Fantasy Football: Is the Chicago Bears' Offense Getting Overhyped?
The Los Angeles Rams sent fantasy football managers on one heck of a ride last year. Not only did Todd Gurley single-handedly win leagues with his monstrous playoff run, but Jared Goff, Robert Woods, and Cooper Kupp all had moments where they contributed.
For a team that entered the year with microscopic expectations, it was a blissful output.
Naturally, when that happens, the hunt for the "next" Rams will be a wild one. They showed the upside in pinning such a gem last year, and we want to identify who's going to duplicate the feat in 2018.
Enter the Chicago Bears. They're coming off of a five-win season, so they check the "low expectations" box. They have a new head coach, a second-year quarterback, and an influx at talent in their pass-catching group. They seem to be an obvious pick to be this year's version of the turn-around Rams.
But is the hype getting out of hand?
Anticipation around the Bears has been building for months. The Chicago Tribune wrote back in December that the Bears could learn from the Rams' improvements. The Washington Post compared new Bears head coach Matt Nagy to Rams head coach Sean McVay in January. Then last week, Bleacher Report wrote a compelling argument about why the Bears might be the NFL's next great offense.
Heck, even I'm guilty of this, tweeting parallels between the two back in December. It completely makes sense why this team is generating buzz.
So, with the Bears building offseason helium, it's time to dig a bit deeper. We have to look at what the Bears did in 2017, combine it with their offseason of change, and see whether or not they can truly turn this puppy around. If not, it may be time to start pumping the brakes on some of their assets in fantasy football.
The Reason for Hope
There's a reason that we've gotten to this point. Plenty of what the Bears have done this offseason should have fans in the Windy City getting excited.
That all starts with the head-coaching staff. Nagy was offensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs last year, and it helped lead to a career year for Alex Smith. Smith finished fifth among quarterbacks in Total Net Expected Points (NEP), numberFire's metric that measures the expected points added (or subtracted) on each drop back throughout the season while adding in expected points added or subtracted as a rusher. That was Smith's first time ever finishing in the top 10 in that metric -- much less the top five -- and only his third time in the top 15. McVay crafted similar miracles with Kirk Cousins when he became Washington's offensive coordinator.
Then there's the investment in the offense during free agency and the draft. The Bears gave at least $14 million guaranteed to each of Allen Robinson, Trey Burton, and Taylor Gabriel in free agency. Then they took interior offensive lineman James Daniels 39th overall in the draft and snagged wide receiver Anthony Miller with the 51st pick. Considering that Dontrelle Inman and Kendall Wright were the team's leaders in targets over the final few games, this is a massive upgrade.
To top it all off, draft capital does matter at quarterback. Chicago took Mitchell Trubisky second overall, and the average draft selection of a successful first-round quarterback since 2000 is 6.7. The median pick among successful quarterbacks is 2.5. There's reason to give someone the benefit of the doubt when they go that early.
It's hard not to look at this team in a similar light to what the Rams had going for them last year. Everything lines up from the coaching change to the young quarterback to the offensive investments.
But that doesn't mean we should be all-in just yet.
The Reasons for Skepticism
With all the changes the Bears have made, we should expect them to be better this year, potentially drastically so. But there are some key differences between them and the Rams that could put a lid on their 2018 upside.
Let's start with the quarterback play. It's true that both Trubisky and Goff struggled in their rookie campaigns, and based on numberFire's metrics, Trubisky was the better rookie-year passer between the two. Passing NEP per drop back looks just at what the quarterback did as a passer, deducting for events such as incompletions, interceptions, and sacks. Success Rate is the percentage of drop backs that increased the team's expected points for the drive.
|Passer||Drop Backs||Passing NEP||Passing NEP per Drop Back||Success Rate|
|Goff in 2016||231||-64.56||-0.28||33.77%|
|Trubisky in 2017||361||-22.77||-0.06||39.89%|
Goff wasn't just worse than Trubisky; he was worse than every other qualified passer during the 2016 season. If he can turn it around, why can't Trubisky?
The problem with this line of thinking is that Goff's second-year improvement was historic.
Among quarterbacks in NFL history with 200 or more attempts in consecutive years, Jared Goff's 2016 to 2017 saw the biggest jump in adjusted net yards per attempt. Ever. In NFL history. pic.twitter.com/DU8oo5pzin
— JJ Zachariason (@LateRoundQB) January 5, 2018
Yes, it is true that Trubisky was better than Goff in each player's rookie season. And yes, we should expect Trubisky to be better than he was in Year 1. But the Rams last year took everything to an extreme.
On top of that, we're just assuming here that Goff and Trubisky were equal prospects coming out of college because both went high in the draft. But there are some pretty major differences between the two.
Check out the collegiate resumes of the two passers. While Goff is in line with past successful first-round picks, Trubisky falls a bit short. This is especially true in the games played category, which counts only contests in which the player had at least 10 pass attempts. The "age" column refers to the player's age his final year in college, and all efficiency stats are referring to just their final year in school.
|Collegiate Resumes||Draft Pick||Age||Games Played||AY/A||Pass. Eff. Rating|
|Medians for Successful 1st-Rounders||2.5||21.5||37||9.4||163.5|
Goff was younger coming out, had twice as much experience, and his efficiency stats were a hair above Trubisky's. These guys were not equivalent prospects -- statistically, at least -- coming out of college.
