If the Bears are to take the next step from solid playoff team to Super Bowl contender, there is no question that a big part of that move will have to come on the back of Mitchell Trubisky.We also know that, although the Bears just might have a top-five defense without him, it was Khalil Mack that propelled them to become the NFL’s No. 1 defense in points allowed, and he is the ingredient that can keep them there for the foreseeable future.
But once you move past the rising quarterback and the solid gold edge rusher, who is the third-most-critical piece of the Bears’ championship puzzle?
Is it one of the team’s first-team All Pro defensive backs, Kyle Fuller or Eddie Jackson?
Playing without either one of them would certainly present challenges for new defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano and obvious targets for opposing offenses. The defense would be challenged, and the risk of losing a game(s) to one big pass play would seem more possible.
But the Bears are actually quite deep in the secondary these days and it seems likely they would still have excellent chances at success if forced to play without one or the other.
In fact, when Jackson went down at the end of last season, Deon Bush filled in capably, and DeAndre Houston-Carson is capable of stepping in as well.
Young Kevin Toliver showed promise on occasion in Prince Amukamara’s spot last year, and the Bears are intrigued by Michael Joseph and new starting nickel Buster Skrine, who can slide out to the boundaries as well.
Is it Akiem Hicks, you ask?
Like Jackson and Fuller, Hicks is a player you certainly wouldn’t want to have to go without, and I would certainly rate him at four or five for purposes of this exercise.
His ability to take over games at times, occupy two or three blockers at other times, freeing up teammates to be the difference makers is huge.
But Roy Robertson-Harris and Bilal Nichols are youngsters who would be commanding a lot more attention in almost any other lineup, while Eddie Goldman has become a space eater and playmaker extraordinaire as well. So there is still at least one player I’d put ahead of Hicks.
As much as I love the “Human Joystick,” the player I’m looking for isn’t Tarik Cohen, either. Though the young man can take over games, he also went M.I.A. on more than one occasion last year, and with the groove Nagy was in with his offense, the Bears kept on winning.
On many teams, you might look at the left tackle. Charles Leno is one of the most improved players on the team, but he isn’t that good that the fall off to a Cornelius Lucas or T. J. Clemmings would be insurmountable. And while he appears ticketed more for the right side, the Bears are excited about what they have in Rashaad Coward.
Kyle Long, Roquan Smith and Leonard Floyd are all potential stars, but none of them have reached the point of irreplaceability yet.
Actually, while the Bears have accumulated quite a bit of impressive talent in a very short time, as I ruminated over this thought, the answer actually came to me fairly quickly.
Based on how this team is being built and how Matt Nagy hopes to run his offense, my choice for the Bears’ third-most-critical piece is Allen Robinson.
In just over a season, the Bears have gone from one of the league’s weakest groups of wide receivers to one of its most tantalizing, and in particular, I can’t wait to see who Anthony Miller and Riley Ridley become.
But Robinson is the only one who is already a true No. 1 — a guy who can take over a football game all by himself — and is as important to Trubisky as pigskin is to a football.
The offense can be effective without Robinson. But with him, it and Trubisky can soar — and they will have to if the Bears are to make a serious run at playing in South Florida in February.