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On the Eve of the Preseason, Grading the 2019 Roster

| August 7th, 2019

Like I did last year, here’s an objective look at this Bears roster, grading each unit on a 1-10 scale. I’m scaling it such that 1 means it’s the worst in the NFL, 10 is the best in the NFL, and 5 is 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: 6

Key Players: Mitchell Trubisky, Chase Daniel

Roster Depth: Tyler Bray

Trubisky was right around average statistically as a passer in 2018, but added value as a runner. In two games when he was out hurt, Chase Daniel showed that he’s a solid backup, but also reminded us that he’s a backup. I was torn between a 5 and 6 here, but decided Trubisky’s running and Daniel as a backup warranted the higher grade.


Running Back: 5

Key Players: David Mongtomery, Mike Davis, Tarik Cohen

Roster Depth: Kerrith Whyte, Ryan Nall

This was a difficult position to grade because of Tarik Cohen. He’s a really good offensive weapon who produced almost 1200 yards of offense and 8 TDs in 2018, but he can’t handle a huge load and does more damage as a pass catcher than a runner.

Mike Davis is a solid player who fits well in this offense, but he’s probably best suited as a backup.

And while I’m hugely excited about David Montgomery and his fit in this offense, I can’t credit him for anything when he’s yet to play an NFL game. Thus I’ll give this group an average grade for now, but I think this is the position that has the highest potential to outperform its ranking in 2019.

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Picking the 2010s all decade team

| August 3rd, 2019

Hall of Fame weekend has me thinking about the big picture of the NFL over time, which makes me think about decades. Every 10 years the NFL puts out an all decade team, so we’re about one year removed from seeing what that looks like for 2010-19.

Since we’re still a little ways from Chicago’s 1st preseason game on Thursday, I thought it would be fun to pick out who I think should be on the all decade team, though there are a few spots where 2019 could end up changing the pick.

I’m going to go with the most commonly used NFL personnel groupings, which on offense is 11 (1 QB, 1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR, 5 OL) and on defense is nickel (2 DL, 2 edge rushers, 2 off-ball LBs, 3 CBs, 2 S). To keep it simple, I’m not going to worry about SS/FS, slot/outside WR, or nickel/outside CB designations.

Let’s get down to business.

QB: Tom Brady

Before even doing any research, I knew this was going to come down to Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Drew Brees. All have been really good QBs for the entire decade. Brees leads in passing yards and touchdowns, but hasn’t been 1st team all pro or won MVP in this decade. Rodgers and Brady both have 2 MVPs, 2 1st team all pros, and 1 2nd team all pro since 2010. Rodgers has slightly better individual stats, but Brady has played in 5 of the last 9 Super Bowls, winning 3 of them, while Rodgers has only played in 1. That nudges things in Brady’s direction in my book.

RB: Adrian Peterson

I went into this expecting to pick Adrian Peterson, but was surprised how difficult LeSean McCoy made this decision. Both players were 1st team all pros 2x since 2010, though Peterson has an edge in also being a 2nd teamer twice and winning an MVP. McCoy has an edge in volume statistics, however; he has about 1200 more rushing yards than Peterson, an extra 2000 receiving yards, and about 10 more total TDs. McCoy has been really good for longer, but Peterson’s peak was better, and I’ll lean in that direction. Todd Gurley is the only other RB with multiple 1st team all pro berths, but he only played in 4 of the 9 seasons and thus lags well behind the other two in volume numbers. Still, another 1st team all pro season in 2019 could put him in the discussion.

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Causes for 2019 Concern: Volume II

| August 2nd, 2019

Now we return to the list of reasons the Bears might struggle to repeat 2018’s success.


IV. Cornerback Penalties

New nickelback Buster Skrine was flagged 7 times for 107 yards in 2018. Those numbers were 14th and 7th highest, respectively, among all defensive backs.

Prince Amukamara also has a knack for drawing flags; he drew 8 for 90 yards (8th and 13th among DBs) in 2018, and had 2 more get declined.

And 2018 wasn’t an outlier for either player. Skrine had 11 flags for 105 yards in 2017, while Amukamara had 7 for 99.

You can live with having one penalty-prone player in your secondary, but two is a bit more of a concern. All it takes is one big penalty in a key moment to swing a close game.


