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Grading the Roster: Defense & Specials

| July 20th, 2021

Today, we look at defense and special teams.


Defensive Line: 8

Key Players: Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, Bilal Nichols, Mario Edwards

Roster Depth: Angelo Blackson, Khyiris Tonga, Mike Pennel, LaCale London, Daniel Archibong

Akiem Hicks is still a stud, Eddie Goldman is back after opting out in 2020, and Bilal Nichols can now man the defensive end spot where he is best. That gives the Bears an excellent starting trio. They’ve also improved their depth, re-signing Edwards and bringing in Blackson at defensive end while adding two competent nose tackles in Tonga and Pennel in case Goldman goes down with injury. This group should be a clear strength for the Bears in 2021.


Edge Rushers: 7

Key Players: Khalil Mack, Robert Quinn, Jeremiah Attaochu

Roster Depth: Trevis Gipson, Charles Snowden, James Vaughters, Ledarius Mack, Austin Calitro

Khalil Mack remains one of the best all-around edge rushers in the NFL, but his pass rushing productivity took a dip from great to good last year. Robert Quinn had a horrible 2020 as he battled through injury. Both players are now over 30; can they rebound? Chicago’s defense is built with the idea that this will be a dominant duo, but the pass rush was surprisingly mediocre in 2020, and they will need to be markedly better in 2021 to mask holes on the back end.

The addition of Jeremiah Attaochu as a 3rd rusher is a real upgrade and provides depth and insurance in case Quinn continues to struggle. The Bears have also spoken highly of toolsy sophomore Trevis Gipson this offseason, but it’s hard to put too much stock into offseason praise until we see it on the field.

One area that is overlooked here comes in pass coverage. Neither Quinn nor Mack (nor Attaochu) can do much there, but the Bears have typically had a versatile OLB who gets a decent number of snaps (Leonard Floyd through 2019, Barkevious Mingo in 2020). Undrafted rookie Charles Snowden fits that mold of player, and I won’t be surprised if he earns a roster spot and potentially a role on defense.

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Grading the Roster: Offense

| July 19th, 2021

Camp approaches, which means it’s time for me to grade the roster. Like I did last year, I’ll grade on a 1-10 scale, with 1 being the worst in the NFL, 10 being the best, and 5 being an average NFL unit. Let’s get right down to it.


Quarterback: 3

Key Players: Andy Dalton, Justin Fields

Roster Depth: Nick Foles

Veterans Andy Dalton and Nick Foles are not good. Rookie Justin Fields is Chicago’s best chance at getting good QB play this year, but rookie QBs aren’t usually good either. I mainly grade now based on proven production, so Fields’ draft status doesn’t factor in much here. If I was just basing it on certainty going into the season, this would be a 2, but Fields’ upside prompted me to round up.


Running Back: 7

Key Players: David Montgomery, Tarik Cohen, Damien Williams

Roster Depth: Khalil Herbert, Ryan Nall, Artavis Pierce, CJ Marable

David Montgomery broke out as a sophomore in 2020, but a lack of explosive plays limits how good I think he is. The Bears were forced to rely on Montgomery heavily in 2020, so they spent the offseason improving the group of players around him. They get Tarik Cohen back from a torn ACL that cost him most of the 2020 season, and they added solid depth in both free agency (Damien Williams) and the draft (6th round pick Khalil Herbert). I’d give Montgomery a 6 – an above-average NFL starter – but the quality depth around him bumps this up to a 7.


Wide Receiver: 6

Key Players: Allen Robinson, Darnell Mooney, Anthony Miller, Damiere Byrd, Marquise Goodwin

Roster Depth: Javon Wims, Riley Ridley, Dazz Newsome, Rodney Adams, Thomas Ives, Chris Lacy, Khalil McClain, Jester Weah

Allen Robinson is a stud. Darnell Mooney had a solid rookie season, and is somebody the Bears should feel pretty good about as a WR2. Anthony Miller took a step back in 2020 and seems maxed out as a situational WR3 for passing downs only. Javon Wims and Riley Ridley were awful depth last year, so the Bears brought in Damiere Byrd (who should even push Miller for playing time) and Marquise Goodwin, which should bump those two off the roster. Bears fans seem to love Dazz Newsome, but I’m not overly optimistic about the prospects of an unathletic 6th round pick. Anything he gives the offense will be a pleasant surprise.

This grade really hinges on Mooney, who needs to be the guy at WR2. If he can establish himself as a quality starter this year, the Bears’ WR group will be a clear strength.

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Advanced Defensive Stats: CB Pass Coverage

| July 1st, 2021

Finally, let’s end with a look at the cornerbacks, who will have some personnel changes from 2020. Gone are veterans Kyle Fuller and Buster Skrine, while Desmond Trufant has been brought in to compete with a host of late round picks from the last few drafts.

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The table below shows 2020 coverage stats for all 2020 Bears and Desmond Trufant, who was in Detroit last year. The * for Vildor and Shelley indicates that I included their playoff stats to increase their sample size, since they only played the last few games of the regular season. The rank compares their yards/target mark to all NFL CBs. The median value is included on the bottom, but you can view the full data here.



A few thoughts:

  • Losing Kyle Fuller, who was a cap casualty this offseason, is a massive blow for a secondary that was already full of questions. He was the best player in the secondary by a wide margin last year, and his departure leaves a cornerback group with nothing but questions.
  • However, there are some reasons for optimism among the cornerbacks, if you look closely enough. Desmond Trufant was very good in 2018 (6.2 yards/target) before struggling through injuries the last 2 years. He’ll be 31 at the start of the season, but maybe he can buck the odds, stay healthy and regain his prior form.
  • At nickelback, losing Skrine isn’t actually a problem, as he was not good last year. Skrine missed the last 5 games of the season (including playoffs) in 2020, and Duke Shelley stepped right in and matched his production.
  • Of course, that’s not to say Shelley was good, as he also ranked below average in yards/target. However, if you want to be optimistic, you can point out that Shelley was pretty solid outside of getting torched by Justin Jefferson in one game against Minnesota. In that one game, Shelley gave up 101 yards on 8 targets (11.2 yards/target), but he only allowed 75 yards on 14 targets (5.4 yards/target) in the other 4 games combined. Those other 4 games look good, but you can’t just ignore that he got destroyed by the best WR he faced.

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Advanced Defensive Stats: S and LB Pass Coverage

| June 30th, 2021

Let’s continue our quick tour of Chicago’s defense by honing in on pass coverage.

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At a surface glance, Chicago’s pass defense was just about the definition of average in 2020. They gave up 64% completion (14th in the NFL), 7.2 yards/attempt (16th), 28 touchdowns (16th),  had10 interceptions (23rd), and allowed a passer rating against of 94.9 (20th). They were 21st in Pro Football Reference’s Adjusted Net Yards/Attempt, which accounts for sacks, touchdowns, interceptions, and yards, and 13th in Football Outsider’s pass DVOA rankings, which is intended to be a one-stop measure of pass defense overall.

A closer look at advanced statistics from Next Gen Stats shows how QBs playing against the Bears played relative to the rest of their games and the NFL average.



A few thoughts:

  • Opposing QBs generally didn’t see any change against the Bears in terms of how long they held the ball before throwing it. This means that Chicago’s pass rush wasn’t forcing them to get rid of the ball quickly, but also didn’t let them hang onto it forever. Again: average.
  • In terms of where QBs threw the ball against Chicago, opposing QBs typically threw it slightly deeper against the Bears than other opponents, though the difference is pretty subtle (for context, individual QBs ranged from 5 to 11 yards for average pass depth). That small difference was completely eliminated when looking at average completion depth.
  • Opposing QBs also threw into tight coverage (aggressive throws) slightly more than normal against the Bears, though again that’s not a huge difference. For a little context, individual QBs on the year ranged from averaging 11% to 22% on aggressive throws.

Now that we’ve firmly established the overall pass defense was around average, let’s look at how individual players fared in coverage last year to see where Chicago might have strong and weak spots. We’ll go position by position, using advanced data from Pro Football Reference.

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Advanced Defensive Stats: Missed Tackles

| June 29th, 2021

Continuing our tour of advanced statistics about Chicago’s 2020 defense, today I want to take a look at missed tackles.

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The Bears excelled in the missed tackle area last year, finishing with only 89, the 6th lowest mark in the NFL. To go more in-depth, let’s hone in on how individual players and units contributed to that, building on work I did last offseason. The setup here is fairly simple:

  • Split players into positions (DL, LB, and DB).
  • Compare their missed tackle rates to how everybody else around the NFL fares at their position.

You can see the full data here, but generally the positional medians for missed tackle rates are 10.8% for DB, 9.5% for LB, and 8.5% for DL. With that in mind, let’s look at how Chicago’s defense did last year.

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Defensive Backs

The table below shows all Chicago defensive backs in 2020, as well as how they did overall as a unit. Players with 20 or more tackle attempts were ranked based on how they fared relative to all NFL DBs.



A few thoughts:

  • Eddie Jackson continued to struggle with missed tackles for the 3rd year in a row. It’s not his strength, but that’s fine if he continues to excel in coverage, which is far more valuable (spoiler alert for upcoming article: he did not excel in coverage in 2020).
  • Tashaun Gipson struggled with missed tackles in both 2018 and 2019, but was excellent here in 2020. The Bears will need him to continue to excel in that area given the tackling question marks around him.
  • Kyle Fuller and Jaylon Johnson were both awful with missed tackles in 2020. That continued a long-time pattern for Fuller, but was a bit of a surprise for Johnson, who rarely missed tackles in college. However, I should note that 6 of his 9 missed tackles came in the last 4 weeks as he played through a shoulder injury before it shut him down for the year. In his first 9 games, he had a missed tackle rate of only 10%, which is around league average.

