We all know the obvious number one on this list. The player whose 2019 season will either be the starting point for an unprecedented period of success at quarterback or a grim reminder of a once-proud franchise’s struggles to find an answer at the position, Mitchell Trubisky, clearly has the most to prove out of any Chicago Bear in 2019. I already spent 850 words explaining as much late last month.
That’s why I’m excluding him from this piece, and choosing to spotlight five other players who have the most on the line this season in terms of reputation, future contract opportunities, or establishing themselves as legitimate weapons on an NFL roster.
“Shaheen looks thinner.” “Shaheen looks faster.” “Shaheen is having an excellent offseason.”
These are the rumblings about the third-year tight end out of Ashland that have been coming out of Halas Hall in the past few months. If they sound at all familiar, it’s because the same sentiments had circulated at this time last year, and all throughout training camp. The result was a disappointing season that was cut short by injury and saw no real effectiveness from Shaheen when he was healthy.
The explanation from Shaheen fans (like myself) will be that the ankle injury he suffered during a preseason game in Denver halted his progress – progress he made once again this past offseason. Fine, but he has to stay healthy and show said progress this year. Ben Braunecker is knocking at the door, and unlike Shaheen, he has a place on nearly every special teams unit. It’s conceivable that if Shaheen’s struggles continue, Braunecker will take the majority of his reps. If that happens, the book on the former second round pick’s Bears career will be all but written, with one word ringing loud and clear: “Bust.”
Burton’s 2018 season went from mildly disappointing to excruciatingly perplexing on the Saturday night before the Bears’ playoff game, when he went down with a relatively serious groin injury. Yes, Matt Nagy is well-known for his tendency to spread the ball around, but a tight end worth $32 million and given three guaranteed years on the roster at a high price should do better than 569 yards and six touchdowns.
Assuming he’s healthy for at least part of training camp, it’ll be interesting to see how the fifth-year man out of Florida is utilized in the early stages of the Bears’ 2019 scheme. Travis Kelce played a much more expansive role in Nagy’s 2017 offense than Burton did last year; some of that is due to Kelce being a freak in all facets, but Burton was brought in under the expectation that and compensated like he’d fill a similar niche. The TE screens weren’t there, the shovel passes weren’t nearly as successful, and yards after catch was an afterthought for the former Eagle.
If Burton is to prove worthy of his hefty payday this season, his numbers and the diversity of his all-purpose role as the U in Nagy’s scheme will both need to see a significant spike.
At the Bears’ 100-year celebration, there was a very interesting Sunday panel that included Director of Player Personnel Josh Lucas, Assistant Director of Player Personnel Champ Kelly, and Director of College Scouting (who really enjoyed my White Sox hat) Mark Sadowski. Among the intriguing statements made by the panel was their shock at how little they had to pay in order to acquire Clinton-Dix in free agency. To be specific, he signed a one-year deal worth about $3 million.
However, his decision to take the Bears’ offer when he had more immediately lucrative ones out there was a very sound one from a financial perspective. Would you rather take a two or three year deal with a non-playoff team and probably give up any opportunity for a massive multi-year offer in the future, or become part of the best secondary in football where your talents can shine more freely for a year, opening the door for a pay day?
Clinton-Dix chose option B, taking a calculated risk and betting on himself, but it’s up to him now to take care of his issues in tackling while maintaining his ball-hawking prowess. If he can’t, and the Bears’ secondary can’t hide his flaws, his days as a guaranteed starter on an NFL team may be over.
For what it’s worth, I think Robinson will knock the lofty expectations for his 2019 season out of the park. His massive Wild Card game against Philadelphia was, in my view, a glimpse of things to come, and throughout the season he showed flashes of becoming the true number one receiver that the Bears paid for last year.
There were other points throughout this season, however, at which Robinson struggled to maintain his effectiveness over a full 60 minutes. His effort in fighting for contested catches was called into question at times as well. Both can be attributed to not feeling 100% after his devastating knee injury, but he’ll need to prove that this year and put up stats that mirror a legitimate top target.
If he doesn’t, he very well could be on his way out. Cutting Robinson would save the Bears enough money to keep an extra player or two on defense, as I explained here. If he shows that he’s too necessary to the offense’s success to release – and again, I fully believe that he will – he’ll be welcomed back with open arms for at least another season. But if he doesn’t, Ryan Pace could be faced with a difficult decision.
Floyd has established himself as a useful player. He’s put on more than enough muscle to become a stout run defender, he has enough speed to contain and chase down any NFL quarterback, and he can help out in the slot against run-dominant teams when the Bears need to use their base package frequently (the Rams, for example).
That does not measure up to what the Bears expected when they drafted Floyd ninth overall in 2016, though. Floyd hasn’t been able to win one-on-ones consistently enough to be a premier pass rusher, not to mention the constant injury issues he’s faced over the past three years.
The Bears, correctly, picked up Floyd’s fifth-year option for about $13 million. Barring injury, however, that $13 million is completely non-guaranteed. It’s also, I would argue, too much for a cap-strapped team to pay a player of Leonard Floyd’s caliber. $8 million, maybe even $10 million? Sure. $13 million? No.
If Floyd can’t develop into a more fearsome pass rusher, the Bears could be forced to rescind that fifth-year option and find someone who is either cheaper or better than Floyd, while retaining players like Danny Trevathan and/or Prince Amukamara. It’s one of many tough choices Ryan Pace will be forced to make next year, but Floyd could make it for him by proving his doubters wrong in 2019.