Just how good can the Chicago Bears defense be in 2020?
Generational was the most popular adjective being thrown around in 2018 and early in 2019, and on paper this group looks better.
Once on the field, much of its success, just like is true of the offense, will come down to the defense’s “quarterbacks.”
While Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks, Kyle Fuller and Eddie Jackson are All-Pros and Pro Bowlers all, and each plays his own leadership role in the locker room and on the field, it is inside linebackers Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith who will call the signals and QB this unit.
When healthy, Trevathan and Smith are as good a pair of inside ‘backers as there is in the league, Smith viewed by most as a potential All-Pro, and Trevathan just a notch behind him.
The concern is in four years as a Bear, Trevathan has played just nine, 12, 16 and nine games; and Smith was absent Week 4 last season due to personal issues and then missed the last three games of the season with a torn pectoral muscle.
Luckily, Nick Kwiatkoski and Kevin Pierre-Louis stepped in and played almost as well as the starters.
But both are gone now, and the Bears are dangerously thin behind Trevathan and Smith with only unknowns Joel Iyiegbuniwe, Josh Woods, Devante Bond, Keandre Jones and Rashad Smith competing for the backup roles.
The good news is both Smith and Trevathan believe they’re 100% and ready to go right now, and both are confident in what they learned from last season.
Asked about his rehab, Smith reported, “I feel like I'm 100%, and I'm excited for where I'm at right now, and I can pretty much do any and everything.
“I definitely feel like I'm in a great place right now, training very hard," Smith said. “I know Year 3 is a huge year for myself and my career, so I've just got to make everything worth it and put it all on the line for myself and my teammates and my family.”
Does Smith feel like he can live up to the high-end expectations that have surrounded him since the Bears made him the eighth overall pick in the 2018 draft?
“I’ve got a huge chip on my shoulder, just really excited," he said.
“I don’t want much hype going into the year, because I know my mindset and what I plan to do this upcoming season. I definitely feel like it’s going to be my best year to date.
“A lot of people counted me out. So I’m just gonna get back to, like, who I really am and do pretty much everything the way want to do and make myself the best possible player I can.”
While personal issues are just that, personal, I asked Smith if the situation last year had changed him in any way?
“I definitely feel like I learned a lot of things," Smith said. "First and foremost, just learning people for one, just knowing who is with you and who is not with you.
“You know, we all face that at certain points, have highs and lows in life, so, yeah, wasn’t my best season.
“Now I’m going into this season planning to make it my best year possible, controlling everything that I can control and not worrying about the outside noise.”
Always confident about his health in spite of playing all 16 games just three times in eight years in the league, Trevathan believes the sky is the limit for this defense.
“We’re going to be monsters. There’s no doubt in my mind," he said.
“I watched (Robert) Quinn from afar. He’s a wrecking machine. Now you’ve got to watch this side here, this side over here. You’ve got to watch the middle. You’ve got to watch the back end. Dangerous.
“I feel like all we have to do is take one day at a time, push one another, call one another out, have each other’s back, and let’s roll out.”
Health is, of course, the great equalizer for every NFL team, and this Bears defense actually has solid depth everywhere but inside linebacker.
So if Trevathan and Smith can stay on the field to call the signals and lead the charge, this Bears defense could be truly special.