Built to last: What resting QB Mitch Trubisky says about the Bears’ future
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Surrounded by media in the corner of the locker room, quarterback Mitch Trubisky reached a conclusion about his place with the Bears.
‘‘I think I like the podium better,’’ he quipped.
But when the laughs subsided, it became apparent from his answers that he was going to miss his second consecutive start Sunday against the Giants at MetLife Stadium.
‘‘I’m just excited about where this football team is at,’’ said Trubisky, who threw passes for the first time Friday since suffering an injury to his right shoulder but is listed as doubtful. ‘‘It’s just believing I’m going to come back and be ready when this team needs me.’’
In the past, the Bears seemed to be OK with quarterback Jay Cutler playing through his various injuries. Even a partially torn groin muscle couldn’t prevent him from taking the field.
Trubisky, however, is different because the Bears are now different. He’s the centerpiece of a turnaround that’s clearly afoot. The Bears’ decision to be cautious with him and his ailing throwing shoulder isn’t only about a playoff push this season but also their plan for more in years to come.
It took four seasons, but the fruits of general manager Ryan Pace’s labor are showing up. Pace and his staff — starting with director of college scouting Mark Sadowski, director of player personnel Josh Lucas, assistant director of player personnel Champ Kelly and director of football administration Joey Laine — meticulously and thoroughly overhauled a roster that not only is winning this season but also is built to win later.
It’s natural to get caught up in the weekly ups and downs of the Bears’ 8-3 season, knowing that they will miss Trubisky against the Giants and that the Vikings are in hot pursuit of them in the NFC North. But it’s important to maintain a long-term perspective. The Bears always have operated that way under Pace.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio knows best. He arrived with Pace in 2015 and initially coached a defense that featured linebackers Shea McClellin and Christian Jones in the middle of it.
‘‘It’s obviously become a much better roster than when I first got here,’’ Fangio said. ‘‘That’s pretty obvious, and we’ve got a more balanced team. We’re not winning with one side of the ball or one phase. We’ve just become better.’’
Of the 53 players on the Bears’ roster, only five arrived before Pace did. (Guard Kyle Long would make it six, but he’s on injured reserve.) Special-teamer Sherrick McManis is the only player left from the Lovie Smith era.
As far as current starters and rotational contributors on offense and defense, 16 were drafted by Pace or signed as undrafted free agents. If special-teams stalwarts are included, that list expands to 21.
Outside linebacker Khalil Mack’s salary-cap hit will jump from $13.8 million this year to $22.3 million in 2019, but he’s still worth every penny. He’s that valuable on the field, and the Bears’ books are in a good place.
OverTheCap.com and spotrac.com, two reputable contract websites, project the Bears to have about $20 million in cap space next season. It’s a fluid number that can increase or decrease with roster moves.
The Bears also have only three starters who have expiring contracts: safety Adrian Amos, nickel back Bryce Callahan and right tackle Bobby Massie.
Center Cody Whitehair is looking at a possible extension after this season, and the Bears still have to decide whether to pick up their fifth-year option on outside linebacker Leonard Floyd for 2020.
That said, the Bears’ 2020 roster already is set to include Mack, Trubisky, running back Tarik Cohen, safety Eddie Jackson, linebacker Roquan Smith, tight end Trey Burton, offensive linemen Charles Leno Jr. and James Daniels, defensive linemen Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman, cornerbacks Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara and receivers Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Anthony Miller.
With a young quarterback to build around, the Bears’ spending habits rightfully changed last offseason. As a result, it can be argued that Pace’s hits in free agency now outweigh his misses.
When coach Matt Nagy was asked what he learned about his team after it won without Trubisky in the wake of winning two games without Mack and Robinson, he praised his players’ character.
‘‘It speaks volumes of who we are personality-wise, chemistry-wise, belief-wise, confidence-wise,’’ Nagy said. ‘‘I feel like we’ve come a long way.’’
Nagy, of course, is part of that. It’s only his first season with the Bears, but he’s looking like the right coach for a young team. The average age of the Bears’ 53-man roster is 25.
But the type of players the Bears drafted and signed is significant, too. Former coach John Fox helped with that. The Bears replaced Cutler, Brandon Marshall and Martellus Bennett with a roster full of players who think they have a lot to prove, whether it’s being from a small college, being passed over in the draft or being criticized for something.
From Hicks to Cohen to Miller to Trubisky to Mack, it’s a defining trait of many players. There isn’t much entitlement.
‘‘There’s been adversity here,’’ Nagy said. ‘‘Even when we’ve won, we’ve had challenges. We’ve gone through and we’ve done the injury thing. The next guy has stepped up. We’ve been able to go through a couple-game losing streak. We’ve done the couple-game-win-streak thing. We’ve come from behind and won. We’ve kept the lead and won.
‘‘So we’ve been through the gauntlet of different ways to do things. I like that. I think that builds who you are for the end of the year. But we’re not at the end of the year yet. We have five big games left.’’
Fitting right in
Receiver Anthony Miller and linebacker Roquan Smith aren’t the only rookies settling in and making notable contributions. Left guard James Daniels, the 39th overall pick, will make his sixth consecutive start Sunday against the Giants.
‘‘He’s doing a good job,’’ coach Matt Nagy said. ‘‘He’s developing the right way.’’
Daniels’ best test will come next Sunday against Rams superstar Aaron Donald, the reigning NFL defensive player of the year who already has 14½ sacks this season.
But it’s a matchup the Bears are looking forward to seeing.
According to Pro Football Focus, Daniels is one of four guards who hasn’t allowed a sack or pressure in his last two games. Overall, PFF has Daniels with no sacks, two hits and seven hurries allowed on 226 pass-blocking snaps.
In other words, Daniels — who turned 21 in September — is starting to look like another good draft pick.
‘‘He’s young, and he doesn’t have a lot of experience,’’ Nagy said. ‘‘Every game he gets is going to help him out in the long run. He’s been taking coaching well. He’s been trying to do everything he possibly can to improve technique-wise, and every snap that he gets is helping him immensely.’’
Here comes help
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio didn’t like how his typically stout run defense performed against the Lions on Thanksgiving. Veteran LeGarrette Blount ran for a season-high 88 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries.
The Lions ran for 111 yards overall, the most the Bears had allowed since getting shredded for 161 by the Dolphins in Week 6.
‘‘We were a little soft on our edges,’’ Fangio said.
That should change against the Giants with the return of outside linebacker Aaron Lynch, who missed the game against the Lions because of a concussion.
Did the Bears miss him?
‘‘A little bit,’’ Fangio said. ‘‘A little bit.’’
Lynch’s absence against the Lions led to more playing time for Khalil Mack (59 of 66 defensive snaps) and Leonard Floyd (62 of 66). It was perhaps too much, considering it was the Bears’ third game in 12 days.
‘‘They did [play a lot],’’ Fangio said.
Q: [Khalil] Mack and Aaron Donald are considered the two front-runners for [defensive player of the year] in many eyes. What would it take for Eddie Jackson to overcome them, and does positional value matter that much when considering players for that award? — @MBalsley
A: Defensive backs have won the award relatively recently: the Steelers’ Troy Polamalu (2010), the Packers’ Charles Woodson (2009), the Colts’ Bob Sanders (2007) and the Ravens’ Ed Reed (2004). Jackson’s three defensive touchdowns put him in the conversation, but he must do more to surpass Mack and Donald. Texans star J.J. Watt is in the mix again, too. When Polamalu won the award, he had seven interceptions, though he scored only one touchdown. At an individual level, the Bears want Jackson to continue to focus on his tackling. He tends to miss one or two each game, and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is on his case about it.
Q: What are your thoughts on the usage of Trey Burton? Why haven’t they utilized him very much? — @golferguy11
A: It’s wrong to say the Bears haven’t used Burton much. His 38 catches and 448 receiving yards are career highs. He’s also tied with rookie receiver Anthony Miller for the team lead with five touchdown catches. It was unfair, though, to expect him to become the second coming of Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce in the Bears’ offense. In time, Burton’s production should increase with quarterback Mitch Trubisky’s comfort level in coach Matt Nagy’s offense.
Q: Taylor Gabriel has scored in just one game this season. Is that a fluke, or is he just the odd man out in the red-zone playbook? — @PMooney5
A: Gabriel, who is 5-8 and 165 pounds, certainly isn’t the Bears’ first option in the red zone. The Bears have running backs Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen, tight ends Burton and Adam Shaheen and receiver Allen Robinson to turn to. Trubisky’s legs are a threat, too. But Gabriel has been a solid addition. He only has two touchdown catches, but he leads the team with 527 receiving yards. He also has eight carries for 53 yards. Overall, Gabriel is an important, productive part of a diverse offense.