Heading toward training camp, football fiends thirst for breakout potential. Who or what is the next big thing on the gridiron? In Around The NFL's "Making the Leap" series, Gregg Rosenthal spotlights emerging units to keep an eye on in 2018.
For the first time since the dawn of the Jay Cutler Era, I can't wait to watch the Bears in September. The NFC North is in the mix as one of the league's most fascinating divisions. The franchise who gave us Butkus, Singletary and Urlacher is suddenly looking pass happy and cutting edge. It's all because of a coach who is ambivalent about the pronunciation of his last name, but unequivocal about building a team in his image.
Rams coach Sean McVay raised the stakes a year ago. Along with his well-coiffed general manager Les Snead, McVay proved it's possible to transform an offense from stone age to stunning in one offseason, largely because of off-season acquisitions. No one is expecting the Bears to go from worst to first like the Rams did, just to make the monsters of the midway more watchable again. Nagy is primed to do so with a little help from his general manager Ryan Pace, who is no slouch either up top.
The stark contrast between last year's Bears approach and the new regime is why I chose the Bears' offense for Making the Leap. There's a saying in coaching that you never want to be the guy following The Guy. But you do want to be the guy following Fox or Jeff Fisher, two adherents to a run-first philosophy that may not come back into vogue until a few more generations of guys roam the sideline. In the meantime, Nagy already has the ingredients to matter again on offense. A Bears offense that's fun to watch is victory enough for now.
A strong foundation
Look to the line. When projecting an offense ready to take a step forward, looking for strength up front is the best place to start. Philadelphia's line last season made the Eagles' coaches look a lot smarter and the skill-position players look more skilled. Chicago doesn't have the Eagles' level of talent, but the Bears have enviable continuity and the pieces to be dominant, especially in the running game.
Guard Kyle Long is among the league's best when he's healthy. Center Cody Whitehair is entrenched as a foundation piece, with flexibility to play both center and guard like this year's second-round pick James Daniels. Long, Whitehair and tackle Charles Leno Jr. were all ranked among the top five at their position in run-block success percentage by PFF, while Daniels is also a strong run-blocker. Right tackle Bobby Massie is probably the weak link here, and he's reliably started 60 games over the last four years.
New offensive line coach Harry Hiestand will be putting the group together. He did a terrific job getting players ready for the NFL at Notre Dame after a strong run as a position coach for the Bears previously. Finding the right staff is perhaps the most difficult part of a new head coach's job, and Nagy has put an excellent group around him by all accounts.
The Bears can build from the line out. While Fox's run-run-pass routine is gone, a multi-faceted running game will make life easier on quarterback Mitch Trubisky and the rest of the passing attack. Expect to see less of long-striding bruiser Jordan Howard and a lot more of Tarik Cohen, the human joystick who Nagy will move all over the team's formations this season. This is one of the league's best tandems, two top-25 backs with a coach who should know how to use them. Nagy's mentor Andy Reid has stayed ahead of the curve with his use of running backs on passing downs since the days of Brian Westbrook, a trend that continued with Nagy's utilization of Kareem Hunt in Kansas City.
The strength of this offense was already in place. I just trust Nagy and Hiestand to bring it to the forefront, and help the rest of the new guys along. ...
The new pieces fit together
The corny jabs at the old Bears regime were fun and the strong backfield is important, but this article is only being written because of Nagy and Pace's offseason spending spree. The team's top four projected receivers are all brand new:
Robinson has a true No. 1 receiver skill set, which has become increasingly difficult for teams to find in the draft. Gabriel can take the top off a defense and line up anywhere, not unlike what Tyreek Hill did for Nagy in Kansas City. Miller is destined for the slot and has the profile to rack up targets as a rookie like Cooper Kupp did with the Rams last year. Burton is a poor man's Zach Ertz or a poorer man's Travis Kelce, having already shown the chops to be a quality NFL starter.
Pace and Nagy aren't done building their offense, but this core group is a great place to start. Listening to Nagy talk this offseason, it's clear that he had a specific vision of what role each acquisition would play in his offense. Nagy shook off a question about whether his offense would be too light with Gabriel and Cohen on the field at the same time.
"I could care less about size," Nagy told ProFootballWeekly in May. "I just think you put the best football players out there for that personnel group, for scheme, and for the play that we have. You can't live in it. ... You can't live with three huge receivers in there either, in my opinion. What that does is to force the defense to change up now a little bit how they play defense personnel-wise."
Instead of playing conservative, reactive Foxball, Nagy is intent on dictating. That changes expectations for what a big free-agent pickup should be asked to produce. Gabriel doesn't need to rack up 1,000 yards to be a success. In this wide open NFL, having the flexibility to put these four receivers and Cohen on the field at the same time will create mismatches for Nagy to exploit with his play-calling. All he needs is a quarterback who sees the field the same way.
In Trubisky they trust
It's taken a while to discuss second-year quarterback Mitch Trubisky, who wisely dropped the "ell" in Mitchell after a nondescript rookie season. I came into this exercise looking forward to watching most of Trubisky's snaps from 2017 again, hoping to learn a few new things and get excited anew about his potential. It wasn't always easy.
Trubisky has a great feel for throwing on the move and moves to his second read better than many rookie quarterbacks. His most impressive throws often came against pressure and in games like the Week 14 win over the Bengals -- his high-water mark for the season -- he showed a great mid-range game, plus athleticism in the red zone similar to a mid-career Alex Smith.
There were also multi-week stretches where Trubisky looked understandably uncomfortable. While the offense didn't ask him to do much, he froze against pressure and he missed a lot of open throws, which cuts against his reputation for accuracy. I don't put much stock into the negatives aside from the accuracy because they weren't that negative.
It is so difficult to translate a rookie quarterback's performance into what kind of pro he's going to be. (See: Alex Smith, Eli Manning, Robert Griffin III, Jared Goff.) That's especially true when the rookie is playing in an unimaginative offense with poor receivers. Trubisky's 12 starts ultimately gave him valuable experience that no classroom could. And it's not like the Bears are going to ask him to carry the offense this year, either.
Goff's experience in Los Angeles last season is instructive. Despite his ridiculously high ranking in the "Top 100 Players of 2018" list, Goff played a supporting role on the Rams' offense. Todd Gurley was the centerpiece, like the Bears' running game should be this year. The coaching staff and the play-calling were the Rams' next biggest edge, with the variety of new weapons around Goff providing all the flexibility that McVay needed. From three-step drops to clearly defined reads to great pass protection and wide open receivers, McVay did everything possible to make Goff's job as easy as possible. That's not a knock on Goff. That's just a good coach, and Goff responded by taking a huge step forward as a 22-year-old, one that the Rams will build upon this year.
Trubisky doesn't need to make the leap on his own to star status for this Bears offense to shine. He just needs to play his part and allow his talented teammates and coaching staff to do their thing. Cohen can take a five-yard screen pass 30 yards. Robinson can get the yards needed for a first down because of Nagy's well-timed play call. Burton can run a wide-open drag route, which Gabriel opens up by attracting defenders deep.
This season is not all about the Bears finally finding their quarterback after decades in the wilderness. It's about the entire offense reminding an entire city what it's like to watch entertaining football again.