In Roquan Smith, James Daniels, et al., surging Bears still have room for growth
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The Bears are a hiccup at Lambeau Field away from a 4-0 start. But even at 3-1, with Khalil Mack, a defensive player of the year candidate, and Mitch Trubisky, coming off a monumental six-touchdown performance, the key question is: Can they sustain this?
The last time the Bears were 3-1 was in 2013, also under a first-year head coach in Marc Trestman, who invigorated a franchise that had struggled offensively. But that team faded, going 5-7 the rest of the way, and stumbled in two attempts to clinch a playoff spot — a 54-11 loss to the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field and a 33-28 loss to the Packers at Soldier Field.
But that team was built on a bit of fool’s gold — mostly on a fading defense that had lost coach Lovie Smith and Brian Urlacher and crumbled when injuries to defensive tackle Henry Melton, linebacker Lance Briggs and cornerback Charles Tillman added up. The Bears, who were fifth in total defense in 2012, dropped from 19th to 30th in total defense in the final 12 weeks of the 2013 season.
The 2018 Bears have to avoid injuries like any other NFL team, but the difference is that this defense is growing rather than aging, with every starter 29 or younger, including Mack (27), defensive end Akiem Hicks (28), linebacker Danny Trevathan (28), nose tackle Eddie Goldman (24) and safety Eddie Jackson (25).
And even with the fast start, the team has positions of upgrade on both sides of the ball. Mack, Hicks and Trubisky have to stay healthy. But if they do, the Bears have a chance not only to sustain this success but get better. Among the potential upgrades:
Linebacker Roquan Smith: The eighth overall pick in the draft still is getting acclimated to the NFL and Vic Fangio’s defense after missing the first 25 days of training camp and not playing in the preseason. He’s been effective — including a sack of DeShone Kizer on his first snap — but hasn’t been the sideline-to-sideline impact player the Bears expect him to become. He has shown enough so far to think he’ll eventually get there.
Outside linebacker Leonard Floyd: Like Smith, he’s been effective in general, especially against the run. But the broken hand he suffered in the preseason has limited his ability as a pass rusher. The brace he’s currently wearing is less inhibitive than the club he started with. But once his hand is 100 percent healthy, Floyd figures to be a pass-rushing force opposite Mack.
Guard James Daniels: The second-round pick from Iowa was slowed by a shoulder injury early in training camp and was beaten out by veteran Eric Kush for the starting left guard job. He played 24 snaps in place of Kush and three in place of Kyle Long at right guard against the Buccaneers.
The 21-year-old Daniels didn’t look out of place and showed enough that he’ll likely at least alternate with Kush — as Olin Kreutz did with Casey Wiegmann as a 21-year-old rookie in 1998 — if not start against the Dolphins.
Tight end Adam Shaheen: The 2017 second-round pick from Division II Ashland (Ohio) was put on injured reserve on Sept. 2 after he suffered an injury to his right foot on Aug. 18 in a preseason game against the Broncos.
Shaheen can return to practice on Oct. 15 and return to the active roster on Oct. 29, prior to the game against the Bills on Nov. 4 in Buffalo.
Coach Matt Nagy said last week he was “cautiously optimistic” that Shaheen would return. After a modest-at-best rookie season, Shaheen still is seen as a potential big-play weapon in Nagy’s offense, including in the red zone.