Time to fine-tune: A look at the Bears’ approach to this coming offseason
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In general manager Ryan Pace’s own words, the Bears have reached a point where their roster only needs to be fine-tuned and tweaked.
“And that we stay on the right track,” he said.
With that in mind, here’s a look at the Bears’ approach to this offseason after their first playoff berth since 2010:
No longer so new
Coach Matt Nagy expected his offense to be a roller coaster in its first year. It was too new for everyone, including his assistants.
“There were some highs, and there were some lows,” Nagy said. “You think about the Tampa Bay game [a 48-10 Bears victory] and how great that was. And then you think of some of these other games where, whether it was a half or a quarter, it just didn’t look very good.”
From early timeouts to pre-snap penalties, there were moments where plays were lost in translation.
“I can’t even begin to explain how pumped up I am to take what we just put together this past year and fine-tune it to our players, our coaches and our scheme,” Nagy said. “And then just get it down to what we think gives us a better opportunity to be much better next year.”
The Chiefs, who play the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday, are an obvious comparison for the Bears because of Nagy’s background as their offensive coordinator. Experience clearly matters in their offense. While quarterback Patrick Mahomes is in his second year in coach Andy Reid’s system, Pro Bowl tight end Travis Kelce and receiver Tyreek Hill are in their sixth and third years.
For the Bears, every starter and major contributor is under contract next season except right tackle Bobby Massie.
“There’s a natural build just as they’re together longer,” Pace said.
The third-year QB
Quarterback Mitch Trubisky has graduated to the next phase in Nagy’s nuanced, quarterback-intensive offense. So, what does that look like?
“Level 2 next year is going to be him really recognizing pre-snap what he’s about to see from these defenses,” Nagy said. “So, last year, he was so focused in on ‘What do we do on offense?’ ‘Hell, I’ve never run this offense before — what does that mean?’ Now he knows — he knows it all. And now he can take that next step of figuring out, ‘OK, here they come.’ ”
Trubisky had established a next-play mindset by the end of the season. Nagy and Pace also pointed to his success in the fourth quarter of the playoff game against the Eagles, when Trubisky identified blitzes, stood strong in the pocket and made high-level throws.
“It was just good to see the natural growth, just in the offensive scheme, as he gains more comfort — and also more comfort with the players that are around him,” Pace said.
Developing stars on defense
The Broncos’ hiring of Vic Fangio as their head coach triggered widespread changes for the Bears’ defensive coaching staff, starting with the arrival of coordinator Chuck Pagano, but they were changes the Bears wanted. The value of continuity has its limits when replacing a coordinator such as Fangio, who had an authoritarian approach. Nagy passed on promoting secondary coach Ed Donatell, who’s now Fangio’s defensive coordinator.
Nagy and Pace believe in Pagano but also in their players. As the saying goes, it’s about the Jimmys and Joes, not the X’s and O’s. And the Bears’ defense has a number of young players who still can improve: linebacker Roquan Smith and defensive lineman Bilal Nichols (more experience), safety Eddie Jackson (better tackling) and linebacker Leonard Floyd.
Smith’s rookie season was particularly promising. He wound up leading the Bears in tackles after playing only eight snaps in their Week 1 loss at Green Bay.
“The sky’s the limit for him,” Pace said. “It’s exciting to see him grow. You saw a glimpse of what he’s going to be, especially in the later part of the season.”
Some financial flexibility
The Bears are currently projected to have about $20 million in salary-cap space, which is in the bottom third of the league. But they could create more space with cuts, which they’ll be exploring. They’ll need space for potential re-signings, their next draft class, more undrafted free agents and other pursuits in free agency. A contract extension for center Cody Whitehair also is expected.
If they release kicker Cody Parkey, as expected, the move would leave $4 million to $5 million in dead money on their books, depending on the timing. But the contract structures for tight end Dion Sims and linebacker Sam Acho give the Bears more affordable exit options. Releasing those two would save more than $8 million in cap space.
The most notable roster decision could involve guard Kyle Long, who signed a four-year, $40 million extension that runs through 2021. His contract also has an affordable exit option. Releasing him would result in $7 million in cap space. But Long was given the extension because he fit with the culture Pace wanted to build and won over Nagy and Trubisky. For that reason, he’s considered a candidate for a restructured contract, if he’s willing to entertain such conversations.
However, talk about Long’s future begins with his availability. He started only 25 games over the last three seasons because of injuries and was on injured reserve this season with a foot injury.
“He had a unique year . . . learning the offense, being a leader in the room, and then [he] had that injury,” Nagy said. “But I was proud of how he handled this year, how he got through it both mentally and physically. It was good for him.”
Drafting some help
Last year’s draft was a good one for the Bears. It started with the selections of Smith (No. 8 overall), left guard James Daniels (39th) and receiver Anthony Miller (51st). All three are building blocks.
“From what we’ve seen, we feel really confident with that group,” Nagy said. “[We] see a lot of high ceiling with these guys. If we could go back and do it again, I’d do it again.”
But the emergence of Nichols (145th), who quickly developed into a starter, was perhaps the most noteworthy draft win. Nichols was another Day 3 find for Pace and his staff, following the selections of running back Tarik Cohen and Jackson in the fourth round in 2017.
The Bears’ first draft pick of 2019 is in the third round, but Pace says he’s excited for the challenge. In his view, he already made his first two selections via trades: His first-rounder turned into linebacker Khalil Mack last September, and his second was the trade for Miller last April.