The 2021 season probably won’t be one the Bears highlight, but it could be important for determining the future of the franchise. They have an odd mix of veterans and young players, all needing to prove themselves. They have key positions that didn’t have battles, but also don’t have sure things locked in.
We know Justin Fields is ultimately going to be the straw that stirs the drink, hopefully for the next two decades. But the Bears need to determine two things: (a) who will be surrounding Fields and (b) how will they make life easier for the quarterback.
With that, here are the ten most important Bears of 2021, other than Fields, of course.
10. Akiem Hicks
Hicks flashed greatness last year, then seemed to run out of gas.
His job was different last year without Eddie Goldman; teams were able to focus more on him in the running game. But then you’d see the spurt; he’d throw a guard three yards back and take out a running back in the backfield.
Hicks is in a contract year and the Bears have to know what he has left before deciding what to do.
9. Sam Mustipher
Mustipher was a legitimately good center last year and could be a building block going forward. The team didn’t consider replacing him. He needs to reward that confidence.
8. Darnell Mooney
If teams are going to take Allen Robinson away, Mooney needs to make them pay. The wide receiver needs to take a significant step in his sophomore season.
7. James Daniels
Daniels was praised for his performance before injury last year, but the Bears still need more from the former second round pick.
Daniels moves well, can get to the second level and does a good job in pass protection. But we’ve been talking about his lack of strength and ability to get a push for his entire career and that simply has to change. The Bears are going to be a run first team in 2021 and that will mean a lot of short yardage situations.
Can Daniels do his job?
6. Jason Peters
A 39 year-old, just signed off the street, being on this list, probably isn’t a good thing. But that’s where the Bears are at. (Peters certainly looks like he has some juice left and Ryan Pace couldn’t hold back his smile when he was asked about him.) There’s a very real chance that Peters will prove to be an upgrade at left tackle. There’s also a very real chance that his nearly 40-year-old body can’t hold up.
If it can’t, the Bears will surely turn to 2021 fifth-round pick Larry Borom, a project with a ton of upside. If Borom didn’t look perfectly adequate in the preseason snaps we saw – despite missing a chunk of training camp – Peters would likely be even higher on this list.
5. Robert Quinn
Quinn’s 2020 season doesn’t even make sense. On a per-game basis. Quinn entered last season with more sacks than Julius Peppers. A strong finish to his career could put him in discussion for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But then last year happened. And, really, it’s like WTF?
Quinn isn’t old enough for us to think he’s completely washed up. He still looks quick, has some moves and can bend with the best of them. He was good in the playoff loss to New Orleans.
But he was an actual ghost last year. The Bears were playing 10 vs. 11 with him at times. If he doubles his production from 2020, it would still be the second-worst season of his career.
It seems impossible that he won’t be significantly better, especially knowing that his contract beyond this year makes him expendable.
4. Sean Desai
A large part of the struggles we saw from the Bears defense last year were Chuck Pagano insisting on playing man coverage on every crucial play. That would leave Buster Skrine or Duke Shelley matched up with some of the league’s elite receivers and it was a matchup the Bears would lose every time. It wasn’t until the playoffs that Pagano mixed it up, and it worked.
If Desai is going to succeed, it’s because he’s smarter than opposing offensive coaches and quarterbacks. He will have to confuse them with coverages, much like Vic Fangio did in 2018. The Bears have enough pass rushers to win most matchups at the line, but they have to make the quarterbacks hold into the ball for an extra second. It’s what Brandon Staley did for the Rams last year.
3. Cole Kmet
The Bears desperately need another premier receiving option and Kmet appears to be the guy they’re expecting to fill that role. The Bears need him to consistently beat linebackers and make plays with the ball in his hands.
The hope is that he will be a favorite target of Justin Fields going forward.
2. Kindle Vildor
He struggled in preseason.
He was perfectly fine starting in the playoffs last year.
Which is it?
Opponents will target him and the Bears need him to be able to hold his own because they don’t have any other options.
1. Matt Nagy
Entering his fourth year, the jury is still out.
Nagy’s win-loss record warranted him getting another season, especially when you consider that it includes two playoff appearances without an adequate quarterback.
But a general rule with head coaches is that if they’re worth keeping around, it’s because they are able to coach their specialty. The Bears offense has largely stunk and we need to know if it’s because their previous quarterbacks were that bad or if the coach can’t teach the offense.
In most years, the coach is high up on the list of important members of the organization. This year, though, Nagy’s performance will tell us if the team should trust him with the future of the franchise, Justin Fields.