Gone are the under-promise, over-deliver days of John Fox. He didn’t promise much, and he never delivered.
The era of Matt Nagy, meanwhile, begins with optimism and expectations of an overdue turnaround. And he’s seemingly embraced everything about it.
During the offseason program, Nagy used the expansion of Halas Hall as an analogy of what the Bears are trying to build.
“You want them to know that this is real with where we’re going and what we’re doing,” Nagy said in April. “I want them to know that we want to win now. So you’ve got to understand what it takes to get there.”
That said, here is our sixth annual list of the 10 most important Bears players for a successful season:
1. TE Trey Burton
As the story goes, Nagy didn’t begin discussing personnel with general manager Ryan Pace until he and his family boarded the team’s chartered jet out of Kansas City.
Onboard, Nagy highlighted the need for his all-important “U” tight end. So much runs through the “U.” Coverages are tipped, and easy throws for Mitch Trubisky are created.
Pace already had a player in mind: Eagles backup Trey Burton. He’s not Eagles starter Zach Ertz or Chiefs star Travis Kelce, but it was thought that Burton could flourish with more opportunities and responsibilities
Now, we’re about to find out.
Surely, the success and failures of Trubisky will determine much about this season. But no player is more important to Trubisky’s success than Burton.
Burton is here to make Trubisky’s life easier as Trubisky acclimates himself to Nagy’s nuanced offense. Coming from the Eagles, Burton not only has a grasp on Nagy’s scheme, he’s expected to help teach it to his teammates.
2. QB Mitch Trubisky
In the long term, there is no player more important than Trubisky. He surely will top this list next year and beyond.
But 2018 is different. Trubisky is learning a complicated offense – one that backup Chase Daniel described as “very quarterback intensive.” Trubisky will make mistakes. In fact, he needs to make them.
Trubisky’s dogged work ethic will aid his transition. His natural leadership abilities will help, too. But he also needs help in his first full year as an NFL starter. That’s why Burton is No. 1 … for now.
Despite limited production with the Eagles, Burton received a big contract – four years, $32 million — to be a big-time player in Nagy’s offense.
“[Burton] can do anything we ask him within this offense,” Trubisky said. “I feel like any time he’s on the field, he’s going to be open and make a play for us when we need it.”
3. RB Tarik Cohen
In Week 10 of last season, Cohen played only 13 offensive snaps in a 23-16 loss against the Packers. Josh Bellamy was on the field for 40.
Fox and Dowell Loggains tried to defend it, but it was inexplicable. In a close game against a rival, the Bears’ best threat barely played.
It’s too early to truly tell what Nagy’s offense will be, but the smallish Cohen surely will be a big part of it.
“He’s an athletic kid that does a lot of things well,” Nagy said. “We’ll have some fun with him.”
Loggains did, too. Cohen’s touchdown pass against the Ravens is an example. But Nagy is unlikely to limit Cohen. He’s a mismatch waiting to happen, one who can tip coverages and never leave the field.
Cohen isn’t the second coming of Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill. He’s a running back first, which actually gives Nagy more options.
“I feel like this is the offense for me,” said Cohen, who is learning several positions.
Unlike Loggains and Fox, expect Nagy to see a defense’s decision to double team Cohen as a positive. It’s why Cohen can’t contain his excitement about Nagy’s offense whenever he’s asked about it.
4. OLB Leonard Floyd
If Floyd doesn’t break out in his third season and produce double-digit sacks, will it ever happen?
It’s a question worth considering given his injury history and the Bears’ shortage of pass rushers. The Bears also have to decide after this season whether to pick up his fifth-year option.
After injuring ligaments in his right knee last season, Floyd was limited during the offseason program. He also wore a bulky brace. He’s expected to be fully ready for training camp, though.
5. LB Roquan Smith
Despite finishing 10th in total defense, the Bears’ defense still was viewed around the league as a unit that needed more top-notch talent. The Bears’ selection of Smith helps change that perception.
Smith, the eighth overall selection, is a marquee talent for a marquee defensive coordinator in Vic Fangio. Some scouts considered Smith the best defensive player in the draft.
The Bears want Smith to earn his starting place. A rotation is possible for the early going. Smith, Danny Trevathan and Nick Kwiatkoski are capable blitzers who help ease concerns about the Bears’ pass rush.
But Smith also is in an ideal situation to excel immediately. The entire secondary returns intact, and he has Hicks and Eddie Goldman up front.
6. RG Kyle Long
After missing just one game over his first three (Pro Bowl) seasons, Long missed 14 games over the past two. He underwent surgeries on his neck, shoulder and elbow this offseason.
Running back Jordan Howard turned in consecutive 1,000-yard seasons despite Long’s woes. But the line is undoubtedly better with Long.
The Bears have the makings of strong line, particularly in the middle with center Cody Whitehair taking charge and the selection of guard/center James Daniels in the second round.
Other than Long, it’s also proven to be a durable unit. Whitehair and left tackle Charles Leno Jr. didn’t miss a start in 2016 or 2017. Right tackle Bobby Massie only missed two games in those seasons.
7. S Eddie Jackson
To be great, the Bears’ defense can no longer rank near the bottom of the league in interceptions. This is where Jackson comes in.
At this point, we know what safety Adrian Amos and cornerbacks Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara are. They’re good players, but they’re not reliable in the takeaway department.
Jackson focused on his tackling last season, but he also flashed his takeaway potential. He starred in a 17-3 win against the Panthers, scoring on a 75-yard interception return and a 76-yard fumble recovery. He finished his rookie year with two interceptions and three fumbles recoveries.
If Jackson can increase his takeaways in his second season, the defense will take the next step it wants.
8. RB Jordan Howard
Regardless of bad trade rumors, Howard’s vision and patience make him a threat in Nagy’s zone scheme.
Howard’s workload, though, remains unclear. Nagy sees bell-cow abilities in Howard, but he also acknowledged that his offense doesn’t require such a back in every game.
Kareem Hunt also was a one-man show last year out of the backfield for the Chiefs, making him a bad comparison for Howard beyond him already being a better pass-catching option.
Howard has Cohen to share snaps with in Nagy’s offense. Chiefs running back Charcandrick West had 45 total touches last season behind Hunt. Cohen had 87 carries and 53 catches last season, and his workload should increase under Nagy.
9. DL Akiem Hicks
It’s a shame that Hicks didn’t make the Pro Bowl after producing 8 ½ sacks, 15 tackles for loss and 54 tackles last season. But his snub should serve as an extra motivation.
Not that he needs it, though. He’s improved every year since joining the Bears.
Hicks rarely left the field last season. This year, he should benefit from the continued development of Goldman, Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris.
10. OLB Aaron Lynch
The Bears hope that reuniting Lynch with Fangio results in a resurgence after two awful seasons with the 49ers. They believe Lynch’s one-year contract is good motivation, too.
But the lower-body injuries that Lynch suffered during the offseason program were disconcerting. He needs to play to produce. The Bears desperately need him to help Floyd get after quarterbacks.
Last year’s list:
1. RB Jordan Howard
2. OLB Leonard Floyd
3. WR Cam Meredith
4. QB Mike Glennon
5. C Cody Whitehair
6. LB Jerrell Freeman
7. TE Adam Shaheen
8. OLB Pernell McPhee
9. CB Marcus Cooper
10. QB Mitch Trubisky