Most thoughts about the Bears shifted to the future the moment they drafted quarterback Justin Fields, but the team still believes it can scrap for a playoff berth in the meantime as it prepares to open training camp at the end of the month.
The Bears don’t have to be great to get in, as they showed by sneaking into the seventh seed last season at 8-8. With the 17-game schedule starting this season, they’d probably get in at 10-7.
But it’ll take a lot to pull off even that. This is a team that had a sputtering offense and declining defense, then had no salary-cap space to fix those problems. So for general manager Ryan Pace’s plan to succeed, he’ll have to get substantial improvement from within.
He’s hoping for breakthroughs by young players like cornerback Kindle Vildor (a fifth-round pick last year) and rookie offensive linemen Teven Jenkins (second round) and Larry Borom (fifth), but he’s also betting on resurgences from veterans who have played below expectations.
Here are five who need to be big contributors, not just big names, for the Bears to be viable this season:
OLB Khalil Mack
Mack is still good. Very good, in fact. But the Bears paid a colossal price for him to be elite, and his combined total of 17.5 sacks over the last two seasons was far from great. T.J. Watt had nearly that many just last season. Mack was 13th in sacks the last two seasons, 22nd in pressures last season and goes into the upcoming season as the NFL’s third-highest paid defensive player.
There are several rationalizations to be made, such as constant double- and triple-teams he faces because of the lack of another consistent pass rusher, but explaining and excusing shouldn’t be necessary for a player of Mack’s caliber. The Bears gave up two first-round picks and offered a six-year, $141 million contract for a pass rusher who will be fearsome regardless of what happens around him.
At 30, Mack is still capable of turning in some prime seasons. The Bears need something close to what he gave them in his debut season, when he was arguably the most disruptive defensive force in the league.
S Eddie Jackson
Much like Mack, Jackson has been good, but greatness is the bar to clear.
Two years ago, he had Hall of Famer Ed Reed telling him he was “on deck” as the next dominant safety and looked fully capable of pursuing that honor. There’s been a bit of a dip since.
After a decent season in 2019, Jackson signed a four-year, $58.4 million contract to become the highest-paid player at his position and followed with this line in 2020: 82 tackles, no interceptions, five pass break-ups and three forced fumbles. Opposing quarterbacks posted a 110.4 passer rating when throwing at him in coverage, and he missed a career-high 13 tackles, according to Pro Football Reference.
If Jackson gets back to being a turnover machine, he gives the Bears a threat at the back end that’s just as scary as Mack up front.
OLB Robert Quinn
Very little needs to be said here. Quinn signed the second-biggest contract of the 2020 offseason at $70 million over five years, then delivered two sacks in 548 snaps.
This was an extremely questionable signing at the time and it looks shakier than ever after Quinn bypassed Organized Team Activities and was out of minicamp with an injury. He’s going into his 11th season. He prefers to play as a hand-in-the-dirt defensive end rather than standing up at outside linebacker.
It’s looking increasingly unrealistic that the Bears are going to get good value out of this deal, which will cost them $9.3 million in dead-cap space to escape after this season.
CB Desmond Trufant
Picking up a cornerback who was cut by the Lions is risky — not as risky as scooping up a Jaguars’ castoff to play quarterback, but still something a general manager does with a wince and a prayer.
Trufant, who turns 31 before the opener, is six years removed from his lone Pro Bowl appearance. The Bears likely will have him compete with Vildor for the starting spot opposite Jaylon Johnson. That’s a shaky plan after cutting reliable lockdown corner Kyle Fuller to get under the salary cap.
He played just 15 games over the last two seasons, and the opponent passer rating against Trufant jumped from 87.6 in 2019 to 100.2, then 111.3. The Bears signed him because he was affordable, not because he’s a standout. But if Trufant can be simply a legitimate starting-caliber cornerback, it’ll be a huge boost.
QB Andy Dalton
Oh yeah, the quarterback. The perspective on Dalton flipped once the Bears landed Fields. The fear that the team actually believed he was the answer dissipated, and now everyone knows he’s just a stop-gap until Fields is ready.
Oddly, Bears coach Matt Nagy seems to have already decided that time won’t come until 2022. But given that Dalton’s career can best be described as decent, while Fields is an electric playmaker who tore through college football at the highest level, it seems like a safe bet that he will surpass Dalton sooner rather than later.
But if the Bears are bent on proceeding with Dalton, they’ll need him to be better than Mitch Trubisky and Nick Foles. Over the last two seasons, he wasn’t. They need a late-career flash like Jay Cutler gave them in 2015, when he posted a career-high 92.5 passer rating at age 32. Dalton has topped that mark just once, by the way, in his decade as a starter.
Last season, he threw for just 197.3 yards per game–below Trubisky and Foles. Not only would that be pure drudgery to watch, it certainly won’t be enough to give the Bears a functional offense.