V. David Montgomery and/or Anthony Miller

I’m grouping these two together as relatively unproven young players who will be counted on for big roles in 2019. For Chicago’s offense to take the step forward that is needed to win a Super Bowl, Miller needs to supplant Taylor Gabriel as the WR2 and Montgomery needs to beat out Mike Davis as the starting RB. I think there are excellent reasons to be high on both Montgomery and Miller, but what happens if one or both of them aren’t ready?

Davis and Gabriel are both solid veterans who are capable role players, but neither is a guy who should be a main cog in a top-level offense. Miller and Montgomery are capable of doing just that, but they could hold the offense back if they fail to prove it in 2019.

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Causes for 2019 Concern: Volume I

| August 1st, 2019

Most of my writing this off-season has ended up being very positive about the Bears’ outlook for 2019. I’ve been very clear that I think Chicago should be considered one of the Super Bowl favorites this year, and most of the stats I’ve dug into have logically come to conclusions that support that notion, or at least do nothing to refute it.

However, I do think it’s important to try and remain balanced, so with that goal in mind, today I want to think about what might be legitimate reasons for concern for the Bears in 2019. Another way to think of this might be, if something goes wrong and the Bears miss the playoffs, what will be the reason(s) when we look back and figure out why?

I can think of six most likely possibilities, presented in no real order. Here are the first three.


I. Injuries

Injuries are always the #1 cause for concern for a football team. In a salary-capped league like the NFL, even the best team can be completely undone by one or two key injuries, usually to the quarterback. The two obvious players the Bears simply cannot win a Super Bowl without are Mitchell Trubisky and Khalil Mack, but they have a number of stars whose loss would certainly be felt should they get hurt (especially in areas with questionable depth, like tight end and offensive tackle). The Bears are counting on several players with lengthy injury histories to stay healthy and produce in 2019, including Danny Trevathan, Kyle Long, Eddie Goldman, and Prince Amukamara.

And we can’t forget about the cumulative impact of a number of injuries to players who might not be as important. After years of being one of the unhealthiest teams in the NFL, the Bears were the 3rd healthiest in 2018. Given that there’s a strong relationship between health and team success, worse injury luck in 2019 could derail Chicago’s Super Bowl aspirations in a hurry.


II. Special Teams

Given how Chicago’s season ended in 2018, kicker is an obvious cause for concern in 2019. The Bears don’t have one they know they can trust with the game on the line right now, and that’s a problem for a team hoping to win a Super Bowl. The odds of running through 3-4 consecutive playoff wins without needing a kicker to come through in the clutch in any of them seem pretty low.

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2019 Bears: “No Reason to Think They Won’t Be Really Good Again”

| July 29th, 2019

I recently looked at the history of teams to make a significant improvement from one year to the next and found that many of them win fewer games the year after their breakthrough season. This suggests that the Bears might be due for a bit of a letdown from their 12-4 record in 2018 (though they do match the profile of teams that generally stay good after making the jump.)

Today, I want to look more closely at Chicago’s underlying performance in 2018 to see if there’s anything there to suggest they are a team poised for a fall. This is closely modeled after work Bill Barnwell does every off-season, where he uses three factors to identify teams who are likely to improve and likely to regress.


Pythagorean Expectation

The first factor is called the Pythagorean expectation, and it is a measure of how many games a team is expected to win based on how many points they scored compared to how many points they allowed. The exact formula can be seen here, but the general idea is that truly good teams score a lot more points than they give up. Teams that win a lot of games without a large difference in points scored/allowed were considered more lucky than good and are likely due for a fall.

  • 2018 Bears stats: 421 points scored, 283 points allowed, 12 wins
  • 2018 Pythagorean expectation: 11.5 wins

The Bears didn’t significantly outperform their Pythagorean expectation, which means they won a lot of games because they were legitimately good, not lucky. So far, there is no reason to think that significant regression is coming.


Record in Close Games

The 2nd factor looks at how well teams performed in close games, which Barnwell defines as having a final scoring margin within 7 points. I think 8 points makes a lot more sense given that’s still a one possession game, but in this case it doesn’t change anything for the Bears, so we’ll stick with 7.

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Thoughts from Training Camp

| July 27th, 2019

I made it out to Bears training camp for their first open practice today, so I wanted to share a few observations. This was the 2nd day of camp and there were no pads, so I’m not going to focus too much on specific plays. I’m more interested in what the depth chart roughly looks like now and what guys look like they do or don’t belong, athletically speaking.

