The NFL Network has an annual series it televises of the top 100 players in the NFL list as voted on by the players in the NFL. The Bears were completely shut out on this list for the 2017 season. Not that the Bears deserve a whole lot of recognition for their dreadful record the past three seasons of the Ryan Pace regime, but certainly the Bears had some deserving players. I can think of three that should have likely made this list off the top of my head. So this compelled me to create my own list recognizing the Bears who played the best in their 2017 season.
I’ve limited this to a top 20 list going in increments of 5 per column so this will be the first of 4 articles in this mini-series of blogs. I have done an intensive deep dive into the 2017 film and determined the list based solely on my own opinion of who my eyes saw as being deserving of making the list and their ranking. I’ll be posting some vids recorded off my cell phone so my apologies in advance for it’s crude appearance, but I assure you they’ll be visible enough to make my points. Since this is a positive list I’ll be posting what I think summarizes each players best abilities and how they were used to put together a solid season. As always I welcome all comments of both criticism and approval of my rankings and analysis.
20.) Defensive Lineman – Mitch Unrein: Believe it or not losing Mitch Unrein in Free Agency to Tampa Bay was a bigger loss than most would think. He wasn’t a playmaker per se, but he was a hardworking grunt that helped others make plays by being assignment sound and stout at the point of attack. A player on the defensive Line every team needs in order to be successful. As you can see from the PFF Meme’s below he had a very good year and brings an incredible value to any team’s defensive line. Now, Tampa Bay’s.
That being said letting him go was the right decision. Perhaps if the Bears were at a different point in the evolution of the team he’d still be a Bear, but the timeline does not quite matchup at this point in time of Unrein’s career timeline. Right now there is more value in letting the loss of snaps Unrein created with his departure being filled by the young Defensive Linemen prospects the Bears are attempting to develop.
As for the season Unrein had, he didn’t wow with his stat line, but it’s in the film that his value stands out and why I chose him as the 20th best player on the 2017 team. Here, Unrein is playing 1 technique off the Centers right shoulder. As the ball is snapped the Center attempts a reach block as he side steps to his right to attempt to get on Unreins outside (right) shoulder and shield him off attempting to provide a possible cut back lane for the back but Unrein gets his arms out keeping the Center off his body and drives him into the backfield cutting off any cutback lane and forcing him into the waiting arms of Leonard Floyd. Plays like these where his play led to others gains on their stat sheets were common place for the very underrated Unrein.
19.) Tight End – Zach Miller: To some this may be a surprise as Miller was injured midway through the season and his stat line was somewhat unremarkable as he got off to a slow start. It may have been a combination of his coming back from his most recent foot fracture, as well as him playing with two new Quarterbacks including a raw rookie who was learning his way in the offense and familiarizing himself with his teammates.
However, once he began to get the targets the production quickly followed and just before his gruesome season and likely career ending leg injury he was a weapon to be reckoned with. Before the injury, it looked as though Miller would have become a favorite go to target for Mitch Trubisky and the stat line would’ve have been among the best for Tight Ends in the NFL. He was a coverage dictator and a mismatch for defenses that didn’t have a coverage Linebacker in the vein of Luke Kuechly or a Deion Jones. Miller was the ultimate safety blanket as you can see from his drop rate below.
On the play below, Miller was part of one of the years most exciting plays in the Bears 2017 season. The first thing you notice is the excellent design of the play. The second thing I noticed was the throw by Tarik Cohen. That was the essence of what is called dropping a dime. The third is the route Miller ran and the excellent catch right at the sideline in the End Zone on the corner route. He did not only show speed and explosion to blow past the completely stunned safety, but sold that route as a run block that the Safety bit on big time.
It all starts with the play design. Bears are in a trips to the right of the formation. At the snap the linemen pull along with the 3 receivers in the bunch formation totally selling the run after the toss to Cohen. Miller even puts his shoulder down like he’s going to drive it into a defender as a blocker but than turns on the jets as he peals around the corner and hits the seam. He than turns towards the corner of the end zone for a well executed touchdown.
18.) Nickel Corner – Bryce Callahan: Callahan may be the leagues biggest secret weapon. You never hear the national media speak of him and local media gives him barely a mention but the fact is when he’s on the field and healthy he is without a doubt one of the best Nickel/Slot Corners in the league. However, being on the field is pretty important and fact is Callahan has had an issue with that throughout his brief career in the NFL.
This past season was his best as far as being available but even than he still missed a pretty decent amount of games with 4. I was tempted to rank him higher on the list, but 4 games is a lot. Many plays were missed and as we all know by now, the new NFL offenses play in 11 personnel around 70% of their snaps league wide making Slot Corner essentially a starting position.
His presence could have contributed to wins in some or all of those games lost. That could have made a huge difference in the Bears season. Of course it’s putting a lot on a Slot Corner to turn around an entire season. However, the Bears did face some of the better teams with the better Quarterbacks in the league throwing to some of the best Wide Receiver corps in the entire NFL. Losing a player that is a top 10 Slot Corner (given the PFF statistical rankings arguing top 5 isn’t exactly crazy talk) had to have made a huge difference.
Perhaps this is the season he finally stays healthy throughout but given his size and aggressive physical playing style that is probably unlikely. Actually 12 games would be a nice boon for the defense. Aside from being an outstanding coverage Corner he’s a good blitzer. When he does get frisky and decides to send a Defensive back on a blitz Vic Fangio usually sends Callahan who was sent nearly 50% of the time when the Bears did send a DB.
