The Chicago Bears have spent the last several seasons trying to address their offensive woes. Chicago used its first round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft on Mitchell Trubisky, hired the offensive-minded Matt Nagy as head coach in 2018, and added Andy Dalton and Justin Fields to its quarterback room this spring.
But while the Bears have tinkered with their offense, their once-stout defense has taken several steps backward. The biggest decline, though, resides in the secondary.
The Chicago Bears’ inexperienced cornerbacks may cause issues
The Bears made several cuts this offseason in an effort to increase cap space. However, their most notable cut is one that is going to hurt them in the short term.
Early this offseason, Chicago released veteran cornerback Kyle Fuller. The 29-year-old had spent his entire career with the Bears, starting all 16 games the last four years and leading the league with seven interceptions in 2018.
However, with Fuller due to make $20 million in 2021, the Bears released him to clear up $11 million in cap space.
With the veteran out of the picture, 2020 second-round pick Jaylon Johnson becomes the number one corner for the Bears. Johnson recorded zero interceptions in his rookie year, while also ranking 84th out of 121 cornerbacks last season according to Pro Football Focus.
The second starting cornerback job is another concern. Kindle Vildor, Desmond Trufant, and Artie Burns have all competed for the spot, with the second-year corner Vildor currently first on the team’s unofficial depth chart. But last year’s fifth-round pick has only one career start and zero interceptions.
Chicago’s veterans, particularly Eddie Jackson, have taken a step back
When the Bears went 12-4 in 2018 and had the league’s top defense, Eddie Jackson was a big reason why. In his second season, the former Crimson Tide safety had six interceptions, two of them returned for touchdowns, earning First-Team All-Pro honors. PFF also ranked him as the league’s top safety.
Since then, Jackson has failed to produce anything close to that breakout campaign. He has just two interceptions since, including zero last season, despite being the fourth-highest paid safety in football. The 27-year-old also struggled in pass coverage, as his aggressive play at the position often led to broken coverages.
Jackson will once again start alongside Tashaun Gipson, a nine-year veteran in his second year with the Bears. Gipson was a serviceable starter last season, but at 31 he’s no longer the same Pro Bowl-caliber player he used to be.
The fate of the secondary may rest on the shoulders of the Bears’ pass rushers
Going back to 2018, there was a direct correlation between Chicago’s secondary succeeding and how well its pass rush got to opposing quarterbacks. Expect that to be the case in 2021.
The Bears still have a group of pass-rushers when, if healthy, could be among the best in football. And it all starts with Khalil Mack, the three-time All-Pro selection and former AP Defensive Player of the Year.
Mack’s 2018 season, his first in Chicago, saw the talented edge-rusher rack up 12.5 sacks, six forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries in 14 games. His play opened things up for the secondary, as his pressures forced quarterbacks into mistakes Fuller and Jackson were ready to take advantage of.
The 30-year-old Mack still has a chance to make an impact like that again, but he can’t do it alone. Linebacker Roquan Smith had a breakthrough season in 2020 and can become a star in his fourth year, while veteran pass-rusher Robert Quinn aims for better health after battling drop foot for nearly all of last season.
Chicago’s veterans up front have the potential to help out the young kids — as well as veterans like Jackson — in the secondary. But should age or injury slow them down, the Bears could be in a world of trouble against teams with dynamic passing attacks.
All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference.