Here it is folks. All through the ups and downs of Cubs and White Sox baseball; through the disappointment of Bulls basketball; through the rainstorms and the cold beers on hot Illinois summer days: we made it to football season. In this edition of the TSBN, I’ll explore the top three things to watch at the Chicago Bears training camp.
Fall is my favorite season. As a kid growing up in the Northern suburbs of Chicago, fall meant the weather changing. Back to school; I was a nerd that loved school, and of course, Chicago Bears football. Heading into camp, the Chicago Bears have three things to watch that will lead to their success or failure in the 2021 season.
Dinner is Served
The beginning course of our five-course football entree is when the Bears report to camp. Bears camp always started the week of my birthday, and this year is no different. As I turn the big 4-0 this Wednesday, I will be once again revelling in Chicago Bears football news. Growing up, the Bears always had their training camp in Platteville, Wisconsin. I always wanted to make the trip up there but it never happened.
Watching Ditka, Harbaugh, and the Fridge sweat it out in the boonies of Wisconsin, it always looked fun to see grown men working their butts off to be great at a game. Then I grew up and the Bears moved on to Bourbonnais. I never made the trip to Bourbonnais either and those are regrets I’ll have to live with. Now the Bears will run their camp from Halas Hall, which still feels strange.
Camp Halas Hall
Halas Hall facilities look fantastic, but call me sentimental; I always liked the Bears taking off for some strange location to practice their craft. It makes sense for the Bears to stay close to Halas Hall but I’ll miss the days when the Bears left town. There was a collegial feel to the training camp; these young guys with all this money head to the dorm with one another in small college towns. It felt like Remember the Titans and there was something pure to that feeling. Those were the good ole days, the Bears at college towns, and mediocre expectations on the way. Times have changed.
The Bears now have a franchise quarterback, so pushing nostalgia aside, Bears football is here. With training camp just around the corner, there is no shortage of storylines. Here are the top three things I will be watching in camp. Now excuse me, as I take a stroll down memory lane, revisit my youth, and expel all the ghosts of Bears Quarterback past.
1. The Quarterbacks
I learned long ago, never bury the lead. All eyes are on Justin Fields and that will be the story of the 2021 Chicago Bears. Will he start game one? Who knows. Andy Dalton is a solid QB in the NFL and with a $10 million contract, I believe he gets every opportunity to start. That said, Justin Fields isn’t a “raw” prospect.
Fields attempted 618 attempts in his college career. He played for a top-three program at OSU and he played in the college football playoffs both years at Ohio State. He has played on the college games’ biggest stage and he was simply dominant. Field’s greatest asset is his mind. This is a player who was looking at going to Harvard, Yale, or Stanford before he took off his junior year at Harrison High in Georgia. Fields is a big, fast, strong-armed QB that has the intangibles and the intelligence to be a 15 years starter for the Bears. His time is coming.
Matt Nagy has repeatedly said that Fields will play when he is ready; who knows what that means. In an ideal world, Dalton plays great, starts the season and the Bears are winning with AD behind center. I don’t see this as a likely scenario, however. The Bears have a tough schedule. Matt Nagy and Ryan Pace not only need to win, they need to get the fanbase back on their side. This is a far different situation than the one Nagy saw in Kansas City with Alex Smith and Patrick Mahomes.
Andy Reid was firmly entrenched as the head coach. Alex Smith was entering his third year in the system and the Chiefs were 12-4 and winners of their division in 2016. The Bears have none of these things. Dalton is playing in his first year in Nagy’s system, Nagy is on the hottest of seats and so is his boss. If the Bears go 1-2 or, heaven forbid, 0-3 to start the year, I don’t see how Fields isn’t the starter come game four against the Lions at home.
All We Need Is Time
This will be an ongoing situation to watch, and as excited as all Bears fans are, this is hopefully year 1 of 18 for Justin Fields in the blue and orange, so patience will be needed. Patience may not be available but we shouldn’t rush to any conclusions.
This year will be about Justin Fields’ development. Bears fans have waited 80 years for a franchise QB. The best-case scenario is the Bears are a good team with Dalton and we all wait one more year for the Justin Fields experience to begin.
2. The Secondary
There is no greater question mark on the Chicago Bears than their secondary. The Bears lost arguably their best player in the secondary in Kyle Fuller. Fuller is a quasi pro-bowl CB who will thrive with Vic Fangio in Denver. He will be missed in Chicago. With Jimmy Graham still on the Bears, there is no doubt that Kyle Fuller should be in Chicago and Jimmy shouldn’t but that’s a story for a different day.
