After the Chicago Bears’ 5-11 record in the 2017 season and the firing of John Fox, along with most of his coaching staff, literally nobody saw 2018 coming.
Head coach Matt Nagy had an excellent rookie campaign with a 12-4 record. Clearly the blockbuster trade for Khalil Mack was the biggest catalyst, but he didn’t account for the seven-game swing in the standings by himself.
On defense, Kyle Fuller and Eddie Jackson suddenly emerged as the best cornerback and safety in the league, and Eddie Goldman broke through as a top nose tackle.
Across the line of scrimmage, quarterback Mitch Trubisky went from rookie student to Pro Bowl alternate, Allen Robinson, Trey Burton and Taylor Gabriel arrived via free agency to reshape the receiving corps, and Cody Whitehair, drafted to play guard, became a Pro Bowl alternate center.
The team also got instant production from its rookies with linebacker Roquan Smith making a serious run at defensive rookie of the year and guard James Daniels and wide receiver Anthony Miller making near immediate impacts.
So who are the 2021 players most likely to have a chance to step forward and help replicate that magical ’18 campaign?
New defensive coordinator Sean Desai’s resume isn’t stunningly different from what Nagy’s looked like when he got the head job.
Of course, Nagy was the 2018 NFL Coach Of The Year.
I wouldn’t say Desai has to win the Assistant Coach of the Year Award for the Bears defense to return to its 2018 dominance, but he will get no honeymoon, and he better be ready to lead right now.
Returning vets on offense who’ve shown signs of having as of yet unreached ceilings include running backs David Montgomery and Tarik Cohen, along with tight end Cole Kmet, receiver Miller and lineman Sam Mustipher.
Montgomery looks to have another gear, but he already was fourth in the NFL last year in combined yards from scrimmage. And while getting Cohen back from his ACL tear should be a big plus, with the additions of running back Damien Williams and receivers Marquise Goodwin and Damiere Byrd, it’s unclear how many touches Cohen will be able to command.
Miller isn’t even a sure thing to make the team, but should he finally achieve his high end – solid No. 2 receiver potential – that could be huge. And Mustipher taking another step forward certainly will help, but it actually is still unclear whether or not he is blocking Daniels from his best position and the line might be better off with Daniels at center and Alex Bars at guard.
Kmet appears to be the guy with the best shot at a Fuller- or Jackson-type epiphany.
On defense, we’ll be watching edge rushers Robert Quinn and Trevis Gipson, cornerbacks Jaylon Johnson and Kindle Vildor, lineman Bilal Nichols, along with Jackson and Goldman.
Quinn’s return to pre-2020 form would make everyone on the defense better, as will Goldman, as long as he’s close to who he was in 2019 before opting out last season.
Jackson’s return to 2018 form is a must if the rest of the defense is to get there, too.
Nichols, Gipson, Johnson and Vildor all possess some high-level tools, and the emergence of either Johnson and/or Vildor is particularly crucial to make up for the loss of Fuller.
This year’s free agent class won’t match the 2018 crew, but a big year from either Goodwin or Byrd in the slot and consistent production from Williams in tandem with Montgomery could make the offense look like a shiny new toy, and the Bears obviously are hoping Jeremiah Attaochu will add the same kind of punch to the defense Aaron Lynch did in ’18.
It seems unlikely Andy Dalton will be much better than Trubisky, but he could be a slight upgrade.
It’s hard to project big contributions from the rookies, as Justin Fields may be the future, but you can count breakout rookie starting quarterbacks in NFL history on one hand. He will be blocked by Dalton early, but anything less than an All-Rookie debut from offensive tackle Teven Jenkins could be a disaster.
Kmet, Daniels, Williams, Goodwin, Miller, Quinn, Goldman, Johnson, Vildor and Desai appear to be the guys to watch.
Breakout campaigns from Desai and most – or at least many of the rest – could lead to a legitimate playoff run, while steps sideways or backwards from the majority could be a prelude to starting the rebuild in 2022.