in whom just about everyone inside Halas Hall is confident — can do. 

“When we're in meetings, he might at times cut me off to tell these guys how to run a route,” Nagy said. “And not just say 'hey, run a go route,' but the details of how we run our ‘go' routes. And it's coming from him. 

“Do you understand how powerful that is when it comes from a player, the accountability vs. me? It's monotonous to hear me all the time. When it comes from your leader and your guy, that's like me saying it 10 times.”

4. Vic to Chuck

Vic Fangio may have frequently deflected praise for the impact his scheme had last year, opting to say his players “played good” instead of grabbing glory for himself. But while most of those players who “played good” are back, they are playing in a different scheme under Chuck Pagano, one which required and will continue to require an adjustment period to learn the terminology and assignments. 

“We'll hopefully be polishing it all up towards the end of training camp and getting ready to lay it all out there in preseason,” defensive lineman Akiem Hicks said. “It's a progression right now and there's a lot of things we still have to sharpen. We expected that, though, with a new defensive coordinator. If anyone was good for the transition, it was Chuck because he knows how to handle it.”

The Bears have largely downplayed any negatives to moving to Pagano’s scheme, which remains a nickel-heavy 3-4 base. But a hiccup or two may occur during training camp, preseason games and even into the regular season. 

Nagy, though, isn’t concerned about that adjustment period after seeing what he’s seen during these non-padded practices in OTAs and minicamp over the last month. 

“With all these guys on defense, what I'm seeing, I stand back there from the offense's perspective and I get to see these guys and all the different things that Coach Pagano's doing and I'm seeing the amount of fun that our guys on the other side are having,” Nagy said. “They're flying around. They might not always be right with what they're doing but their intensity is extremely high. That means that they know what they're doing.” 

5. Identity building

The Bears won’t truly build their 2019 identity until the grind of training camp, but Nagy and this team worked to lay a foundation for it over the last two months at Halas Hall. Coaches frequently pointed to the team’s perfect attendance for the voluntary phase of the offseason program, which went up to this week’s mandatory minicamp, for starters. 

And the message preached by Nagy to those players was well received. 

“I’d say that the one thing that I want to make sure that I hammer home is that we’re going to be very confident,” Nagy said. “It’s not cocky. It’s confidence. I love that. I don’t want anything different. That’s who we are as coaches. That’s who they are as players. I’ll never take that away from them, that confidence. 

“… I know there’s buzz right now around who we are and everything. And I get it. That’s part of it. But we haven’t done anything, and this is a new year. And there are plenty of examples of teams that have had really good years and then come back and for whatever reason they don’t. That’s my job. I have to make sure that that complacency … They’re not 12-5. We’re no longer 12-5. We’re 0-0 and we have to go 1-0.”

The Bears had a few team bonding days — like “Monday Funday” and a trip to Top Golf — mixed in with important work with which Nagy was pleased. And the Bears will break for summer feeling confident in themselves as a team, and that team’s ability to take care of the unfinished business left at Soldier Field in January’s playoff loss. 

“I think everybody has that same taste kind of lingering around as far as what we want to accomplish, where we want to be at,” wide receiver Allen Robinson said. “And we know that last year we were right there knocking on the door, very close. So to know everything coming into this year being offensively and even seeing how fast the defense is playing and stuff like that, I think we're right on pace.”

Why what 'Run DMC' does catching passes in training camp will be a big clue for how good the Bears' offense will be

Why what 'Run DMC' does catching passes in training camp will be a big clue for how good the Bears' offense will be

How much better Mitch Trubisky will be is the defining question for the 2019 Bears. But we won’t begin to know the answer to that question until September — it’s not something that’ll be easily discernible during training camp practices in Bourbonnais or a handful of snaps in preseason games. Those can sometimes produce false positives and false negatives.

The Bears believe in Trubiskiy, of course, and you’ll likely hear Matt Nagy and players laud their quarterback’s growth over the coming weeks. But belief is one thing; tangible production is another. And we won’t truly get to see that growth until the night of Sept. 5 at Soldier Field. 

But there are a few things to look for in Bourbonnais that could clue us in that a big-time leap is coming for No. 10. We’ll begin this mini-series leading up to the start of training camp next week with this: Better success from running backs catching passes on first down. 

