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With the dust settled on the Bears' breakthrough 2018 campaign, former longtime NFL scout and Bears college scouting director Greg Gabriel is analyzing the performance of every player on the roster last season:
Mitch Trubisky — When GM Ryan Pace picked Matt Nagy to be the Bears' new head coach, it was obvious that the hire was all about the development of second-year QB Mitch Trubisky.
The second overall pick in the 2017 draft was coming off an up-and-down rookie season — and the offense he played in didn’t help, as he had one of the NFL's worst WR corps.
After hiring Nagy, Pace's first order of business was to surround Trubisky — and he did just that with the free-agent signings of WRs Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel and TE Trey Burton, and the second-round draft selection of WR Anthony Miller. All of them are important parts of the Bears offense.
Now that Trubisky had a stronger supporting cast, it was not up to him to perform — and perform he did. Playing in one of the most sophisticated offenses in all of football, it took Trubisky time to feel confident within the scheme. He started out slowly with flashes of good play, but the overall consistency wasn’t there.
It wasn’t until after the first three games that Trubisky’s play started to take off. In a three-game stretch against Tampa Bay, Miami and New England, Trubisky passed for over 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns. It was then that we began to see what he could become as an NFL quarterback.
For the year, Trubisky played in 14 regular-season games, winning 11 of them. He completed 289-of-434 passes for 66.6 completion percentage, 24 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He missed two games with a shoulder injury. His overall passer rating was 95.4.
As good as Trubisky played, he only scratched the surface of how good he can be. Last season was like his rookie year do-over. He had to learn a new offense and learn to play with a brand new supporting cast of skill players. The exciting part is he mastered it and he'll start off Year 2 running instead of walking.
Early in the season, Trubisky was a bit slow with reading defenses and making the proper decisions. As he gained experience he improved in those areas, but there is still room for a lot more improvement. Next season, we can expect Trubisky to go through progressions quicker, improve his decision making and improve his accuracy — especially with the deeper throws. Personally, I feel his development has been remarkable and I can’t wait to see how much better he will be in 2019. Yes, Bears fans, he is the franchise quarterback you have been waiting for.
Chase Daniel — Daniel was signed as a free agent last March for two reasons: he had a good understanding of Nagy's offense having played in it and would help transfer that knowledge to Trubisky.
Clubs obviously never want their backup forced into action, but after Trubisky went down with a shoulder injury vs. Minnesota, Daniel had to start the next two games (Detroit, New York Giants). The first was on Thanksgiving, so he had only one practice in which to prepare. He played relatively well, throwing for two touchdowns and 230 yards. The Bears won but it was hardly pretty.
The next week in New York, Daniel again put up good numbers, but he also threw two interceptions and was sacked five times. The Bears lost the game in overtime — and one of the reasons for the loss was inconsistent QB play.
Daniel is what he is — a capable back up and nothing more. He will win some games but also lose some unless he plays perfect. As backup quarterbacks go, he is better than adequate.
Jordan Howard — During the 2018 offseason, much of the talk about the Bears backfield centered on whether Jordan Howard was a fit for the new offense. I was one who felt that he was ... and I was wrong.
There is no doubt that Howard is still a very good NFL running back, but he is not the perfect fit for Nagy's scheme. If we look around and see who has played well in it, we usually find quick, explosive players who can make quick cuts. The good backs within the scheme are also excellent receivers.
Howard did not have the type of season he had in his first two years with the Bears — and part of the reason is he just doesn’t fit what Nagy is looking for. He doesn’t have the quickness and explosiveness that Nagy covets.
Howard ran for 975 yards, but his average per carry (3.7) dropped nearly a full yard from his first two seasons. Howard is the type of back who needs a high number of carries in order to be effective. He isn’t going to get that in Nagy’s offense, and so his touch-by-touch production went down.
It is my guess that the Bears will look to either free agency or the draft to find a player who fits the scheme better than Howard for 2019. It remains to be seen if the Bears will attempt to trade Howard.
Tarik Cohen — There is no doubt that Tarik Cohen is an important part of the Bears offense. He is a big play waiting to happen as a receiver, runner or returner
As a runner, Cohen still has room for improvement. He looks to make the big play instead of taking what is there. He can be more of a horizontal runner than a vertical runner and because of that, he left yards on the field. Still, he ran for 444 yards and a 4.5-yard average.
Where Cohen scares opponents is as a receiver. He led the Bears in catches with 71 for a total of 725 yards and five touchdowns. As good as he was, he can be better, and I feel now that he knows and understands the scheme, he will put up even better numbers in 2019. I don’t think we have seen how good Cohen can be in this offense. His open-field running ability is among the best in football, and now with a better understanding of the scheme his numbers will improve dramatically.
