LAKE FOREST, Ill. — As the Bears’ offseason calendar moves from rookie minicamp to OTAs, new head coach Matt Nagy continues to put his fingerprints on the organization. Here are 10 things you need to know following the second of 10 OTA practices over the next three weeks:
1. Expectations have shifted at Halas Hall. Former Bears head coach John Fox may not have fully realized what he was getting into, but when he arrived in Chicago in 2015, he was at ground zero of a full rebuild. Fox left the organization with a 14-34 record over three years and coached poorly enough on Sundays that he might not ever get another NFL head coaching job. But that doesn’t mean Fox’s three-year tenure was a complete failure. The culture he inherited was a mess and Fox left it in a much better place, while rookie GM Ryan Pace slowly started to improve the roster. Fox also hired a great defensive staff, led by coordinator Vic Fangio, who clearly has maintained his respect and credibility in the building, while new head coach Matt Nagy works on improving the other side of the football.
The Bears are far from a finished product, but there’s no question expectations have shifted at Halas Hall. This is now Year 4 of the rebuild, and while the Bears were never as transparent as the Cubs were about their intentions, 2018 feels a lot like the beginning of the 2015 Cubs season. That’s not to say the results will be the same — the Cubs made the NLCS that year — but there’s a new coach, a better roster and a sense inside Halas Hall that progress must now be measured by wins, not just player/roster development.
Of course, that’s about as far as that analogy goes. Pace and Nagy don’t exactly have the credibility that Theo Epstein and Joe Maddon had already established long before 2015, but you get the point. The Bears aren’t expected to win the Super Bowl in 2018, but they are expected to make a significant step forward.
2. That starts on the offensive side of the football, where the Bears should be better, almost by default. The archaic offense the Bears ran in 2017 is long gone. Let’s hope they stored the old playbook inside the portion of Halas Hall that has since been bulldozed and is now being rebuilt.
The fact that Mitch Trubisky managed to bring optimism to a perpetually quarterback-cursed city while essentially running the “Wing-T” is a reality that shouldn’t be ignored. Mixing a more experienced Trubisky with Nagy and a significantly upgraded offensive depth chart means the offense has to be better, and it’s OK to make that conclusion independently from any evaluation of Nagy as a head coach.
Just ask Bears cornerback Prince Amukamara, who faced last year’s offense every single day in practice and is now witnessing the changes under Matt Nagy as he tries to cover much more complex route combinations.
“Man, the offense is just very tough. They’re moving well. They’re faster. They’re throwing a lot of different looks at us and that’s just Nagy’s offense,” Amukamara said. “If I was a receiver I would love to play in this offense, just because you get to do so many different things and you get so many different plays. It just looks fun over there.”
3. We are prohibited from reporting specifics from open OTA practices, but let’s just say that Tarik Cohen looks like a great fit in Nagy’s offense. Like Trubisky, Cohen managed to show promise in a dysfunctional offense, but the Bears didn’t seem to know how to use him properly last season.
That’s one thing Nagy seems intent on fixing.
“He’s actually the one kid on this team that I knew had a lot of talent, but he comes out here and runs every route the right way, catches most balls and he doesn’t make a lot of mistakes,” Nagy said about Cohen. “You see how he is in the meetings rooms: he listens to the play and when he comes out here, how serious he is and he knows how to have fun. He’s a player that you get giddy about, but you also know you got other players too. You can feel where I’m at on that.”
Yes, Coach. We feel you on Tarik Cohen.
4. He didn’t use the word “giddy,” but Nagy also seems eager to get more out of tight end Adam Shaheen, last year’s second round pick.
“He’s bigger than I originally thought he was,” Nagy said. “And then his catching radius — I’d probably put in the same category. He has very natural hands. He’s a guy that fits our offense very well and so now it’s a matter of how fast is he going to learn it and just figure out the details and just the ins-and-outs of the different routes we run.”
Like Cohen, Shaheen was also underutilized last season before missing the final three games of the season with a chest injury. He did have two games with at least four catches, 40+ yards and a touchdown, and should benefit from an expanded package in Nagy’s system.
5. Nagy arrives in Chicago with credibility as an offensive coach, but not necessarily a head coach, a position he holds for the very first time. That said, he has left a positive first impression on the players.
“He’s a cool coach man,” Trevathan said. “He’s always giving us little details and smiling, but we know he’s a hard worker just like we are. He’s up there working just like we are. He’s always putting us in the right position and he takes care of us. On the back end, where I come from, you take care of coaches like that. You go out and make plays for those coaches. I like the way he came in. He came in humble, but he was hungry. He came anxious, moving around in the meetings. I like that. That gets me fired up. I feel like we’ve got a good leader up here in the head coach.”
