By Bryan Dietzler
The Chicago Bears, who started off the John Fox era a little bit rocky last season, return to the gridiron in 2016 to try to get better and continue to find success in what may be a much more promising season. They have several weapons available this year that could help themselves accomplish their goals but can they put everything together and get to where they want to be? We are about to find out.
Chicago heads into the new season having undergone a little bit of a makeover. They have gone from being one of the leagues oldest teams to one of its youngest. They added some players that are not only younger but are hopefully better than the previous group they had. They have also jettisoned some “regulars” in hopes that some of the new faces will fill in and play better. There have been about 40 new additions to the Bears roster since Fox and General Manager Ryan Pace came to Chicago.
Gone are guys like Antrel Rolle and Matt Slauson. Slauson was a fixture on the team for a few seasons and one of its best players. The front office and the coaching staff figured that his replacement, Cody Whitehair, would be able to handle the job so they cut ties and saved some money. (At this time, the Bears have brought in former Green Bay Packers offensive lineman Josh Sitton and this may shake things up even more) Rolle was injured often last season (which was his only season in Chicago) and so the Bears thought that he could be expendable. Injury and age did him in. A youth movement has clearly been needed in Chicago after several seasons of being one of the older teams in the league. But will this youth movement work?
Another player who was a mainstay with the team and has now since been jettisoned is running back Matt Forte. Forte, although not anything like he was when he was younger, still had something to offer the team in terms of ability to go with production and could have played in a rotation with the new starter, Jeremy Langford. He was even willing to take a hometown discount on his contract to stay in Chicago but the Bears didn’t want any part of that. They let him walk and now he is with the New York Jets.
Speaking of Langford just how will he do as the primary running back on the Bears offense this year? He didn’t have a spectacular preseason (no one ever really does) but he did run well last year in relief of Forte and promises to improve this year. If he should falter or get injured, the Bears have a decent stable of running backs to take over including the often concussed Ka’deem Carey and the untested rookie Jordan Howard. Hopefully injuries won’t strike this position, you never want that, but they do have some reliable talent should the starter go down.
Unlike last season, the Bears are going to have wide receiver Kevin White in the mix. White is fully healed and ready to go this season (although as this story was being finished, it was discovered that he is hampered with a hamstring issue) so if his partner Alshon Jeffery can stay healthy also, the Bears may have one of the best wide receiver combinations in the NFL. There are several experts that project that White will do very well in 2016 and if he does well so will the Bears.
The offensive line got a little bit better as the Bears brought in some help in former Green Bay Packers pro bowl guard Sitton (previously mentioned). As mentioned, Whitehair was a positive addition so the Bears have a mix of solid talent and youth on the line. With Sitton coming to the Bears so close to the start of the season, it could take a game or two for this unit to get solid and gel together but the rewards will come in the form of better pass protection and a better running game.
The defense looks to be improved overall from last season but will start out the year with one of its best players on the bench. Pernell McPhee will begin the year on the physically unable to perform list while he heals from offseason surgery. Hopefully he will be back quickly because the Bears need him but they need him healthy more than anything. A healthy McPhee can pay big dividends for the defense.
The additions of Danny Trevethan and Jerrell Freeman should help the Bears linebacking corps out greatly following a season of suffering. Health will be a big factor so the team will hope that this group stays fit and productive all season. With all the starters on the field this unit has the potential to be one of the best in the NFL and should help make the Bears defense better than it was the previous season. Keep an eye on this group because they have the potential to shine.
The secondary, barring injury (right now it appears that Kyle Fuller may participate in the game against Houston as should Tracy Porter) should remain pretty much the same as it was last year. It was a solid unit but not a spectacular one and as a group they didn’t produce a lot of turnovers last season. They will have to be much better this year if the defense, particularly the pass defense, is going to be effective. There is some better depth here this year so there should be some improvement there as well.
The kicking game got a different look just before the start of the season as long time special teamer Robbie Gould was let go in favor of Connor Barth. Barth should be a nice addition to the team and gives the Bears a younger and perhaps more accurate kicker now. Gould was suffering from accuracy problems that had begun in the middle of last season. Pat O’Donnell remains the punter this year and is very solid.
The return teams will feature Eddie Royal as the punt return specialist this year. That is interesting because Royal has been injured often and this puts him at an even bigger risk for getting hurt. How long will Royal be able to hold up before he is hurt and the Bears have to find another punt returner? It could be sooner rather than later.
It’s been said that Deonte Thompson will return kicks this year. Thompson wasn’t featured that much during preseason so how he will do is a bit of a mystery. The return teams for the Bears have suffered greatly since the departure of Devin Hester (who was a free agent for a period of time this preseason) and the Bears just haven’t been able to settle things. Will this finally be the year they get things nailed down?
The coaching staff did undergo some changes during the offseason but the defense and special teams staffs remain pretty much intact. The offense will have Dowell Loggins as their coordinator and he has pretty much the same philosophy as former offensive coordinator Adam Gase. It appears to have been a smooth transition from Gase to Loggins but the play calling, observed in the preseason, was a little choppy. It could be because, as many know, preseason isn’t the place to call your best plays but maybe things could have been a little bit better.
This team is still in state of transition and this might not be the year they edge into the playoffs. There are a lot of new faces and a few new wrinkles to consider and this spells growing pains for the Bears in 2016. Fox will do his best to put things together and make things work as well as he can but the learning curves will be too much for the team. Look for the Bears to achieve something like a 6-10 record but learn and grow enough to be real contenders in 2017.