In roster evaluation Chicago Bears fans tend to think in binary terms. Position groups are good or bad. Fixed or broken.
The franchise has had three consecutive seasons with a losing record. The roster has been overhauled and the clearest sign of an eventual new dawn has been the drafting of quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. His preseason debut has provided hope for the future.
When the Bears released the unofficial depth chart it was received for what it is: a welcome indicator that the regular season is almost upon us. It serves little practical use. It is short on revelation. It is an altogether expected collection of names — in a loose order — which is far from finalized.
The depth chart does allow for a general level of assessment. We can cast our eye over it in search of obvious deficiency. We can seek out the positive angles.
When laid out in this manner it forces even the most optimistic fan to recognize short-comings. The Bears have no franchise defining positional group. No foundational unit that hints at a quick return to NFL relevance. There are certainly players of promise, but they are spread throughout the roster.
The hope is the team will amount to more than the sum of its parts.
The receiver group may be indicative of the wider construction model. Trusted league veterans have been added to the mix in the shape of Kendall Wright and Victor Cruz. These players are battling for involvement with the likes of Markus Wheaton, Joshua Bellamy and Kevin White. The individuals may be at markedly different phases of their careers, but the commonality is they each have something to prove. The differing skill-sets and created competition is making for an interesting group.
The Bears, in recent years, were able to rely heavily on the higher profile wide-out combination of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey. In the 2013 season Jeffrey accounted for 1,421 passing yards with Marshall accruing 1,295. The next most productive receiver was Earl Bennett with 243 yards.
The next season saw Jeffrey’s number dip to 1,133 yards and Marshall — who missed three games — reach 721 yards. Marquess Wilson amassed 140 yards to be the third most productive wider receiver during that campaign.
It would be remiss to overlook the impact running back Matt Forte had on the offensive output during those years. His talent as a receiver was heavily utilized in the passing game. He was effectively the third receiver in the back-field.
The impact of the receiving tandem is clear from a number standpoint. In 2015, Alshon Jeffrey would take the mantle as main target following Marshall’s departure from Chicago. He would comfortably lead the team in targets despite only featuring in nine games.
The Bears, lacking players with the stature of Marshall or Jeffrey on their roster — or an outlet as reliable as Forte — look to have adopted an altered approach to their receiving group. Whilst it is unclear if by design or circumstance, the Bears are no longer dependent on an individual or duo.
Based on last seasons production and usage it is not unreasonable to expect Cameron Meredith to fully establish himself as the primary target at receiver. His team-leading 96 targets would suggest he has the confidence of play-callers and coaching staff.
But there isn’t a huge drop-off in terms of the quality of his supporting cast. The recently added trio of Cruz, Wheaton and Wright has a combined stat-line of 690 receptions and over fifty career touchdowns. It is over-simplistic to suggest this number can somehow be translated as a guarantee of Bears success. But it at least indicates there is more to the individual players than name recognition — they have considerable game experience.
The receiver group is perhaps devoid of bona fide superstar talent. But the collective group is better.
With this current depth chart the Chicago Bears show the world what they have built. It includes the new acquisitions alongside those they have chosen to retain. It represents the next phase in the process. As Ryan Pace enters the third year of his GM tenure he is engaged in the ongoing process of assembling the roster he hopes can bring winning football back to Chicago.
The evolution of the player personnel within this depth chart would seem to indicate a determined philosophy. The primary intention does not seem to be expanding the team’s performance ceiling as much as raising their floor.
The individual positional units may not be ‘flashy’ but there is a sense of reliable solidity. Pace has been consistent in his messaging — they have been actively trying to improve the core. He has described his remit to build a competitive culture. Pace has been looking to create a foundation. He signaled his intent to add the correct complimentary pieces. He wanted to get better.
Harsher critics could suggest his depth chart is … vanilla. The Bears fanbase is hoping it is simply a base flavor for a more exotic and glamorous offering.
Mitchell Trubisky is the future of the franchise. He was identified as the key piece to add to the mix. He will be handed the reins eventually.
Out-with the quarterback plan the focus seems to have centered on incremental improvement. Foundations have been built. Opportunities to add to other position groups will present themselves over time.
The current player list will be trimmed in due course. The remaining names will combine to become the 2017 iteration of the Chicago Bears. How the team fares over the coming season will become evident in time.
After sixteen games — if we can concede the playoffs to be unlikely — we may easily identify a required upgrade at a certain position. We may be able to clearly establish a weak link. We can focus on an area that must be addressed in free agency or the draft. We can get better.
The Chicago Bears have been starved of success for several years. Expectations are now suitably tempered. Recent campaigns have seen the fan base isolate and bemoan — with some justification — a poor offensive line or dismal pass rush. The secondary has been widely highlighted as an area for concern. There has always been something.
Others will point to inconsistent quarterbacking as the root of all issues. The Chicago Bears have signposted their projected path to improve in this area.
It is possible that this will be the year we witness a Bears season with no obvious sub-standard positional group. But the absence of easily identifiable flaws cannot be automatically considered a positive.
If Bears fans are not given the hope that comes with a fault deemed fixable then what remains ?
The answer may be a franchise that had signaled a grand rebuild but has produced something functional, structurally-sound but still requiring significant work.
Those currently involved in the reclamation project that is the Chicago Bears may find that it becomes the next guy’s ‘fixer-upper’.
Feel free to continue the conversation on Twitter: @geewood or @spot_bears