Where do the Bears need better offensive depth in 2019?

Where do the Bears need better offensive depth in 2019?

The Bears are, for now, bringing back all 11 offensive starters from their 2018 NFC North-winning team after re-signing right tackle Bobby Massie last weekend. The Bears hope that continuity, coupled with a quarterback entering his second year in an offensive system, will lead to significant strides made by this offense in 2019, as colleague John “Moon” Mullin laid out earlier this week.
But focusing merely on the 11 starters returning might lose sight of a critical question for 2019: How the Bears will handle losing one or more of those players for some period of time. The Bears were lucky to only have three offensive players land on injured reserve last year, with two of those guys returning during the season (Adam Shaheen and Kyle Long). For all the success coach Matt Nagy, head trainer Andre Tucker and the Bears’ entire training staff had at keeping players healthy, there was an element of luck to it.
“It's tough because I think there is a little bit of good fortune that comes your way, no question,” general manager Ryan Pace said. “But I think we're doing things right now that helped put us on the right track. I really like where we're at in the weight room, in the training room and again what we're doing with our schedules.”
Still, every team’s depth will be tested, and the ones that handle those tests well are usually the ones that wind up in the playoffs — or even the Super Bowl. Look no further than the Los Angeles Rams, who managed to reach the Super Bowl after losing receiver Cooper Kupp just after the halfway point of the season and benching an ineffective Todd Gurley in the NFC Championship.
The Bears’ ability to handle losing starters in 2018, though, was somewhat of a mixed bag.
Mitch Trubisky
Games missed: 2
Replaced by: Chase Daniel

Trubisky missed two games with a shoulder injury, with the Bears cautiously handling their starting quarterback and handing the offensive reigns to Chase Daniel for road dates against the last-place Detroit Lions and New York Giants.
Daniel was good against the Lions, completing 27 of 37 passes for 230 yards with two touchdowns and no turnovers in a 23-16 win that ranked among the most significant of the 2018 season. He was sloppy a week later, though, throwing a game-opening pick-six and fumbling four times against the Giants, though he was able to lead a last-ditch comeback to get that game into overtime.
The verdict: Daniel will be back for the second year of his two-year contract, and his extensive knowledge of Nagy’s offense will continue to be an asset as Trubisky begins to learn the scheme’s more advanced aspects. While it was only two games, going .500 with your backup quarterback is generally a good thing.
Adam Shaheen
Games missed: 10
Replaced by: Dion Sims, different formations

Shaheen injured his foot in a preseason game against the Denver Broncos and was on injured reserve for the first 10 weeks of the season, then returned for Week 11 against the Minnesota Vikings and suffered a concussion that sidelined him for Week 12.
Sims, meanwhile, was placed on injured reserve after suffering a concussion against the Buffalo Bills in Week 9. While Sims was ineffective when he played, he and Shaheen were the Bears’ two primary “Y” (in-line) tight ends. The result was, mostly, the Bears using a heavy amount of 11 personnel (three receivers, one running back, one tight end) with Trey Burton lining up in his “U” position. For instance: The Bears ran 295 plays with one tight end on the field on first and 10, compared to 112 with two or more tight ends.
Shaheen’s 2018 was mostly a wash, with only six targets in six games with one touchdown (as well as a catch on a two-point conversion against the Vikings). Sims finished his season with a 47.5 grade as a run blocker, and while Shaheen is hardly a finished product as a player, his physicality and run-blocking potential was sneakily missed during the season.
The verdict: In theory, replacing a second-year player with a veteran making $6 million should’ve provided the kind of depth the Bears needed. That wasn’t the case, though, and Sims will ultimately be released to clear $6 million in cap space, per Spotrac.
The Bears will need to figure out how to improve their depth behind Shaheen at the “Y” while also making sure not having a reliable in-line tight end isn’t detrimental to effectively running the ball.
Trey Burton
Games missed: 1
Replaced by: Ben Braunecker