Look, there’s always a honeymoon period with any new head coach. The Bears haven’t even played a game yet with Matt Nagy. But first impressions do matter. I went back and found a story I wrote from Marc Trestman’s first OTA practices in 2013 and it was about him scolding safety Tom Zbikowski and linebackers Blake Costanzo for messing around during practice. That contrasts sharply from the message Nagy preached Wednesday at Halas Hall when asked about the importance of having fun:
“Well, that’s why we’re out here. That’s exactly why we’re out here and it goes back to my message of just being you and let your personality show while you’re out here — don’t leave it in the building. When you’re out here have fun, let it loose and I want that to translate to the field as well. Don’t get tight when you get in a ballgame, just get out and let it go.”
6. After being the star player on the field during rookie minicamp, first round draft pick Roquan Smith is now mixed in with the rest of an established defense, which means he’s going to have catch the eye of the coaching staff with big plays in practice.
“He’s doing well,” Nagy said. “You saw one play we threw the ball to the flat, he just came out like a rocket and made a play, and that made me chuckle a little bit because that’s what I saw on tape.”
For now, Smith is working with the second-team defense, while Danny Trevathan and Nick Kwiatkoski maintain their roles as starters.
“It’s one of those things, (they are) constantly trying to make the team better,” Kwiatkoski said about the Bears drafting two inside linebackers last month. “It brings people into that room and it brings competition, which everyone likes. It’s a positive thing. We’re all out here competing, so things haven’t changed in that room.”
Both Kwiatkoski and Trevathan are keeping a positive attitude, but things have changed in the sense that the position has much better depth now.
“It depends on how you look at it,” Trevathan said. “For me, it is what it is, he’s a good player and he’s going to help us out on defense. You just want to go ahead and do your job and keep working.”
Trevathan is an established leader in Vic Fangio’s defense and as long as he stays healthy, figures to have a good chance to start alongside Smith. With that, comes a mentoring opportunity that Trevathan seems to be embracing.
“I’m going to help as much as I can,” Trevathan said. “That’s my job here as a leader on this defense. He’s a guy that works his tail off, so it shouldn’t be hard to give him little details about anything. Anything he needs help with, I’m right here to help him with.”
As for Kwiatkoski, he played pretty well last season when he was on the field and he’ll still only be 25 years old this season, meaning he has an opportunity to establish a big role on this defense. Some have speculated that he could potentially move outside, but he told me there has been no indication of anything like that happening. Still, he has shown a knack for blitzing, which means Fangio could involve him in exotic packages even if he’s not starting.
7. Pro Football Focus caught a lot of people off guard in January when they named Bears safety Adrian Amos to its All-Pro team alongside Vikings safety Harrison Smith. Bleacher Report took it a step further by saying Amos was the top safety in the entire NFL.
There’s no question Amos improved greatly in 2017, but even he wasn’t willing to take it that far.
“I’m not saying I’m the top safety in the league, but I feel like I was in good company with the other guys that were up there, because the other guys made All-Pro teams and/or the Pro Bowl,” Amos said.
It will be interesting to see how the Bears ultimately value Amos, a former fourth-round pick who is entering the final year of his rookie contract. The Bears did plenty of homework on safeties Minkah Fitzpatrick and Derwin James before the draft, but they do have a pretty decent safety duo with Amos and Eddie Jackson.
Right now, Amos says he’s letting his agent worry about any possible extension talks.
“Either way, in my eyes, I have to play through this year and prove myself,” he said.
Former second-round pick Eddie Goldman is in a similar situation. He’s a valuable part of the defense, but the Bears have yet to commit to him longterm as he also enters the final year of his rookie deal. According to Goldman, extension talks haven’t occurred yet. That said, he and Amos are the two names to watch between now and the start of the regular season. Last year, the Bears signed left tackle Charles Leno Jr. to a four-year, $37 million extension in August after a couple preseason games, but before the regular season began.
8. New wide receiver Allen Robinson still isn’t practicing, but he’s still on the same recovery trajectory the Bears envisioned for him when they signed him in March.
“He’s ahead of the game, he’s looking good,” Nagy said. “Yeah, we’re very — we’re feeling really good about his prognosis as far as getting started and we don’t need to rush it. So he’s been doing great in meetings. He’s answering every question in meetings. He’s out here, focused, doing everything we want him to do.”
Getting Robinson up and running for training camp seemed to be the goal when the Bears signed him, so there’s no reason to worry about him not being ready for OTAs. Robinson missed almost all of last season after tearing his ACL in Week 1.
9. On another injury note, Kyle Long was much more active Wednesday than I personally expected. He was not full-go and was not wearing a helmet, but he still participated in many of the drills.
“Yeah at some point we’ll get him out there,” Nagy said. “You know, for him, he’s been doing really well. He’s been just honing in on the details of their job on the offensive line and then as soon as we all agree that he’s ready to go he’ll be up and going.”
And just in case you’re one of those people still holding out hope that Long will be moved to tackle again, don’t hold your breath.
“No one on this team is locked into any position but I would say he’s about as close as you get,” Nagy said. “I mean (right guard) is his spot.”
10. Ending this edition of “10 Bears Things” on a positive note, it was great to see Zach Miller on the sidelines watching practice Wednesday. His playing days are likely over, but he was still decked out in Bears gear and around the team. He is no longer under contract, but it’s not hard to envision him being involved in the organization in some capacity in the future.