With the loss of Fuller, the Bears will try to cobble together a secondary that is likely to get exposed. Jaylon Johnson had an excellent rookie year in Chicago. He lead all rookie DB’s in passer ratings against. Johnson is a long-bodied, smooth athlete that can play with today’s larger receivers but there are still holes in his game. He was beaten badly on a couple of plays last year and he will struggle with smaller wide receivers that can run past him. Fuller struggled with this too. Johnson also has a lingering shoulder injury that goes back to his college days at Utah. He is a good, ascending player, with developmental holes he will need to work on.
On the other side of Johnson will be Desmond Trufant, a journeyman, former 1st round CB who turned 30 this year. Trufant showed flashes in his career but he has also had the injury bug creep up, only playing in 6 games last year for the Lions. If, and it’s a big if, but if Trufant can stay healthy, the Bears may have found an answer at starting CB in 2021 but look for the Bears to upgrade the cornerback position in 2022.
Kindle Vindor and Thomas Graham will compete for a starting spot but will more than likely work in as nickel corners and make a name on special teams. Duke Shelley is slotted in as the slot corner. Shelley is a twitchy, smaller DB that will face many accomplished receivers out of the slot, including Davante Adams, Adam Thielen, and Justin Jefferson twice this year. There is much exposure for this young secondary and the Bears will have to find ways to put their young DB’s in a position to be successful.
Thomas Graham is a name to remember. The Bears 6th round pick was seen as a 3rd or possible 2nd round player after his junior season at Oregon. He opted out of his senior year due to COVID-19 and he could be another late-round gem that Ryan Pace and his staff have found in their six drafts.
Big Money Eddie
The big name is Eddie Jackson. Eddie Jackson was compensated as the highest-paid safety in the game after 2019 and there was plenty of reason for his payday. Jackson is a playmaker. Having scored 3 touchdowns in his 4 years in the league (having 3 others called back due to penalty), Jackson is seen as a roving safety that reads, anticipates, and jumps the ball as good as any safety in the league.
Jackson has 10 picks, 31 passes defended, 7 forced fumbles, and 6 fumble returns in his four-year career. Just as Jackson was approaching superstardom, the last few seasons Eddie Jackson’s weaknesses have been exposed.
Jackson is not a great tackler. His poor angles and half-hearted attempts are clear on film. The New Defensive Coordinator, Sean Desai, will have to find ways to bring back Jackson’s juju and put him in positions to be successful.
The Other Guys
Solid box safety, Tashaun Gibson is back on a one-year deal. Hopefully, in his second year with the Bears, he will be more of a 4th linebacker in the box, while Jackson is used to roam, play deep, and use his tremendous football IQ to makes more plays. The Bear’s secondary needs to create turnovers. Turnovers were the key to the Bear’s defensive success in 2018 and they will once again be tested in the NFC North.
Ryan Pace and the Bears brass have taken a risk. They believe, with Justin Fields in town, they can cut corners on other layers of the team and Fields will be able to elevate the offense to a position where a top 15 defense can still make noise. Fields is not there yet and the Bears defensive secondary will have to take great strides in order for the Bears to become successful. The secondary will have to eliminate big plays, make their own big plays, and defend even when the Bears pass rush does not get home. This is the biggest question mark on the team and the secondary’s play will dictate the outcome of the Bears 2021 season.
3. The Pass Rush
The secondary’s question marks can be greatly improved if the Bears pass rush is improved. I purposely have listed the pass rush and not the defensive line because, with Eddie Goldman coming back, the Bear’s defensive line should be solid once again against the run. The Bear pass rush, however, will need to vastly improve.
Khalil Mack is seen by many as the best edge linebacker in the NFL. His production in the last few years has not mirrored his reputation. PFF ranked Mack as the number one edge in football and he is a great all-around player but the Bears need more big plays than a couple of games a year out of Mack. He once again needs to be a weekly force.
Not the Same Guy
Watching the Bear’s defense in December and in their ugly one-game playoff loss Mack was nowhere to be found. Ryan Pace later stated that Mack was dealing with a back injury. Back injury or not, Mack was on skates was not impactful down the stretch. Mack will need to find a way to get pressure on the QB if the Bears are going to be successful in 2021.
The hope is that Sean Desai uses Mack primarily as a pass rusher and very little in pass coverage. Khalil Mack should average 15 sacks a year, not nine. After his triumphant first year in Chicago Mack’s production has fallen. Now at 30 years old, this is a make or break year for Khalil Mack. Will he once again dominate and lead the Bears defense into a juggernaut or will he be lost in the shuffle; a player appreciated for what he was in his prime but not a game wrecker that scares opposing offenses. This year may be the beginning of the end of Khalil Mack in Chicago.