On this play Callahan is simply in the right place at the right time and benefits from one of Kyle Fuller‘s many pass defenses last season. While the Interception wasn’t exactly from a great coverage play by Callahan it’s what he does after the interception that makes Callahan truly special. He’s an explosive player capable of big plays in the secondary and why he made the top 20. On this play he weaves his way deep into the opponents territory and if not for Joe Flacco getting enough on him to make the tackle it would have likely been a pick 6.
17.) Outside Linebacker – Sam Acho: On the surface Acho seems like a grunt type player who spells teammates in non high leverage snaps and is a special teams contributor, but he can also get it done making plays when he gets his shot as evidenced by his 2017 season. He picked up the slack after the Bears had a difficult time keeping their Outside linebackers on the field.
Of course starting him for 12 games diminished the Bears depth not to mention took away special teams snaps weakening that phase of the team. However, it was extremely necessary as the Bears were weakened by season ending injuries to 3 of their top Outside Linebackers. One of which they brought back for their final 5 games after cutting him before the season when Lamarr Houston suffered another knee injury. He took it on very well and was an important contributor. It’s not like he was new to it either. As a rookie in Arizona he had a promising season as an up and coming Edge Rusher with 7 sacks and 3 forced fumbles. So he wasn’t exactly without skill as an Edge Defender.
Last season he had a pretty decent one as Acho finished with 34 pressures. He also has 3 sacks and a forced fumble as well as a pass defended. This may be too high for most people but Acho is a player that helps with the intangible as well as the tangible. He also contributes on special teams as well. He’s a great teammate and a heart and soul type which is extremely valuable to a team. Especially in times of adversity. Oh, and by the way he can play a little bit too.
On this play Acho shows his use of hand technique and power to back the much bigger player straight into the Quarterback for a sack. He uses an excellent intial punch knocking the Left Tackle back on his heels and does a great job hand fighting keeping the tackle’s hands off his frame until he gets to Case Kenum and finishes the play for a big 7 yard loss.
16.) Tight End – Adam Shaheen: Shaheen may be a surprise selection for some as his stats were relatively modest as was his targets and at times snap count numbers, but he’s on here because of his blocking mainly. What was perceived as a weakness coming into the draft of 2017 was turned into a strength. I was very impressed with his competiveness and blocking technique. Especially as the season progressed along.
Watching his Ashland University videos I always thought he was overly criticized for his blocking. Sure, you could see the technique flaws, but the competiveness and willingness was always there along with his size and nimble feet. Projecting him at the next level you could see his being a good blocker was inevitable and an easy call. So for me seeing him execute as a blocker was far from a surprise. I can only imagine the big step he’s going to take with Harry Heistand aboard.
Of course his main appeal was as a pass catcher and why he was a 2nd round pick. Blocking Tight Ends don’t get drafted high on day 2 of the draft. Ashland ran a pro style offense and used Shaheen in a great deal of ways including as a flex or the “U” position as Matt Nagy calls it. He has size, agility, quickness, soft hands, fearlessness, toughness, IQ, and good speed for a lineman sized pass catcher. In other words a matchup nightmare for defenses. Try as they may Defensive Corrdinators won’t find anyone his size who can move or run with him, and the guys who can run with him won’t be anywhere near big enough to stop him from shielding them from the ball or challenge on 50/50 balls. Especially with a basketball background as a forward.
Shaheen showed flashes of these traits as a pass catcher, but he didn’t have nearly the amount of targets to pile on the numbers. He had just 14 targets all season long. One would see that as a ridiculously low amount of targets for such a talented and high pick. which would have most outsiders thinking there must be a good reason for this. However, the Bears did have two accomplished veterans ahead of him with John Fox at the helm. Being the defensive minded more conservative head coach he was going to make sure the reliable known quantity “the vets” were going to get the lions share of the targets so pinning the blame on Shaheen would be misguided.
However, he did maximize his opportunity. Out of those 14 targets only 12 of them were considered catchable. Still, by NFL grading systems they count those targets to determine catch rate % which he had an impressive 85.7%. Six of which were in the Red Zone (5 in the End Zone) where he caught 4 of them with 3 touchdowns. So expect to see his numbers increase a ton even with Trey Burton aboard. Especially in the Red Zone where he’ll be nearly impossibe to defend. Especially on back shoulder throws on corner and out routes along the sidelines. Can you say Touchdown receiving machine?
On the video below you’ll see his most explosive play of the season a 31 yard catch where about 29 of them were from Yards after the catch. This play should have been an even bigger gain if not for the half ass block on the part of Dontrell Inman and may have even gone all the way to the house. It was another clever play design off an RPO concept. You see the linemen fire off the ball as if to block and even see the Left Guard and Left Tackle pull with dummy trap blocks. Before the play you see Zach Miller motion to the right and then back left eventually settling in the backfield looking like an H-back getting ready to lead block for his running back.
On the snap, you see Zach Miller fire into the A gap and the play action fake has the Running Back following behind Miller and sucks in the Linebackers playing run. Shaheen even puts on a block and gets lost in the trash and than flows out into the pattern as Mitch Trubisky rolls to his right and delivers a short pass to Shaheen who catches it around 2 yards from the Line of scrimmage. He explodes downfield slowing up to allow Inman to get his block but Inman allows his man to run through a very lazy block attempt and make the tackle 31 yards from scrimmage. Expect to see a lot of plays like these this coming season.
Next up: Players 15-11