Offense

  • Let’s start with Mitch Trubisky, who looked really good today. He was very sharp mentally, making quick, decisive reads consistently in full team drills. His passes were consistently on target (not just catchable, but right on the money) for everything 20 yards and in, and even the long balls were pretty solid for the most part. When I went to camp last year, I commented that he was thinking instead of playing, but today he was in control and could just go out and play. I was most impressed with how fast he got the ball out, often throwing it right as the target was making his break. He was clearly the best quarterback on the practice field (which he should be), but that was not the case when I was there last August.
  • Depth chart stuff: it’s default for veterans to start ahead of rookies early in training camp, so I found it noteworthy that a few offensive rookies were already fairly high on the depth chart. David Montgomery and Mike Davis seemed to be splitting reps at RB, and undrafted rookies Sam Mustipher (C) and Alex Bars (LG) were both on the 2nd string offensive line. They both have familiarity with OL coach Harry Hiestand from their time at Notre Dame, and it appears one or both have a decent shot at making the roster if they can have a good camp/preseason.
  • I paid close attention to the TEs, where I was very curious to see how Bradley Sowell looked. I was pleasantly surprised in that he didn’t actually seem out of place, which is impressive considering he’s switching from OL to TE this year. He has clearly slimmed down and didn’t look oversized, and was fairly fluid running basic short routes. I’m not saying he’s going to be stealing targets from Trey Burton or anything like that, but he looked more like a TE and less like an OL trying to play TE than I expected, which is a good start to being capable depth behind Adam Shaheen (who himself looked slimmed down) as the in-line TE.
  • Speaking of TEs, Dax Raymond was the undrafted rookie getting all the hype from fans this offseason, but right now he seems to be clearly behind fellow undrafted rookie Ian Bunting. Bunting took a bunch of reps with the 1st string offense in late 2 minute drills, and Raymond got none.
  • Hyped rookie WRs Riley Ridley and Emanuel Hall didn’t practice, so unfortunately I can’t say anything about where they seemed to be in the WR pecking order. It would have been kind of hard to figure out, though, because WRs, RBs, and TEs rotated through with the 1s and 2s a whole bunch.
  • The 2 guys who got the ball the most in full-team work, by far, were Allen Robinson and Tarik Cohen. I would guess they are going to be the main weapons this year.

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Who Benefits From an Improved Trubisky Deep Ball?

| July 24th, 2019

This is part of a series of collaborations between film guru Robert Schmitz of Windy City Gridiron and stats guy Johnathan Wood of Da Bears Blog. We’re excited to be working together to bring fans of both sites great content by combining our approaches.


Previously, we’ve identified the deep passing game as one area where Mitchell Trubisky struggled in 2018. He missed a lot of throws to open targets, which resulted both in a low completion percentage and too many interceptions.

However, we also showed that deep passing performance is highly variable, and thus Trubisky is likely to improve there in 2019, especially with some tweaks in his throwing mechanics that can be made to help his accuracy.

Today we want to look at what targets would benefit most from that expected deep ball improvement, should it happen. In order to do that, I used Pro Football Reference’s Game Play Finder to look at what players Trubisky targeted deep most frequently in 2018. That information is shown in the table below for all five players who were primary weapons for the Bears in 2018.



Allen Robinson was Trubisky’s most frequently targeted deep threat, but Anthony Miller got – by far – the highest portion of his total targets and yards from Trubisky on deep plays. Despite finishing 5th on the team in targets and yards, both by a healthy margin, he was 3rd in deep targets and 2nd in deep yards.

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Possible Regression in 2019: A Mathematical Analysis

| July 22nd, 2019

For the first time in a long time, the Chicago Bears were legitimately fun to watch in 2018. Following years of terrible, boring teams, they went 12-4, scored some big man touchdowns, had plenty of awesome celebrations, and started the most exclusive club in the country to celebrate their wins.

But 2018 was last year, and now I’ve seen some worry that it will prove an aberration. They point to the 2017 Jacksonville Jaguars, who made a similar jump from years of awful to a division win and playoff berth before falling back to Earth in 2018, as a sign of what is to come.

