2011: The year the Bears last won a playoff game.
It has been over a decade since the Bears have moved a single place in the NFC playoff standings.
Four losing seasons, three at an even .500, and one missed kick later, the Bears are trying once again to bring themselves back to their mid-eighties “Monsters of the Midway” glory and once again hoist the Lombardi trophy.
Despite the shortcomings, some can argue this year can be one of the most memorable for Bears fans: Wide receiver Allen Robinson is staying for one more year, and Chicago potentially picked up their quarterback of the future in Justin Fields just when quarterback Aaron Rodgers showed signs he could potentially leave the Packers.
With hard work, pure luck, and sheer determination, the Bears could top the NFC North once again and prove themselves to be a true playoff team by winning their first playoff game in more than a decade.
In what could be head coach Matt Nagy’s last year as a member of the Chicago Bears, his team still has plenty of questions that need answering going into training camp. From the offensive line to the quarterback position, though the offense has seen major improvement, uncertainty can still arise in several positions.
While a single player can’t answer some of a team’s most glaring questions, their performances on and off the field can go a long way in providing the framework for the solution that team so desperately needs.
The Bears’ chances at becoming a playoff contender in the NFC and beyond this season will live and die through these six players.
1.) Khalil Mack
It’s time for Bears fans to know if they won the trade.
Sept. 1, 2018 became a date that shook the NFL landscape to its core before the 2018-19 season. In what could be seen as the final piece the Bears’ defense needed to truly take a giant leap forward, the Chicago Bears traded two first-round picks, a 2020 third-round pick, and a 2019 sixth-round pick for one of the league’s most productive pass rushers in linebacker Khalil Mack, a 2020 second-round pick and a 2020 seventh-round pick. The Bears would go on to sign Mack for what was then the largest ever contract for a defensive player, signing the pass rushing extraordinaire for $141 million over six years.
Teaming up with a 350-pound defensive end in Akiem Hicks and nose tackle Eddie Goldman, the Bears’ defensive line dominated their opponents with what felt like an endless tidal wave of sacks. Chicago was just three sacks shy of leading the NFL in total sacks, tying the Minnesota Vikings for No. 2 in the NFL with 50 total sacks. Mack and Hicks led the team with 12.5 and 7.5 sacks respectively, with 13 other player on the Bears’ roster logging at least one sack during the regular season.
With the two 2020 second-round picks, Chicago selected tight end Cole Kmet and offensive tackle Arlington Hambright. While Hambright hasn’t seen too many snaps for the Bears despite plenty of shifts on the line, Cole Kmet bounced back from early struggles on the field to solidify himself as a starter in Chicago’s 12 personnel package. The Notre Dame product caught 28 passes for 243 yards and two touchdowns over the season.
Meanwhile, Oakland used the picks they gained in the Khalil Mack trade to select running back Josh Jacobs (2019), cornerback Blessuan Austin (2019), cornerback Damon Arnette (2020), receiver Bryan Edwards (2020). Jacobs solidified his spot in the starting lineup after rushing for 1,000-yard in two seasons, breaking the 2,000 yard mark in 20 games. His ability to wear down defenses with his seemingly-relentless ability to crash through defenders allowed for the Raiders to provide a solid enough pace on offense to go .500 in 2020.
Both selected corners were not able to break the starting lineup last year, while Edwards caught 11 receptions for 193 yards.
Chicago needs to know, once and for all, whether the trade was all it was cracked up to be. With some new editions on the defensive line. With players like Hicks and Goldman returning to providing help on the defensive line, Mack is primed to have another showstopping season in the Windy City. It’ll take the help of lineman Bilal Nichols, partner-in-crime Robert Quinn, and the entire secondary to get the right amount of pressure on every snap, but it shouldn’t be a problem for a six-time pro bowler in Mack.
2.) Jaylen Johnson
It’s time for the youth movement to officially start on defense.
Cornerback Kyle Fuller, who was set to have a $20 million cap hit this season, was released in late March to free up cap space and provide enough room to sign the upcoming draft class. The Pro Bowl-calibre cornerback had signed a four year extension after a stellar 2018 season, where he made first-team all pro after leading the league with seven interceptions and 21 pass deflections.
With Fuller gone, someone needs to step up and succeed in his place as CB1.
Johnson became the first rookie corner to start in Soldier Field in over 20 years for a reason: The then-rookie corner racked up a combined 44 tackles and tied for sixth in the NFL with 15 pass deflections, the most by a rookie that year. Though the 13-game starter allowed 41 receptions on 72 targets, his promise on defense allowed him to play 100% of snaps in eight different games.
Starting alongside former Falcon and Lion cornerback Desmond Trufant, Johnson’s time to shine can come sooner than expected. If his career takes the same trajectory as Fuller’s, who earned his first all pro selection in his fourth year, the Bears’ secondary will once again be in good hands for years to come.
3.) Eddie Goldman
Big-time defenses need bigger nose tackles.
Last season, nose tackle Eddie Goldman opted to sit out of the 2020 season after being qualified as a “higher risk” for complications from COVID-19. While Goldman didn’t provide any quotes of his own, Nagy and Pace brought nothing but support to the then-26 year old tackle.
“We told him we support him,” Nagy said in a July 2020 statement. “We’re a family here. He’s a part of our family and this is what he chose to do and we’ve just got to make sure on our end now that we don’t flinch and we move forward. But he did it the right way and [we] feel good about where we’re at and fully support him.”
Chicago scrambled for a new starting tackle, signing tackle Mike Pinnel after training camp and former-Steeler Daniel McCullers midseason. Eventually, the Bears landed on then-third-year tackle Bilal Nichols as the eventual man to start as the leading tackle.
