It’s time to be optimistic Chicago Bears fans.
As most people know the Bears are rebuilding the roster with youthful talent that possess the character and physical traits they are looking for to build up into a playoff, and ultimately Championship roster that can sustain that success for decades to come.
Contrary to popular belief by some this is not a full on rebuild. Bears are trying to win now with the vets they currently have guiding these talented youngsters along. Also they have drafted smart instinctive leaders of their teams (many were team captains) to reduce the learning curve rookies usually experience.
It’s pretty clear what the Bears were looking to do n the draft and veteran free agency. They have not only gotten athletes and youth, but emphasized intangibles too. Coach-able kids. Kids who were team captains. Leaders on and off the field. Guys that love football more than anything other than their family’s. Kids that will not have to be pushed to take one more snap in practice, push out three more sets on the squat rack, watch three more hours in the film room and don’t have to be punished to crank out a couple more laps around the field. They will have a team full of prepared, hard-working, well conditioned and fully committed players.
With that said I have five things that I will be expecting to see from this team that you may have seen attempts at in the past, but not quite achieved, because they did not have the right players in place.
Now they have two full years of restructuring this roster with all but a select few remaining from the roster that were here before Bears general manager Ryan pace and head coach John Fox took over at the beginning of the 2015 season.
1.) SPECIAL TEAMS WILL BE MUCH IMPROVED
In my mind the Bears were conscious of improving their special teams units in all five phases (punt coverage, punt return, Kickoff coverage, kickoff return, and field goal/extra point conversion units) when making a lot of these day 3 picks as well as their un-drafted guys. All have played special teams experience except for a few like Roy Robertson-Harris (but who is anxious to play on them) and some of their linemen like John “Kling Kong” Kling, and Dan Buchholz.
With Linebackers Nick Kwiatkoski and Don Cherry they have two heat seeking missiles running down in coverage and throwing neck breaking blocks to spring some productive returns. There is no doubt in my mind these two were profiled for this reason just as much if not more so as they may have been for their roles on defense.
Both bring a passion for applying contact, and have no hesitation giving up their bodies in an effort to make an impact on tackles and blocks. Both are also assignment sound and disciplined, as well as text-book tacklers.
The Bears then drafted and signed five defensive backs which adds five more athletes that can run and tackle, as well as add some athleticism to their coverage and return units. All have played on teams and some like Deon Bush and DeAndre Houston-Carter have starred on their college teams special teams. Houston-Carter had an absurd nine blocked kicks (3 returned for TD’s) in his career at William & Mary and Bush was a destructive force in special teams coverage as a hard-hitting gunner. Deiondre’ Hall will add some length to punt coverage, as well as trying to block field goals, and one point conversions and defending two pointers. Un-drafted defensive backs Kevin Peterson and Taveze Calhoun add a couple of players who can be gunners and blockers to get up-field quickly and decisively to either take on blockers or would be tacklers and making tackles or preventing them.
Jordan Howard was not drafted to be a special teams contributor and I’m not sure if it’s the Bears intent on using him on their special teams, but I have no doubt he’d be willing to crack some heads on their coverage and return units and maybe even add a possible returner to discourage short squib kicks.
They also added three very intriguing receivers who can factor in their return units as well as gunners in Liberty’s Darrin Peterson and Georgia Southern’s Derek Keaton who were added as priority free agents and will add fierce competition to the position to make the roster and force the bottom of that roster to ball out on teams to make or retain that roster spot. They also drafted Daniel Braverman who has the quick twitch stop start ability and the ability to cut on the dime that make guys like him a nightmare to cover on punts. He also has the sure hands to secure the unit and the speed (4.47) to take it all the way to the house.
They also added a couple throw back tight ends who would probably rather knock you on your ass on a block than catch a touchdown pass. Just watch their tape and you’ll see that as plain as day. Both will add competition to the coverage and return units as blockers and tacklers and will add an edge and toughness to that group once needed and badly missed in the past.
Lets not forget about the incumbents they retained and the free agents they signed. Guys like Sam Acho, Joshua Bellamy, Omar Bolden, Demontre Hurst, Sherrick McManis, Cameron Meredith, Senoris Perry, Chris Prosinski, Jacquizz Rodgers, and Deonte’ Thompson who may offer very little in the way of anything special on offense and defense even as backups, but put them on special teams and suddenly you have a bunch of valuable pieces to the special teams puzzle.