Speaking of tight ends, Burton’s groin issue was arguably the most significant injury suffered by a Bears offensive player last season. The timing of it was brutal, with Burton starting to feel sore the Friday before the Wild Card game against the Philadelphia Eagles and then waking up Saturday morning to his groin being “completely locked,” as he described it.
With only about 24 hours to figure out a solution to Burton’s absence, the Bears’ offense was out of sorts at times and only managed 15 points. Allen Robinson stepped up, but Tarik Cohen only had four touches with the Eagles able to key on him without Burton on the field.
Braunecker, meanwhile, caught two passes for 15 yards while splitting his time between the “U” — Burton’s position — and the “Y.”
The verdict: Burton played all 16 games in the regular season, but losing him in the playoffs perhaps exposed a weakness in Nagy’s offense. The 11th-hour timing of Burton’s injury certainly impacted things, but it would’ve been worse from a planning standpoint had Burton suffered an injury on the first series of the game. These things can happen, and if Burton does have to miss time next year the Bears will have to have a better answer from a scheme and personnel standpoint.
Kyle Long
Games missed: 8
Replaced by: Bryan Witzmann

Harry Hiestand’s group excelled in pass protection even after Long suffered a foot injury late in the Bears’ Week 8 win over the New York Jets, one that initially seemed to threaten to end his season. Witzmann was durable and serviceable in place of Long, and for what it’s worth Jordan Howard had his best stretch of the season (88 carries, 399 yards) in December with Witzmann playing all but 27 snaps at right guard.
Long’s injury history — he’s missed a total of 22 games in the last three years — means the Bears will again need a plan to replace him if need be in 2019 (that is, assuming he’ll be back, though it seems likely he will be).
The verdict: The Bears could do worse than Witzmann, who played for Nagy in Kansas City from 2016-2017. If he isn’t brought back, a cheap veteran type similar to him would likely be the option. Hiestand, Nagy and Mark Helfrich deserve credit, too, for making sure the loss of a player as talented and important as Long didn’t have a significantly adverse effect on the offense.
Allen Robinson
Games missed: 3
Anthony Miller
Games missed: 1
Replaced by: Josh Bellamy

The writing was on the wall for Kevin White after he was among the inactives for the Bears’ Week 9 game against the Buffalo Bills, one Robinson missed. While White and Robinson played different receiver positions, that White didn’t even dress for a game in which Robinson didn’t play was a fairly damning indictment of the former first-round pick.
The Bears, meanwhile, valued Bellamy’s speed and versatility — he’s able to play all three receiver positions in Nagy’s offense — and he made a handful of plays when called upon. He caught a touchdown in Week 4 (the game Miller missed) and only dropped one of his 26 targets, per Pro Football Focus.
The verdict: Bellamy’s special teams acumen, offensive knowledge and leadership make him a candidate to be re-signed, with 2018 seventh-rounder Javon Wims in line for an opportunity to compete for an active roster spot, too. The Bears’ receiver depth is fine; improved depth at running back and tight end would help better mitigate losing a starter from this unit in 2019.

Bears preseason notes: Matt Nagy's starter-sitting plan, Javon Wims' roster spot and a peaking Duck

Bears preseason notes: Matt Nagy's starter-sitting plan, Javon Wims' roster spot and a peaking Duck

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Twenty-six Bears starters/key players did not play in Friday’s preseason loss to the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium, ranging from guys established as among the best in the league (Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks, Eddie Jackson) to players with more to prove (David Montgomery, Adam Shaheen, Mitch Trubisky). 

Of the eight players who caught a pass, only two have seemingly punched their tickets to the Bears’ 53-man roster (wide receivers Riley Ridley and Javon Wims — more on Wims later). Of the six players who had a rushing attempt, only quarterback Chase Daniel will be comfortable over cut-down weekend. 

And on defense, 25 players recorded at least one tackle but only four look like locks for the Bears’ roster (Nick Kwiatkoski, Sherrick McManis, Deon Bush, Roy Robertson-Harris). 

“My biggest thing is I’m trying to do what’s best for the Chicago Bears, and every team is different, and that’s okay,” coach Matt Nagy said. “… We love where we’re at right now in regards to our starters. We feel really good about it.”

The Bears held a mock game at Halas Hall on Wednesday, one which allowed Nagy to get his starters some situational work in a controlled setting instead of in a less-predictable preseason game. Instead, these preseason games have turned into extended tests for the large group of players fighting to make the Bears’ roster — the Bears’ second-team offense and defense went against the Giants’ first-team defense and offense for a portion of Friday’s game, which’ll be notable as the team evaluates the guys who’ll fill out the back end of their roster. 