It’s a narrowly specific angle, but one that carries plenty of weight. Consider this excerpt from Warren Sharp’s 2019 Football Preview:

“First down has long been perceived as a running down. In 2017, the league-wide average run-pass split on first down was 47-53. It was 50-50 last season, but that was still well below the 59-41 league-wide split on all downs. Yet passing to running backs on first down is significantly more effective.

“In 2018, there were 6,248 running back rushing attempts on first down. They averaged 4.5 yards per carry, minus-0.01 Expected Points Added per attempt, and a positive play rate of 41.3%. When teams threw to running backs on first down, they averaged 6.02 yards per target, 7.8 yards per receptions. 0.08 EPA per attempt — slightly more efficient than the average of all passes regardless of down at 0.05 EPA — and a positive play rate of 52.3%.”

The larger point here (especially if your eyes glazed over some of those numbers — which, we promise, make sense) is this: Scheming more throws to running backs on first down is an area in which almost every team in the NFL can improve. It's worth noting the Kansas City Chiefs' most effective play on first-and-long in 2018, per Sharp, was a pass to Kareem Hunt. 

And the good news is the Bears re-worked their running back room in a way that could optimize their success throwing the ball to David Montgomery, Mike Davis and Tarik Cohen on first down. 

The 2018 Bears simply didn’t have the personnel to do that regularly or successfully.

Jordan Howard was only targeted nine times on first-and-10, catching five passes for 42 yards. All nine of those targets were short throws, either to the left (two), middle (one) or right (six), and Trubisky had a passer rating of 83 on those attempts. Meanwhile, Howard carried the ball 128 times on first-and-10, averaging 3.7 yards per carry and only generating nine first downs (the NFL average for rushing attempts on first-and-10 in 2018 was 4.7 yards per carry). 

Cohen was, roughly, the inverse of Howard’s numbers: He caught 30 of 37 targets for 241 yards (6.5 yards per target) and generated seven first downs through the air, but averaged just 3.2 yards on his 46 rushing attempts with four first downs. Neither player was particularly balanced in these scenarios: Howard was mildly ineffective running the ball and not a threat catching it; Cohen was largely ineffective running the ball but was a threat catching it. 

And for the crowd who still believes Nagy wasn’t willing to establish the run: The combined rushing attempts on first-and-10 of Howard, Cohen, Benny Cunningham and Taquan Mizzell totaled 182; the combined pass attempts by Trubisky and Chase Daniel in that down-and-distance was 176, per Pro Football Reference’s play index. 

The Bears, in 2018, averaged 5.5 yards per play on first-and-10, tied for 24th in the NFL. Yet only three teams — the New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts — averaged fewer yards-to-go on third down than the Bears’ mark of 6.9. That’s a sign of Nagy’s playcalling prowess and the talent on this offense, and it’s not a stretch to argue an improvement of first-and-10 success will have a significant impact on the overall success of the Bears’ offense. 

So back to the initial point about passes to running backs in these situations: The Bears believe both Montgomery and Davis have some untapped potential as pass-catching running backs. Montgomery caught 71 passes in college at Iowa State, while Davis was targeted the most by the Seattle Seahawks in 2018 on first down (17 of 42 targets). Cohen, of course, is already an accomplished pass-catcher. 

The “Run DMC” backfield needs to have more success carrying the ball on first-and-10 than last year’s group did, of course. But if you’re in Bourbonnais or watching a preseason game, keep an eye out for how effective the Bears are at passing to their running backs — especially if those passes travel beyond the line of scrimmage (another inefficiency noted by Warren Sharp's 2019 Football Preview). 

If you start seeing Montgomery making defenders miss after catching a pass, or Davis looking fluid with the ball in his hands, or Cohen breaking off some explosive gains — those will be significant reasons to believe in Trubisky and the Bears' offense in 2019. 

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Under Center Podcast: State of the Bears: Defense


Under Center Podcast: State of the Bears: Defense

JJ Stankevitz, Cam Ellis and Paul Aspan are back with their training camp preview of the Bears' defense, looking at if it's fair to expect this group to take a step back without Vic Fangio (2:00) or if it's possible to repeat as the league's No. 1 defense (10:00). Plus, the guys look at which players the Bears need to improve to remain one of the NFL's best defenses (15:15), debate if Leonard Floyd can be better (20:00) and look at the future of the defense as a salary cap crunch looms after 2019 (25:00). 

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