Expect special teams to add up to two more wins than last season on their own. This group has a chance to be among the games elite units not just this season but for many years to come. Don’t think that’s not what the hierarchy of the team was thinking too.
2.) BEARS WILL BE MORE MULTIPLE ON ALL FRONTS
With the new era of athletes being able to hold size and strength and still maintain athleticism and stamina everything is about hybridization which gives teams more Schematic and roster flexibility. Now teams are not bound by having to carry a certain number of players allocated per position groups.
Now you can keep that extra safety and cut the linebacker, because he’s also big enough to play linebacker in sub sets and hold up against the run as well as being athletic enough to be functional in coverage not to mention be that star gunner on special teams.
They can keep that extra tight end instead of that fringe offensive tackle, because he can block defensive ends one on one and still offer some special teams help and run routes out of the Y and line up in the backfield as a lead blocking H-back or catch a wheel route out of that formation. Of course this applies to many position groups on the roster.
What it also does is offer schematic advantages as you don’t have to substitute giving the opponent a tell to focus on and foil with the proper substitution to match up with and the right play call to foil. As most know by now (and if you don’t what cave have you been living in the past two seasons) this coaching staff is all about flexibility with their schemes.
This helps with the previously mentioned roster construction and allows them to acquire better talent without being shackled by system. It also helps you keep better athletes to help with your special teams.
Another thing it does is allow you to play various techniques, and schemes even within position groups. This is probably most relevant with line play on both sides of the ball. You can actually execute multiple blocking and pass rushing schemes individually and in tandem on the same play really causing confusion with your opponents counter.
As I also mentioned you can keep the same personnel in that can adjust to whatever the opponents throw at them.
For example you have a 6 man protection called weak side which is 4 down linemen Mike to Will and you’re in a one back set. Well having a tight end who is athletic enough, and smart enough to slide into the backfield to get the blitzing Sam to create the necessary 7 man protection from the 6 man to give the quarterback the protection he needs to set up and execute the pass helps with this versatility.
The examples are countless and can go on forever, but this is not a football 101 clinic. Just a general example to get my drift.
Perhaps the biggest reason for this is another year with the same group together. Coaches familiar with their personnel and their personnel familiar with them. It also helps when your incumbents know what’s going on to relay it down to the new guys both in-game and on the practice field.
Now the coaches can extend the playbook and add more to this group knowing they have the basic concepts down taught the season before.
3.) MORE PHYSICAL AT THE POINT OF ATTACK
If I’m beginning to sound redundant that’s because I am. With the learning curb narrowed with more familiarity and continuity among the incumbents, and the influx of new talent that fits the mold of what the coaching staff wants allows them to be more physical on both sides of the ball.
No more so than at the line of scrimmage which is where all football games are won and lost. The most physical team at the line of scrimmage overwhelmingly the amount of times wins. The reasons for this are various.
First reason is you have a bunch of “dawgs” on your team who have little regard for their bodies well-being and sell out on every play to physically dominate the man across the line of scrimmage from them. The Bears certainly have added these types of players the past two seasons.
This season there is not one player who would be considered a finesse player on the team. Kickers aside of course. All want and crave contact and more importantly initiate it rather than reacting to the initiation of contact.
Two: they have emphasized stocking the roster with smart and instinctive players which allows for a more attacking form of football. The sooner you know what’s going to happen the quicker you can react to whats about to happen and then react sooner than your opponent allowing you to play downhill and at full speed and force.
Three: is simply what I’ve been emphasizing this entire blog and that’s familiarity. If smarts and instincts matter than they matter even more when you know what’s expected out of you and your coaches know what to expect from you putting you in positions to best succeed. Also emphasizing players strengths and recognizing their weaknesses thus exploiting their strengths and avoiding their weaknesses.
Sure is easier being aggressive and physical when you’re not confused and eliminate hesitation. Most football players if not all are pretty tough. You have to be to be able to take the pain your body endures from this brutal sport. In my opinion you have to marry intellect, instincts, strength and athletic ability in order to reach a higher level of physicality. Knowing what the hell is going on when it is going on goes a long way towards making it happen.
4.) MORE EXPLOSIVE PLAYS ON OFFENSE
Here’s that word again; Familiarity.
