How Will Matt Nagy Run His Offense?
The Chicago Bears offense enters 2021 with a clear mandate: Groom Justin Fields to be a franchise QB. There is no bigger goal than making sure Justin Fields is placed in an environment where he can thrive. A big part of that development will be the position players surrounding Fields.The other part will be the coaching development of Fields.
Matt Nagy has not been a respected coach. He reminds me of Rodney Dangerfield with no respect. I’ve had frustrations with Nagy as well but the man has gone 28-20 in three years. He’s never had a losing season and he has made the playoffs 2 out of 3 years. He has done so with Mitch Trubisky (a backup Bills QB), Chase Daniel (a perennial backup QB), and Nick Foles (the ultimate backup QB). Not exactly Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, or Aaron Rodgers on that QB list. Matt Nagy is a good coach in the NFL. He has done more with Ryan Pace’s failings than fans will admit.
Is Nagy Bad?
Nagy has had some boneheaded plays (field goal against San Diego in 2019) and his play calling (7 runs vs San Diego) has left much to be desired (7 total run plays against San Diego in 2019) The real problem is that Nagy hasn’t found his rhythm. He hasn’t defined who he is as a play-caller. He loves to pass, this is known. To put numbers to his passing, the Bears pass game has increased in attempts all three years with Nagy in town. In 2018 the Bears had 510 pass attempts, in 2019, 580 pass attempts, and last year 614 attempts. I understand that Bill Lazor took over play-calling the last six weeks but Nagy still had his fingerprints all over the offense.
The irony is that the Bears offense did find its identity the last 6 weeks of the 2020 season. They ran the offense through David Montgomery behind an improved offensive line.The question is will Nagy have the will to run the ball again. Whether it’s Andy Dalton or Justin Fields under center, Nagy will have to establish the run in order to set up play-action to allow his rookie QB or his limited veteran the opportunity to succeed.
Matt Nagy was the offensive coordinator for only one year during his tenure in KC. In that year Kareem Hunt was the rushing champion as a rookie and Alex Smith was a legitimate MVP candidate. I have faith that Nagy knows what he’s doing. He is a solid CEO coach that the players respect and he has won a lot of football games with a severely limited QB position. This is hard to do and no small thing.
Speaking of running the football, the Bears need to establish the run early and often in 2021. Teams now understand with a 17th game they are going to need fresh bodies for a late playoff surge. Enter Damien Williams and Khalil Herbert as backups to David Montgomery. What is interesting is that Nagy tends to be a coach that uses one running back and then sprinkles in plays for other RB’s. David Montgomery has the ability to be a top 10 NFL back and he should be utilized as much but there are playmakers behind him that can keep him fresh.
Ideally, Monty should have 15-20 touches per game, figure Tarik Cohen coming back off of an ACL tear will get 5-8 looks per game than Williams and Herbert another 5-8 looks per game. There are usually between 60-65 play calls per game. In an ideal world, there would be a 50/50 split, 30 rushes for backs, 30-35 passing attempts. This is rare in the NFL in 2021. This would mean the offense is in control, in rhythm and they are moving the ball with the grind and not slinging the rock 45 times a game.
In Nagy’s history, he has split the pass about 65-35 pass calls to run calls. If the Bears hope to contend this year, they will need a 58-42 split on average. Now, this doesn’t mean Nagy can’t use his backs out of the backfield. David Montgomery has great hands and could be a featured back that touches the ball 25-30 times a game. However, Nagy loves to use Tarik Cohen and his skillset was missing after week 3 when he tore his ACL.
RB touches do not only mean runs. In Nagy’s three years he has averaged 132 targets to his RB’s. Tarik Cohen alone saw 91 targets in 2018 and 114 targets in 2019. This proves that Nagy wants to use Tarik Cohen in the passing game. That is an average of 6 targets per game for Cohen in his two fully healthy years with Nagy. Now add in David Montgomery, Williams, and Herbert who is all solid pass-catching backs, and I could see 150 targets this year to RB’s (8.82 TPG).
