Salute Magazine’s Exit Interview series examines the status of each NFL team heading into the offseason, along with their free agents, team needs and more. Click here for the rest of the exit interviews. Up next: the Chicago Bears.
Four straight losing seasons have been hard on the Bears. They’ve struggled to establish a firm identity and have been passed up by many rebuilding teams in the NFC as a result. But the bright spots in 2017 could be built upon for a better future.
The defense broke into the top ten across the league, ranking 7th against the pass and 11th against the run. That wasn’t exactly a sure thing, so credit needs to be given to defensive coordinator Vic Fangio for how he schemed games. Considering that they ended up playing the toughest schedule of any team in the league, that’s doubly impressive.
Then again, the stop unit had to play elite football, because the offense was pretty poor. They were the third worst in the league in total yardage, and their aerial attack was especially vanilla. Free-agent signee Mike Glennon started the first four games and didn’t play well at all, prompting the switch to first-round pick Mitch Trubisky.
Trubisky wasn’t much better, throwing just 7 touchdowns to an equal number of interceptions in 12 starts. Still, he flashed some nice athletic ability, and the offense was specifically designed to be run-first, limited his passing attempts. The overall sluggishness on that side of the ball likely led to head coach John Fox getting fired.
The Bears may be taking a page out of the Los Angeles Rams playbook. That team hired Sean McVay, a young offensive genius, to be their head coach, partnering him with a veteran defensive coordinator in Wade Phillips. It worked wonders, and the Rams made the playoffs for the first time since 2004 as a result.
With Fangio staying on for another season, the Bears brought in former Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy as the new head coach. They’re hoping he will have the same effect on Trubisky as McVay did with Jared Goff.
Like the Rams, the Bears have the pieces to compete. They have a nice, young running back duo in Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen. The defense is already set up. General manager Ryan Pace just needs to be smart with their money and bring in players to help Trubisky succeed. His moves last season left a lot to be desired though.
Still, a lot can happen in one offseason. If the Bears are 2018’s surprise team, hindsight will tell us the how’s and why’s. There’s a ton of things that need to go down in order for that to come true, but maybe the Bears can finally give Chicago a worthy football team again.
Current number of draft picks: 7 (#8 in the first round)
Cap space: $42 million
Notable free agents
Prince Amukamara, CB: Amukamara is one of the more unsung corners in the NFL. He’s mostly regarded as a strong starter who’s outside of the elite crop. The thing most analysts don’t mention is the fact that’s he gotten better in every season of his seven-year career.
While Amukamara didn’t have an interception this season, he did break up 7 passes and earned an 81.2 grade from Pro Football Focus. At 28, he has plenty of good football left in him. Any team that wants a reliable option in the secondary should look toward him in free agency, including the Bears.
Kyle Fuller, CB: Fuller is a hot-and-cold player with a ton of talent at just 25 years old. He had an erratic rookie season, finishing with 4 interceptions and 10 pass breakups while allowing double-digit touchdowns. He stabilized in his second season but missed all of last season due to arthroscopic knee surgery. With that in mind, the Bears decided not to pick up their team option for him in 2018 ahead of this year.
They may end up regretting that decision. Fuller tied for the team lead in interceptions with 2 and was tied for third in the league with 22 pass breakups. He also allowed just 2 touchdowns. Marked improvement like that could result in plenty of attention on the open market.
Kendall Wright, WR: Wright was maddeningly inconsistent during his time with the Tennessee Titans. He had a 1000-yard season in 2013 but progressively regressed and lost playing time as a result. He signed a one-year deal prove-it deal with the Bears and ended up leading the team in receiving, catching 59 passes for 614 yards. Trusbisky seemed to like throwing to Wright, so bringing him back isn’t a bad idea.
Lamarr Houston, OLB: Houston had a number of solid seasons of production with the Oakland Raiders before coming to Chicago. Since arriving, however, he’s struggled with injury and inconsistent play. He’s torn his ACL twice and has just 13 sacks in four seasons with the Bears, 8 coming in 2015.
