With the advent of real football games finally upon us, we took the opportunity to take an inside look at the Bengals’ first opponent of the 2018 preseason — the Chicago Bears. Jeff Berckes of Windy City Gridiron graciously shared his time to offer us some insights into the Chicago Bears.
With Chicago hiring a new head coach and bringing in a new offense, many of our questions focused on this topic, as well as the development of former No. 2 overall pick Mitch Trubisky.
Scott Schulze – I suppose any question about the Bears has to start with Mitch Trubisky, the QB selected #2 overall under a coaching staff that is no longer employed by the Bears. With only three games of 200 passing yards on the season, was that due to him, the lack of receivers, or the coaching? What can we expect in year 2?
Jeff Berckes – To answer your first question, it was all three. Trubisky was a rookie with a very limited college resume. He was as raw as you’d expect him to be and had some typical growing pains you’d expect from a rookie signal caller. He was also throwing to replacement-level players in a scheme designed to try and win games in the 1980s. The best example of this was the Panthers game from last year where Trubisky completed four passes on seven . attempts and the Bears won 17-3!
A lot of people are drawing the comparison to Jared Goff’s progression from 2016 to ’17. The thinking goes that John Fox was basically Jeff Fisher and bringing in a bright offensive mind and surrounding the young QB with talent allows for exponential growth.
With Matt Nagy bringing in a new offensive system and actual, professional wide receivers to throw to, I expect Trubisky to have a good year. If you look at the systems most closely related to what Nagy will run,
Andy Reid’s Chiefs offense and Doug Pederson’s Eagles attack have been able to have success out of the gates. Growing pains will continue to express themselves, but I think a reasonable goal in this offense is 3,500 yards and 20 TDs for Trubisky. That’s in line with Alex Smith’s numbers his first year in Kansas City and Carson Wentz’s rookie year numbers.
SS – Staying on the offense, the next question is in regards to the receivers. Last year the Bears only had one receiver topping 25 receptions, and none of the receivers reached at least 615 yards. Has free agent acquisition Allen Robinson looked the part of a wide receiver who can be a true #1 for the Bears, and do they have any surprises behind him?
JB – The Bears were counting on Kevin White and Cameron Meredith to be their 1-2 punch at wideout last year, with Kendall Wright serving as a slot receiver. Meredith tore his knee up before the year began and Kevin White was put back on the shelf in week 1, ending his third-straight campaign with a season-ending injury. That put Wright as the top target with kick returners and special teamers forced into taking real professional offensive snaps. Not good.
Enter Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, and second-round pick Anthony Miller and you have a completely remade passing tree. I’m a bit biased about Robinson as I had been pushing the idea of the Bears signing him after he tore his ACL in week 1 last year. I love Robinson’s game and all accounts are his recovery has been smooth.
Robinson had an amazing 2015 with Blake Bortles throwing him the ball, so you know he can produce despite poor circumstances. I expect him to bounce back in a big way this year and lead the team in all receiving categories.
Gabriel is a speedster who can make plays over the top and with quick routes to get him the ball in space. It will be fun to see how they deploy both Gabriel and Tarik Cohen, who has big-time playmaking ability. Finally, the rookie Miller is poised to make an immediate splash as he’s fought his way into a likely starting role.
Look for the Memphis product to play in the slot and make tough plays over the middle. He’s one to keep an eye on.
SS – In March, the Bears signed Trey Burton to a surprising 4-year, $32M deal, which is pretty good money for a tight end coming off a 23 catch season, and averaging just over 15 receptions per year over his four years in the NFL.
Obviously, the Bears saw something with Burton beyond the career statistics. What were the initial thoughts on signing, and has he looked the part of a top tight end in training camp?
JB – The Bears hired Matt Nagy on January 8th of this year. Immediately, Bears fans started to look at the landscape of potential free agents. Given the strong connection with the Chiefs, the obvious question was who can fill the Travis Kelce role on this squad
The Eagles had an abundance of talent on that Super Bowl roster, and with the similarity in schemes, Burton emerged as such an obvious free agent target that it came as no surprise when he inked his deal with Chicago.
One of the things I try to ask myself is – why is that team letting this player go? The Eagles have a ton of superstars including a stud tight end named Zach Ertz. I think they would have loved to have kept Burton but financial considerations didn’t allow it.
Now, I don’t believe he can be Travis Kelce, who is a monster talent, but he does have the ability to fill the role of “U” tight end well and be a successful piece in this offense. He’ll be another really fun player to watch how he moves around in formations and where he shows up in personnel packages.
My expectation is for the Bears to deploy a lot of two tight end sets, and if fellow tight end Adam Shaheen can emerge as a legitimate weapon, it’s going to be fun.
SS – Most Bengals fans expected the Bengals to draft a center, and many hoped that James Daniels would be the man they selected. The Bengals opted for Billy Price out of Ohio State instead. How has Daniels looked so far, and does he end up starting this year?
JB – I’m sure that many Bengals fans loved to see their Buckeye getting the chance to play for their beloved Bengals. I was also cheering that pick as it kept the dream alive for James Daniels to be a Bear.
Growing up as an Iowa Hawkeyes fan, I’ve watched my beloved Navy & Orange pass over good and great offensive linemen, defensive linemen, linebackers, and of course, tight ends over the years. Last year I was jumping up and down for the Bears to draft Desmond King, the corner who had a great rookie year for the Chargers.
This year, seeing the Bears had an obvious need for interior offensive line help, my target was Daniels. When Daniels was still on the board with the Bears on the clock at pick 39, I was on the knife’s edge of pain and elation. Needless to say, loud cheering for an interior offensive line selection in the second round draws raised eyebrows in certain establishments. Whatever.
I’ve heard some good things out of camp, which I fully believe, and I hear some doubting, which I ignore. I mean, judging offensive line play in camp is tough. The questions will sort themselves out this preseason, when we actually see these players in live game action but there are basically two questions to answer. Should Daniels start over Eric Kush and if so, should Daniels start at center to move Cody Whitehair back to guard?
Ideally, Daniels is the center with Whitehair at guard to start the year, and the Bears have their interior line for the foreseeable future with Kyle Long at the other guard. I like Kush as a player, and I love his tank top game, but I like him a lot more as the top backup for all 3 IOL spots. Worst-case scenario is that Daniels just isn’t ready and spends some time learning. He’ll turn 21 in September, and Iowa Head Coach Kirk Ferentz stood on the table for him as the most talented center he’s been around. I think he’ll be just fine.
SS – Finally, any thoughts on the new coaching staff vs what the Bears had with John Fox? Do they get back to the playoffs under Matt Nagy, and will the offense take a step forward?
JB – Let me start with an unpopular opinion – the Bears needed John Fox.
After the unmitigated disaster that Phil Emery and Marc Trestman brought down on this franchise, the Bears needed to reestablish some level of credibility and competence. For what it’s worth, the Trestman hire was Chicago’s second choice after Bruce Arians wouldn’t commit to keeping defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli.
Trestman said he would keep him, was hired, and then Marinelli left anyway. Real smart. So, say what you will about John Fox, but he coached two franchises to the Super Bowl and is a respected defensive mind in the league. The fact that he was made available by Denver during the coaching search was a gift as I’m not sure new GM Ryan Pace was truly ready to make that first hire. Fox came in, stabilized the locker room, attracted competent coordinators in Vic Fangio and Adam Gase, and generally tried to reset the Bears.
The biggest issue with the Fox era, besides not winning a lot of games, was the lack of offensive production — the recurring theme of Chicago Bears football for the last 100 years or so. A lot of that was moving on from the albatross deal given to Jay Cutler by the Emery administration and transitioning to a new signal caller.
The Bears have now done that with Trubisky and as discussed above, allowing Fox to continue coaching a young QB is criminal negligence. Nagy comes in as a former QB himself, working his way up through the system under Andy Reid. I know Reid gets blasted for his time management mistakes, and rightfully so, but he’s a truly gifted offensive mind in this game. Coming from that coaching tree gives me great confidence in Nagy.
Will they get back to the playoffs with Nagy? Yeah, I think so, but I’m aiming for 2019. Ryan Pace really seemed to have a good offseason on paper in building a roster that works with both Nagy’s and Fangio’s schemes. My expectations for 2018 are for this squad to be competitive, show growth for Trubisky and this offense, and avoid another losing season.
Thanks to Jeff Berckes for his time. You can follow him on twitter with all of his great work on Windy City Gridiron @gridironborn.