A Critical Look at Whether Bears Are Better

Ryan Pace thinks he sees improvement after what has been "50 percent" of their offseason attempt to get better but is that really the case?
Author:
Publish date:

Press conferences leading up to the draft or free agency rarely reveal much specifically about an NFL team's plans beyond what is already known.

No one wants to tip their hand.

When Bears coach Matt Nagy broke news he would be calling plays during Friday's press conference, and when Andy Dalton actually said during his first meeting with Chicago media that he was starter, it was almost stunning because of how little news  customarily arises from such Q-and-A sessions.

However, much of what comes out does indicate general direction and a question GM Ryan Pace received Friday from Sun-Times reporter Jason Lieser went a long way toward measuring where the Bears are. Lieser simply wanted to know where Pace thought the Bears were better now than at the end of last season.

Pace fumbled and stumbled through to the best of his ability.

"As we went into this offseason, we had limited resources in regards to the cap and it was important for us to retain certain players," Pace said. "So I think, as we go through it, and first off, getting guys back like Cairo Santos and Mario Edwards and Germain Ifedi, just to name a few, that was kind of the first step in our offseason process.

"But we challenged ourselves in free agency really with limited space to get better and I thought our pro scouts and our coaches did a really good job adding valuable pieces. Were we big spenders in free agency? No. But I thought we addressed a lot of needs as you talk about guys like Andy Dalton and Angelo Blackson and Jeremiah Attaochu, Desmond Trufant, Christian Jones, Elijah Wilkinson, Damien Williams, to name a few."

A very few.

"Those were all needs for us and important players for us to add and that's all before we go into the draft with eight picks," Pace said. "So I think that all bodes well for us, in addition to us continuing to grow and develop a lot of your players. So I think of guys like Jaylon Johnson and Cole Kmet and Darnell Mooney, James Daniels, David Montgomery, those guys continuing to grow, that bodes well for the Bears. So all of that, I would add to the excitement with our coaching staff, really excited about Sean Desai. Some of the things we've done on defense. So I think as we look into 2021, the additions we've already made, the growth of our players and some of the changes we made with the coaching staff gets us excited."

After dancing circuitously around it all, Pace's answer was simply that the various subs, Andy Dalton and retaining their own free agents made the Bears better.

Retaining free agents is simply keeping players who are at certain level. Signing subs is essential but merely makes it possible for better talent to play in case of injury and doesn't make for a higher starting talent level. Expecting coaching staff change to have an impact is chancy and can only really be counted on as possible improvement if a team struggled first and then fired the full staff for a new staff.

Essentially, Pace couldn't really answer how the team is better.

"I feel like the puzzle's kind of halfway done right now as we're through this offseason," Pace said. "With eight picks in this draft, which is a lot for us, we're excited about that."

So the draft is what they'll look to in order to prove they've become better in this offseason? The draft? Considering they need several different starting positions, the draft might not be sufficient to supply what they expect.

Here's where the Bears actually are better and worse than when this entire offseason journey began.

Better

Running Back

Considering where they were last year, they're possibly 25% improved or maybe more. The depth addition of Damien Williams is a colossal upgrade over using Cordarrelle Patterson at a position he knows nothing about playing. He was an all-time great kick returner and mediocre receiver, asked to perform an unnatural act of lining up in the backfield. He didn't have a gain longer than 13 yards and averaged only 3.6 yards a carry. The loss to Minnesota at Soldier Field could be traced directly to not having someone better to play running back when David Montgomery suffered a concussion. Montgomery, himself, should be better in Year 3. This is a solidly upgraded group.

Quarterback

When the signing of Dalton was made it looked almost like a trade off to let him come in while Mitchell Trubisky left. The stats over the past four years for Trubisky are superior in many ways to Dalton's, even if the career stats for Dalton are slightly better. But Dalton is 33 now and you're taking into account his best years while Trubisky presumbably would have years to go before age became a factor.

However, the marketplace provides a real measure and when Trubisky got only $2.5 million for one year to go to Buffalo and Dalton could command $10 million for a year and the demand he be a starter, it speaks rather definitively to who is the better quarteback.