The team actually cut him with an injury settlement early this year. He spent around a month with the Houston Texans as an injury replacement, getting released again in November. When the Bears had their own injury troubles at edge rusher, Houston returned and did a bit better, picking up 4 sacks in December. Maybe that will be enough to get him a job, but the Bears have other options who are more reliable.
Mark Sanchez, QB: Remember the Butt Fumble? That was over five years ago. Oh, how time flies. Sanchez hasn’t really recovered from that sterling example of incompetence. After parting ways with the New York Jets following the 2013 season, he spent the next two seasons as the Philadelphia Eagles, not making much of an impression despite appearing in 13 games.
He got shipped to the Denver Broncos to compete with Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch for the starting job but didn’t make it out of the preseason. The Dallas Cowboys signed him to backup Dak Prescott afterward. Sanchez was on the Bears roster for all of this season but never appeared in a game. With Trubisky as the prospective long-term QB and Glennon signed for two more years, there’s no need to bring him back.
WR: If Trubisky is going to be let off the leash during his sophomore season, he’ll need better wideouts to throw to. Cameron Meredith has shown promise, but he’ll be attempting to return from an ACL tear. The only other receivers under contract for 2018 are Kevin White and Markus Wheaton, who are both underwhelming options.
Worse still, the three best statistical wideouts on the team in 2017, Wright, Josh Bellamy and Dontrelle Inman, are all unrestricted free agents. The Bears may use a high draft pick to add to the group.
CB: The Bears had a very solid cornerback trio in Amukamara, Fuller and Bryce Callahan. However, Callahan is a restricted free agent, while the former two are unrestricted. If the defense wants to remain in the upper echelon of the league, all three need to be retained.
T: Surprisingly, Charles Leno Jr. and Bobby Massie were a functional tackle duo in 2017. Still, they could probably be improved upon. Backups Tom Compton and Bradley Sowell, who also served as reserve guards, are both free agents anyway, so why not bring in a better tackle to pair Leno Jr. with and make Massie the top backup?
TE: Zach Miller was a dependable option at tight end for the first half of the season, but he suffered a scary knee injury that nearly resulted in amputation. He’s also a free agent. Rookie Adam Shaheen flashed but is still raw. Maybe another option to go with Shaheen and Dion Sims could form a productive trio.
K, P, and LS: All three specialist positions are currently empty heading into the offseason. Both of the kickers the Bears used, Cairo Santos and Mike Nugent, are unrestricted free agents. So are punter Pat O’Donnell and long snapper Andrew DePaola. The other long snapper, Patrick Scales, tore his ACL in the preseason and will be a restricted free agent.
Best player/building block
Josh Sitton, G: The Bears have a number of players who could be argued as their best player. Sitton stands out above the rest, however. After all, he’s made 4 Pro Bowls and has one All-Pro honor under his belt. But he deserves even more recognition, especially considering how consistent he’s been during a decade of play, the last two seasons with the Bears.
Since entering the league in 2008, Sitton has only slipped below a grade of 80 for PFF once (his rookie season, where he had a 75.8 grade). He’s averaged an 87.6 during his nine other seasons. PFF also ranked him as the fifth-best performing guard for this year. It’s not out of the question for Sitton to garner Hall of Fame consideration when he retires.
Adrian Amos, S: A lot of players have earned awards and accolades for their 2017 performances, but Amos has been bafflingly left out of the majority of them. That’s a shame because his campaign was truly excellent.
After beginning the year as a backup, Amos stepped into the starting lineup during week 4 to take over for an injured Quintin Demps, who is generally seen as a solid player. Amos ended up outperforming and pretty much everyone else on defense. While he was 4th on the team in total tackles with 67, he only started 10 games, missing 3 games due to injury later in the season.
PFF gave Amos a grade of 92, the best of his three-year career and the second-best grade for all safeties in 2017 behind Harrison Smith of the Minnesota Vikings. His contract is up after next season, but if Amos is re-signed, he and Eddie Jackson could be an excellent young safety duo for years to come.
AFC East: New York Jets
AFC North: Cleveland Browns
AFC West: Denver Broncos
NFC East: New York Giants
NFC South: Tampa Bay Buccaneers