The Chicago Bears begun 2019 organized team activities on Tuesday, kicking off the team’s first edition of on-field work as a team. Other than the imminent possibility of injuries, OTAs serve as an introductory and refresher period. It is a time for install and little else.
Last year’s session of OTAs focused on the installation of Matt Nagy’s offense. Quarterback Mitch Trubisky and the rest of the team got their first look at Nagy’s playbook, and some of them got their first look at each other. Trubisky got his first reps with a then-revamped receiving corps of Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Trey Burton. This season, however, Trubisky has an established connection with his targets and a familiarity with Nagy’s system.
“Versus last year, which is all I have to compare it to,” Nagy said, “The speed of the plays, especially offensively, breaking the huddle, they know where they’re going. Now they just get to play football. They don’t think as much.”
“Mitch is in and out of the huddle, he sees the defense, and so from the time that we’ve been out here, it’s exciting. You stay cautiously optimistic that he’s going to take that really big jump, which, I’ve been saying that since I got here that it takes time. You see the vision from him within the huddle and at the line of scrimmage.”
The above quote on Trubisky was an unprompted comment, highlighting how great of an offseason storyline the third-year quarterback has been. As great as the Bears’ defense was last year, and likely will be this year, it will keep that “next step” that Nagy referred to for the Bears to break through their ceiling and into the Super Bowl.
Along with the familiarity that comes with the second year of a new system, changes have been made on the offensive side of the ball, namely that James Daniels and Cody Whitehair appear amidst a position switch and that swing tackle Bradley Sowell is switching to tight end.
“We’re going to try it out and see what he can do,” Nagy said of Sowell’s position switch. “It’s a position right there of that Y-tight end type spot that we could use some more depth, and Bradley has shown us the ability, not just off a two-point play or a touchdown play, but he’s shown it repetitively in practice that he has the athletic ability, the hands, he’s very smart, he knows how to block, all that stuff. So let’s test it out and see. And when I tell you he’s all in, he’s all in.”
You may recognize Sowell more for his appearance in Nagy’s funky plays that turn linemen into receivers, and you may recognize him specifically for this touchdown celebration:
However, Bradley Sowell’s position change signals a possible solution to the need for an in-line blocking tight end that Nagy refers to as the “Y.” Ideally, that role would go to Adam Shaheen, but durability and performance issues have necessitated depth. One of Nagy’s lynchpin philosophies is being as versatile as possible, and Sowell’s presence on the field may tell the defense a run is coming more than Shaheen’s presence. However, depth was needed at the spot and the in-house position change could be an answer to that need.
The other piece of big news was James Daniels and Cody Whitehair switching positions, sending Whitehair to guard and Daniels to center, where he played in college.
“That’s what we’re looking at,” Nagy said. “You know, we’re giving them a chance to look at it and see where it’s at. We feel comfortable with it”
The move was slightly clamored for last year in response to Whitehair struggling with snaps at times. But the chemistry between Trubisky and Whitehair was too important for the installation of the offense to be messed with. With the offense now familiar to Trubisky, existing quarterback-center chemistry is not as prioritized.
Whereas this year’s OTAs is a refresher for the offense, the defense will be introduced to a new coach and system in defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano.
Pagano, who was fired from the Indianapolis Colts’ head-coaching job is energized and excited to work with the league’s number one scoring defense from a year ago: “When what you have has been taken away from you, and now you have an opportunity to be back doing what you love, that’s coaching and being around great coaches and great players and guys that love ball, it’s really easy.”
Pagano has said in the past he won’t mess with a great thing in the Bears’ defense. Other than the language, the Bears’ defense will likely look similar to last year’s from a schematic standpoint. One of the anchors of that defense is second-year linebacker Roquan Smith, who led the team in tackles last year.
“You talk about football character and you talk about football IQ, we know the measurables, he’s one of the brightest, smartest guys I’ve been around for just a second-year player,” said Pagano, who coached Hall of Famer Ray Lewis in Baltimore.
The Bears drafted Smith with the eighth pick in 2018 with the hopes that he could be a dominant presence in the middle of the field for years to come, and so far, that seems like a wise investment. Smith had 121 tackles last year, despite missing all of training camp in a contract holdout. He now gets the experience of a full offseason without any contract stalemates, allowing maximum improvement.
“It feels great to be out here with my guys,” Smith said. “So I’m just focusing on getting better with the guys each and every day, so you can’t ask for more than that.”
OTAs are either the first taste of massive changes or a continuation of previous schemes and coaches. Fortunately for a still-growing Bears offense, they fall into the second category. The defense, with such stars Khalil Mack, Eddie Jackson and Smith, is good enough that new terminology won’t be a barrier in its success. The Bears’ mandatory minicamp takes place June 11th-13th. We’re still months away from the Week One kickoff against Green Bay, but the Bears are in a good position after OTAs.
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Hear audio from Matt Nagy, Chuck Pagano and Roquan Smith: