The Chicago Bears were one of the first teams to start their offseason program in early April, and last Thursday they were the first to finish it.
Because the Bears are playing in the Hall of Fame Game on Aug. 2 versus the Baltimore Ravens, they will also be one of the first NFL clubs to begin training camp, which opens for Matt Nagy's club on July 20 in Bourbonnais.
So, what have we learned about the Bears this offseason?
First off, the talent level of the team is the best that it has been since at least 2010, when the Bears were playoff contenders. That said, there are still holes to fill before Chicago opens the regular season at Green Bay in early September.
Even though most of their new players are on offense, it is the defense that will carry the Bears through the early part of the season. I say that because the Bears have a new offensive scheme, installed by Nagy, which will be similar to the ones we have seen in Kansas City and Philadelphia.
It's an explosive offense that is capable of putting a lot of points on the board, but it also takes time for the players to learn all the nuances of the scheme. What we see in 2018 will be an improvement over the Bears offense the past few years, but it will only scratch the surface of what this scheme is capable of doing.
When Nagy came in, he kept the defensive staff that he inherited intact, and most of the key defenders are still part of the team. That unit was the 10th-rated defense in the NFL last year -- and could be even better in 2018.
On the defensive line, there was only one loss -- DE Mitch Unrein. Unrein was a steady player for the Bears but had limitations. He will be replaced by Jonathan Bullard, who is entering his third year and ready for a breakout season. Bullard gives the Bears much more athleticism at the position. Another player ready to ascend is third-year man Roy Robertson-Harris, who showed flashes in 2017 after spending his rookie season on injured reserve.
Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman, the mainstays along the line, are among the best in the NFL.
The unknown on the Bears defense will be at outside linebacker. Gone are Lamarr Houston, Willie Young and Pernell McPhee. The veteran of the group now is Sam Acho, who has been a part-time starter. Acho has much more athleticism than the departed trio, and third-year player and 2016 first-round pick Leonard Floyd is hoping to have an injury-free year, which would make the group stronger.
The Bears also signed former 49er Aaron Lynch with the hopes he can revert to the form he showed when Vic Fangio was in San Francisco. There is no questioning Lynch's talent, but in the past three seasons his play has been inconsistent at best. The Bears are also hoping that second-year man Isaiah Irving can turn his rookie flashes into consistent play.
The secondary returns completely intact from last season, and the hope is that another year together results in the group continuing to play well, if not showing improvement because they know each other better as players.
On offense, several factors will determine the group's success. The first is how much quarterback Mitch Trubisky has grown as an NFL player, now that he is in his second year. The new offense better fits his skill set, but Trubisky has to show an understanding of the scheme in order to play well. During the offseason program, he showed that he is capable of playing very well. How well Trubisky plays could determine how good the Bears are in 2018.
The wide receiving corps has been revamped with the additions of Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, Bennie Fowler and rookie Anthony Miller. This group has as much speed and talent as any the Bears have had in 12-15 years.
The unknown of the wide receivers is former first-rounder Kevin White, who has been set back by injures in each of his first three years in the league. When White was healthy, we never saw the athlete that ran a 4.35 at the combine in 2015. This offseason, White has shown that athleticism and speed and seems to be playing with more confidence. If the injuries are behind him, he can be a notable addition to the group.
The running room is strong with Jordan Howard, Tarik Cohen and Benny Cunningham. They complement each other, and the talent level is as good as any in the league. The question is whether Howard can catch the ball well enough to be a significant factor. From what I have seen, it won't be a problem.
The other question mark on offense is the line. It is a steady group but not close to being a dominant unit. If guard Kyle Long can stay healthy, it will be a big plus, as the interior of the line is its strength.
If there is a weak link along the offensive line, it's the tackles. Both Bobby Massie and Charles Leno are steady players, but neither is going to challenge for a Pro Bowl selection. The depth is thin at tackle, and if either Leno or Massie go down the Bears could be in trouble. Top backup Bradley Sowell is valuable because of his versatility, but is he the type you want to be a starter?
A player to watch in training camp is Rashaad Coward. As a rookie, Coward played on the defensive line but was moved to offensive tackle this spring. At 6-foot 6 and 320 pounds, Coward has the size, length, strength and athleticism coaches want at tackle. Still, it's a difficult conversion from defensive line to offensive tackle.
Many have compared this year's Bears to last year's Los Angeles Rams. Both teams have/had a new coaching staff that is strong as far as offensive innovation. Both have/had a talented second- year quarterback and both have/had strong defenses. The Rams went from the cellar of the NFC West to the playoffs.
I won't say the Bears will be able to do the same, but based on what I have seen over the past couple months of the offseason program, they are headed in the right direction.
We'll know a lot more once training camp is complete in August.
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