This time a year ago, almost nobody was picking the Bears to overtake both the Packers and the Vikings and to run away with the NFC North crown — doing so would’ve required an act of bravery, because it would’ve been the boldest of predictions. Strangely enough, even after the Bears did in fact overtake both the Packers and the Vikings, winning the division title with a 12-4 record while ranking fifth in DVOA and sporting a plus-138 point differential, it might be bolder right now to predict that the Bears will repeat as division champs than to predict the Bears will miss the playoffs.
All offseason long, we’ve heard about the Bears being the poster boys for regression. The argument makes sense. The Bears were among the league’s healthiest teams on both sides of the ball, but that luck probably won’t last. Their defense was the league’s best by a wide margin, but they lost their defensive coordinator and two key players — not to mention defensive success tends to fluctuate more on a year to year basis — so it’s likely they won’t be as dominant as they were a season ago. And so on.
Simultaneously, we’ve heard all about the revival of the Packers, who finally ditched Mike McCarthy and his antiquated scheme for a modern offensive coach with innovative ideas to go along with an up-and-coming defense. At this point in the calendar, the common consensus is that the Packers will regain their position atop the division. If not the Packers, then the Vikings, who should finally give Kirk Cousins the play-action scheme he thrives in. If not the Packers or Vikings, then the Li — just kidding. Nobody thinks the Lions will win the NFC North.
With all that in mind, the time has come in our summer series to make five bold predictions about the Bears, a team that underwent a lengthy rebuild and finally emerged last season as one of the best teams in football only to be suddenly and seriously doubted less than a year after their revival. We begin with the Bears’ oft-maligned, but developing quarterback.
1. Trubisky scores more TDs than Rodgers
At first, this might seem borderline insane. Despite a recent dip in production, Aaron Rodgers remains one of the game’s best quarterbacks. Despite helping guide the Bears to the playoffs last season, third-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky is best described as consistently inconsistent. Rodgers is the better player. It’s not particularly close.
But Trubisky scoring more touchdowns than Rodgers isn’t as insane as it sounds — mainly because, well, it almost already happened.
Last season, Trubisky accounted for 27 touchdowns with 24 coming through the air and three coming via his legs. Rodgers, meanwhile, also scored 27 touchdowns, with two of them occurring on the ground and the other 25 coming via an arm as pure as Lannister gold. While Rodgers played hurt for pretty much the entire season, which likely played a role in his struggles, he did play in a full 16-game season. Trubisky actually missed two games with an injury.
Nobody is making the argument that Trubisky is better than Rodgers — at least, I’m not. I am making the bold prediction that Trubisky will account for more touchdowns than Rodgers.
For one, Trubisky is armed with a more proven coach. Maybe Matt LaFleur will wind up becoming the exact coach Rodgers needs. Maybe he’ll be the next Sean McVay. In the meantime, he’s the former offensive coordinator of the Titans whose offense ranked 25th in yards and 27th in points. LaFleur is an unknown. There’s no way to know how he’ll fare as a head coach for the first time in his career. Nagy, on the other hand, already erased similar concerns last season.
Two, Trubisky won’t be learning a new offense like Rodgers. Three, while Trubisky might not have as good of a WR1 as Rodgers does in Davante Adams, he does have a more well-rounded supporting cast. Nagy has plenty of toys to deploy and Trubisky has plenty of weapons to target in the passing game. The end result should be one of the league’s most creative and diverse offenses that should create some easy throws for the quarterback.
Trubisky wasn’t particularly good last season — he sure as hell wasn’t consistent — and he still managed to score 27 touchdowns. What’s key is his athleticism. He should continue to get into the end zone as a runner. What’s also key is his development as a passer. Last season — Trubisky’s second in the NFL — he was trying to grasp Nagy’s offense. This year, he’s mastering it.
“Last year he learned [this offense]; now he’s trying to master it,” Nagy told reporters at the end of May. “He’s done a wonderful job of trying to get to some of the adjustments we have within the plays, concepts and schemes. Hopefully a few months from now, we get to training camp and preseason, and you all see that in game situations.”
