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Juggernaut Index, No. 24: As Trubisky goes, so go the Bears

If Mitchell Trubisky can make a leap in his second season, the Chicago Bears offense can get fun in a hurry. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

The Chicago Bears have won nine league championships and 749 regular season games since the franchise was founded in 1920. Twenty-seven former Bears are enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and 69 have been selected as first-team All-Pros. The names of the greatest players in team history — Payton, Sayers, Butkus, Nagurski — are synonymous with excellence at their respective positions.

And yet somehow, as this franchise enters its 99th season, the Bears’ all-time leading passer is Jay Christopher Cutler.

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In fact, Cutler holds pretty much every significant career Chicago Bears record at the game’s most important position, including passing yardage, completions, passer rating, completion percentage and touchdowns. Remarkably, no quarterback in the history of this franchise has managed to throw for 4000 yards in a single season. Erik Kramer’s 3838 yards back in 1995 remains the team’s top mark. Jacksonville, Carolina and Tampa Bay have all had multiple 4000-yard passers while Chicago is still waiting for its first.

The Bears finished last in the NFL in passing last year and 30th in total offense, so things can only get better under the team’s new head coach. Matt Nagy arrives in Chicago after spending the previous decade climbing the coaching hierarchy under Andy Reid, first in Philadelphia and then in Kansas City. Nagy served as offensive coordinator of the league’s sixth highest-scoring offense last season, plus he oversaw the mid-career breakout performance of Alex Smith. There’s plenty to like in his coaching record. Nagy quickly hired former University of Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich as his OC, which adds another layer of fun.

When the Nagy/Helfrich offense is fully operational for Chicago, things should get legitimately interesting. It’s not crazy to think this team’s second-year quarterback has the potential to deliver the most productive passing season in team history, finally dislodging Kramer from the record book. Cutler’s career marks should not survive Mitchell Trubisky’s second contract.

Trubisky is guaranteed to make a substantial leap in 2018

It feels relatively safe to predict a Trubisky surge, because the team asked so little of him last season. We would say that John Fox and his staff kept training wheels on the offense, but that’s an insult to all the brave kids out there riding big-boy bikes with extra wheels for safety. At least those kids are moving forward. Chicago’s offense was basically inert in 2017. Trubisky ranked dead-last in the NFL among qualified starters in both deep attempts per game (2.5) and air yards (98.2) according to Player Profiler. This offense took no shots and gained nothing.

Whatever else happens this year, Trubisky and friends will definitely play a more entertaining game:

Nagy was a big believer in Trubisky’s talent during the pre-draft process two years ago, and, by all accounts, the pair has clicked this offseason. Concepts and formations should feel similar to the QB’s college offense, and the system should generally take advantage of his live arm and dual-threat ability. Nagy has indicated the playbook will be 70-80 percent similar to what KC ran last year, with a few added flourishes. It was clear enough last season, despite the timidity of Chicago’s offense, that Trubisky has the necessary physical traits to thrive as a pro. His receiving corps is suddenly loaded with versatile athletes, too. Trubisky is essentially free in fantasy drafts (ADP 164.1, QB24). He’s worth targeting in super-flex and best-ball formats.

Let’s try to remember, however, that year-to-year continuity is critical to success in the NFL, and Chicago has none of it. That’s a small concern. This team has a first-year head coach working with a second-year QB, installing a new scheme. Every key member of the receiving corps is new. Bears fans and fantasy owners will need to be patient with this group. We should expect hiccups in the opening weeks.

OK, let’s meet the new receivers

Chicago revamped its receiving depth chart in a massive (and necessary) way during the offseason, both via free agency and the draft. The team gave a total of $61 million guaranteed to three veteran pass-catchers, then invested a second-round pick in a young receiver. We can safely ignore roster holdovers like Kevin White and Josh Bellamy in fantasy drafts. The new guys are clearly going to dominate the targets in this offense.

Allen Robinson inked a three-year deal with Chicago back in March, and he’ll be 12 months removed from his ACL injury when the season opens. Robinson was able to put in work during OTAs and appears on schedule for training camp. There’s been zero negative news on him, only negative spin from a few fantasy voices. At Robinson’s best, he’s a true No. 1 wideout with terrific red-zone skills, a player with ideal size (6-foot-3) and leaping ability. He was enormously productive at the collegiate level and he produced an 80-1400-14 line in his second pro season. Robinson’s efficiency plummeted in his third year (73-883-6 on 151 targets), but disentangling his performance from the horrors of Blake Bortles is no simple thing.

