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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  • DL Mitch Unrein has been replaced by 5th round pick Bilal Nichols.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  • OLB Pernell McPhee has been replaced by Khalil Mack (Willie Young and Lamarr Houston are both gone too, but neither actually played much last year).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  • ILB Christian Jones has been replaced by 8th overall pick Roquan Smith (Jerrell Freeman only played 1 game, so they didn’t really lose him).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.

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Football Can Be Simple & 2018 All Comes Down to Trubisky

| August 21st, 2018

There are an abundance of storylines to follow for the Bears as we creep closer to the start of the 2018 season. A small sampling:

These are all important questions worth considering this season, and collectively they will play a huge role in determining the win/loss record for the year. But there’s only one question that will decide the success Bears’ 2018 season (and beyond): how good is Mitch Trubisky?

Ryan Pace staked his career on Trubisky by trading up to draft him in 2017, and doubled down this offseason with pretty much every move he made intended to put Trubisky in the best possible position to succeed. He hired an offensive-minded head coach who trained under one of the best QB mentors in the game in Andy Reid. He brought in an abundance of new pass catchers to replace the less than stellar cast of a season ago. He spent a 2nd round pick on James Daniels and hired Harry Hiestand to shore up the offensive line.



The excuses of last year are all gone, and Trubisky is now firmly entrenched as the face of the franchise. Now it’s on Trubisky to prove that Pace’s trust in him is well founded. And that needs to happen now, in 2018.

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Adam Shaheen’s Playing Time/Role Will Be Determined By His Performance as a Blocker

| August 14th, 2018

Adam Shaheen has gotten a lot of buzz around the Bears since catching 3 passes for 53 yards in his brief action during last Thursday’s preseason game. The Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times wrote nearly identical pieces praising his growth as a pass catcher, both quoting Matt Nagy to say Shaheen is “going be a big part of this offense.”

Racking up yards through the air is what generates attention, but astute fans would be wise to focus on a different aspect of Shaheen’s game if they want to figure out just what his role is going to be in 2018. We already knew from watching him last year that Shaheen can run and catch, but his playing time will be determined more by how well he can block.

The Andy Reid offense Nagy has brought with him from Kansas City heavily utilizes two tight end sets, but the tight ends play different roles.

  • The primary tight end plays the “U” position, which is more of a pass-catching role that lines up largely in the slot. Think Travis Kelce or Zach Ertz if you want to make the Philadelphia comparison.
  • The second tight end plays the “Y” position, which is more of a traditional in-line tight end that mostly blocks. In Reid’s 5 years with the Chiefs, the 2nd tight end has played an average of around 48% of the offensive snaps, but sees less than 30 targets per year, or less than 2 per game.

The Bears signed Trey Burton to be the U tight end this offseason. His value is defined by his ability to catch passes. The current starting Y – again, valued more for his ability to block than catch – is Dion Sims. Shaheen has been working at both spots and is currently the top backup to both Burton and Sims, but the third tight end won’t have a huge role. A best-case scenario for Shaheen if he can’t establish himself as the starting U or Y would be looking at Burton in Philadelphia the last two years, when he played about 28% of snaps and averaged 45 targets.

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Turning Chicago’s Fortunes Around Will Require Turning Over Opposing Quarterbacks Through the Air

| August 6th, 2018

Chicago returns their entire secondary from last season, which is good news.

Off-season additions like Eddie Jackson and Prince Amukamara, coupled with breakout seasons from Kyle Fuller and Adrian Amos, helped construct a quality 2017 pass defense. The Bears were 7th in passing yards allowed, 15th in yards per attempt, and 5th in fewest touchdown passes given up.

But there is one area where improvement is desperately needed: interceptions. The Bears caught only 8 for the third year in a row in 2017. Only two NFL teams had fewer.

This has to change if the Bears want to become a good team. To understand why, let’s look at how important turnovers are to winning football games.


Turnovers & Winning Games

Over the last five years, there is a correlation of 0.50 between a team’s turnover differential and the number of wins for a given season. That means that roughly half of a team’s season outcome can be explained simply by looking at how many times their offense turned the ball over compared to how many times their defense took the ball away. Other studies have looked at this in greater detail and found the correlation to be somewhere between 40% and 65%.

I wanted to put this into a visual that’s a bit more concrete, so the table below shows how a team’s turnover differential corresponds to various season outcomes over the last 5 seasons (full data available here).