Inside Linebacker

Danny Trevathan has to be better this year because if he's not, they should cut him. He had a terrible season, and it led the defense to remove him in favor of an extra safety in sub packages. This had never been necessary in the past. He struggled especially against the run early in the year as they adjusted defensively to not having Eddie Goldman. But bringing in Christian Jones gives the inside linebackers the third player capable of starting in case of an injury, and they didn't have this last year when Roquan Smith went out for the year with an elbow injury.

Defensive Line

They lost Roy Robertson-Harris, Brent Urban and John Jenkins and so far have replaced them only with Angelo Blackson. But the big improvement is getting nose tackle Eddie Goldman back from a year away due to an opt out. The fact Bilal Nichols gained nose tackle experience last year gave them more depth through versatility. They have five defensive linemen because they retained Mario Edwards Jr., who last year was ranked third in the NFL among all interior defensive linemen by Pro Football Focus, starters or otherwise. Only Aaron Donald and Chris Jones ranked higher. So they need to add one more, possibly from the draft. With Goldman's return taken into account, they rank slightly better and would be solidly better if not for losing a veteran reserve standout like Robertson-Harris.

The Same

Outside Linebacker

Adding Jeremiah Attaochu gave them another one-dimensional pass rusher. He's pretty good at it. He is not a linebacker/pass rusher type like they had in Barkevious Mingo, who left in free agency. Mingo could play both in space and rushing the passer. He wasn't excellent at either but had the ability to do both, and the versatility gave former defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano ability to be more deceptive--even if he didn't always use this well.

Offensive Line

They lost Bobby Massie, who had been possibly the second-best blocker they had but lost too many games to injuries the last two years. To replace Massie, the plan apparently is to move Germain Ifedi to right tackle even though he wasn't at his best playing there. They are getting James Daniels back from a pectoral muscle tear and this moves the needle up enough to get them a wash here. The depth also is slightly better with the addition of Elijah Wilkinson and loss of Rashaad Coward.

Wide Receiver

Nothing has been done here. They can hope for improvement in Year 2 from Darnell Mooney, but it can't be anticipated. Sophomore slumps are not uncommon. No players were brought in and Anthony Miller has a lot to prove.

Worse

Tight End

They do not have third tight end Demetrius Harris under contract. Cole Kmet's ascent could continue but like with Mooney it's possible he'd regress. The positive on Kmet's side is he didn't really get started playing until the second half of his first season, so he was still riding momentum at season's end. Jimmy Graham is another year older and closer to retirement.

Special Teams

Patterson didn't provide much as an offensive player but no one can deny his presence as a kick returner carried an impact. Especially when November rolled around, teams had to fear him because it became more difficult in the cold for kickers to get touchbacks. They were seventh in the league in average starting field position largely due to his presence. Keeping the players they had at skill spots like Santos, Pat O'Donnell and Patrick Scales was essential. Losing Patterson is huge, and the other big loss would be Sherrick McManis. He is unsigned. He led the team in special teams tackles five of the last six years. Together these rate enought to pull down teams.

Secondary

This is a huge negative. It's a situation so bad it offsets several positive gains made elsewhere.

They lost a starting Pro Bowl player in Kyle Fuller. They lost a starting slot cornerback in Buster Skrine. They haven't signed a safety to replace Tashaun Gipson. Signing Desmond Trufant as Kyle Fuller's replacement is an insufficient patch job. There really is no solution to replacing Skrine, who was no Pro Bowl player but at least had experience playing the position. Not signing Gipson leaves them hoping a rookie can come in and do the job or an unsigned castoff from another team.

The deficiencies here alone are enough to bring down the entire team.

Coaching

It's not a personnel position, but when you've lost a defensive guru like Jay Rodgers has been on the line it can have a devastating effect. And despite Chuck Pagano's inability to get the most out of his edge rushers or defensive backs, he at least was an experineced coordinator. Replacement Sean Desai has no coordinator experience, and really was better in a quality control position rather than a position coaching spot. And now comes word Nagy will call plays again after flopping last year, while offensive coordinator Bill Lazor will give it up after the team scored eight more points a game with him calling plays. This is an upgrade?

Twitter: BearDigest@BearsOnMaven