The path ahead for the Chicago Bears is set even though the NFL has announced it will delay releasing the 2021 schedule until after the draft instead of just before it, as was customary in non-pandemic years.
The fate of the Bears is set because no acquisition they make in this draft is going to have a considerable impact on their season in a dramatic, positive way.
It's rare when any rookie does this, anyway. Darnell Mooney had an impact last year, but not enough to cause more than a ripple. It's difficult to say they would have been under or over .500 just because some other acquired receiver played this position last year.
Only rookie starting quarterbacks paired with special receivers, or spectacular rookie running backs can alter the course of seasons in dramatic ways and the Bears will not have the luxury of finding these from the 20th spot in the first round of the draft. Completely dominant hall-of-fame edge rushers can do it, as well, but the Bears already had this player.
All of this being said, it's easy to predict a Bears record for 2021 based on knowing the opponents and predominance of available talent.
The Chicago Bears will finish 6-11, and either in third place or last place in the NFC North.
What this means for the future of general manager Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy doesn't need to be spelled out for anyone, although there are some in the media who insist job security for either or both isn't necessarily in question.
The 6-11 record is a simple matter of decline on one side of the ball combined with insufficient improvement on the other side.
Nagy and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor have to improve the offense, but not marginally. They will need to make a colossal improvement. They need to take it from near the bottom of the league at 26th overall to at least the middle of the pack, in the range of 15th or 16th.
With a below-average NFL starting quarterback in Andy Dalton, and an offensive line only average at best, and without blazing speed at receiver or running back, they would need to accomplish this largely with smoke and mirrors.
The league was on to Nagy's offensive act by 2019, and Lazor is a known quantity without a record of great success. So no one is blazing a trail with trendy new strategies.
If you're thinking the Bears are planning to fall back on their great defense and let their improved running game help out in a kind of ball-control approach, guess again. You don't improve greatly on offense by turning to ball control. It can happen with point production in this passing era of the NFL.
The defense has its own problems.
They have an entirely inexperienced, new defensive coordinator. The talk of Sean Desai summoning up ghosts of Vic Fangio's Bears 2018 defense and restoring its vitality is beyond wishful thinking.
The 2018 Bears defense is gone. It doesn't exist.
It ended in 2019 when Fangio left, when defensive backs coach Ed Donatell and his technique wizardry departed and when several other things happened.
- Akiem Hicks got three years older. He's not the Pro Bowl Hicks of 2018. Injuries and age really take a toll on the defensive line. He didn't make a sack the last 13 games.
- This team has 20% of the starting secondary left from that great defense intact. It no longer bears a resemblance to the secondary that led the way to 27 interceptions and made for spectacular dominance by the top-ranked Bears defense. There is no All-Pro Kyle Fuller. They're starting a second-year cornerback in Jaylon Johnson, who didn't complete his rookie season and still has lessons to learn along with his very first interception to make. The slot cornerback position hasn't been manned at a level near what it was in 2018 since the 2019 departure of Bryce Callahan in free agency. The same is true for one safety spot and Adrian Amos. And the one remaing piece of the secondary is Eddie Jackson, who hasn't approached the same level of play he had in 2017 and 2018. Former cornerback Prince Amukamara once said communication and cohesive play are the keys for any secondary, and all this secondary has had over the last two years are different players and/or different coaches.
- Nose tackle Eddie Goldman hasn't played in a year.
- The right defensive edge position is not manned by speedy Leonard Floyd but by Robert Quinn with his two 2020 sacks, a player who turns 31 in May and doesn't add the threat of pass coverage to keep opposing offenses guessing about strategy. He didn't even add the threat of sacks last year and this was the reason they acquired him.
- Danny Trevathan isn't the same inside linebacker force he was in 2018, and in fact Pro Football Focus graded him last year as one of the worst inside linebackers in the NFL.
- Khalil Mack has been beaten up for two years with double- and triple-team tactics by offensive lines and offensive coordinators who realize that although he plays like Superman at times, he isn't. He is still one person and the Bears have decayed around him, thereby leading to decay on his part.
The Bears didn't take a one-stop drop from No. 1 in the league on defense in 2018 to No. 14 last year. They've ridden a gradual decline which can't be pinned entirely on Chuck Pagano's approach for two years.
The athletes playing have declined, as well.
The offense might get somewhat better with all the attention paid to it, but there still are too many deficiencies to think it can prop up the declining defense.
The lack of a Russell Wilson-level quarterback prevents the offense from taking on too much of a burden-sharing role.
The Bears face the fourth-most difficult schedule based on opponents' winning percentage. That 2018 team played an easy schedule.
Things don't stand still in the NFL, and time has moved past the 2018 Bears.
It's 2021 now, and 6-11 awaits.
Projected Bears Wins for 2021
Detroit, Minnesota, N.Y. Giants, Cincinnati, Arizona, at Las Vegas
Projected Bears Losses for 2021
Green Bay (home and away), at Seattle, at Cleveland, at Pittsburgh, at L.A. Rams, at Minnesota, at Detroit, Baltimore, San Francisco, at Tampa Bay,