Familiarity breeds continuity and continuity breeds excellence. The more you know about something the better you get at it. A basic life rule right? Well same applies to football obviously.
As all of us know by now it’s been a parade of coaches, players, and systems. This organization has been as stable as a tectonic plate shift. It’s the main reason why Cutler has been and continues to be unfairly judged and mercilessly criticized and blamed for everything from the Bears failures to the decaying ozone layer.
It’s really hard to play quarterback when not only you have to learn new things and new teammates and coaches every season, but these new players are also learning new things and affecting plays that may reflect badly on the quarterback. In this case Jay Cutler. Add the coaches having to learn new players as well as in some cases a new division and a new conference. This will certainly hinder your chances of having an explosive offense.
Also add in the improvement of personnel. The Bears certainly have a better crop of play-makers than they’d ever had. Some may argue against this citing the losses of Marshall, Forte and Bennett who were all top notch producers. While that certainly is true none of those three could be confused as explosive athletes which means probably less chance for explosive plays.
The Bears have put an emphasis on more quick twitch athletes. Not necessarily long speed types, but those who can shift and stop and start on the dime. With new editions like Kevin White (who was here but hasn’t played with the team yet), Daniel Braverman and Cody Whitehair this team has increased their ability to be able to play fast on the football field.
Bobby Massie aside the Bears have an extremely athletic offensive line. Massie isn’t exactly a stiff either for his size. But from left tackle to right guard they may have the four most athletic linemen in the league working in tandem with one another. A lot of people are down on Leno for some strange reason but his athletic ability can not be denied.
The interior of the Bears offensive line has a chance to be legendarily athletic. There’s no doubt the Bears will be a primarily zone based blocking team and to be anything else would be stupid. All three interior payers have played in and excelled at zone blocking. Long and Grasu played together at Oregon, and are extremely athletic. Whitehair has been trumpeted as one of the best guards to come out the last five years, and is without doubt the best by most accounts in this class for sure.
That inside zone blocking scheme should open up some massive holes allowing their backs to get a full head of steam eating up huge chunks of yardage downfield. Also with an athletic line comes second level blocks which will allow a lot of opportunities for 12+ yardage which is what’s classified as an explosive run play. Bears also have a good blocking wide receiver group with size and tenacity to add even more chunks of yardage to their runs.
Speaking of wide receivers this group looks to drastically increase their explosive play totals as well. In this case classified as 20+ yards. A group that includes White, Alshon Jeffery, Eddie Royal (hopefully healthy), Marquese Wilson, Marc Mariani, and Braverman there are some pretty interesting things that can be done schematically. There’s a good group behind those guys, but doubtful any make it on the 53. Those guys will either find jobs elsewhere or make the Bears taxi squad. Whether underneath with quick hot reads, slants and crossing routes or downfield in stride and on 50/50 balls there should be a bushel of explosive plays from their receiving group which also includes some of the most athletic tight ends assembled in the league.
Not all will make the team but with Miller, Ben Braunecker, Joe Sommers, and Rob Housler on the team they are assured to have at least two dynamic pass catchers and up to three out in routes. Khari Lee is a good athlete too with some upside. Of course this all has to play out as does any scenario from any team, but there is no denying the athletic gifts of this group and the many routes that can be run in the route tree.
With a combination of a power running game with big play capabilities powered by an athletic line running a zone scheme and a passing attack with a plethora of routes available in the route tree this should be an offense that produces a lot of big plays. Add in an improved defense and special teams providing more possessions and better field position I would not be surprised if this team ranked in the top 5 with explosive plays. Then you factor in a quarterback that can ball fake well and always has been a great play action player and also athletic enough to move around the pocket and run for a few firsts it should be a scary offense to defend.
5.) A SPIKE IN TURNOVERS
It wouldn’t take a high number of turnovers to improve on the meager 17 they produced last season, but I expect there to be a significant increase in turnovers. There are many reasons for this, but first and foremost is the likely-hood of increased pressure on the quarterback. It starts with a more healthy front seven and increased quality depth.
Last season the Bears signed Pernell McPhee to basically be the team captain on defense and show them how to be tough and physical or as McPhee puts it Dawgs. Well he was just that. Played brilliantly before being slowed down by a balky knee.