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Advanced Defensive Stats: Pass Rush

| June 28th, 2021

Over the next few days, I want to look at advanced defensive statistics from Pro Football Reference to better examine some of Chicago’s individual defenders as we prepare for the 2021 season. Today will focus on pass rush, while upcoming articles will examine missed tackles and pass coverage.

On the surface, Chicago’s pass rush was not terribly impressive last year. The Bears finished with 35 sacks (17th in the NFL) and 137 pressures (23rd). They pressured QBs on only 22.4% of dropbacks, which ranked 21st of 32 NFL teams. I’ll note here that pressures can be a somewhat subjective stat, and thus they differ a bit from source to source. Pro Football Focus, for instance, had the Bears as the 4th best pass rush in the NFL.

I don’t have access to PFF’s data, however, so I’m going forward with Pro Football Reference numbers. I specifically want to hone in on pressures today, because those tend to be a more reliable measure of pass rush effectiveness than sacks. Last offseason, I found that, on average, NFL players get about 3.8 pressures per sack. This allows you to get a feel for expected sacks (pressures/3.8), which you can then compare to the actual sacks to see which players got lucky (more sacks than expected) or unlucky (less sacks than expected). I found there is no carryover from one season to the next in this stat, so it gives us an idea of what players we might expect to bounce back the upcoming season.

When looking at league-wide data for 2020, I noticed that total sacks seemed lower. The pressure numbers were about the same (105 players had 15+ pressures in 2020 compared to 107/year in 2018-19, 36 players had 30+ pressures compared to 32 per year in 2018-19) but I found there were 4.3 pressures per sack in 2020. My hypothesis is that the NFL calling fewer holding penalties led to more pressures where the pass rusher couldn’t finish the play. Either way, I used the 4.3 pressures/sack number to get the expected sacks for Bears players in 2020, and you can see how they did compared to their actual sacks below. Players in green outperformed their expected sack total by at least 1 sack, while those in red underperformed by at least 1 sack.

A few thoughts:

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Examining Chicago’s Personnel Usage/Tendencies on Offense in 2020

| June 1st, 2021

Like I’ve done the last few seasons, I want to explore how the Bears deployed their skill position players on offense in 2020 to see if there are any trends or tells for which opposing defensive coordinators can look. These are tendencies Chicago’s coaches should be aware of and look to rectify in the future.

The table below shows changes in run percentage when skill position guys who played between 35-65% of the snaps were in the game vs. on the sideline.

  • On the high end, that excludes players who played more than 75% of snaps, because their “off-field” splits would be too small to consider. That was only Allen Robinson in 2020.
  • On the low end, that excludes players who played less than 25% of snaps, because they are often mainly in the game in specific situations, where a run or pass may be expected (i.e. the 4th WR in a 4 WR set for 3rd and long, or the 2nd TE in a short-yardage set). This excluded Demetrius Harris, Cordarrelle Patterson, and a host of other role players who played a few offensive snaps.

(Note: This data is pulled from the NFL Game Statistics and Information System, which includes sacks and QB scrambles as passing plays.)

A few thoughts:

  • David Montgomery had pretty even splits when he was on and off the field. Therefore I won’t look at him any further when I split the sample into different personnel packages below.
  • This is a change from 2019, when Montgomery’s presence on the field made a run much more likely, and is almost certainly due to Tarik Cohen’s injury. In Cohen’s limited 76 plays before getting hurt, the Bears only ran it 29% of the time. He clearly had the passing downs role, and Montgomery absorbed that when Cohen got hurt.
  • Everybody else has fairly significant changes in how frequently the offense runs when they are on the field vs. off of it, which warrants further exploration.

Different Personnel Groupings

I was curious how much the personnel groupings might influence these splits, so I looked at how frequently the Bears run the ball in different groupings. Generally, there are five skill position guys (WR, TE, RB) on the field for a given play, so I split the sample up by how many of them were wide receivers.

The more WR the Bears have on the field, the more likely they are to pass. That makes sense, but the significant difference in run frequency here means we’re going to have to look at each of these groups individually to see how players really impact the run/pass ratio when they are on the field.


3+ Wide Receivers

Let’s start with plays featuring 3 or more WRs, which means there are 2 total TE + RB. The most common setup here was 11 personnel, which features 1 RB, 1 TE, and 3 WR.

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Establishing Realistic Expectations for Teven Jenkins

| May 24th, 2021

The Bears traded up in the second round to select Teven Jenkins and then promptly cut Charles Leno, paving the way for Jenkins to take over as the starting left tackle on day one. Bears fans have high expectations for Jenkins, helped along by Ryan Pace saying he gave Jenkins a first-round grade.

