For the Chicago Bears, the disastrous 2016 season finally comes to a close this Sunday in Minnesota.
The team’s final home game in Week 16, a 41-21 drubbing at the hands of the Washington Redskins, was not the way a struggling team wants to ends a rough year. The Bears have a league-high 19 players on injured reserve but the embarrassing showing at Soldier Field last week was not excusable by any means.
This Sunday, they will travel to Minnesota to face a Vikings team that is 2-8 in their last 10 games after a 5-0 start. With both teams desperately grasping for a meaningful finish, this could be an entertaining game to watch, wrapping up two alternately disappointing 2016 campaigns.
Here are five story lines to watch in Week 17.
WR Alshon Jeffery
Alshon Jeffery headlines a list of well-known Bears players that could be performing in their final game for the team on Sunday.
As much militant campaigning as I have done for Jeffery in both of his contract years, it seems as if his limited reliability will ultimately get in the way of a new contact under GM Ryan Pace.
Fun fact: Jeffery is the last remaining draftee of the disastrous 2012 draft class still left on the roster. Unless his asking price decreases and both sides can find some common ground, the entire 2012 draft class will likely be purged from the 2017 roster.
Make no mistake, many things can change between now and the start of the free-agent period in early March but, as of now, fans may want to treat this as Jeffery’s final game in a Bears uniform.
The back end of the team’s defense is unquestionably the biggest hole leading into the 2017 off-season. Top-end talent is nowhere to be found, while health and availability has been scarce. Overall the secondary is a glaring weak spot on a vastly improving defensive unit.
Cornerback: The team has established quality depth with names like Bryce Callahan, Tracy Porter, Cre’Von LeBlanc and Deiondre Hall but with three starting-caliber corners needed for the majority of each game in sub-packages, the team lacks a Pro Bowl type play maker, especially as it appears Kyle Fuller's career in Chicago is over.
Safety: As questionable as cornerback has been most of the year, safety has been even worse. Last year’s fifth-round S Adrian Amos was expected to make strides forward but, surprisingly, he continues to regress.
Harold Jones-Quartey has yet to take any substantial steps forward and has bounced in and out of the starting lineup all year. Chris Prosinski is a veteran presence with value on special teams but should not be starting for any contender. Deon Bush has developed his rookie season but still has a lot of room for improvement.
Bottom line, the Bears need two new starting safeties and at least one Pro-Bowl-caliber cornerback. That's easier said than done, which will force Pace to get creative this off-season. Look for each secondary player still on the roster this Sunday to stake his claim for a starting spot next season.
RB Jordan Howard
DL Jonathan Bullard was considered one of the biggest steals in the 2016 NFL Draft but fifth-round RB Jordan Howard has indeed been arguably the biggest steal of the entire selection process.
Howard is just 61 yards away from break Matt Forte’s rookie rushing record moving into the final game of the season. While there have been many disappointments this year, Howard has been a shining bright spot and should continue to serve as the focal point of the offense moving forward.
The 22-year-old ranks second in the NFL with 5.1 yards per carry and 7th in total rushing yards (1,178). Howard's numbers this year are even more impressive when you consider he was a healthy scratch in Week 1 and had just 12 total carries through the first three weeks of the season.
Red Zone Offense
One of the more concerning trends for a lowly Bears offense this year has been their struggles to score touchdowns inside the red zone. Chicago's offense has a 53.3 red-zone touchdown percentage, which ranks just 20th in the NFL. As a result, the Bears are averaging just 17.9 points per game, 28th worst in the league.
While execution and penalties have been problems in the red zone, play calling is the main issue for the team's struggles inside the 20. Keep in mind, the Bears have started three different quarterbacks this year and all three have had similar results, even with running back Jordan Howard leading the league in yards after contact.
This is obviously an area of concern the Bears will address this off-season but it would also benefit the offense if that red-zone efficiency were trending up when the season closes out Sunday afternoon.
QB Matt Barkley
Week 16 was a reality check for many Bears fans clamoring for Matt Barkley to be the team’s future starting quarterback. The former USC Trojan became the first Bears quarterback to throw five interceptions in a game since Jay Cutler in 2009.
The reality with Barkley is that he’s an undersized passer with no plus-tools and, most importantly, he’s already on his third team in four years. He is who he is at this point in his career, which in the long-run could actually be a nice find for the Bears.
Coming off an off-season where we saw Chase Daniel -- a career backup that had thrown 77 passes going into 2016 -- command a three-year deal worth $7 million per season, the Bears have likely found themselves a capable backup for a fraction of that price moving forward.
Barkley will have one final game to improve his free-agent value but in reality, he won't command starter money on the open market and has more value to a team like the Bears in a backup, spot-starter role than he would with the majority of other NFL teams. A dependable backup quarterback is a worthwhile commodity in the NFL and should be a credit to Ryan Pace, who signed Barkley off waivers to the team's practice squad the first two weeks of the season.
A Few Thoughts
-Your weekly draft positioning update: The Bears currently sit with the 3rd overall pick moving into the final week of the season. A loss all but guarantees them that pick but a win could cause them to drop all the way to 6th overall if neither the Rams, Jaguars or Jets win.
-The Bears are currently 0-7 on the road this season. They last time they finished winless on the road was 1974.