They have their backers, but ...
At the White House in June for a Super Bowl 50 fete, former Broncos linebacker Danny Trevathan was tracked down by a fan. "Hey, Danny," said Barack Obama, grasping Trevathan's wrist. "I can't wait to see you play in Chicago." Trevathan, who signed a four-year, $24.5 million deal with the Bears in March, then spent his summer further igniting presidential expectations. He had his Super Bowl ring delivered to Halas Hall and motivated teammates by flashing the 10-karat white-and-yellow gold bauble. Then, at Chicago's first padded practice in camp, he broke up a screen pass, tagged QB Jay Cutler on a blitz and smothered running back Jacquizz Rodgers in the backfield—on three consecutive plays.
This is encouraging news for a defense desperate for a boost in culture and production. Credit general manager Ryan Pace, who in two years has flipped a vulnerability into a top 10 unit. Ten of 12 projected defensive starters this season (including nickelback) have been added by Pace.
Chicago's front seven had been feeble since coach Lovie Smith left after the 2012 season. During one 11-game stretch in '13 and '14, under Marc Trestman, the Bears surrendered as many 50-point games (three) as they had in their previous 759 regular-season games. In '15 the D was still finding its footing under new coach John Fox and coordinator Vic Fangio. Many attributed those wobbles to a transition from a 4--3 to a 3--4, but Fox says, "You spend so much time in sub defenses that those outside linebackers are actually D-ends in nickel, so [switching base defenses] is not as crazy as people think. The real problem: We didn't have the right guys." Injuries vexed the '15 Bears, the only team to use 16 different starting lineups on offense and defense. Fangio felt square with outside 'backers—Pernell McPhee is feared (and expected back off the PUP list), as is Willie Young, who signed a two-year extension this summer—but the inside was leaky. Chicago ranked 22nd in run stopping. Enter the explosive and versatile Trevathan, who says, "This is a franchise with a great history at defense—and I think we can be great too."
At the other inside linebacker Pace signed Jerrell Freeman, an overachiever who spent three seasons in the CFL before flourishing with the Colts. Freeman is above average in pass coverage and, combined with Trevathan, creates a playmaking pair that coordinators must account for. In front of Freeman, Pace added 6'5", 336-pound Akiem Hicks, who'll team with nosetackle Eddie Goldman for a stout front.
Then there's Georgia linebacker Leonard Floyd, whom Chicago traded up two spots to pick at No. 9. At 6'6", with a receiver's build, he can diversify the pass rush with his quickness and already-developed counter moves. Coaches just hope he can keep on weight—though an eat-whatever-whenever diet seems to be helping, as does the alarm he sets as a reminder to gorge. ("Everyone's pretty jealous of that," says Floyd.)
Floyd will likely begin in situational pass rushes, but he could inherit a larger role as he and this D (which still has holes in the secondary) gain confidence. Considering the offense, that had better be fast. Chicago parted with steady veteran Matt Forte, pinning its running game on a back-by-committee approach behind a maligned line (that already lost projected center Hroniss Grasu to a torn right ACL). Fox has been famous for dramatic year-two turnarounds in each of his past two stops, but anything more than eight wins for these Bears would be a shocker. In other words: Obama will have plenty of time to watch his beloved hometown team come mid-January—but by then they'll be toast.
TAKE THIS GUY AWAY AND THE OFFENSE CRUMBLES
Fifth-year receiver Alshon Jeffery(left) is 6'3" and 218 pounds, with long arms, baseball-mitt-sized hands and a stride that covers about as much ground as the blast from a rotating sprinkler. His catching radius is equally huge. Though the Bears failed to sign him to a long-term deal—he'll play 2016 under a $14.6 million franchise tag—Jeffery is more valuable to Chicago than he would be to any other team, especially with Jay Cutler at the helm. Last year Cutler played with discipline in the scheme installed by coordinator Adam Gase (and now run by Dowell Loggains). However, history suggests that the 33-year-old QB can turn back into a wild stallion at any moment. Cutler's arm strength allows him to take chances, but inconsistent mechanics sometimes punish him when he does. A plus-sized receiver with Jeffery's otherworldly leaping abilities and galactic catch radius can make those questionable throws look ingenious.
SI's 2016 Prediction: 6--10
2015 Record: 6--10
SEPT. 11 atHOU
SEPT. 19 vs.PHI [PREDICTED WINNER]
SEPT. 25 atDAL
OCT. 2 vs.DET [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 9 atIND
OCT. 16 vs.JAX [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 20 atGB
OCT. 31 vs.MIN
NOV. 13 atTB
NOV. 20 atNYG [PREDICTED WINNER]
NOV. 27 vs.TEN
DEC. 4 vs.SF [PREDICTED WINNER]
DEC. 11 atDET
DEC. 18 vs.GB [PREDICTED WINNER]
DEC. 24 vs.WAS
JAN. 1 atMIN
= PREDICTED WINNER