The Chicago Bears were among the busiest teams during the NFL’s offseason, re-shaping a roster that lost 13 games by signing as many as seven free agents projected to start in 2017.
And yet, all eyes will be on a quarterback position that will start 2017 with a clean slate.
As ESPN Chicago’s Jeff Dickerson pointed out, no team invested more into improving its standing at quarterback like the Bears. As a refresher, the team committed $18.5 million in Mike Glennon to start, another $1 million for backup Mark Sanchez, and several draft picks for the right to swap first-rounders with the 49ers in order to take Mitch Trubisky with the second overall pick. Clearly, GM Ryan Pace’s top priority this offseason was solidifying the quarterback spot, but that’s not exactly what were here today to discuss.
Instead, we want to focus on everyone around the QB and ask if the Bears’ supporting cast is quarterback-friendly.
This might not be at the top of your mind entering 2017, but the offense will eventually need to show more diverse options beyond handing the ball to Jordan Howard and hoping he averages more than five yards per carry. And Cameron Meredith can’t be the only pass-catching option at receiver – even if he is a reliable deep threat and owner of the NFL’s best double-move.
When Glennon signed as a free agent, he brought a glimmer of optimism with him. During his meet-the-media press conference back in March, Glennon said he spent time studying his free agency options, adding that he sought out Chicago because of the offensive options the team had on its roster. He cited the interior of the offensive line, Howard, and Meredith as positives.
Apparently, Glennon didn’t look too far into the team’s history.
It has been nine years since Muhsin Muhammad told Sports Illustrated that Chicago was “where receivers go to die.” And while that quote still sticks out for pass catchers, it’s also indicative of the quarterback play in town to date. But what about this season?
Let’s dig in.
No matter whether it’s Glennon or Trubisky under center, the Bears’ quarterback will be pinning his future on the offensive line. The good news is that it is strong in the middle with center Cody Whitehair and guard Josh Sitton serving as anchors in the interior. Together with guard Kyle Long, there aren’t too many interior trios better than the Bears posse. Pro Football Focus ranked the Bears’ offensive line as the fifth best entering the 2017 season, a major leap from being in the middle of the pack after the 2016 season ended.
You’ll note that I didn’t mention the tackles … until now. That’s because even after their hyperactivity in the free agency market, offensive tackle was one of the few positions not addressed and still viewed as one of the team’s biggest needs. Neither starter opens the season on sturdy ground, and both are viewed as suspect at best at their respective positions. Charles Leno Jr. graded out as average on PFF’s grading scale in 2016. He could be in line for a significant pay raise and even a contract extension with the Bears if he puts together another solid season as a starter. On the other end of the line, Bobby Massie graded out as below average and could be pushed by any number of newcomers the Bears brought in via free agency or after the draft as undrafted free agents.
Perhaps new offensive line coach Jeremiah Washburn brings out the best of the group. Only time will tell.
Friendliness rating: Strong.
One reason the Bears have struggled with stability and production at the quarterback position over the years is because the team has struggled to find stability and production among the wide receiver corps. As much attention as we give the long-standing quarterback hunt (and rightfully so), the fact that running backs Walter Payton and Matt Forte rank 1-2 in receptions, while the team’s all-time leader in receiving yards played from 1959 to 1967 is not a good sign.
Free agents Kendall Wright, Victor Cruz, and Rueben Randle signed one-year contracts, and Markus Wheaton picked up a two-year deal as each player seeks to recapture the magic that made them top targets earlier in their careers. The Bears didn’t pick a receiver in the NFL Draft, and Tanner Gentry is the only remaining undrafted free agent fighting for a spot on the roster. Kevin White, who the team chose with the seventh pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, has much to prove – but he’ll need to be healthy in order to do so.
At least the team has Meredith, who had a breakout year taking advantage of the increase in targets due to White’s injuries and Alshon Jeffery’s suspension. How he adjusts as defenses target him as the focal point of the passing offense will go a long way toward Glennon’s success, and possibly Trubisky’s development.
Friendliness rating: Could use some patching up.
Zach Miller produced Pro Football Focus’ 13th best receiving grade among tight ends in 2016, but played only 10 games and could be on the trade block (or even cut in favor of a younger player with a similar build). Free agent addition Dion Sims has some catching up to do after PFF ranked him 30th among 52 qualifying tight ends last season. The Bears see some potential and upside as a pass catcher, but he relatively inexperienced in that area. Finding balance in the tight end position is something the Bears need to do in order to offset the lack of playmakers on the outside. That’s where second-round draft pick Adam Shaheen could come into play. While Sims is seen primarily as a block-first tight end, Shaheen wowed scouts and overwhelmed Division II opponents with his route running and pass catching.
A good tight end can be a safety valve when receivers are covered, a deep threat in the middle of the field, and an extra blocker on both passing and running plays. If two of the Bears’ three main tight ends have a breakout season, it could ease the work load of an underwhelming group of receivers. But between Miller’s health, Shaheen’s inexperience, and Sims’ need to develop, the Bears haven’t done their quarterback many favors at this position in the short-term. However, could be a position of strength down the line.
Friendliness rating: In the early developmental stage of friendship.
Howard was a lot of things for the Bears in 2016. The Pro Bowl back was a 1,000-yard rusher as a rookie who finished second in yards behind budding superstar Ezekiel Elliott. He projects to be the load-carrying back in 2017, and wants to lead the NFL in rushing in his second year in the league. And it can happen with a healthy and talented offensive line in front of him, an increase in carries, and a reduced number of pass plays.
However, Howard is only one man. Opposing defenses will look to contain him early and often. It’s likely teams will load the box against the Bears until Glennon proves he can connect with his pass-catching targets. Howard thrived as the team’s lead back last season, but the offense still ranked 28th in points and 15th in total yards. Having a steady rushing attack has its benefits for a ball-control offense, but has minimum value without balance in the passing game.
Friendliness rating: BFF status.
Maybe the Bears won’t be as bad as some project. Using Pro Football Focus’ metrics as our guide, the Bears have the best average starting lineup among NFC North teams. That’s a credit to the front office for raising the floor of the talent level. Some of the biggest improvements have come on defense, where the team finished in the middle of the pack in yards allowed despite allowing the ninth highest scoring average. Between free agent additions, key members returning to health, a motivated secondary, and hungry pass rush, there is a potential top-10 defense waiting to be unlocked by defensive coordinator Vic Fangio if he can get the four newcomers projected to start to gel quickly with the returning starters.
Friendliness rating: Friendly-ish, but still in the getting-to-know-you phase.