The Bears have talent at the RB position. They took two offensive linemen in the 2021 draft. Nagy saw from the sidelines that his team can thrive with an RB-heavy attack. This will limit what both Dalton and Fields need to do to win games. The offensive line should be better in 2021. The Bear’s offensive line has consistently rated as a bottom ten-line the last three years. With Tevin Jenkins, Pro bowler Cody Whitehair, improving Sam Mustipher, a healthy James Daniels, and either Germain Ifedi or Larry Borom at right tackle, I suspect the Bears can be a top 18 offensive line if they stay healthy. This should allow Nagy to get into more of a rhythm as a play-caller and utilize his talented backs to sustain a long 17 game season.
The Bears Wide Receiver group begins and ends with Allen Robinson. ARob has the ability to be the greatest Bears wide receiver of all time. Sadly, it looks like ARob’s last year in blue and orange maybe 2021. Robinson should have been extended a year ago but as it stands, Arob’s camp and the Bears camp aren’t budging. Beyond 2021 it will be an error to let Robinson walk but for 2021 he should be the centerpiece of the passing game. Robinson, like Matt Nagy, has been dominant with poor QB play. Allen Robinson has been the WR8 and WR9 in fantasy football for the last 2 years. He has had over 150 targets in each of those years and has put up an average of 100 catches for 1200 yards and 6 touchdowns the last two years. ARob is dominant at all levels.
He’s also is a ball hog. Nagy knows where his talent lies. His target share has averaged 26 percent the last two years, meaning more than a fourth of all passing attempts have gone his way. I don’t see that changing in 2021. I do see Darnell Mooney taking the next step. One aspect of Mooney’s game we didn’t get to see in 2020 was his deep-ball ability. Mooney has a legit chance to be a dominant number two receiver for years to come in Chicago. I don’t believe he will be a number one receiver.
Mooney to the Moon
Mooney had a phenomenal rookie year. He set the rookie reception record with 61 receptions. Now the history of Chicago Bears QB’s and WR’s has not been an Mt. Rushmore of talented pass and catch mates but for a fifth-round pick, Mooney far exceeded expectations. He had a 16 percent target share and had 631 yards with four tuddies. The best part about Mooney’s game is he was seen as a top taker. A dude that takes the top off the defense and opens up the middle of the field.
He is fast. Mooney ran a sub 4.4 forty (4.38) at the NFL combine last year. He is a small WR at 5’10 and 180 pounds but he was a solid possession receiver last year. The thing about Mooney though is he gets open, he has sure hands (2 drops), and he can fly with the ball after the catch. The element he should improve on is his deep ball prowess. Fields has a great deep ball which should really open up the deep ball element for Mooney in his second year. This is where Darnell Mooney can really take a step and be a true difference-maker for an improved Bears offense.
The Best of the Rest
The rest of the receiving group will be a work in progress. I am not sure Anthony Miller is still on the Bears roster when the season opens. He is a second-round pick with talent but between being called out by ownership, nagging injuries, and reported memory lapses on his routes, I don’t believe Anthony Miller will be a large part of what the Bears do in the passing game.
Riley Ridley, Javon Wims, Marquise Goodwin, Damiere Byrd, and Dazz Newsome will all vie for the final wide receiver spots. If Miller sticks, then I will say the Bears keep Javon Wims, Damiere Byrd, and the 5th round rookie Dazz Newsome. If Miller is traded I could see Ridley getting one more shot to impress. With an average of 95 targets spread out amongst all receivers other than the first or second receiver, there will not be much room for whoever makes the team make noise with limited targets.
Once again the passing game will run through Allen Robinson. If healthy, he will see 160 targets, 105 receptions, 1300 yards, and 8 touchdowns. Mooney should take a step and up to his 61 receptions. I see 110 targets, 78 receptions, 850 yards, and 5 touchdowns from Mooney. There are playmakers in this offense but the Bears will once again lean on their outstanding alpha WR ARob and look for Mooney to take the next step in his progression.
