Finally, Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has the continuity that every coach strives for – a core group of players who have been in his system and have performed shoulder to shoulder long enough to form a cohesive unit.
Fangio came aboard in 2015, inheriting a motley crew that had finished 30th in total defense in each of the two previous seasons. Last year’s unit was No. 10 in yards and No. 9 in points allowed, and it’s likely that at least nine of the 11 starters who line up this year on opening day will be players who started last year. Seven of the starters will be entering either their third or fourth year together with Fangio.
“When guys were asking this in prior years, even last year: ‘It’s your third year, are you feeling continuity?’ My answer was no,” Fangio said. “Because we had a lot of changes from year to year. From Year One to Two, there was a lot of change. Year Two to Three, there was change.
“There’s been less change this year, so I do feel more continuity, and that’s helpful. Ultimately, we still have to go out and play good, but I do believe there is more carryover and foundation than there has been (in the past).”
ILB Roquan Smith, the eighth overall draft pick, is a likely new starter; and someone will have to replace journeyman DE Mitch Unrein – either 2016 third-round pick Jonathan Bullard, Roy Robertson-Harris or this year’s fifth-rounder, Bilal Nichols.
But that sameness on defense, along with Fangio’s experienced guidance, is a luxury for offensive-oriented head coach Matt Nagy, who has his plate full while installing and teaching a new offense to players ad assistant coaches.
“With what we’re doing as an offensive staff, for me to be able to have Vic take that defensive side of the ball and do what he’s been doing for years and years, is a benefit,” said Nagy, who vowed to have a bigger role in the defense down the road. “I need to be a part of that. (But) for Year One, as a head coach trying to implement this offense, there’s going to be more time that I’m away from the defense. As we continue to grow as an offense, and as the coaches and players become more and more comfortable, then I’ll be able to be more involved on that side of the (ball).”
No one has played in Fangio’s Bears scheme longer than NT Eddie Goldman, who was drafted in the second round (39th overall) in 2015, the same year the veteran defensive coordinator joined the team. (S Adrian Amos was drafted the same year in the fifth round, and OLB Sam Acho signed on as an unrestricted free agent).
The 6-foot-4, 320-pound Goldman didn’t make it through Wednesday’s muggy outdoor OTA practice at Halas Hall because of heat-related problems, but Nagy said he was “fine; nothing major.”
Goldman has been a solid starter when healthy, but if he is to progress to the next level, it has to happen this year, according to Fangio. That could be a key factor in the defense taking another positive step. Goldman bounced back to start 15 games last year after a high-ankle sprain limited him to five starts in 2016.
“As he stacks up with nose tackles, he’s up there,” Fangio said. “He’s another one that has gotten better and better through the whole process. Year One, this time (of year), and even more so in training camp, I didn’t see a whole lot. That year he got better and better. Then, Year Two was lost. I think he played 15 percent of the plays, and … he was playing hurt. Last year, I think he had a good season. He’s a good, solid player, and if he’s going to be considered more than a good, solid player, this would be the year to show it.”
The same could be said of Fangio’s defense.
Marquee UFA WR Allen Robinson wore a helmet and ran through some plays half-speed for the first time Wednesday, during the eighth of 10 OTA practices, which end Friday, in advance of next week’s mandatory minicamp. Robinson suffered a torn ACL in last year’s season opener.
“It’s really good to see him out there,” coach Matt Nagy said. “He didn’t do enough to say what he did one way or the other, but it’s a positive sign when he’s out there and he’s able to run some plays and, for his mindset, get out there. That’s one of the biggest things, when you go through an injury like that.
“I personally went through it myself, so it can be where, physically you’re good to go and you feel really strong, but you still have to get by that mindset. It’s going to be a day-by-day process for him, but to have him out there, I know it felt good for the offense, and that was good.”
Nagy does not expect Robinson to participate in any 11-on-11, full-speed team activities during next week’s final minicamp.
“There’s no need to rush the kid,” Nagy said. “He’s really going in the right direction right now. No reason for us to do anything more than let him continue to be positive, go at his own pace when he feels good, and then when we get to training camp be ready to go. I’m sure it felt a little bit different for him just to catch a ball from 10 (Mitch Trubisky). That’s one step in the right direction.”