Benny Cunningham and Taquan Mizzell – Both are backups whom we hope don’t have to play much from scrimmage. Cunningham is valuable on special teams and can produce on offense if needed, but he's also not that difficult to replace.
In my opinion, Mizzell is not good enough to be on an NFL roster. He gives the team little as a runner and a receiver and is average at best on special teams. Cunningham could be back in 2019, but I doubt Mizzell will be around.
Cody Whitehair – After a very strong rookie season in 2016, Whitehair struggled in Year 2. He came back to have his best year last season. Whitehair had a problem with the shotgun snaps in ’17 and changed his technique last year, when the poor snaps were almost entirely eliminated. Whitehair makes the line calls and is the leader of the group on the field. He has a close relationship with QB Mitch Trubisky, which is important. Whitehair has shown great consistency as both a run and pass blocker.
James Daniels – Daniels was rated as one of the top centers in the 2018 NFL draft, but after the Bears selected him in the second round they immediately moved him to guard. It took Daniels a while to get used to the transition, but by the end of the season he was playing very consistent football. Early on, Daniels rotated with Eric Kush, but as the rookie gained experience, he was playing the full games at left guard. I think that Daniels still needs to get stronger, and as he gains strength and power his play will improve. His play against reigning (and soon to be repeat) Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald late in the season showed just how far Daniels has come.
Kyle Long – Long is not only the Bears' best offensive lineman, when healthy he is one of the best guards in football. His problem has been staying on the field —he's missed a combined 22 games with injuries over the past three seasons. When Long is healthy, the offensive line is an accomplished group. With his size, strength and power, he improves the run game immensely. The good news: Long came back from his most recent injury to play in the final two games. The Bears are hopeful he can finally remain healthy next season.
Charles Leno – There are many who don’t give Leno the credit he is due. No, he isn’t the best left tackle in the league, but he is a winning left tackle. By NFL standards, he is short for the position (6037), but his long arms make up for his lack of height. He also can have trouble with wide speed, but his overall play is well above average. The fact is that the Bears aren’t going to find a vet in free agency who can play as well as Leno, and without a first- or second-round pick, they would have to get very lucky in the draft. Leno is still a young player who will keep improving with experience.
Bobby Massie – Massie very quietly plays solid football. Like Leno, he isn’t the best right tackle but plays winning football. Since he is out of contract and the Bears will have to be selective with limited cap space, it remains to be seen if Massie will be back next season. The fact is, the Bears gave up six fewer sacks in 2018 than they did in 2017. I’m betting that number will drop again in 2019.
Bryan Witzmann – Witzmann was plugged in at right guard after Kyle Long went down with a foot injury. The Bears signed him because he was a 13-game starter for Kansas City in 2017 and knows the offense. He proved to be a valuable addition, and though he can’t play to the level of a healthy Long, he was good enough to help the Bears earn a playoff spot. Because of his value, I would think the Bears will want him back in 2019.
Eric Kush – Kush missed all of 2017 with a hamstring injury. When the Bears drafted James Daniels, they were hoping they could bring him along slowly and have Kush play at left guard. The two rotated early on, but Kush eventually lost the job to the rookie. Kush is a reserve-only who has value because he can play guard or center. Already a six-year veteran, he probably doesn't have a lot of remaining room for growth. Kush is out of contract and it’s unlikely he will be back in 2019.
Bradley Sowell – Sowell has proven to be a valuable player for the Bears. He didn’t have to play much from scrimmage because the Bears were relatively healthy along the O-line, but he earned snaps in the team's jumbo packages and on trick plays. He is capable of playing guard and tackle at a solid level. He is under contract for one more season, and I would think the Bears will want Sowell back.
Rashaad Coward – At this time a year ago, Coward was just finishing his rookie year as a practice squad defensive lineman. During the offseason program he was moved to offensive tackle, and to say he was the surprise of training camp is an understatement. Coward earned more play time during the preseason than any other Bears offensive lineman. While he was inactive during the season, the feeling at Halas Hall is that he has a bright future. Could Coward replace Massie at right tackle? That remains to be seen, but with another strong camp, he could position himself well as the starter.
Allen Robinson —In 2017, his final year with the Jaguars, Robinson played only three snaps prior to undergoing season-ending ACL surgery. When the Bears signed Robinson last March, he was not yet ready to participate in the offseason program. It wasn’t until the final minicamp in June that Robinson did any team work in practice. At training camp, Robinson was deemed ready to go, but was he? I think that the player we saw in the latter part of his first season in Chicago and in the playoffs was a better one than we saw early in the year. Granted, he was more comfortable in the offense, but his movement skills were also better than they were early in 2018.
Overall, Robinson played very well, finishing with 55 receptions for 754 yards and four touchdowns in 13 regular-season games. He saved his best for the playoff loss to the Eagles, catching 10 balls for 143 yards and a touchdown.
