Finding the Fit: Mitchell Trubisky, Chicago Bears
The Chicago Bears wasted no time in moving from one franchise quarterback to the next. Jay Cutler, who was originally drafted by the Denver Broncos in 2006, spent the last eight years as the Bears’ starting quarterback. It was an emotional roller coaster, filled with stunning passes and equally as many frustrating interceptions. Although he battled constant injuries during his time as a Bear, Cutler was the most reliable player in Chicago for the better part of a decade. For better or for worse, the Bears always knew what they had at quarterback with Cutler at the helm.
A new era in Chicago has begun. Cutler finished the 2016 season with just five starts, the lowest mark in his career, due to a thumb injury and, later on, a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder. With a 34th birthday approaching and the uncertainty of a throwing shoulder injury, the Bears decided Cutler’s time was up and cut him on March 9th, 2017.
On that same day, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers backup quarterback Mike Glennon signed a three-year, $45 million contract with the Bears. Granted, there is a relatively cheap $6 million out that allows the Bears to cut Glennon after 2017, but regardless, it is a lucrative contract.
For six weeks, it was assumed the Bears would move forward with Glennon, as they retooled their franchise, similar to what the Kansas City Chiefs did with Alex Smith from 2013 to now. But then the NFL Draft rolled around on April 27th and the Bears pulled the first head-scratching move of the night. The Bears shipped off their third overall selection, a 2017 third-round pick, a 2017 fourth-round pick, and a 2018 third-round pick to swap picks with the San Francisco 49ers, who sat one spot above the Bears.
While the Bears were on the clock, chaos ensued. Were they moving up for Solomon Thomas? A quarterback? If so, which quarterback? It was the most suspenseful moment for the draft. Once the clock dwindled down, the Bears selected Mitchell Trubisky, quarterback, North Carolina. The Bears, unforeseen by most everyone, gave up half a draft’s worth of picks in order to jump one team and draft a quarterback who started for one season in college. It was an outrageous move in itself, never mind that Glennon was already on the roster.
Nevertheless, this is where the Bears are at now. They have two viable options at the quarterback position, both of whom are new to the team and required overspending in order to acquire them. They have different skill sets, but Bears offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains already dealt with that problem last year when it was Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley who replaced an injured Cutler. If (or when, who knows with this franchise) Trubisky gets to play, molding the offense to his skill set and familiarities will be necessary. Let’s break down the move and see how Trubisky fits in Chicago…
Trubisky ran a shotgun-exclusive spread attack at North Carolina. The Tar Heels offense largely operated in 11 or 10 personnel (1 RB and 1 TE, 1 RB and 0 TE, respectively). On the ground, various zone concepts, including read-option, were the foundation of the Tar Heels’ offense. The passing attack was based around Run-Pass Options (RPOs), two-man route concepts in the quick game, and play-action to attack the intermediate and deep sections of the field. Structurally, it was similar to what other spread teams like Clemson were running.
Integrating more RPOs into the Bears offense would be a great benefit to Trubisky. The Oakland Raiders took that approach with Derek Carr, and the Tennessee Titans followed suit by doing the same with Marcus Mariota. RPOs give the quarterback the option to give the ball to the back for a run play or pull the ball and throw it, generally to a one-man route on the back side or to a screen on the boundary. It is a way to give the quarterback easy, familiar reads and help him adjust to the NFL.
Plays like this one were common for Trubisky’s North Carolina offense. In this instance, Trubisky is reading the drop safety, who is lined up about eight yards deep in between the left tackle and the wide receiver to that side of the field. As Trubisky reaches the ball into the running back’s belly, he has to determine whether or not that safety is crashing the run play or moving back into coverage. Trubisky reads the safety playing the run, pulls the ball, and fires a strike to his wide receiver.