Despite that he managed to play sparingly, but remained the emotional and inspirational leader of the defense until eventually being shut down for good. Pro Football Focus had him rated with the highest pass rushing productivity rating ahead of more heralded players such as Von Miller and J.J. Watt.
Than there are the other two outside linebackers who were coming off season ending injuries requiring serious surgeries and intensive rehab in Lamarr Houston and Willie Young. Both got off to slow starts as expected coming off such devastating injuries. Well by mid season they both have kicked into a higher gear and were playing at a high level at seasons end and should be playing at that same level from the beginning of the 2016 season hopefully till the end of the season and beyond.
Eddie Goldman was another bright spot in the middle of that line and after a slow start himself as a rookie feeling his way turn it up a notch and was playing absolute dominant defensive tackle. He was shut down for the last game of the season after suffering a high ankle sprain in the 3rd quarter of the Bears week 16 match-up against the Tamp Bay Buccaneers. In season two his learning curve should be drastically reduced.
The Bears also have some exciting young talent returning that hasn’t had a chance to show their skills because of injuries in Ego Ferguson and Cornelius Washington. Both were showing tremendous progress and growth before having their seasons cut short with season ending injuries. Both figure to play mostly at end in the five technique, but show extreme versatility to play anywhere up and down the line and in Washington’s case even at outside linebacker in maybe some exotic sub sets or extreme emergency situations.
The defensive line also boasts recently added and ascending young talent Aikem Hicks along with the fairly young yet seasoned also ascending Mitch Unrien as well as pleasant surprise Bruce Gaston. All three (aside from Unrein who isn’t exactly old at 29) are very young, but also have a great deal of battle tested experience to add to a group that appears to have one of the leagues most envious defensive line rotations in all of the NFL. All of them offer the versatility to play all three defensive line positions making them virtually injury proof.
In Jonathan Bullard the Bears may have the league’s top five technique prospect picked in the third round providing amazing value with that pick. Bullard too can play all over the line and even shows the nimble feet to drop into coverage on zone blitzes and cause a lot of deflected passes for opportunistic teammates to snatch out of the air. Perhaps even haul in one or two himself.
A couple other guys to not count out of the equation are Roy Robertson-Harris, and Swamp Monster Terry Williams. In Robertson-Harris the Bears have an athletically gifted player who bring with him a freakish mix of size and athleticism. in that regards he reminds of former Bears defensive end Julius Peppers. Doesn’t have the pedigree of Peppers or college production and may be a smidgen less athletic, but he does have that same size/speed ratio that made Peppers (and still does) a nightmare to defend.
Terry Williams is probably the only true nose tackle type on the roster should the Bears decide to keep him and play some Oakie type 3-4 fronts. That’s not selling the kid’s athleticism short as he can move really well for a man his size. He can provide the type of blocker eating presence to keep all the high end athletes behind him clean to make big plays and cause some turnovers.
Add in Will Sutton who was a two time defensive player of the year in the Pac-12 the Bears have a quick gap penetrating tackle to play in their under tackle fronts to provide A and B gap heat in the face of the quarterback forcing back foot floaters out into the secondary to feast upon, or maybe even a few tipped balls to the ball hawking second level group.
Adding the length, speed and athleticism desperately needed to the outside linebacking group of the Bears Leonard Floyd figures to be the beneficiary of a stout group up front and three power rushing outside linebackers in McPhee, Houston, and the athletic but also powerful Young. Floyd should see a lot of free path’s to the quarterbacks or one on one’s with overmatched backs.
There were also some key additions made to the defense in both the veteran free agency period and the draft, as well as with the college priority free agency market. The secondary got a boost with five additions via the draft and the UDFA market that should increase the turnover total with some added ball skills to the back-end and on the outside. With draft picks Deon Bush, Deiondre’ Hall and DeAndre’ Houston-Carter they increased the ball skills in the back four. All have shown a propensity for creating turnovers, and being opportunistic.
Bush had just 4 INT’s in his four-year career at Miami (FL), but he did force a whopping 9 fumbles and recovered three himself. He can factor into the pressure packages to as he had four sacks which help contribute to turnovers.