2. Allen Robinson eclipses 1,000 yards
It’s not that Robinson disappointed after he signed a monster contract with the Bears last offseason. He finished with 55 catches, 754 yards, and four touchdowns in large part because the Bears’ offense spread the ball around. It’s just that, knowing full well that Robinson has the potential to explode for 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns — as he did in 2015 with Blake Bortles as his quarterback — his 2018 output was at least mildly disappointing.
I think there’s a chance Robinson gets to 1,000 yards in 2019. If Trubisky takes the next step in his development, Robinson should be the primary beneficiary as the team’s best receiver. It’s also important to remember that Robinson’s 2018 season was his first after he tore his ACL in 2017, and that he’ll be only 26 years old when the season begins. There’s a decent chance we’ll see a better version of Robinson in a better version of the Bears’ offense in 2019, which could result in a massive improvement in his individual stat line.
3. Khalil Mack records 20 sacks
Mack has never surpassed 15 sacks in a single season. He’s registered 15 sacks only once, back in 2015. For his five-year career, he’s averaged 10.6 sacks per season. In his first season with the Bears, he went for 12.5 sacks in 14 games. So, predicting Mack to finish with 20 sacks certainly qualifies as a bold prediction. It’s happened only 12 times in NFL history.
What Mack has going for him is that he’s remarkably durable. This past season was the first time he didn’t complete a full 16-game season. What he also has going for him is that he plays for the Bears, a team that is stacked on the defensive front with Akiem Hicks, Leonard Floyd, Eddie Goldman, and blitzing inside linebacker Roquan Smith. While there’s no doubt Mack will draw double teams, he should also benefit from the Bears’ loaded defensive front.
The bold prediction is that Mack finishes with 20 sacks, which should help the Bears avoid defensive regression.
4. Roquan Smith is named first-team All-Pro
Smith’s rookie season got off to a delayed start after he missed all of training camp. He didn’t begin the season as a starter. But it didn’t take him long to make an impression. In the Bears’ season opener, he recorded his first career sack (thanks in large part to pressure created by Mack). He quickly emerged as a starter at inside linebacker alongside Danny Trevathan. In a 16-game, 14-start season, Smith exploded for 121 combined tackles, five sacks, five passes defended, and an interception.
The bold prediction is that Smith, after having gone through a full season and a full offseason, takes a major step forward in his development, making the leap from good to one of the game’s best inside linebackers. It won’t be easy. His competition is the likes of Bobby Wagner, Luke Kuechly, and Darius Leonard. But Smith’s skill as a blitzing linebacker should result in a higher than normal sack total for an inside linebacker. Playing on the league’s most-talented defense can only benefit him.
5. Bears win the NFC North again
The thing is, the Bears can regress and still win the NFC North. Last season, the Bears went 12-4, ranked fifth in DVOA, and accumulated a plus-138 point differential. The Vikings went 8-7-1, ranked 10th in DVOA, and accumulated a plus-19 point differential. The Packers went 6-9-1, ranked 19th in DVOA, and accumulated a minus-24 point differential. The Lions went — just kidding. It doesn’t matter. To put it another way, the Bears can regress, fall to 10-6, and still repeat as division champs.
The Vikings might improve, but twice a year, that suspect offensive line is going to be forced to go up against the Bears’ defensive line. The Bears should win both games because they’ll present the Vikings with a matchup nightmare.
The Packers might improve if LaFleur and Rodgers mesh, and if the defense makes the leap from promising to actually good, but nobody should feel confident in either of those two hypotheticals. For one, LaFleur has hardly proven his worth as a play-caller. He didn’t get the job based on anything he did as the Titans’ offensive coordinator last season. He got the job because he worked under McVay, even though he did not call plays for the Rams. And while the Packers’ defense has a ton of young promising pieces, this is still a defense that ranked 29th in DVOA last season. How much better can they really get in one season?
And finally, the Lions might — just kidding.
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