The Bears ran a similar concept last season, though this is a pre-snap read rather than a post-snap read. With the tight end shifting before the snap, the quarterback is able to read that the defense is staying in a one-high coverage shell and loading the box with a safety, giving his wide receiver on the back side a 1-on-1 situation. The Bears would only have six blockers versus seven box defenders, making it extremely tough to run the ball. After processing all the information pre-snap, the quarterback is able to see that his best option is the back side 1-on-1. He fakes the hand off, pulls the ball, and hits the window between the cornerback and the safety. Incorporating a blend of these types of RPOs, as well as the ones Trubisky is more familiar with, would be ideal.
Luckily for Trubisky, the Bears offense ran a fair amount of the same passing concepts and formations that he did at North Carolina. Of course, Chicago was under center more often and ran some heavier personnel sets than Trubisky is used to, but what Chicago did out of shotgun should feel a bit familiar for the rookie.
North Carolina ran concepts like this one while Trubisky was at the helm. Two of the same route being ran right next to each other versus zone coverage means that one of the receivers will influence a defender out of the way for the other receiver to be open. In this case, the Texans rotate to a Cover 2 look at the snap, giving the two receivers on the front side matched up against one shallow defender. The defender hangs tight to the inside receiver, leaving a weak spot in zone coverage for the outside receiver to get open near the boundary.
Trubisky is familiar with concepts like this one, where he is mostly just reading one section of the field post-snap. Trubisky has a good arm, a speedy release, and a quick enough trigger to be able to consistently make these concepts work.
Isolating and catering to slot receivers is something Trubisky is also used to. North Carolina had a pair of solid slot receivers in Ryan Switzer (now a Dallas Cowboy) and Austin Proehl, and they made a point to isolate them and get those two into space. Here, Chicago motions an outside receiver into a tight doubles set with the slot receiver. As the outside receiver trots toward the slot receiver, the cornerback on that side backs off of the line of scrimmage and prepares to play vertical. The cornerback’s adjustment leaves a ten-yard weak spot outside of the numbers for the quarterback to throw into.
At North Carolina, Trubisky became well-versed in understanding if and when the slot receiver would be open on concepts like this one. Sometimes, the defense will bite hard on the short corner route and leave the ‘spot’ route over the middle wide open. Trubisky showed a proficiency to read half-field concepts like this one in order to make a quick decision and place an accurate throw.
There are some concepts that will be more difficult, though, and it will be interesting to see how Trubisky handles them. Chicago ran a number of option routes, play-action passes without a safety valve, and crowded middle of the field concepts. More of these concepts were ran when Cutler was the quarterback than they were when his backups were playing, but they were still apart of the offense to some degree for all of the quarterbacks.
This is the same play ran back-to-back. Pre-snap, the only difference is the alignment of the tight end. He is lined up with his hand in the dirt as an in-line player for the first play, while he is lined up just off the line in the second play. The tight end ran the same route on both plays, as did every other eligible receiver except for the wide receiver split out wide to the right.
The receiver on the right has an option route. Depending on the coverage and/or alignment of the cornerback, he will run one of a handful of different route options that are built into the play. Both the receiver and the quarterback have to read the same thing and be on page. It will take time for a rookie quarterback to build comfort and chemistry throwing option routes.
In the first play, the cornerback backs off of the receiver right before the snap and continues to drop into a ‘bail’ technique, where he is playing over the top and protecting a vertical push from the wide receiver. The receiver and the quarterback read the cornerback, allowing for the receiver to stop at about 12 yards and work back to the boundary near the first down marker.
The following play went differently. The cornerback is again playing the receiver outside-in, but he does not bail immediately. He hop steps with the receiver and tries to read his route on the fly. After a few steps, the receiver saw he had the inside track on the cornerback. Once he got even, he was leavin’. The receiver turned on the jets and booked it down the outside of the numbers. Although the receiver got a couple of steps on the cornerback, the quarterback was not able to fit the throw. The play design worked as planned, though.
The Bears roster is not currently stocked to be able to throw effectively. Left tackle Charles Leno and right tackle Bobby Massie are replacement level tackles who aren’t going to be able to provide good protection on the outside. There also isn’t a true WR1 on the roster, seeing as Alshon Jeffrey left in free agency. Nobody on the roster can attract the type of attention Jeffrey did, nor can anyone on the roster provide Jeffery’s security blanket-type presence.