Robinson is a serious talent with an excellent history, and it’s reasonable to expect 75 receptions and 1100 yards in a healthy season. His draft price (ADP 47.1, WR19) reflects our collective optimism about this team’s offense, tempered by the expected ACL recovery worries. If camp reports on Robinson are positive, there’s a decent chance his ADP will climb 3-4 spots.

Trey Burton is the sleeper TE you need, fantasy owner. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Trey Burton landed with the Bears on a four-year, $32 million contract, and it kinda feels like we can pencil his name into the Pro Bowl roster right now. Assuming Trubisky achieves a reasonable degree of competence this season, Burton should feast. He’ll play a version of the tight end/wide receiver hybrid role that helped turn Travis Kelce into a star for the Chiefs. To be clear, Burton doesn’t have Kelce’s size or his exact athletic profile, but he has good hands and 4.6-speed. He’s a rough assignment for any linebacker or DB. Few defenses will have the personnel needed to check all of Chicago’s receiving threats. Burton should see 90-100 targets, a significant total for a tight end. He has a clear path to a top-six positional finish in any fantasy format.

Rookie Anthony Miller delivered back-to-back 95-catch, 1400-yard seasons at Memphis, so he had nothin’ left to prove as a collegiate player. He has an inside/outside skill set and he’s effective at every level of the field. He was a state champ in the 110-meter hurdles as a prep, too. His profile is plenty appealing and he shouldn’t lack opportunities in his first pro season. Miller is a fine late flier in redraft and a top-five-ish receiver in dynasty.

The Bears also signed the blazing fast Taylor Gabriel to a four-year deal, which allows this team to have at least one undersized burner on the field at all times. He and running back Tarik Cohen are both live-wire quick and difficult to contain. Gabriel isn’t likely to produce consistent weekly numbers; he hasn’t caught more than 37 passes in any of his four seasons. But he’ll deliver a handful of big plays, which puts him on the best-ball radar.

Tarik Cohen is a blur

Friends, let’s take a moment to appreciate Cohen’s ridiculousness.

“We’ll have some fun with him,” Nagy recently said.

Here’s hoping it’s true because Cohen’s playmaking ability is rare, even by NFL standards. He’s only 5-foot-6 (if that), but he bulked up this offseason, perhaps in anticipation of a larger role. Cohen handled 140 touches last season, including 53 receptions; it’s not unreasonable to forecast 170 and 65 in the year ahead. He’s compared himself to Tyreek Hill on more than one occasion, and, well … as comps go, it’s not the worst we’ve ever heard. Hill is faster than almost anyone on earth, of course, and clearly a more accomplished receiver. But both players are exceptional all-purpose threats, capable of scoring on any touch. Draft Cohen aggressively in any variety of PPR league.

Jordan Howard remains the featured runner, but…

Almost every time Nagy has mentioned that Howard is still the team’s primary rushing threat, he adds a caveat. Howard has been a notoriously poor receiver, so he’s not yet an every-down, all-situation player. His inability to catch leaves him particularly vulnerable to unfavorable game scripts. When Nagy suggests the Bears will use multiple backs, we need to take him at his word. Cohen’s expected increase in usage will almost certainly take a bite out of Howard’s workload.

However, we shouldn’t forget that Howard is a 225-pound dude who’s rushed for 2435 yards (4.6 YPC) and 15 touchdowns over two NFL seasons. He can play. Howard isn’t the perfect modern running back, but he generally makes great decisions with the ball in his hands. Stylistically, he’s nothing like Cohen, so these backs complement each other well. If Chicago’s offense can simply climb to the middle of the pack in 2018, Howard can again deliver second round value (ADP 18.2). Just please be prepared for a few 11-44-0 duds.

Ultimately, this season of Bears football is about the development of Trubisky and his indoctrination into Nagy’s system and team culture. Trubisky doesn’t need to make a Goff or Wentz-level leap (although that would be [profane] awesome), but he needs to finish the year in total command of his offense. He’s the key to everyone’s fantasy value in Chicago.

2017 Offensive Stats & Ranks

Points per game – 16.5 (29th in NFL)
Pass YPG – 175.7 (32)
Rush YPG – 111.8 (16)
Yards per play – 4.9 (23)
Plays per game – 58.4 (31)

Previous Juggernaut Index entries: 32) Buffalo, 31) Miami, 30) NY Jets, 29) Baltimore, 28) Oakland, 27) Cleveland, 26) Indianapolis, 25) Washington, 24) Chicago

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