Ready to reload: What do Bears have in place for next defensive coordinator?
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The Bears have the best job opening in all of football.
Here’s what awaits their next defensive coordinator after Vic Fangio left this week to be the Broncos’ head coach:
Trust and autonomy
Coach Matt Nagy’s work with quarterback Mitch Trubisky is incomplete. As much as Trubisky improved this season from his rookie year, his development was always expected to be a multiyear process. And that’s one important reason why Nagy appreciated having Fangio around to run the defense.
Fangio had full control — which he didn’t exactly have under Nagy’s predecessor, John Fox. The only time Nagy truly intruded was when he used defensive players for “Freezer Left,” “Lollipop,” “Santa’s Sleigh” and other novelty plays on offense — which Fangio was OK with.
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The Bears’ next defensive coordinator — — whether it’s secondary coach Ed Donatell or an outsider — should expect to have the same type of relationship with Nagy, especially if he can match Nagy’s energy and passion. Nagy and Fangio’s relationship worked because it started with trust and respect. Fangio has a different personality than Nagy, but their work ethic was similar.
Mack and more
Bears linebackers Khalil Mack and Leonard Floyd will be as attractive to Fangio’s replacement as the Broncos’ Von Miller and Bradley Chubb were to Fangio in his decision to go to Denver. In terms of importance, a top-tier pass rusher is second only to a top-tier quarterback. And Mack is one of the best defensive players in the NFL. His arrival turned a good Bears defense into a great one. And he’s signed for six more years.
Unlike Fangio, the next defensive coordinator also will get a full offseason to work with Mack, who was acquired from the Raiders a week before the season opener last September.
A sense of stability
When Fangio left the 49ers to come to the Bears — part of the upheaval that followed Jim Harbaugh’s exit as coach — so went the 49ers’ defensive success. They fell from fifth in total defense in 2014 to 29th in 2015.
The players changed on the field, too, starting with the retirements of two All-Pro players, linebacker Patrick Willis and defensive tackle Justin Smith. The 49ers also had to integrate three new starters in the secondary.
The Bears have a different situation awaiting Fangio’s replacement. Nickel back Bryce Callahan and safety Adrian Amos are the only two starters who require new contracts. Mack, linebacker Roquan Smith, safety Eddie Jackson, cornerbacks Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara and defensive linemen Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman are all under contract through the 2020 season or longer. And Floyd is expected to join that list; it’s considered a given the Bears will pick up his fifth-year option for 2020.
Speaking of the future
The Bears have more than starters signed for their next defensive coordinator. They have potential long-term stars in Smith and Jackson, whose continued development is a reason to be optimistic about the defense, regardless of who runs it.
Jackson already took a major step this season, earning a Pro Bowl nod and first-team All-Pro honors after making six interceptions and recovering two fumbles. He scored three touchdowns — two pick-sixes and one fumble return.
Smith, though, could be the player who truly transforms the defense. He led the Bears in tackles this season with 121 — and that’s despite not starting in Week 1 against the Packers following his contract dispute. Smith also had five sacks and two interceptions, including one pick against the Eagles in the playoffs.
Taking over the best defense in the NFL after a 12-4 season will come with great expectations. An extremely high standard of play was established defensively, but the Bears’ returning starters should help maintain that — without expecting to be perfect, which is an important difference.
Trubisky was able to learn and play in his second season knowing the defense could bail him out — which it did, often. If the Bears take another step forward in 2019, it will be because Trubisky improves to where he, in turn, can bail out the defense.