The undersized tackle did well in his starts, gathering 40 total tackles and five sacks while nabbing his first ever career interception.
Nichols was good, but Goldman can be better.
The 63-game starter played a detrimental part in Chicago’s explosive 2018 season, starting all 16 games next to Hicks and Mack. He provided the perfect anchor for Hicks and Mack, swallowing up interior linemen just enough for the dynamic duo to terrorize whatever quarterback they faced. The tackle ended the season with 40 tackles, 3 sacks, five tackles for loss, and a safety.
The Bears’ defense will need his ability to eat up space and open opportunities for Chicago pass rushers to attack once-clean pockets or stray running backs if they want to be as effective as they were just three years ago.
Let’s just pray he comes back this season.
4.) Justin Fields
The future of Chicago is now.
With the 11th pick in the NFL Draft, the Chicago Bears found their quarterback of the future in Justin Fields. The Ohio State product, who threw for over 5,300 passing yards and 63 passing touchdowns with the Buckeyes in two seasons, was seen as one of the top quarterback prospects as far back as “way-too-early” 2021 mock drafts can go.
A five-star prospect coming out of high school, a two-year starter at one of the Big Ten’s most historic programs, and, despite Matt Nagy’s support of Andy Dalton as QB1, a potential NFL starter as soon as this year.
Field’s development will be paramount to a Bears team that has never had a 4,000-yard passer in the 16-game era, an accomplishment they share with the New York Jets. A superbowl winner in Jim McMahon, one of the most infamous Bears quarterbacks in Jay Cutler, nor a Hall-of-Famer in Sid Luckman could ever break that 4,000-yard mark in a Bears’ uniform.
A prodigy of Ryan Day, a coach whose playstyle shares similarities with Nagy, Fields’ knowledge of the game and comfort in a pass-heavy play action system could provide a solid head start when transitioning into the NFL. Combining that with reps behind a Super Bowl champion in Nick Foles and an 11-year veteran in Andy Dalton will provide Fields with a more than ideal situation to grow into a Bears’ starter, and potentially more.
When Fields wins, the Bears win.
Fields has the tools and the environment to succeed: All he needs is time. It could take one year, it could take five. It could take hundreds of reps, or it could take a single one. Bears fans have waited a long time for their franchise quarterback. It’s time to see if he’s the one.
5.) Allen Robinson
As the old Stacey King saying goes, big-time players make big time plays.
Whether it be Derrick Rose, Zach LaVine, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, or Michael Jordan himself, Chicago sports have always had big-time players who could step up in big-time moments to make big-time plays when their teams need them the most.
Big-time plays came in abundance for wide receiver Allen Robinson, who immediately became one of the best receivers in the NFL after placing third in the league in targets with 151 while adding on six touchdowns. His 1,250 receiving yards placed him ninth in the NFL while beating out the next best Bears receiver by over 600 yards.
Chicago relied on the receiver to bail them out of some of their tightest situations, including a three-touchdown deficit in week one against the Detroit Lions. No matter where he was on the field, whether he was covered by one defender or three, Robinson bent and and twisted in a million different ways just to advance the ball.
The playoff-hungry Bears are in a big-time need for big-time players. Robinson can fill that spot from Day 1.
In what could be his last season as a Chicago Bear, the receiver will need to once again have a big-time season to finally convince Pace to extend his contract and provide Bears fans with memorable catches in time for Justin Fields to take command of the offense.
6.) Teven Jenkins
Modern teams live and die by the strength of their left tackle.
While Chicago has always found ways to dominate in the defensive trenches. They scared teams last season with the likes of Mack, Hicks, outside linebacker Robert Quinn and linebackers Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan, who provided blitz help from the back of the box.
The Bears hit a home run in the draft with the selection of mammoth tackle Teven Jenkins, a three-year starter at Oklahoma State who played on both sides of the line when the team’s left tackle sat out part of the season with an injury.
It took a herculean effort to surround Jenkins and the offensive starters with talented players and give the offensive line new life with some new editions this offseason. Chicago signed three new pieces in tackle Elijah Wilkinson, rookie guard Dieter Eiselen, and center Adam Redmond to provide some extra insurance under Jenkins and the newer rookies on the line. Chicago also snapped up Larry Borom in the fifth round, a two-year starter at the University of Missouri to play opposite of Jenkins at right tackle.
If Fields is going to grow in Chicago, and if the veterans are going to be able to pass to a revamped receiving core, they’ll need time in the pocket. With Nagy’s complex play calls, they’ll need plenty of it. The offensive line of old wasn’t able to give enough time for Foles or quarterback Mitchell Trubisky to find open options deep down the field or within their vicinity, blocking for a passing offense that ranked 22nd in the NFL (228.4 ypg).
Both Jenkins and Borom will have to step up and replace the productivity of a six year starter in tackle Charles Leno Jr. Leno played 1066 snaps last year, gaining a Pro Football Focus rating of 74.6 while allowing five sacks and committing six penalties.
Eleven years. Six players. One last chance for Nagy and his staff to have a chance at winning a playoff game. It’ll all depend on these six players to push past the seemingly-impossible hurdle for the Bears to jump.
With Soldier Field opening up once again to fans all across the country starting next season, Chicago will once again need to have a high-quality product on the field if fans are going to keep showing up and supporting their team.
It’ll take the entire roster to push the Bears into a paramount playoff appearance, but without the success of these six players, Chicago may start giving themselves a front-office makeover as soon as next season.
Will this year be the year the offense finally balances the strength of the defense? Is this draft class all it’s lived up to be? Will next year’s Bears sneak out with a playoff win or potentially go further?
Tune in to the NFL Network on Sept. 12 to find out.
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