Teams that have a better turnover differential win more games and make the playoffs more often. It’s not a revolutionary idea, but I think it’s helpful to see some numbers.


Fumble Luck Doesn’t Last

So if the Bears want to improve, they need to improve their turnover differential. They actually weren’t awful last year (as I predicted before the season), as they had a differential of 0 by turning it over 22 times and forcing 22 turnovers, but that was with a hyper-conservative offense designed to limit turnovers.

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Your Yearly Reminder: It’s Just Practice

| July 30th, 2018

It happens every year.

Fans obsessively follow every training camp practice and get overly excited when they hear that guys from their team look really good. Or conversely get worried upon hearing somebody is struggling.

This is your friendly, annual reminder to calm down. The first few days of training camp ultimately don’t mean a ton, especially when it comes to rumors about how particular players are performing. Let’s take a look at a few of the reasons why hearing about a single practice, taking place over a month before the season starts, is not really going to tell you much about the season.


Single Examples

How often do you hear somebody say “This player looked great today,” using one big play he made as proof? Unfortunately, this blatantly ignores the consistency required from players to truly perform at a high level.

To go along with this is the problem of contrasting reports. One person will say a player looks great based on one or two flashy plays, while another person claims that same player is doing terrible because he had one bad miscue. Fans will naturally want to gravitate towards the positive reports, but balance is key.

Recent example: New kicker Cody Parkey made some long field goals, but also had a few misses. One reporter explained that all the misses came with the 2nd team holder, while another decided Parkey had a “shaky day.”


Looking Good or Looking Bad?

Another thing to keep in mind is that players are going up against their teammates in training camp, so somebody “looking good” could mean more that their teammate is bad. For example, hearing that the offensive line is consistently dominating their defensive counterparts in practice can be viewed two ways.  On the one hand, the offensive line is looking really good.  On the other hand, the defensive line is being outclassed. Does that say more good things about the offensive line or bad things about the defensive line?

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In Bourbonnais: Training Camp Observations

| July 28th, 2018

I made it out to Bears training camp today, and thought I’d share a few thoughts and observations. Obligatory note: keep in mind it was only one practice, and players have good/bad days.

Offense

  • I got a great up-close look at TEs doing blocking drills. Dion Sims is a much better blocker than any of the other guys. The TE coach was working with Shaheen a ton, but he struggled to mirror.
  • When TEs and RBs did blocking 1 on 1s against linebackers, it was ugly. The defense won almost every one of those battles. That’s not good considering the Bears don’t exactly have a great stable of pass rushers, and Floyd didn’t even participate.
  • Tarik Cohen’s blocking in particular was ugly. On his first rep, he got bullrushed by some UDFA OLB I’ve never even heard of. On his 2nd rep, he dug in to try to prevent that and Nick Kwiatkoski ran around him without being touched. I don’t expect Cohen to be a great blocker, but that was ugly.
  • I’ve heard a lot of good things about Dion Sims as a pass catcher in the first week of camp, but man is he slow. He lumbers out there running routes and doesn’t have that extra gear to separate.
  • The 1st string offense as a whole really struggled today. The defense dominated them. Part of that could be because Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, and Trey Burton were all not playing for a decent amount of those drills, meaning Sims, Bellamy, and Fowler saw a lot of targets. I can only hope that we don’t see that repeat itself during the season.
  • The offense even struggled in 7v7, when there is no pass rush and it’s supposed to favor the offense. Check downs almost every time.

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Camp Has Started. Let’s Grade Chicago’s Roster.

| July 24th, 2018

Let’s take an objective look at this Bears roster, grading each unit on a 1-10 scale, with 1 being the worst in the NFL, 10 being the best in the NFL, and 5 being an average NFL grouping. I am going to try to avoid projecting too much for young players who have not yet proven it in the NFL, so some of these rankings might be a bit lower than expected.

Let’s get right down to it!


Quarterback: 3.5

Key players: Mitchell Trubisky, Chase Daniel

Roster depth: Tyler Bray

I have a feeling this rating will be higher by the end of the 2018 season, but right now I can’t go any higher than a 3.5 out of 10. Mitchell Trubisky got steadily better as his rookie season progressed, but he still didn’t play that great, and while people seem to love Chase Daniel as a backup, he’s only thrown 78 passes over 8 seasons in the NFL.


