Bears’ Top 10 list: Who will make or break the 2021 season?

As Bears veterans prepare to report to training camp Tuesday at Halas Hall, here’s a look at the 10 people whose performances will swing the season.

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Matt Nagy is entering his fourth season as Bears coach.

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As Bears veterans prepare to report to training camp Tuesday at Halas Hall, here’s a look at the 10 people whose performances will make or break the team’s 2021 season:

1. Coach Matt Nagy

This season will determine whether the Bears fire Nagy or hand him a contract extension. They hired him in 2018 to be a quarterback whisperer, but Mitch Trubisky flopped. They signed him to call plays, but the Bears rank 27th in yards per pass and yards per run during his three-year career. He’s eight games over .500, but the entire differential came three seasons ago. The man best known for mentoring Patrick Mahomes behind the scenes will try to do the same for Justin Fields this season, but those results will be hard to evaluate as long as Fields holds a clipboard. Nagy’s play-calling won’t. Under Nagy last year, the Bears had the league’s 29th-best scoring offense. Once he handed control to coordinator Bill Lazor, it ranked eighth. Still, Nagy reclaimed play-calling duties this offseason, wanting to put his future in his own hands.

2. Quarterback Justin Fields

Nagy already has ruled out the Ohio State rookie starting in Week 1. But no one inside Halas Hall is more important to the trajectory of the franchise than Fields, for whom the Bears traded up to draft in April. If developed the right way, Fields has the skills to be the greatest quarterback in franchise history — a significant, if limbo-low, bar. If Fields is promising this season — be it on the back fields or in games — he’ll buy his bosses at least another year of employment. If he struggles, though, the franchise will be staring at major changes. No pressure, kid.

3. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers

No one has a greater influence on the Bears’ fate without wearing the wishbone C. Rodgers is 21-5 in the regular season against the Bears — one of his losses came after he broke his collarbone during the first drive — and 1-0 in the playoffs, winning at Soldier Field to reach the Super Bowl in January 2011. If Rodgers forces his way out of Green Bay, George McCaskey should volunteer to carry him to the airport. It would be the greatest change to the NFC North’s balance of power since Rodgers replaced Brett Favre.

4. Defensive coordinator Sean Desai

To fix a defense that allowed a league-low 17.7 points in 2018 but slid backward the last two years, Nagy interviewed nine coordinator candidates — and picked a 37-year-old in-house safeties coach who has never called plays. Whether the most out-of-the-box hire of Nagy’s career works should be apparent in the first month of the season — and will depend in part on whether safety Eddie Jackson, defensive tackle Akiem Hicks and inside linebacker Danny Trevathan return to the level they played at during the magical 2018 season.

5. Outside linebacker Robert Quinn

The Bears gave Quinn a five-year, $70 million deal last offseason and watched him get only two sacks en route to becoming the biggest flop of the free-agent class. They hope a somewhat-normal offseason will help Quinn look a lot more like the man who had 11½ sacks in 2019. Either way, he’s likely playing his last season with the team — the Bears can walk away after two years and $30.2 million.

6. Quarterback Andy Dalton

Was Trubisky the problem the last two years? Dalton’s performance should show us right away. With the same main offensive weapons returning in 2021 — running back David Montgomery, wide receivers Allen Robinson and Darnell Mooney and tight ends Cole Kmet and Jimmy Graham combined to miss one regular-season game last year — the Bears hope that more consistent decision-making at quarterback yields better results. If they’re wrong, we’ll see Fields early in the season, the same way Trubisky was forced to start after only four games in 2017.

7. Left tackle Teven Jenkins

Many around the league viewed Jenkins as a prototypical right tackle — and so did Oklahoma State coaches, who put him at left tackle for only 18% of his career plays. The Bears, though, are trusting their quarterback’s blindside to a rookie who played all of 32 snaps at left tackle last season, all against Tulsa. They believe their second-round pick can be a standout left tackle; just one rookie mistake by him, though, could be calamitous for the health of their quarterbacks.

8. Outside linebacker Khalil Mack

Mack’s nine sacks last year and 8½ in 2019 are his two lowest marks since his rookie year. His impact is greater— Pro Football Focus graded Mack as the best edge rusher in the NFL last year — but the Bears still need an uptick in stats from the man they paid better than any defender in league history. Like Leonard Floyd before him, Quinn didn’t do Mack any favors on the opposite side last year.

9. Nose tackle Eddie Goldman

The Bears had the ninth-best rush defense, in terms of yards allowed per game, in 2019. Last year, with Goldman opting out because of the coronavirus, they finished 14th. The Bears hope to welcome him back next week — finally — after he skipped mandatory minicamp in June.

10. Inside linebacker Roquan Smith

The Bears’ best player last year, Smith finished second in the NFL in solo tackles, sixth in combined tackles and second — behind only the Steelers’ T.J. Watt — in tackles for loss. Smith is contract extension-eligible and figures to be the centerpiece of the defense for the next five years.

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