Dr. Quinn, Medicine Man
On the other side of Mack is the greatest individual question mark on the Chicago Bears squad: Robert Quinn. Quinn signed a long-term, five-year deal entering his age 30 season. Signing a 5 year, $70 million contract at his age was always going to be a question mark but Ryan Pace will face much-earned scrutiny if Quinn faceplants once again. Quinn started the year with a high ankle injury and he has been productive in his career. He is one of the best DE in creating pressure in the 3 years prior to becoming a Bear and he will have to make his mark beyond his two sacks on the season.
Sacks aren’t everything, the greatest stat for any pass rusher is their disruption rate. Surprisingly, Robert Quinn was top ten at a 15% disruption rate per nfl.com rankings. This is good news. Quinn was still a presence and he should get home more in 2021. Everyone loves sacks and Robert Quinn knows sacks are king for a pass rush but if Quinn can continue his high pass rush disruption rate, he should be able to disrupt opposing offenses and help the Bears improve from their middling sack percentage of 5.79%.
Men in the Middle
The Bears will also need help in the middle of their defensive line. Bilal Nichols came on strong in his third year and one more year of improvement should help Nichols get a second contract with the Bears. In all likelihood, this is Akiem the Dream’s last year in Chicago. Hicks has been great. He is a force on and off the field, a team leader, and a guy that is missed when he has been hurt. He has not been the same dude since 2018.
After an injury-plagued 2019 season where Hicks only played in 5 games, Hicks played almost a full season (15 games) in 2020. He was good, but not dominant. The big question is does Hicks have any more left in the tank? Can he still dominate centers and guards and get push up the middle? Time will tell.
The End is Near
He can still disrupt both the pass and the run game, but Hicks is entering the twilight of his career. Entering his tenth year in the league Hicks will be looked upon as a team leader and will need to make plays to help his buddies on the edge as well as Nichols, Goldman, and the other role players the Bears brought in for depth on their d-line. Quarterbacks hate nothing more than pressure up the middle, and the more Nichols and Hicks get off their blocks and push the QB to the outside, the more damage Mack and Quinn will be able to do.
The Bears pass rush wasn’t horrible, it was average. In fact, there were a few games they were dominant in; the Tampa Bay game comes to mind. This is a pass rush that will have to take steps forward to mask a questionable secondary, to make teams fear them, and to help the Bears have a successful 2021.
The Bears do not have one of the NFL’s best roster, but they aren’t one of the worst rosters either. This is more a roster in transition. With Ryan Pace’s many failings, this is a team that is cash strapped, aging on defense, and will have to play above expectations to make the playoffs in 2021. None of that will matter.
The Bears have a potential franchise QB. Great QB’s elevate all players. Not just offensive players: all players. Football is the ultimate team sport, and if the offense is rolling, the defense can make opposing offenses one dimensional and go to work. Fields has the look of a guy that can lead not only the other 10 guys in the huddle but an entire franchise. If everyone believes in number 1, everyone will work that much harder to win for number 1. Fields has that gift. He is charismatic, mature, and a straight gamer. The Bears were extremely fortunate he fell to number 11 and they were able to make a move to grab him.
With the Justin Fields pick, there is hope once again at Halas Hall, and this should radiate throughout the entire building. Justin Fields will dominate the next 5 weeks of Chicago Bears football but watch for what happens in the secondary and all reports about the Bears pass rushers. First reports have said Quinn entered camp early and looks great. We shall see.
The Future is Now
2021 is a developmental year. If the Bears go 7-10 or 6-11 but Fields looks great, Bears fans will be elated about their future. However, players don’t think like that. One game at a time, one practice at a time, stack good days one on top of another. Fields will dominate the headlines but he will not be the main reason for the Bear’s successes or failings in 2021. The Bear’s secondary and pass rush will need to improve, closeout games which they had trouble with last year, and dominate opposing offenses.
Last year, the Bears were destroyed by the Packers on a Sunday Night game 42-25. That game looked much like an embarrassing Sunday Night Game that lead to Marc Trestman and Phil Emery’s departure. The offense was a mess all year, and that night the Bear’s defense looked like toast. The Bears will have a lot of retooling to do over the next 2-3 years on defense. All roads lead to helping Justin Fields win a championship.
A Solid Defense: Not a Great One
History proves the defense doesn’t have to be the greatest of all time if a team has an elite QB. The defense can’t be terrible though. The Bears need their defense to be decent in 2021, a little better than average. If the Bears are going to succeed, they will need to take a step forward in 2021 from where they were in 2020.
They have the talent to progress. Khalil Mack, Roquan Smith, and Eddie Jackson will have to play like all-pro players in order for the Bears to make the playoffs in 2021. The top three things at Chicago Bears training camp I will be watching are the QB’s, the secondary, and the Bears pass rushers. Those are the areas of most intrigue and I can’t be more thrilled to tune in.