Let's focus on the age and games played categories because those are the two in which Trubisky deviates most drastically from the successes. Since 2000, there have been 29 quarterbacks taken in the first round who were coming off of their age-22 or older season. In that group, 13 of them had at least 35 games of experience in college. That leaves 16 who were below that, including Trubisky.
Those 16 quarterbacks have had at least 200 drop backs in 57 combined seasons. Only one of those 57 has resulted in a top-10 finish in Total NEP. And that one outlier didn't occur until Carson Wentz accomplished that feat this past season.
Not only does Trubisky fall short of this mark, but he misses it by a mile. Among quarterbacks this age or older coming out, Trubisky had the second-fewest games played, besting only former teammate Mark Sanchez. Only eight quarterbacks had fewer than 30 games played, a mark Trubisky missed by a full collegiate season.
In order to duplicate the Rams' successes, Trubisky needs to be an outlier in two separate categories. First, he needs to outperform his rookie-year production in a way that is rarely seen. Then he needs to join Wentz in being an older quarterback with a lack of experience who eventually finds success in the NFL. That's not exactly a deck stacked in the Bears' favor.
It's worth reiterating, though, that the Bears did a nice job of adding talent around Trubisky. That's how Wentz became an outlier, and it worked for Goff last year and Derek Carr in 2016, as well. So, maybe we shouldn't be so down on Trubisky.
But even with the additions the Bears made, there's still something left to be desired.
When discussing the Rams' historic turn-around, you'll hear plenty of praise for Goff, McVay, Gurley, and others. But you don't hear about the offensive line, and that's a mistake.
Not only did the Rams add to their pass-catching core last offseason, but they also signed left tackle Andrew Whitworth and center John Sullivan in free agency. Both signings worked out beautifullly, and the Rams ranked ninth in sack rate for the season. The Bears have not made similar moves up front.
They do get stud right guard Kyle Long back after he missed seven games (and parts of several others) due to injury last year, and taking Daniels in the second round should help. But that doesn't fix their biggest issue.
The Bears finished 2017 ranked 23rd in sack rate. Their sack rate was actually higher in games that Long played (8.12%) than it was in the games he missed (7.19%). The run blocking was much better with Long, but passing efficiency is far more important than what a team does on the ground.
That's not to mention the loss of left guard Josh Sitton. Sitton signed with the Miami Dolphins in free agency, leaving a hole in the interior that Daniels may be asked to fill. The Bears ranked ninth in Rushing Success Rate going left last year, and Sitton was Pro Football Focus' fifth-ranked guard. The Bears may have lost more on their line than they added.
Pass blocking is still a question for the Bears, and that was one of their weaknesses last year. If they can't keep Trubisky upright, it'll be much harder for him to get the football to his new toys.
Speaking of those shiny assets, they have some questions of their own. Robinson is coming off of a serious knee injury and struggled even compared to his teammates in 2016. Gabriel has had more than 51 targets in a season once, and that was back in 2014. Burton was a stud filling in for Zach Ertz, but his career high in targets is 60.
Betting markets seem hesitant to buy into the hype, as well. The Bears have the third-lowest Super Bowl odds on Betfair, and they are tied for the fourth-worst odds to make the playoffs. numberFire's metrics are a bit more optimistic, putting the Bears 21st in the opening power rankings, but even that isn't overly inspiring.
The positive here for the Bears is that none of their assets is overly expensive in early 2018 fantasy football drafts. But they're also not cheap. How should we be handling them based on the conflicting signals above?
First, let's take a look at where each player is going. These are the average draft positions (ADP) for each Bears player currently being drafted in 12-team PPR drafts from May 29th through May 31st, according to Fantasy Football Calculator.
Two of the top-30 running backs are Bears, and Robinson is the 18th receiver coming off the board. Burton's going within the first eight rounds, as well. Even though Miller and Trubisky are cheap, the rest of the team is not coming at a discount.
For context, Gurley was the 11th running back taken last year, and none of the Rams' receivers were higher than WR32. That's where Sammy Watkins was going with Kupp being an 11th-round pick and Woods going undrafted. Outside of Gurley, these Bears are coming at a much higher cost than the Rams were.
It's true that the Rams wound up smashing value there, meaning some additional optimism around the Bears may be justified. But this also says that we can't view the Bears as being the 2018 Rams because we're not getting the same major discount we got on the Rams' damaged goods entering last year.
Robinson, especially, seems to be the player most worthy of skepticism. As you can see, his draft cost increased after he signed with the Bears.
Robinson's currently being drafted ahead of Alshon Jeffery, Brandin Cooks, and Julian Edelman. Edelman's also coming off of an ACL tear, but there are targets to be had in that offense, and he'll be catching balls from Tom Brady. There's a major opportunity cost here.
Someone like Trubisky is worthy of a sniff because he is so cheap and decently athletic. Both of those are valuable in a quarterback, especially one who is guaranteed a starting job and a long leash. But there's certainly some risk in the rest of the team.
The Bears will be better in 2018. There is almost no doubt about that. But they have a long way to go before they're a team we actively want to target in fantasy football drafts, and there are reasons to believe that their offseason additions have garnered a tad too much hype. Keep that in mind and tread lightly in season-long drafts, especially if the draft costs continue to increase.