Hall with his well publicized vine like arms hauled in 13 picks in his 46 games at Nothern Iowa. In his senior season he played primarily as a hybrid safety which shows you he is very good positioning himself and staying disciplined with his landmarks and watching the quarterbacks eyes and storming downhill for anything thrown his way. Those arms cover a lot of ground and he has an amazing catch radius to grab anything within his condor like wingspan.
DeAndre’ Houston-Carson Also brings sticky hands with 10 career picks. I highlighted his contributions on special teams with blocks which also counts as a turnover in my eyes. On top of the ridiculous nine blocks he returned three of them for scores on top of one 90 plus score on a pick six.
They also added a couple intriguing cornerbacks in the UDFA market in OSU’s Kevin Peterson and MSU’s Taveze Clahoun. Kevin Peterson was a team captain and was named first team all big-12 at his position. Played well against Cory Coleman, Josh Doctson and Sterling Sheppard who were all picked in the top 40 in this past draft. He’s also tough, smart and instinctive and although having only 5 picks in his career gets to a lot of balls that may turn into picks in the future.
Calhoun was part of one the nations best corner back tandems at Mississippi State. Had a very productive career ending with 6 picks, 3 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery, and a whopping 21 passes defended. The competition in camp will be fierce and should end up producing one of the most promising and deepest young secondaries in the league. Those that don’t make the 53 or Bears practice squad have a real chance to make another teams roster or practice squad.
The Bears figure to get more production from last seasons starting 5 as well among a group including Cornerbacks Kyle Fuller, Tracy Porter and Bryce Callahan who when playing together forced a shut down group that made it very difficult to complete passes against them. With an improved pass rush I expect multiple picks coming from all three players. You can include safeties Adrian Amos and Harold Jones-Qaurtey among those with multiple picks as well.
Also factor in the improved starters at ILB and overall depth at the entire linebacking crew. The Bears already had some intriguing youth to work with in Jonathan Anderson, John Timu, and Christian Jones. but then you add Leonard Floyd, Nick Kwiatkoski, and Don Cherry to the mix and you figure to have transformed one of the poorest position groups in all of football just two short seasons ago to one of the best young and deepest groups in all of football. Lamin Barrow might even have something to say about things before camp breaks and rosters are set as he brings a lot of speed coming from LSU which does noting but produce NFL talent year in year out. Everyone mentioned outside of possibly Timu and maybe Anderson can cover with excellent hands and good ball skills. Again there figures to be a lot of turnovers in the way of picks, as well as forced fumbles and recoveries.
Factor in the additions of Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman who both can cover, blitz, and hit you with jarring tackles and you figure this to be a defense that goes from one of the most barren turnover producing groups in team history to a turnover creating machine. This defense has a chance to make one of the leagues most drastic jumps in recent memory.
PUTTING A CAP ON IT
There is a lot of negativity coming from the national media about the Bears chances of being a good team despite national acclaim and approval from the same national media in regards to their off season acquisitions in both Veteran free agency and the draft. I believe a lot of this out of town stupidity is due in part to the same Cutler hate narrative distrusting him and putting way too much stock in what Adam Gase’s role was last season. Also the unknown of what Dowell Loggaines will bring to the table.
When you look at the brilliant job Pace and Fox did at assembling tough, smart, instinctive players who were leaders of their former teams locker rooms and n field (many of them being team captains) and at the amazing value all of them came at, you can’t help but conclude they’ll definitely contend in the division and the NFC.
They also added some great athletes to the mix for an absolutely 5 star coaching staff to coach up with a history of developing talent in all shapes and sizes, all rounds and all college conferences. The football character is off the charts on this roster, and with the will to achieve excellence there’s no doubt this rebuild will accelerate to contention in just one years time by my evaluation.
All you have to do is see how close they were to winning a post season bid last season coming within 2 missed field goals, a missed interception by Antrel Rolle, and a dropped pass by Jeremy Langford which all would have sealed games at being a 10 win team which would have been good enough for the playoffs last season. This despite dealing with a ton of injuries and not having the depth to compensate with an already unremarkable talented team to begin with. Imagine what this coaching staff can do with this roster.
The Bears figure to put an entertaining brand of football to Chicago as well as a winning one at the same time. one that will play with physicality on both sides of the ball as well as special teams, have big explosive plays in all three phases, and play with a high football intellect eliminating frustrating plays and even more frustrating losses. Goodbye bad, dumb football hello playoff contention.