While I’ve been on the record going back to 2017 that this is the earliest year when their title window will fully open, I still wanted to take a realistic look and see if there might be reasons to expect regression in 2019 instead. Accordingly, I’m looking at recent NFL history to see how teams similar to the 2018 Bears followed it up the year after. Since the NFL switched to its current 32 team, 8 division format in 2002, that serves as a nice starting point for this study. I looked at wins per year for all teams from then to 2017 (the last year in which we can track how teams did the year after), and identified teams similar to the Bears in a variety of ways. Full data can be seen here.


12+ Wins

To start out, I looked at teams that won 12 or more games in a season, as Chicago did in 2018. That data can be briefly highlighted like so:

  • Teams with 12+ wins: 74
  • Average # wins: 12.7
  • Average # wins next year: 9.6
  • Net change: -3.1 wins

The average team that won 12+ games decreased by just over 3 wins the following year, which makes a lot of sense. It’s hard to win 12 games in a season, which is why fewer than 5 teams per year, on average, do it. Remaining one of those top 5 or so teams for a 2nd year straight is no small feat.

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Will the Bears Defense Regress in 2019? History Tells Us…Not So Much.

| July 15th, 2019

Chicago’s defense was really, really good in 2018. They led the NFL in points allowed, turnovers forced, touchdowns scored, and passer rating against, and finished 3rd in both yards and sacks. They finished as the runaway best defense in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, which is intended to be an all-encompassing metric, and even finished as the 8th best defense ever in DVOA’s database, which runs back to 1986.

Now as we head into 2019, fans are rightly wondering if Chicago’s defense can repeat that performance. While I won’t pretend to be able to predict the future, I can look at the past to see what it might have to tell us. So I looked at top defenses in recent NFL history and measured, through a variety of metrics, where the 2018 Bears excelled. Then I looked to see how they followed that up in the next season. Full data collected can be viewed here for transparency’s sake.


DVOA

The DVOA system is set up such that an average defense gets a score of 0, with negative numbers indicating you are better than average (the farther from 0 the better). The Bears finished with a final score of -26.0, so I looked at other teams in the last decade (2008-17) who finished at -20 or better. This was quite a small list, as it featured only 10 teams. Here’s how they fared in the season following that dominant performance:

  • Average DVOA: -25.1%
  • Average following DVOA: -8.8% (8th in NFL)
  • Change: 16.4%
  • # teams with better DVOA following year: 0
  • # teams top 5 in DVOA following year: 5
  • # teams top 10 in DVOA following year: 8
  • # teams below average in DVOA following year: 1

First, notice that none of these defenses were as good the following year. This isn’t surprising; there were only 10 teams in 10 years who achieved this caliber of DVOA. The odds of doing that twice in a row are very low.

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The Most Complete, Data-Driven Breakdown of the 2018 Bears Pass Defense Available

| July 8th, 2019

The Bears had the best pass defense in the NFL last season, finishing 7th in yards, 1st in yards/attempt, 1st in interceptions, and 1st in passer rating against. Now I want to look at the performance of each individual player in coverage, using stats from The Quant Edge.

Where They Lined Up

Let’s start by taking a look at where the CBs lined up. I’m only looking at the CBs here because all of the LB are listed as “LB” and all of the safeties “FS” for pretty much the whole time, thus those designations aren’t particularly helpful.



 

Pretty much the only point I wanted to make here is that the Bears played their CBs in specific spots, not against specific match-ups. Kyle Fuller covered the left (right side from offense’s perspective), Prince Amukamara the right, and Bryce Callahan the slot. Toliver filled in for Prince when he was out hurt (and some for Fuller late in blowouts), and McManis for Callahan.

Of course, Callahan is now gone, so it’s worth noting that 89% of Buster Skrine’s snaps came in the slot in 2018. It’s reasonable to think that will be his role in Chicago as well, but he has played outside a good bit in the past, so maybe he moves if Fuller or Amukamara get hurt and the Bears like McManis or Duke Shelley at nickelback.

It’s also fair to wonder if new defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano will ask his cornerbacks to move around a little bit more. When he was the head coach in Indianapolis in 2017, no cornerback played more than about 90% of their snaps in one spot. That’s still mostly intact, but not the 98%/99% Fuller and Amukamara had.

Coverage Statistics

Now let’s look at how well each player did in coverage. The table below shows that data for every CB, S, and ILB who played a meaningful role in 2018 (OLB are excluded because they saw very few targets due to rushing the passer more than dropping into coverage. Yes, even Leonard Floyd). Positions are color coded to make tracking the table easier.


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