After another long off-season, Chicago Bears Training Camp is finally here. With new beginnings comes renewed hope and, unlike last year, the Bears are facing higher expectations.
The 2016 season marks the second year of the Ryan Pace/John Fox era in Chicago. While these Bears aren’t expected to contend for a Super Bowl title this year, most anticipate sizable improvements, especially after the second installment of their roster overhaul.
Last year, I had the Bears projected exactly where they finished at 6-10 - it was the first time in a long time I’ve got that right - and overall they performed about to my expectations.
This year, the stakes are higher. Playoffs won't affect the short-term future of Bears brass, including the front office, but this is a team that needs to show improvement and take the next step.
Fox has a history of second-year leaps, as seen in Carolina where he took a 7-9 team to 11-5 and, even more impressively, when he took the Broncos from 8-8 to 13-3 in Year 2. The latter was of course with Peyton Manning at quarterback but his sophomore-year improvement with the Panthers came with Jake Delhomme under center.
Injuries, letdowns and surprises always play their part during every NFL season, so how good and how bad could the Bears be in 2016?
There’s two ways of looking at this. You either feel that proven talent walked out the door and has been replaced with unproven players, or you see aging veterans - two of whom were more problematic than they were worth - being replaced by young talent with upside.
It’s no secret the Bears are looking to get younger but they did so by taking risks at three top-producing positions.
Best-case scenario for this unit is quite simple. If WR Alshon Jeffery can stay healthy, he’s set to put up a monster season, especially going into yet another contract year. Kevin White was selected 7th overall in last year’s draft for a reason and could put up Amari-Cooper-like numbers (72-1,070-6) in his first true season as a pro.
No one individual can replace Matt Forte but with a running back combination of Jeremy Langford’s speed, Jordan Howard’s short-yardage ability, and Ka’Deem Carey’s bruiser mentality and surprising burst, this group could compliment each other very well and keep each other fresh.
In order for the run game to be successful, the new-look offensive line must gel quickly. With RG Kyle Long and newcomer RT Bobby Massie, the right side of the line should be the strength of the front five. Charles Leno showed long-term promise at left tackle last season but with Hroniss Grasu, Cody Whitehair, and Ted Larsen, there are question marks at left guard and center. Ideally Grasu wins the center job and plays at a much higher level than he did as a rookie, while Whitehair lines up at left guard and has a Kyle-Long-type first season. If that happens, or if Larsen proves to be adept along the interior, this line will be above average.
If things go in this manner, quarterback Jay Cutler will be put in the best position to win with a committed run game and solidified offensive line, which could lead to a Top-10 product, which would greatly complement an upcoming defense.
Best case: Top 10 overall offense
Last year’s defense produced at the highest level it could given the massive lack of talent and personnel fits in coordinator Vic Fangio’s new defense. This year, the team’s front office has worked very hard to close the talent gap in the NFC and find versatile players who fit their system.
The front seven looks massively improved with the additions of DE Akiem Hicks, LB Danny Trevathan, LB Jerrell Freeman and OLB Leonard Floyd. If Chicago's pass rushers enter the season at full health, an edge group of Pernell McPhee, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young has massive upside. If Floyd provides instant impact as a speed rusher and third-round rookie DT Jonathan Bullard can push the pocket in the face of opposing quarterbacks, 3rd downs will be fun to watch this year.
The biggest concern on defense is the secondary. The Bears did not spend big at the cornerback position this off-season, so it will be up to Kyle Fuller, Tracy Porter, Bryce Callahan and fourth-round rookie Deiondre Hall to help push this defense into the top 10. Ultimately, Fuller and safety Adrian Amos hold the key to success for this defense, as both are young, foundation players with experience and upside.
Best case: Top 10 overall defense
If all the pieces fall perfectly into place, with both the offense and defense producing at Top 10 levels, then this as a playoff team and a possible division winner. Special teams also needs to improve and with more talent and overall competition going into camp, it should.
Health is always a big factor and it will continue to play a big role on a roster like Chicago's, where they lack depth at many positions.
Even the best-case scenario for this team won't be enough to make the Super Bowl but a Vikings-like rise up the NFC North, which includes a playoff berth, is completely possible.
Best case: 11-5 (NFC North winners)
On offense in 2015, the Bears had a worst-case year. Pass catchers Jeffery, White, Eddie Royal, Martellus Bennett and Marquess Wilson combined to miss 36 games, while Cutler missed a game and a half and Forte missed three of his own.
The Bears could end up in a similar situation this year, with less-proven talent nearly across the board.
TE Zach Miller has an injury history, Jeffery and White couldn't stay healthy last year, the offensive line is practically brand new with just one proven player and, while there is youth at the running back position, it's almost all unproven talent, each of whom has holes in his game.
If it all goes south, this could be a Lovie-Smith-era type offense.
Worst case: 20-25th ranked offense
In the first three games of 2015, Chicago's secondary was a huge liability, especially against the deep ball. They improved as the season progressed but never found consistency and finished the year ranked 30th in the NFL in total interceptions (8).
The front office invested three mid-round picks to the back end of the defense but they're all unproven and may provide minimal impact this season. Otherwise this secondary is little changed, which is concerning. If the front seven improves against the run, opposing offenses could open fire against the Bears in the passing game.
I highlighted Fuller and Amos as key players in the secondary. If they are unable to take a step forward this year, there's little hope this unit can produce anywhere near a Top 10 level.
This was a defensive unit that made big strides last year but still had many holes going into this off-season. If their secondary fails to improve and they don’t have one of the league’s best pass rushes, this defense won't see any substantial improvement.
Worst case: Bottom 10 ranked defense
While the Bears project to have an easier strength of schedule this year and carry more overall talent across the board, there is still a chance things could go very wrong.
Year 2 was when former head coach Marc Trestman lost control of his team after going into the season with high expectations, so this will prove to be a crucial year in what looks like an NFL re-tool at its finest.
If the unproven offensive talent fails, this could be Cutler’s last year in Chicago.
If the unproven defensive talent fails, the secondary will be a mess and this unit will see no improvement.
If both scenarios play out, there’s a strong chance both Fox and Pace will be on the hot seat going into Year 3, coming off a record worse than what they posted in 2015.
Worst case: 5-11 (Last place finish)