Nagy’s preseason approach to his most important players may start catching on around the league, especially as so many teams have hired younger, offensive-minded coaches who haven’t been doing something a certain way for decades. So the next time you'll see Trubisky throw a pass in a game, barring something extremely unexpected, will be Sept. 5 against the Green Bay Packers. 

Even Nagy’s mentor, Andy Reid — one of most progressive, longest-tenured coaches in the NFL — still plays his starters in preseason games. That’s not to say it’s right or wrong. Nagy just doesn’t think that approach makes sense for his team. 

“Coach (Reid) has his way and I think coach Reid would be the first to tell you that if I’m not being me and if I’m not trying to do what I think is right for our team, then I’m not coach Reid,” Nagy said. “I’ve learned so much from him, but for our team and our situation I need to do what’s best for us and I just feel like that’s where it’s at.

“September 5th is an important day for us.”

The Bears lost reserve tackle Rashaad Coward to an elbow injury during Friday’s game, while longtime practice squad safety Jonathon Mincy was looked at for a concussion. Left guard Cody Whitehair, who injured his finger during Wednesday’s practice, was participating in pregame warmups with only that lone finger taped. 

See Montgomery, burns?

Nagy felt himself getting carried away praising Montgomery after the third-round pick’s impressive preseason debut last week against the Carolina Panthers, to the point he later smirked that Montgomery’s seven-yard touchdown run was just “average.” 

Still, the Bears clearly had seen enough of Montgomery after one game. All the things he put on tape at Iowa State — patience, contact balance, tackle breaking, good hands, etc. — showed up against the Panthers. So in addition to Tarik Cohen and Mike Davis, Montgomery wasn’t put into harm’s way against the Giants. The next snap he takes in a game will be Sept. 5, barring a surprise. 

“I would say he’s done a good job in practice,” Nagy said. “We like what we’ve seen.”

Spot locked up for Wims?

As promised, some thoughts on Wims, who led the Bears having caught five of six targets for 64 yards, including an impressive 29-yard snag just before halftime. It was games like this that led the Bears to feel as if they had to keep the 2018 seventh-round pick on their roster last year instead of risking him to waivers in an attempt to sneak him on to the practice squad. With another strong showing on film for the rest of the league to see, the thought here is Wims’ roster spot is all but secure. 

And it’s not like Wims’ good game came out of nowhere — he’s been progressing to a night like this since the start of training camp. Cornerback Prince Amukamara — who got in a tussle with Wims during Tuesday’s practice — said he’s sensed a different gear in Wims since OTAs in spring, combining improved speed with developing route-running skills and the same go-up-and-get-it ability that was all over his college tape at Georgia. 

Wims’ 29-yard reception — after which the Bears clocked the ball with one second left, leading to Eddy Pineiro hitting a short field goal (one he wished he was longer) — was probably the most impressive offensive play of the game. 

“We practice that stuff,” Nagy said. ‘So what they just did with 16 seconds is hard to do and they did it very effectively, so when you look for positives for us, that’s something that I’m going to come away from this weekend and say you guys just rocked it, you did that the right way and we just got three points off of you guys executing what we teach you,”

Marvin Hall can still make the Bears’ roster, and for the second consecutive week broke free downfield for what could’ve been a big-chunk play only to have third-string quarterback Tyler Bray overthrow him. But he had a rough punt return, running backward from his own 19-yard line and, combined with a penalty assessed to sixth-round pick Duke Shelley, dropped the Bears at their own eight-yard line. 

Peaking Duck, and other ups and downs

— Undrafted corner Clifton Duck jumped an Alex Tanney pass at the goal line and dashed 62 yards for the Bears’ most impressive defensive play of the game. Duck is undersized and may not have the speed of Shelley, but his ball skills have consistently shown up during training camp. Those haven’t come out of nowhere, either: No FBS player had more interceptions than Duck from 2016-2018. 

And it’s not just the interceptions that’ve caught Nagy’s eye. His tenacity on the field has been noted, and it’ll be interesting to see if he gets more run with the second-team defense next weekend against the Indianapolis Colts. At the least, he looks like a good practice squad candidate; at best, he could make a push for a roster spot in a crowded group of young reserve corners. 