With that context in mind, I thought it might be helpful to look at recent history of tackles drafted in the second round. This can give us an idea of what to expect from Jenkins, and see what rough odds are for him becoming a quality starter vs. being a bust. I looked at all draft picks from 2011-20 to give a 10-year sample featuring 26 players. Full data can be seen here.

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Most Start as Rookies

18 of the 26 tackles (a very nice 69%) drafted in the second round started as rookies. Starter can be a bit difficult to define here due to injury and mid-season depth chart changes, so I considered them starters if they played more than half of their offense’s snaps and started in more than half of the games they appeared in, according to Pro Football Reference.

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They Stay on the Field

All 18 of the players who started as rookies spent at least three years as a starter, or have not yet played three years in the NFL but are projected to continue starting in 2021.

11 of the 13 with four or more years of experience spent at least four seasons starting.

Of the 12 rookie starters drafted in 2015 or earlier (so at least 6 NFL seasons by now), nine of them have been a starter for six or more years, with more than half (7) being a starter for at least 8 years (or 6+ years and projected to continue starting in 2021).

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How Will Bears Handle Massive Special Teams Turnover in 2021?

| May 21st, 2021

A whole lot of attention has been paid to Chicago’s offense and defense this offseason, but there hasn’t been much focus on the unit that will see the largest turnover from 2020: special teams.

Bears special teams were quietly very good last year; they ranked 8th in total DVOA according to Football Outsiders, and were among the 10 best NFL teams in field goals, kickoff coverage, kickoff returns, and punt returns.

This was not a usual result for Chicago, as 2020 was the first year they were ranked in the top 10 for ST DVOA since 2012. To put that in perspective, in 2012 Lovie Smith was still the head coach, Dave Toub the ST coordinator, Devin Hester the return man, Robbie Gould the kicker, and Patrick Mannelly the long snapper. Those were the days.

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General Changeover

So how did Chicago celebrate their 2020 special teams success? By changing over much of the unit. The specialists – K Cairo Santos, P Pat O’Donnell, and LS Patrick Scales – all return, but many of their core ST players will not. Just look at the table below, which shows all 12 Bears who played at least 30% of the ST snaps last year.

The players highlighted in red are no longer with the Bears, and make up nearly half the list (5 of 12). Two more core special teamers – RB Ryan Nall and OLB James Vaughters – saw additions made to their position this offseason that leave them with an uphill climb to make the roster again. If those two are not able to stick, then 7 of the 12 players on this list will be gone. That leaves a whole lot of special teams snaps that will need to be filled.

The good news is that the Bears have emphasized bringing in players with ST experience this offseason. The table below shows new Bears who were core ST performers at their last stop. An * indicates the ST experience was in college.



You can see fairly logical replacements for the players who are leaving from above.

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A Closer Look at Justin Fields’ College Production

| May 18th, 2021

Today, I want to take a closer look at Justin Fields’ advanced statistics in college to see what they can tell us about his playing style, comparable quarterbacks, and forecast to the NFL.

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Pass Location and Accuracy

To start out, let’s take a look at where Fields throws the ball and how accurate he is to different areas of the field. This data is pulled from Derrik Klassen, who has charted 28 draft-eligible QBs across 2019, 2020, and 2021. The table below shows how frequently and effectively Fields threw the ball short (5 yards or less), medium (6 to 15 yards), and deep (16 or more yards). It also compares each value to the average of the 28 QBs.



A few thoughts:

  • Fields is generally a very accurate passer. He’s one of the top 10 in accuracy to each range of the field, and ranks 1st among the 28 in “True Accuracy,” which is Klassen’s distance-weighted accuracy summary.
  • Fields also did not throw short passes all that frequently. It’s often hard to evaluate college QB production because so much of it comes from schemed short passes that don’t require much from the QB. Fields was one of the QBs who threw short the least, which means more of his production came down the field than a typical college QB.
  • Fields also didn’t throw it deep all that much, but he was really good when he did. I’ll look in more detail below at how well that translates to the NFL.
  • Where Fields really stood out, both in frequency and accuracy, was the midrange game. Fields’ 80% accuracy tied with Mac Jones, and nobody else in the sample was above 75%.

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Translation to NFL

So Fields is really accurate and likes to target the middle range of the field often. How well do those traits translate to the NFL?

I’m actually going to focus on two slightly different traits here, because they’re ones where I have easy access to the data (using Pro Football Reference’s Game Play Finder). That lets us view deep passes, which travel 15+ yards past the line of scrimmage, separate from short passes, which travel less than 15 yards.

When it comes to deep passes, Fields threw them at a slightly lower than average frequency in college, but was one of the most accurate passers in the last 3 drafts. How well do those traits translate to the NFL?

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