Running Back: 8

Key players: Jordan Howard, Tarik Cohen

Roster depth: Benny Cunningham, Michael Burton, Taquan Mizzell, Ryan Nall

Welcome to the best position group on the Bears’ roster. Jordan Howard has run for over 2400 yards the last 2 years, and Tarik Cohen is a perfect complement who can make explosive plays on limited touches. Howard’s struggles through the air are the only thing keeping this grade from being higher, but the duo should be very productive in 2018 if used correctly. The depth here is solid as well; Benny Cunningham is a good ST contributor and solid 3rd down back, and people seem to like UDFA Ryan Nall as a sleeper.

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How Inconsistent was Chicago’s 2017 Ground Game?

| July 16th, 2018

On the surface, the Bears’ running game didn’t change much from 2016 to 2017.

  • In 2016 they ran for 1,735 yards (17th in the NFL) and averaged 4.6 yards per carry (6th).
  • In 2017 that shifted to 1,788 yards (16th) and 4.2 yards per carry (11th).

The total yards slightly increased, the yards per carry slightly decreased, but the overall run game stayed average to above average.

But sometimes total numbers don’t tell the whole story, and some fans felt like Chicago’s rushing attack took a step back in 2017 due to inconsistency. For every dominant game (222 yards and 2 TD against Pittsburgh, 231 yards and a TD against Baltimore) there was an absolute clunker (6 yards against Philadelphia, 20 yards against Tampa Bay). DBB reader Butch thought that this perceived inconsistency was particularly frustrating, and he asked me to look into it.

Quantifying inconsistency is actually fairly straightforward using standard deviation, which is a measure of how much variability exists in a set of numbers. Basically, the higher a standard deviation is, the more inconsistent the numbers in that sample are. To see where the Bears ranked, I looked at their rushing yardage and yards per carry for each game in 2017 and found the standard deviation for both sets; I also did the same thing for the other 31 teams in order to give some context to the Bears’ results.

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Which Reid Offense Will Chicago Most Resemble?

| July 9th, 2018

There’s been a good deal of talk this offseason about how the Bears will model their offense after the Kansas City Chiefs, which makes sense given that new head coach Matt Nagy spent his last several years in Kansas City learning from Andy Reid.

But I think Chicago’s offense will end up looking more similar to what Philadelphia has run the last two years under Doug Pederson, another branch on the Reid coaching tree. Even though both offenses are similar, there are some subtle yet important differences that are worth looking at. So today I want to start by looking at personnel to see which one Chicago matches better, and then I’ll compare and contrast offensive styles.

Personnel

Kansas City’s offense was built around three main producers: running back Kareem Hunt, wide receiver Tyreek Hill, and tight end Travis Kelce. Those three combined for 4,069 of Kansas City’s 6,007 yards from scrimmage, meaning they were about 2/3 of the offense.

Quite frankly, the Bears just aren’t built to be that reliant on a small number of players. Outside of Jordan Howard and Allen Robinson, nobody has been a high-volume producer, and even Robinson has only hit 1,000 yards in a season once in his four years.

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If Jordan Howard Wants to Stay in Chicago, He’ll Need to Improve in Passing Game

| July 2nd, 2018

Jordan Howard has surpassed all expectations as a fifth round pick. After a series of injuries gave him an opportunity just a few games into his career, he grabbed the job and literally ran with it. 2400 yards and 15 touchdowns later, Howard is firmly entrenched as one of the best runners in the NFL.

Yet for all his excellence on the ground, there remains a nagging doubt about Howard because of his limitations in the passing game. Fans remember his dropped touchdown against Atlanta in Week 1 last year, and he has only 423 receiving yards through 2 seasons. Catching the ball is an important part of any running back’s job in the modern-day NFL, and especially in the new offense head coach Matt Nagy is mostly importing from Kansas City. So today I want to look a little bit deeper at Howard’s impact – or lack thereof – in the passing game and what that might mean for his future (I’d like to give a special thanks to DBB reader Evantonio for this idea).

Let’s start with the basics, looking at how Howard has done in the passing game. I’m going to compare him to a few different groupings of players:

  • Bell cow running backs who are focal points of the offense and rarely leave the field – Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliot, LeSean McCoy, Le’Veon Bell.
  • Situational running backs known for their running – Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount, Carlos Hyde.
  • Kansas City running backs in the Reid offense – Kareem Hunt, Jamaal Charles.

Groups are sorted by color coding in the table below. Charles’ data is only for the years when Reid was in Kansas City (2013-16), and drop figures are courtesy of Player Profiler, which only had them for 2017.

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