“He’s done it in practice. I like that,” Nagy said. “I think anybody that has some ball skills, which he does, that is always playing hard, you appreciate that. And I know he makes it difficult for our quarterbacks.”

Read more about Duck here

— It wasn’t as impressive a day for the rest of that aforementioned group of young corners. Shelley missed a tackle on wide receiver Bennie Fowler, allowing the ex-Bears training camp receiver to score a touchdown on the Giants’ opening drive. Shelley also committed that penalty on Hall’s punt return. 

The Bears rotated Kevin Toliver, Michael Joseph and John Franklin as their outside corners throughout the game. Franklin had wide receiver T.J. Jones blanketed to force an incompletion in the second quarter, but was then beat by the former Notre Dame receiver for a 15-yard touchdown later in the game. Franklin, the quarterback-turned-receiver-turned-cornerback, was also beat for a 37-yard gain in the third quarter, though it looked like Giants receiver Da'Mari Scott might’ve pushed off on the play. 

Joseph was beat for a 40-yard gain, though the play was more about the outstanding throw made by sixth overall pick Daniel Jones to wide receiver Cody Latimer. 

— Running back Ryan Nall had a solid 14-yard run to pick up a first down in the first quarter, which undrafted tight end Dax Raymond helped spring with a nice block on the edge. Nall started on offense over seventh-round rookie Kerrith Whyte Jr., though neither were particularly effective on the ground (Nall: seven carries, 23 yards; Whyte: six carries, 10 yards). Nall did catch four passes for 21 yards while. 

— Still, Whyte had the best non-highlight highlight of the game when he housed an Aldrick Rosas’ kickoff for a 103-yard touchdown, only to have it called back due to a holding penalty on Isaiah Irving (if you were watching the TV broadcast — Franklin was initially flagged for the penalty, but it was corrected to be assessed to Irving). While it didn’t count, it put Whyte’s breakaway speed on display. That could be an important point in his favor if the Bears’ roster comes down to keeping four running backs (with Whyte) or seven wide receivers (with Hall). 

— Receiver/running back Taquan Mizzell lost two fumbles in the span of four offensive plays. The most notable part of it: The Metlife Stadium PA system blasting Snoop Dogg's "Drop It Like It's Hot" after the first one, and then playing Britney Spears' "Oops...I Did It Again" after the second. Ouch. 

— It didn’t feel like a particularly good game for the Bears’ reserve tight ends. Bradley Sowell was whistled for a false start with the Bears at their own eight-yard line, and he was burned by Giants linebacker Markus Golden for a sack. While Raymond had a good block on Nall’s run, neither he nor fellow undrafted rookie Ian Bunting were noticeable. Neither player was targeted — in fact, not a single Bears tight end received a target on Friday. 

— Two other splash plays on defense: McManis with a perfectly-executed Peanut Punch to force a fumble, and outside linebacker James Vaughters’ strip/sack/recovery, which he returned eight yards to the Giants’ 12-yard line. 

That McManis has been working with the third-team safety pairing shouldn’t be taken as a sign he’s on the roster bubble — he’s a veteran core special teamer who acquitted himself well enough as a slot corner following Bryce Callahan’s season-ending injury last year. 

And Vaughters’ play was notable if only because the Bears’ reserve outside linebackers — him, Irving, Kylie Fitts, Mathieu Betts, Chuck Harris — haven’t flashed much during both practices and games so far this preseason. The Bears may only wind up carrying four outside linebackers (Mack, Leonard Floyd, Aaron Lynch, TBD — though Irving has the inside track) if general manager Ryan Pace sticks to the “best 53” approach he’s said he’s taking. 

Bears, Matt Nagy make statement by leaving G Kyle Long off trip to face NY Giants

Bears, Matt Nagy make statement by leaving G Kyle Long off trip to face NY Giants

The reason behind guard Kyle Long not making the New York/Jersey trip with his teammates presumably traces to his confrontations with teammates during two practices over the past week, principally the ugly fight in which he was involved during practice Wednesday night. Whether the full and true details will surface is problematic, though, given coach Matt Nagy’s declared approach of handling certain matters internally, seconded by GM Ryan Pace.

“Really that’s an internal matter for us and we’ll keep that inside,” Pace said during FOX-TV’s “Bears Kickoff” pregame show.

Wherever the matter is kept, the overall played out as a situation in which Nagy was faced with a need to establish definitively where lines are within his program. Coaches who don’t – see: Trestman, Marc – eventually lose control of their team. Nagy is still in the installation phase of his program, and a lack of discipline in any venue portends a lack of it on the field when it matters.

A team leader being disciplined publicly obviously takes it beyond “inside” or “internally.” It also suggests a deeper concern and message – to Long or the team or both – if for no other reason than neither cornerback Prince Amukamara nor receiver Javon Wims, who got into a heated dustup in which punches were thrown at Tuesday’s practice, were effectively suspended from a team activity.

Nagy was visibly unhappy with the Long incident afterwards, in which the veteran offensive lineman ripping the helmet off of Jalen Dalton and hitting the rookie defensive lineman with it several times before hurling the helmet down the field. Long was sent out of practice, which very likely did little to improve his mood and may have started a burn that turned into an attitude that Nagy could not leave unaddressed.

Nagy and the Bears have some precedents for sanctioning Long and for how serious incidents can be.

Kansas City tackle John Tait, whose eventually came to the Bears via free agency, suffered a broken nose, needed 17 stitches to close a head wound, and missed two weeks of the Chiefs’ 2002 training camp when defensive lineman Eddie Freeman got Tait’s helmet off and smashed the offensive lineman over the head with it in a camp fight. Neither player was disciplined, however.

Possibly more in line with the Long situation, tight end Martellus Bennett was fined and suspended for conduct detrimental to the team following a fight in a Bourbonnais practice with then-rookie cornerback Kyle Fuller. Bennett became incensed after Fuller knocked him down while attempting to knock the ball out of Bennett’s hands. Bennett body-slammed Fuller, setting off a larger fracas and was sent away from training camp after a volatile meeting with GM Phil Emery.

The suspension lasted a week and cost Bennett an undisclosed amount in fines. No initial word if Long was fined for his conduct.

*                     *                          *

Meaningful takeaways from preseason games are always spotty, particularly with teams like the Bears, who played exactly zero of their offensive and defensive starters on Friday. Teams do little to no scheming, players are substituted extensively and virtually all of the action is from backups, many of whom will not be on the final roster and even the ones who are won’t be prime-time players, barring lineup vacancies caused by injuries.

Still, the Bears 32-13 loss to the New York Giants was cause for a handful of observations:

  • The Chicago defense in the first half alone generated two takeaways (it should have been three but two players attempted to pick up a Giants fumble instead of falling on the football, which New York offensive lineman Nick Gates did). This follows a two-takeaway game against Carolina last week. The two Friday were supplemented by a diving red-zone interception by rookie cornerback Clifton Duck, who returned the INT 62 yards
  • But the No. 2 offense under quarterback Chase Daniel managed just six first downs and 97 total yards for the entire half, and ran just seven plays for minus-19 yards off the takeaways. Three of the plays were sacks of Daniel for a combined minus-25 yards. Not insignificantly from a perspective standpoint, the Giants started many of their No. 1’s, including quarterback Eli Manning, while exactly zero members of the Bears No. 1 units played in this second preseason game.
  • Aspiring defensive back John Franklin III, who’d produced flash plays through this offseason, played himself dangerously close to the edge of the roster. Franklin was beaten for a touchdown pass from Daniel Jones to wide receiver TJ Jones, then allowed a 37-yard completion late in the third quarter.
  • Rookie Kerrith White, who may have punched his ticket for a roster spot, returned the ensuing kickoff 103 yards for an apparent touchdown, only to have it called back for holding by linebacker Isaiah Irving.
  • It was not the only piece of a second straight poor performance by special teams. Whyte returned a second-quarter kickoff 34 yards, only to have it called back because of a holding infraction by running back Ryan Nall.
  • Whyte demonstrated some strong running in tight situations, getting the football across the goal line in the third quarter on a one-yard push, his fourth carry in five snaps to finish the drive following the interception by Duck.