The Bears opened the organized team activities phase of their offseason program Tuesday with as much anticipation and as little anxiety as there has been in recent years.
Coming off a 12-4 playoff season, with a top-ranked defense virtually in place from 2018 and an offense seemingly prepared to leap forward in 2019, the Bears are fixated on riding a wave of good feeling and togetherness under coach Matt Nagy. The second-year head coach set the tone for Phase 3 of the offseason program in typical fashion with a “Monday Funday” celebration at practice Monday — including a dodgeball tournament and a pizza party on the practice field. Let the good times roll.
In Phase 3, which includes 10 OTA practices, the Bears will be on the field for 11-on-11 and 7-on-7 drills (noncontact) for the first time since the 2018 season ended Jan. 6 with a 16-15 loss to the Eagles in a wild-card playoff game at Soldier Field.
And while this phase is quite preliminary — a prelude to training camp in late July — it still will provide a glimpse into some of the changes and issues that will impact the 2019 season.
Reporters will be allowed to watch practice Wednesday. Here are a few areas of importance we’ll be watching:
The Bears had eight kickers at their post-draft rookie minicamp. Entering OTAs, they have three: Chris Blewitt, Elliott Fry and newcomer Eddy Piñeiro, who was acquired from the Raiders for a conditional draft pick on May 7. Piñeiro is the only one who has kicked in an NFL game; he was 3-for-3 in the preseason for the Raiders last season before suffering an injury. The Bears likely will prefer to go to training camp with two kickers.
The Bears return all five of their starting offensive linemen after re-signing right tackle Bobby Massie in the offseason. But Nagy acknowledged they’re considering flipping center Cody Whitehair and left guard James Daniels — which would put each player at his best position. Whitehair was a guard at Kansas State and Daniels primarily a center at Iowa, so it makes sense.
And if they’re going to make a change, now is the time to do it.
A year ago, quarterback Mitch Trubisky almost literally was introducing himself to new receivers Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, Trey Burton and Anthony Miller. This year, they expect to hit the ground running (although Miller will be limited after offseason shoulder surgery). Even in OTAs, the difference should be noticeable.
After a year of growth in 2018 that included a Pro Bowl berth as an alternate, Trubisky is expected to reach a new level of leadership of this team and command of Nagy’s offense. That, too, should be evident, even subtly, in the offseason.
As the successor to Vic Fangio, new defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano knows not to mess too much with a good thing. That said, there will be subtle changes — though they’re unlikely to be too evident in an OTA. And safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and nickel back Buster Skrine, the two new starters on defense, will be on the field as Bears for the first time.
Running back David Montgomery, the Bears’ third-round draft pick, is the only rookie expected to win a starting or regular role in 2019. He’s likely to get prime reps from the start. But elsewhere, it will be interesting to see if anyone else steps up during offseason practices.
Nickel back Duke Shelley and wide receiver Riley Ridley look like candidates for a serious look as contributors. And there are several candidates who might surprise — from drafted players such as cornerback Stephen Denmark and running back Kerrith Whyte to undrafted free agents such as wide receiver Emanuel Hall, tight end Dax Raymond and linebacker Matt Betts.