For the first time in five years, The Chicago Audible won’t be at Bears Training Camp — and neither will any of the thousands of fans that annually go to watch their beloved team practice.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the various restrictions placed on the media, Will DeWitt and I were unable to get any type of access from the Chicago Bears since they “cannot add just anyone to our [their] email list who has a web site or podcast devoted to Bears news,” according to a member in the Bears’ PR team.
It’s unfortunate news, especially since The Chicago Audible was credentialed to cover the 2020 Reese’s Senior Bowl and the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine, but we will adapt and continue to find ways to provide valuable content for our readers, listeners and viewers throughout training camp.
Even though training camp technically started last Tuesday, the first padded practice isn’t scheduled until Aug. 17. Plenty of things can change from now until then, but here is the top storyline for each offensive position that I will be paying attention to in the next coming weeks.
Quarterbacks – The QB competition between Mitch Trubisky and Nick Foles
Honestly, did anyone expect anything else to be the top news item heading into training camp?
With limited padded practices and no preseason games, the quarterback competition is even more interesting than it was before the world was impacted by the coronavirus.
Bears head coach Matt Nagy and Bears general manager Ryan Pace spoke with the media last Wednesday during a video conference call, and Nagy addressed the “open communication” that will be present when evaluating Mitch Trubisky and Nick Foles.
“As we are going through this thing, if one of the quarterbacks is stinking it up and he’s playing like crap, we are going to tell you you’re playing like crap,” Nagy said. “And we’re going to tell you that in front of the other one. They are both going to know when someone is playing good … or [when] someone is playing bad.”
There won’t be any secrets about this quarterback competition, and Foles doesn’t anticipate keeping any either, especially if his experience can help Trubisky.
“I want to help Mitch,” Foles said during his video conference on Friday. “If there is play that I ran a lot and I know a lot, I’m going to give him that information just like I know he will with me because we are working to help each other …”
Both Trubisky and Foles are team-first guys, but only one of them will win the starting job. Although this will be a condensed training camp, Trubisky is focusing on staying positive throughout this QB competition.
“Everyday I show up. I have to prove myself that I’m the No. 1 guy for this team,” Trubisky said during his video conference last Friday. “Just showing up everyday, being prepared and going out and being the best quarterback I can be for this team, so that’s my mindset whether it’s shortened or not. I just hope we get this season going.”
I’m sure all NFL fans will agree with Trubisky and his hope about the season.
Without being physically present at training camp, I know I will be deprived of my football fix, so I’m looking forward to hearing about every throw, every drill and just about everything these two quarterbacks do throughout camp.
Offensive Line – Juan Castillo’s impact
Last season, the Bears’ offensive line was nearly as bad, if not worse, as the quarterback play, and this added to the difficulties for Nagy to effectively operate his offense. When the Bears hired Juan Castillo as their new offensive line coach, I labeled this as the second-most important transaction of the Bears’ offseason — behind trading for Foles.
Seeing how Castillo improves the offensive line may be difficult to assess in training camp, but if Khalil Mack and Akiem Hicks aren’t disrupting every practice rep like they did last year, then I think it is safe to say Castillo is already making the unit better.
Like all the coaches, Castillo’s time to establish continuity with his O-linemen will be hindered due to the pandemic, but Nagy is confident that Castillo will be prepared.
“My history with him [Castillo] goes way back, and I just know how he works, I know how he thinks, and I have ultimate trust in how he’s going to build what he wants to do with that offensive line,” Nagy said. “Fundamentally, he’ll have a plan. Schematically, he’ll have a plan. And as a teacher and as a friend with those guys he’ll have a plan …”
One of the first priorities for Castillo will be to determine who starts at right guard. The likely candidate is former first-round draft pick and free-agent acquisition Germain Ifedi, but third-year player Rashaad Coward and second-year pro Alex Bars will also take reps at the position.
Another important item on the list for the new O-line coach is to continue developing left guard James Daniels. The former center at Iowa struggled at the position last season with Chicago but played more effectively after the position switch.
Based on a photo the Chicago Bears posted on their official website, it’s apparent Daniels has improved his physique in the offseason.
James Daniels hit the weights BIG TIME! He’s HUGE now. I like it a lot pic.twitter.com/20CupO90hF
— none (@ejayjones49) August 2, 2020
Now Castillo needs to maximize the former second-round draft pick’s newfound strength and combine that with proper technique to help him make significant strides in Year 3.
Ultimately, the offensive line’s growth this season will all fall back on Castillo and how he uses his coaching experience to get the most out of the Bears’ unit.
Tight Ends – What a revamped tight ends room does to the Bears’ offense
Similar to the quarterback position and the offensive line, the tight ends were also extremely disappointing in 2019. To correct this problem, Pace elected to overhaul the position.
Instead of Trey Burton, Adam Shaheen and Ben Braunecker the Bears have replaced them with Cole Kmet, Jimmy Graham and Demetrius Harris.
