By Greg Gabriel–
(CBS) After watching three preseason games and learning as much as I can from what went on at training camp, I feel I have much better knowledge in predicting what kind of team the 2017 Bears will be.
To start, this is a vastly improved team, though the won-lost record might not completely reflect that. The Bears’ schedule — especially the the first six games — is as tough as there is in the NFL. They open against the defending NFC champion Falcons and then follow by playing the Bucs, Steelers, Packers, Vikings and Ravens. With this schedule, Chicago could be clearly better than it was in 2016 yet finish with a similar record to 3-13 of a year ago.
The quarterback position will be in the spotlight all season. There was a fair degree of Bears fans who were unhappy with the selection of quarterback Mitchell Trubisky in the first round last April, but a little more than four months later, many of those same individuals couldn’t be happier the selection. Trubisky is the future of the franchise, but the fans may have to wait a little while before he becomes the starter.
Trubisky has had an excellent preseason and has clearly outplayed veteran starter Mike Glennon. Trubisky has far better natural traits, but he lacks experience. In the NFL, experience is huge, and until the coaching staff feels Trubisky is ready and has a chance to win, he will sit and learn behind Glennon. My feeling is that we will see Trubisky around midway through the season.
Early on, Trubisky has shown the NFL game isn’t too big for him. He has made quick decisions and has a quick release to go along with good accuracy and ball placement.
While the quarterback position may be in good hands, the receiver corps is a huge question mark. Top receiver Cam Meredith tore his ACL and is out for the season. Kevin White, a 2015 first-round pick, has yet to show that he’s a legitimate receiver. Right now the group is made up of a bunch of players who would be no better than a third receiver on most clubs. The tight end group is much stronger, and we may see some exotic formations with as many as three tight ends being utilized until someone emerges from the receiving group as a threat.
The offensive line could be a strength of the Bears if everyone stays healthy, and I write that knowing guard Kyle Long may not be ready for a few more weeks. This group is excellent at run blocking, and the running game is going to have to become the focal point of the Bears offense in 2017. With Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen being the first and second backs on the depth chart, this group is strong. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see Cohen also utilized as a slot receiver at some point.
The front seven of the defense is as strong and deep as it has been in years. Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman and Jaye Howard can be as good as any three-man front in the league. There’s also depth with Jonathan Bullard, Mitch Unrein and improving second-year pro Roy Robertson-Harris.
Assuming Leonard Floyd’s foot injury isn’t too serious, the linebacker corps is also talented as well as deep. There are at least seven players who deserve playing time, and that doesn’t include the oft-injured Pernell McPhee. Opposite Floyd will be Willie Young, and the backups will be Dan Skuta and Sam Acho. Inside will be Jerrell Freeman and Nick Kwiatkoski, until Danny Trevathan can come back from his knee injury.
The worrisome part of the defense is the secondary, mainly because of the unknown. At present all four starters in the secondary are new. The biggest question mark among the starters is cornerback Prince Amukamara, who has had durability issues for most of his career and is out with a foot injury now. If he can’t go, it looks as if 2014 first-rounder Kyle Fuller will line up in his place. We all know what a disappointment Fuller has been, but in fairness, he has played his best football as a Bear this summer.
This much is certain: The secondary’s best friend will be the pass rush. If the front seven can provide consistent pressure, it will be a huge help to the back end.
Looking at the season ahead, this is a much improved team, but at the same time it plays one of the strongest schedules in the league. If the Bears stay relatively healthy, have a strong defense and run the ball well, we could be looking at a 7-9 season. Who knows if that is enough for coach John Fox to keep his job, but we can be confident the team is going in the right direction.
General manager Ryan Pace has done a good job constructing this team. All the pieces of the puzzle aren’t there yet, but getting the right individuals at quarterback was an important step. Trubisky just needs experience. With strong offensive and defensive lines, the Bears aren’t that far away, but the breakthrough won’t be in 2017.
Greg Gabriel is a former NFL talent evaluator who is an on-air contributor for 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @greggabe.