Kevin White is the best receiver on the roster right now. White, after missing his rookie season due to injury, played well in a WR2 role last year. He looked to be a solid vertical threat, though it’s tough to envision him evolving into a truly dynamic and game-changing player. Behind White is the trio of Eddie Royal, Kendall Wright, and Cameron Meredith. Much like White, they are all quality role players, but none of them really provide a dynamic presence that a quarterback can rely on.
At tight end, the Bears have Zach Miller, Dion Sims, and the newly drafted Adam Shaheen. None of those players are more than average receivers and they do not provide the type of vertical/horizontal threat that guys like Jordan Reed, Travis Kelce, and Delanie Walker can provide. The Bears tight ends are fine options in the short game and can double as solid blockers in the run game, but they are limited in what they can do as pass catchers.
On the other hand, running the ball won’t be a problem for Chicago. Left guard Josh Sitton, center Cody Whitehair, and right guard Kyle Long makes for a nasty interior offensive line. Now entering a second year together, the group should be even more in sync and provide rushing lanes for running back Jordan Howard. Howard, a day three pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, exploded onto the scene last season and finished as the second leading rusher in the NFL with 1,313 yards, trailing only Ezekiel Elliott. Jeremy Langford and Ka’Deem Carey remain on the roster as similar players to Howard, and Benny Cunningham and Tarik Cohen were recently acquired via free agency and the draft, respectively, to be ‘scat’ back weapons out of the backfield in the passing game. It’s unlikely all five stick on the roster, but regardless of who gets the boot, the Bears will have a thunder/lightning dynamic at running back.
Personnel has to play a part in putting together an offensive scheme. Coaches know they can’t run what their players can’t execute. For the Bears, that likely means fewer vertical plays. Jeffrey was the one dynamic receiver the Bears had and the lack of his presence will force OC Loggains to play “small ball” more than he may want. Again, Loggains already sort of did this when Hoyer and Barkley played, but Trubisky has a skill set closer to Cutler’s, so it’s frustrating the Bears don’t really have the personnel to play like they did with Cutler.
More than likely, the Bears will look to the ground game more, as well as try to do more bunch sets and quick game concepts to get the ball out quickly into space. They are going to have to sacrifice explosivity for efficiency, at least until Trubisky settles in and/or until the Bears can acquire a dynamic receiver again.
The Quarterback Himself
The second overall selection was a bit early for a player of Trubisky’s skill set and profile, but he was a fine prospect and the NFL’s infatuation with him wasn’t surprising. Trubisky, who will be a 23-year-old rookie with a lone year of collegiate starting experience under his belt, is an athletic, strong-armed passer who has a skill set that can be useful both inside and outside of the pocket. He has the athletic ability to be a scrambler, a designed runner, and be put on the move for rollouts, sprint outs, and boot-actions. Likewise, Trubisky has a strong arm that is amplified by a quick, malleable release. Trubisky has shown that he can make most any throw on the field, and do so from a number of different platforms.
Mechanically and mentally, Trubisky is a project. His footwork is often disjointed and sloppy when moving around in the pocket. At the top of his drop, Trubisky tends to “hop” and slowly widen his hips away from his target, leading him to have to make throws with his arm alone. Trubisky also tends to plant with an oddly wide base and, as a result, the ball ends up coming out a bit behind the rest of his torso.
Trubisky will have to show more purpose in his footwork than this. He made a poised, timely decision to move away from the interior pressure, but his feet were skipping around and getting tangled up throughout his slide away from the defender. Once he decided to throw, he hopped into a wide throwing platform instead of collecting himself and properly stepping into the throw. As a result of his loose footwork, Trubisky’s plant (front) foot landed wide of his midline, which makes his hip come around too early and leaves the ball to trail behind the rest of the body.
Pressure destroys Trubisky’s footwork. In fairness to him, every quarterback is more likely to falter under pressure, and Trubisky’s release is so compact and smooth that it allows him to throw off platform, but Trubisky too often abandons his feet in the pocket when he doesn’t need to. He has a wonderful feel for evading pass rushers, but he shows little comfort in throwing with defenders in his vicinity.
This should be a completion. The running back running the wheel route gets plenty of separation down the sideline and a throw in stride may have been enough to lead him into the end zone. Trubisky’s reaction to the defensive end pressuring his left tackle derailed the opportunity. Instead of shuffling his feet as the defensive end crept closer, Trubisky should have slid a bit to his right, reset, and ripped it down the field to the running back. Alas, Trubisky let the pressure frazzle him and he ended up trying to lob the throw off of his back foot.
As mentioned above, Trubisky does have a nice feel for getting away from pass rushers and making plays outside of the pocket, both as a mobile passer and as a runner. He is not scared to dance around the pocket and find the open play. Pass rushers may rattle Trubisky the Passer, but Trubisky the Runner is fearless.
The best way to utilize Trubisky is to let him get the ball out quickly or get him out of the pocket. Trubisky is most valuable as a short and intermediate passer, one who can be put on the move and be used as a legitimate part of the running game. He can throw strikes at the intermediate level, both to the boundary and over the middle of the field. Tight coverage does not force Trubisky to shy away. With his caliber of arm and confidence as a passer, Trubisky has the baseline skill set to be one of the better intermediate passers in the league.
Trubisky is not an impressive deep passer, unfortunately. His mechanics are too porous and balls beyond 20 yards often sail on him. North Carolina took a step back in 2016, partly due to Trubisky’s inability to push the ball down the field the same way Marquise Williams did before him. Without the ability to push the ball down the field, the Bears offense could become stagnant in a hurry, too.
Trubisky doesn’t have the mental prowess to be a dominant short and intermediate passer. He’s not a complete disaster, but he misses blatant pre-snap reads and is a tick too late in going through his progressions more often than would be desired of a top-three draft pick. Likewise, Trubisky’s progression style is rigid. He has moments where he will snap from one read to the next and, without thinking or reading the new progression, he will throw the ball without caution into coverage. Sometimes this works out for him, especially with the caliber of arm that he possesses, but the NFL won’t be so generous.
This is a careless pass that should have been intercepted. Trubisky could have thrown to the inside receiver who sat down in the middle of the Duke logo, but instead, he turned and fired at the outside receiver without taking inventory of that receiver being crowded by defenders. This throw either needs to happen sooner, to a different receiver, or not at all.
Granted, plenty of good quarterbacks have had similar tendencies in college. Jameis Winston, for instance, would trust what he saw pre-snap and make similar mistakes to the one above. The difference for Winston was that he was tasked with more from a mental processing standpoint than Trubisky was and Winston was right far more often than not. Winston’s aggression and stubbornness was a double-edged sword, but it benefited him in a way that Trubisky failed to match.
Having both Glennon and Trubisky on the roster is a gift and a curse. They have options at quarterback, but they either overpaid for a contingency plan (Glennon) or spent a handful of premium picks on a quarterback who wasn’t worth the price (Trubisky). If either quarterback turns out, the wasted value may not matter much. However, envisioning either player as a quarterback who can elevate the Bears offense is not easy.
Trubisky would have been better off being a secnd-round pick, like Derek Carr and Andy Dalton. Both of those quarterbacks fell to the second round, allowing their teams to grab elite players with their first round picks (Khalil Mack and A.J. Green, respectively). Trubisky’s skill set suggests he is a quarterback who will require a great deal of catering, patience, and personnel support. He feels more like a quarterback who a team can win with, not because of. Quarterbacks like that have value in the NFL, there is no doubt about that, but the value of that type of player does not align with the value it took to secure him.
Hopefully the Bears can find a way to restock the offense after the 2017 season. Trubisky, like any young quarterback, will need all the help he can get. If this works out for the Bears, they will be one of only a few lucky franchises who gets to transition immediately from one franchise quarterback to another.