Tall and athletic, Robinson is a very good route runner with super strong hands. Because he will be two years removed from the knee injury when next season begins, I feel we will see an even better player than we saw last season. He was a great addition to the WR corps — and the best is yet to come.
Taylor Gabriel –Based purely on his catch total, Gabriel had his best season as an NFL player. Prior to his debut year with the Bears, his previous best was in 2016, when Gabriel had 35 receptions and a 16.5-yard average. He almost doubled that with 67 catches last season, though his average per catch dropped to 10.3 yards.
Gabriel is exciting — not only as a pass receiver but also as a runner on reverses and jet sweeps. Based on what Gabriel did when he was with Atlanta, I felt that he would create more big plays than he did last season. But I also feel, again, that the big plays will be there in abundance next year because of his and everyone else’s familiarity with the offense.
Anthony Miller – The Bears traded up in the 2018 draft to acquire Miller with the 51st overall pick — and it paid off as he became their third receiving option, with 33 catches and a team-high seven touchdowns. Coming from a fairly simple spread offense at Memphis, Miller was a better route runner than expected and an excellent after-catch receiver.
What hurt his overall production was missing two games and parts of others with a shoulder problem. He dislocated his shoulder several times during the season, showing his toughness by always coming back from the injury. If he hasn't already, he will undergo surgery shortly and should be 100 percent by the time OTAs arrive.
Judging from what I saw this year, Miller should become the Bears' No. 2 receiver in 2019. I’m not taking away from the talent the other receivers have; Miller is just really good. He is quick, fast, consistent as a route runner and very dynamic after the catch. His upside is unlimited!
Josh Bellamy –Bellamy became the fourth receiver mostly by default. I’m not taking anything away from him as a player, but Bellamy wound up in that spot mostly because Kevin White failed, not because of his own excellence.
Bellamy has limitations, but he is very competitive. He has become a better route runner, and even more importantly, he is trusted by his coaches. When Bellamy was asked to play, he produced, even creating some big plays. He finished last season with 14 receptions and a touchdown.
Even though Bellamy saw more time as a receiver, he was still a core special-teamer, a role in which he'll remain as long as he is a member of the Bears organization.
Kevin White – Given every opportunity to succeed with the Bears, White failed. Injuries or not, he never lived up to the hype that accompanies being the seventh overall pick in the 2015 draft. It is highly unlikely that White will ever play again for the Bears, who did not pick up his 2019 option and made him a healthy scratch for most of the latter part of last season. He caught only four balls for 92 yards. With a WR-driven offense, the Bears dressed only four wideouts for a good part of the season — showing their lack of confidence in White as a player.
Javon Wims –A seventh-round rookie, Wims provided flashes hinting at a bright future, leading not only the Bears but the entire NFL in preseason receiving. Still, he is raw and learning the NFL game. He earned his opportunity to play in the regular-season finale, responding with four catches for 32 yards, including several in crunch time. I think that, with a strong offseason, Wims could become the Bears' fourth wide receiver in 2019. The upside is there.
Trey Burton –The TE position is a very important one in Matt Nagy’s offense. Thus, when the Bears signed Burton in free agency, many expected that he would be a big producer for Matt Nagy. Those expectations borne in March came to fruition by September. Burton finished the year with 54 receptions and six touchdowns. Because of injuries to both Dion Sims and Adam Shaheen, Burton had to play more “Y” than the Bears would have liked — and he responded well. Because he is undersized, Burton will never be the blocker a bigger guy might be, but he gives a very solid effort. Look for Burton to play more as a “move” tight end in 2019.
Adam Shaheen – A lot was expected from Shaheen in 2018, and because of a foot injury and surgery during training camp, he didn’t quite live up to expectations. It wasn’t until after midseason that Shaheen was activated to play, and though he flashed, we still haven’t seen the player the Bears hoped they were getting in the second round two years ago. He has size, hands, speed and blocking ability, but the injury set him back. Year 3 will be very important for Shaheen.
Dion Sims – When the Bears signed Sims during free agency in 2017, it was for a different offense. He isn’t a fit for Matt Nagy’s scheme because he isn’t athletic enough, nor good enough as a receiver. Sims' game is blocking, which he did little of last season because of a concussion that limited him to eight games (four starts). It’s highly unlikely that Sims will be back in 2019, and letting him go would create $6 million in much-needed cap space.
Ben Braunecker – Braunecker is a role player who can be useful as a third tight end and a special teams player, but that’s it. He still has some upside because he is athletic, but I expect the Bears to bring in competition for him in 2019.
Daniel Brown – Brown is also a role player, right now standing fourth on the depth chart at tight end. His contribution in 2018 was mainly as a special-teamer — and he did well in that role — but he gives the team almost nothing as a receiver. It’s unlikely that Brown will be back in 2019.