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Establishing New Expectations for Khalil Mack & the 2018 Chicago Bears

| September 4th, 2018

I thought I was done writing about the Bears until the bye week, but then they went and traded for Khalil Mack. That warrants an article. I had written pretty clearly about my expectations for the 2018 Bears, expecting them to be better but end up around .500 and short of the playoffs. Adding a player of Mack’s caliber warrants a re-examination of that prediction.

In fact, I think that this trade makes it pretty likely the Bears will make the playoffs in 2018. Here’s why.


Non-Trubisky Upgrades

Let’s start by comparing the 2018 roster to the 2017 version, which went 5-11. I’m going to look at everything outside of Trubisky first, and then consider Trubisky in a moment.

Defense

On defense, the Bears return pretty much everybody who contributed, with a few exceptions:

  • DL Mitch Unrein has been replaced by 5th round pick Bilal Nichols. This is probably a minor downgrade for 2018, but the hope is that it will be offset by the growth of 3rd year defensive linemen Roy Robertson-Harris and Jonathan Bullard.
  • OLB Pernell McPhee has been replaced by Khalil Mack (Willie Young and Lamarr Houston are both gone too, but neither actually played much last year). You really can’t overstate how big of an upgrade this is.
  • ILB Christian Jones has been replaced by 8th overall pick Roquan Smith (Jerrell Freeman only played 1 game, so they didn’t really lose him). This should also be a substantial upgrade, as Smith was widely viewed as the best defender in the draft.

So the defense added two guys who should be high impact players and treaded water pretty much everywhere else. Thanks to Mack and Smith, this unit should be significantly improved from last year’s version, which was already solidly around the top ten in the league.

Offense

Now let’s look at offensive improvements (again, ignoring Trubisky). There was much more changeover on this side of the ball.

  • Guard Josh Sitton was replaced by 2nd round pick James Daniels. This is a downgrade for 2018, but the Bears hope it offsets by having Kyle Long back and looking like himself for the first time since 2015.
  • Tight end Zach Miller was replaced by Trey Burton. This is probably a wash, but Burton doesn’t have Miller’s history of being constantly injured.
  • The wide receiver upgrades really can’t be overstated. The Bears replaced a cast of scrubs who were all fighting for end-of-roster spots around the league this year with Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, and Anthony Miller. The Bears’ worst position group (and possibly the worst in the whole NFL) in 2017 now appears to be quite good.

Coaching

And now we move to the coaching staff, which returns virtually intact on defense but massively upgraded on offense. New head coach Matt Nagy brings with him the Andy Reid offense from Kansas City, modernizing what was possibly the worst offensive scheme in the NFL from 2017 with one that matches the Bears’ personnel quite well. Add in a quality offensive staff, highlighted by the outstanding Harry Heistand on the offensive line, and it’s fair to say the offense should be better coached than it has been in a while.

Health

Health is another key area where the Bears should be improved in 2018 (and already are from a comparable point in 2017). They were the 2nd most injured team in the league last year according to Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Games Lost, and the odds are they will be healthier than that this year. As I wrote in May, better health typically translates to better teams that win more games.


Trubisky Improvement

When we add all of that up, it’s pretty clear to me that the Bears should improve from their 5-11 mark in 2017 even if Mitchell Trubisky doesn’t take an expected step forward. With the talent upgrades on both sides of the ball and coaching upgrades on offense, I would think this is about a .500 team even if Trubisky looks exactly the same as he did in his rookie campaign last year.

But Trubisky is no longer a rookie.

Instead of entering camp as a 3rd string QB and being stuck there for longer than his play warranted, he is the unquestioned starter who spent all offseason working with his main weapons. And as Warren Sharp noted recently, the 2nd year is typically much improved from the rookie campaign for a highly drafted rookie:

“Collectively, as rookies the eight quarterbacks drafted with top-15 picks in 2012-2016 combined for: 59% completions, 6.8 YPA, 108:94 TD-to-INT ratio, and a 78 rating. As sophomores, the(y) improved to: 60% completions, 7.2 YPA, 197:85 TD-to-INT ratio, and a 91 rating.”

As a rookie, Trubisky posted a pretty typical stat line: 59% completions, 6.6 YPA, a 7:7 TD-to-INT ratio, and a 77.5 rating. Even if he doesn’t make a Went or Goff-like 2nd year jump, just average improvement would see his passer rating jump to the low 90s. For some context, he was 28th in the NFL in passer rating last year, while a passer rating of 91 would have been 16th.

If you accept my claim above that the Bears are an 8-8 team this year due to non-Trubisky improvements, how much is the improvement from a bad QB to an average one worth? I would wager that’s another 2-3 games, which puts the Bears around 10 wins and firmly in the hunt for the playoffs.


One Elite Unit

Finally, I want to add some more data to the argument in an effort to make it more quantitative.

Back in June, I looked at what playoff teams typically look like in terms of points scored and points allowed. I found that teams with an elite unit on one side of the ball (top 25% of the league, or top 8) are:

  • Playoff locks it the other side is also elite
  • Have roughly an 80% chance if the other side is average to above average
  • Make the playoffs about 60% of the time with a below average unit on the other side of the ball.

At the time, I didn’t expect either Chicago unit to fall in that top 8, but with Khalil Mack in the fold, I think it would be a massive surprise if the defense doesn’t (they were actually 9th last year, and should definitely be a better unit in 2018). That means they should have a better than 50% chance at the playoffs with just an offense that doesn’t suck, even if it’s not particularly good (somewhere between 17th and 24th in points scored). If the offense does become average or better, they are very likely be a playoff-caliber team.

And now here’s more good news: back in June I found that only one NFL team (excluding Cleveland) has managed to be in the bottom 10 in points per game for 5 straight years in the last decade. The Bears are currently on a 4-year streak, but history suggests they’ll improve out of that range this year. Which means the offense is likely to at least fall into the below average category, giving the team a solid shot at the playoffs.


Wrapping It Up

I still don’t think the Bears are legitimate Super Bowl contenders in 2018, as history quite clearly says that teams just don’t go from being consistently bad to that good in one offseason (spoiler alert though: I think they absolutely should be among the early Super Bowl favorites for 2019). It’s somewhat rare for teams to go from consistently bad to the playoffs, but there is some precedent for that, and my heart and head both say the Bears are poised to make that leap now that Khalil Mack is in the fold.

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