The Bears Tight End room needs to take a step forward to be a security blanket for both Dalton and Fields. As a new QB in this offense, Dalton will need a presence in the middle of the field and in the red zone. As a rookie, Justin Fields will need a big target in his line of vision to help his learning curve. The Tight Ends will have to improve. It is still shocking Jimmy Graham is a Bear. He surprised a few folks with his production in 2020 but with a $7 million hit to the cap, I thought Jimmy Graham would have been an expendable cap casualty.
Rarely is it an either-or, but if the choice was Graham or Kyle Fuller, who the Bears let go in March, Fuller would have been the smarter option to keep. The Bears chose Graham and for one more year, he will be a big body in the red zone the Bear’s QB’s can throw it up to.
The big story will be how much of a leap can Cole Kmet take? Kmet was widely regarded as the best tight-end prospect in the 2020 draft. Coming out of Notre Dame he excelled against top competition (his game against Georgia), he was seen as a big body, with soft hands that can move. Kmet and Graham play different tight end positions but Kmet was supposed to be the top dawg at TE this year. His breakout may have to wait one more year, but look for Kmet to improve and be a featured playmaker more than in his rookie year.
Kmet Takes a Step
It takes tight ends a while to acclimate to the NFL. They have to learn how to be receivers and blockers and figure out their roles in the passing game. Nagy’s offense typically features the tight end and Kmet should become an 80 reception a year player. His stats will improve from last year and when Justin Fields gets his time to shine, Kmet should have a coming-out party towards the end of the year.
Kmet’s time is coming but with Jimmy G. there I see the tight end group improving slightly in 2021 and then Kmet shining in 2022 and beyond. Jimmy Graham should have around 60-65 targets for 40-45 catches and 6-8 touchdowns. He is still 6’6, 260, and is one of the best box-out tight ends the game has ever seen (in his prime). He can be a presence in the red zone. Kmet should increase on his 44 targets and 28 receptions. Kmet should have around 60 targets for 40-45 catches 500 yards and 3-5 touchdowns.
This is a group that needs to form its own identity within the offense. In all west coast offenses, going back to the Bill Walsh days, tight ends have been prominent in the offense. Travis Kelce in KC, Zach Ertz in Philly, Darren Waller in Oakland. All those offenses have similar west coast concepts where Graham and Kmet should shine in 2021. With the Justin Fields selection, he will need his big body tight ends to lean on and this group could be the wildcard in the Bears offensive success in 2021.
Coordinating the Offense
The Chicago Bears offense has talent. They are not ready to be a top-five or even top 10 caliber offense but 2021 should provide Justin Fields and Matt Nagy enough offensive infrastructure to showcase what they can be in the future. If Fields is a generational talent as Ryan Day believes he is, then everyone in the offense gets better. Nagy all of a sudden looks like a genius and the offense can finally begin to compete with the Bear’s defensive history. The Bear’s offense should feature more David Montgomery, more play-action, more deep ball accuracy, and more secondary players to surround Allen Robinson. With an improved offensive line and improved QB play the Bears could be a playoff contender able to make some noise in the offseason.
This year is all about Justin Fields’ development but unlike Mitch Trubisky and even Rex Grossman before him, Fields should have plenty of talent to work with and should be able to excel by the end of the season. My strong feeling is Justin Fields is simply too good to start the year as a backup. He is too accurate, too fast, too intelligent to sit. The best players play. Dalton is new to the system, although he is a vet he has a high learning curve as well.
Fields should be the starter on day one when the Bears take on LA. If this is the case then the Bears can start to build their future now in the present and the excitement, for good reason, of all Chicago land will be off the charts. Good things are coming to the Bear’s offense, now all we have left is to see it happen.