“I think it’s a good mix of vets and young players,” Pace said. “They all have different skills sets that they bring to the table that we like. It’s an intriguing group … That’ll be another position that’ll be really fun to see play out this camp.”
This new group of players plus new tight ends coach Clancy Barone should help Nagy to run his offense to its full capabilities. As training camp transpires, I’m curious to see if Nagy integrates more 12 personnel sets (1 RB, 2 TEs, 2 WRs) in his offensive game plan.
Here is a comparison on the amount of times the Bears, Chiefs and Eagles have utilized 12 personnel in the past two seasons.
Comparing Nagy's offense to similar ones in Andy Reid's Chiefs and Doug Pederson's Eagles, it isn't close to the number of times those teams used 12 personnel.
Chiefs 2019: 310 Tot plays – 28%
2018: 309 Tot plays – 28%
Eagles 2019: 608 Tot plays – 52%
2018: 411 Tot plays – 36%
— Nicholas Moreano (@NicholasMoreano) July 22, 2020
The Chiefs and Eagles devoted a good portion of their offenses by using 12 personnel sets and have had plenty of success. Of course, there are many other factors to become a good offense, but seeing Kansas City and Philadelphia have positive results should be an indicator for Chicago to try something similar. The Bears need all the help they can get, so why not follow the trend and try to create mismatches with Kmet and Graham?
Nagy also mentioned in his Zoom conference call that having tight ends who can contribute in the running game and the passing game “is very, very important.” Since Nagy became the head coach in 2018, he has echoed the same message about the position.
The multiple injuries at the tight end position last season seriously handicapped what Nagy wanted to do schematically. Let’s see how the offense changes now that the group has two new starters, a new backup and a new position coach.
Wide Receivers – How the Bears split up reps at the “Z” receiver spot
Currently, there are four candidates that could fill the “Z” receiver position opposite of Allen Robinson: Tedd Ginn Jr., Riley Ridley, Cordarrelle Patterson and Darnell Mooney.
Given that this will be an accelerated and condensed training camp, I’m intrigued by how the Bears plan on dividing the opportunities for each receiver.
Ginn is 35 years old and is on his sixth team in 14 seasons, but his experience combined with his elite speed make him a likely candidate to start.
As for Ridley, he didn’t have many opportunities to showcase his abilities in his rookie season, but that should change in 2020. Also, in last year’s training camp, Ridley sustained a hamstring injury, and this limited his practice reps.
Unfortunately, there won’t be nearly as much time to practice in this camp, but as a former fourth-round draft pick, it would be wise to utilize Ridley as much as possible over the next few weeks.
Patterson could see the least amount of reps at receiver out of this group because he will be splitting time at running back. No question the 6-foot-2, 238-pound athlete should have more of a role in Nagy’s offense this season, but that might not happen as a receiver.
Mooney easily has the toughest route to try and battle for playing time this season. As a rookie during this pandemic, there is not debate he will be behind in terms of getting acclimated to the NFL, learning Nagy’s complex playbook and simply adapting to his new life.
Expectations shouldn’t be too high for Mooney to make an impact in 2020, but his 4.38 speed may help him to make some explosive plays throughout the season.
This is a crowded wide receiver room, and there is one vacant starting position on the roster. It will be up to Nagy and wide receivers coach Mike Furrey to find the most efficient ways to accurately assess each one of these receivers.
Running Backs – Depth behind David Montgomery and Tarik Cohen
One thing is clear: Pace is confident in the Bears’ running backs.
“I’m excited about our running back room,” Pace said. “There are obviously some new wrinkles this season in regards to Matt [Nagy] and his staff and what they will do … it’s a talented room and we like our depth in that room.”
This came off fairly surprising, especially since there isn’t much depth at the running back position. Outside of David Montgomery, there isn’t a “true” running back that can help carry the workload. With Tarik Cohen’s size and lining up as a receiver 39 percent of the time in 2019, he isn’t the best option.
The same can be said about Patterson. How does the pandemic affect how many reps Patterson gets at running and receiver in this camp? In Bourbonnais last season, Patterson fluctuated at any given time between the two positions.
On Sunday, the Bears activated RB Artavis Pierce from the Reserve/COVID-19 list and waived RB Napoleon Maxwell. Pierce is more than likely destined for the practice squad if the team decides to keep him after training camp.
Pace also said that running back Ryan Nall is someone “who we [the Bears] like, who has grown here in our organization.” I know many fans have talked about Nall getting an opportunity, and if the Bears decide this is the group they want throughout the season, then Nall may actually get a chance if something were to happen to Montgomery.
Other than the depth at the position, I’m interested to see if Nagy mixes in more vertical routes for his running backs. Far too often Cohen caught short, meaningless passes and too often Montgomery didn’t get the opportunity to contribute in the passing game.
Training camp is back, and even though The Chicago Audible won’t be attending this year, I’m just glad there will be football to discuss from now on.