It’s been a rough week for the Chicago Bears.
Cody Parkey missed. Alshon Jeffery waved goodbye. Vic Fangio left for Denver. Todd Bowles declined the offer. Cody Parkey went on the Today Show for reasons I will never understand.
But here we are. One week and one day after the Bears’ heartbreaking defeat at the hands of the Eagles, general manager Ryan Pace and head coach Matt Nagy are set to speak to the media. Some of the subjects discussed there will be Parkey’s morning show appearance and future with the team, new defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano’s introduction, and a public recap of the rollercoaster ride that was 2018.
With that press conference comes the unofficial start of the Bears’ offseason, and that means it’s time to get down to business in improving the football team. Let’s take a look at what the Bears will have to accomplish between now and the beginning of training camp.
Replacing the defensive coaching staff
Chuck Pagano will replace Vic Fangio as the head man of the defensive side of the ball, which poses a difficult situation for the assistant coaches already there. Most of them were holdovers from the John Fox era who stayed on under Matt Nagy because he gave Fangio the ability to do what he wants.
Pagano will have that same power, and what he wants is to bring in his own guys to be position coaches for the Bears. He’s already started to send some incumbents packing, including outside linebackers coach Brandon Staley and safeties coach Roy Anderson (both reported by Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune).
Ed Donatell, longtime Fangio protege and secondary coach, is a free agent, and is rumored to be choosing between staying in Chicago and joining Fangio in Denver. His situation will be one to monitor in the coming days.
Learning a new defensive system
With a new defensive coordinator also comes a new scheme and more importantly a new philosophy. Pagano’s Bears should have more of an attacking mindset, and while he won’t have to change the base set (4-3 to 3-4 or vice versa), he will impliment plenty of exotic blitz packages, as I explored on Saturday.
Last night after Pagano was hired, I took a look back at Pagano’s time with the 2011 Ravens. What I was most impressed with was how he disguised blitzes so that guys got to the QB unabaited.
Here are some of my favorite blitz packages from that season. #Bears
— Jack Soble (@jacksobleTLS) January 12, 2019
This is important to point out because when a unit is as young and talented as the Bears are, switching defensive systems is not easy. This goes for Pagano as well, as he will have to adjust what he likes to do to what the Bears do best (for example, Kyle Fuller thrives in three or four-deep zones, while Pagano may want to play more cover zero).
Veteran leadership in Akiem Hicks, Danny Trevathan, and Khalil Mack (entering the first year of his massive extension) will help second and third-year guys like Roquan Smith, Eddie Jackson, and Bilal Nichols along in this transition, but Pagano should hand out playbooks as soon as the offseason program starts and tell his guys to get studying.
Internal Roster Decisions
There are some relatively easy choices that Ryan Pace will have to make, what to do with Dion Sims among them. Additionally, Sam Acho is not worth bringing back at anything more than the veteran minimum. The Bears can’t afford to have Kyle Long return at his current price either, so they’ll have to either restructure his contract or make the very tough (as in sad, not difficult) decision to let him go.
The decisions that need more thought put into them are regarding the Bears’ free agent defensive backs, Bryce Callahan and Adrian Amos. Callahan was superb for 11+ games this season before ending it with a broken foot. Amos is a solid starter who thrives in the box but he doesn’t create turnover. Is a player who has never been able to stay healthy worth top money for his position? And is Amos replaceable enough that they can afford to let him walk? Pace must answer both of these questions in March.
For the first time in a long time, the Bears are not swimming in cap space. Trading for a generational talent in his prime at a premium position tends to have that effect. Before cuts and resignings, the Bears should have about 19 million dollars in money to spend, and I estimate that to be a little smaller by the time the new league year is upon us.
That means that the Pace should have enough room to sign one big-time free agent. I don’t know who he will target, and I don’t know which position he will target, but Pace and I both know that the Bears’ Super Bowl window starts right now. And when aggressive GMs know this, they don’t sit on their hands in March. They go out and get a guy who can put their team over the top.
Because of the Khalil Mack trade and the draft day trade that acquired Anthony Miller, the Bears have zero picks in the first two rounds of this year’s draft. Given Pace’s history, that shouldn’t stop him from finding a high-impact player who can make a difference right away.
This is where I expect the Bears to find a running back who fits Matt Nagy’s system better than the current bell cow, Jordan Howard. I expect Howard to be a Bear in 2019 but to be elsewhere in the years to follow, and now would be a nice time to draft his eventual replacement.
We as writers and fans can talk all we want about personnel improvements through the draft, free agency, and maybe even trades (you never know, but get any thought of Antonio Brown in a Bears uniform out of your head now). But any sizeable improvement from a fun, scrappy first round exit to a legitimate Super Bowl contender is going to come from the quarteback.
Mitch Trubisky was solid overall in 2018 (channels Stephen A. Smith voice), let me make that very very clear. But it would be BLASPHEMOUS (okay, that’s enough) to suggest that his promising yet inconsistent performance would be acceptable next season.
He needs to spend loads of time studying Matt Nagy’s playbook, as his coach dialed back the offense after Week Three, so that Nagy can expand his scheme and unleash its full potential. He needs to work on his mechanics so that disasters like the Sunday nighter against the Rams don’t happen again. And he needs to work with his receivers so that they can connect downfield on a more consistent basis.
The amount that Trubisky improves will be the difference in the 2019 Bears season. If he makes the leap that I expect him to make, Soldier Field will be selling NFC Championship tickets.
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