CHICAGO — When the NFL's league year flips to 2018 on Wednesday, all five Bears captains from last season will be off the roster.
It's a bit ironic. John Fox's greatest accomplishment as Bears coach was repairing locker room chemistry. It didn't translate to wins, but the Bears played hard and remained cohesive through a starting quarterback change and an avalanche of losses. Locker room leaders were a steadying force.
Now, though, four captains — Mike Glennon, Josh Sitton, Jerrell Freeman and Quintin Demps — are following Fox out the door. Sherrick McManis is an unrestricted free agent.
That doesn't mean the Bears suddenly are devoid of leaders. But the captain vacancies underscore a team in transition. When the new league year begins, 29-year-old Kyle Long will be the team's oldest player under contract.
In other words, as the Bears get younger for the next chapter of their rebuilding project, leaders must emerge to carry over what Fox helped establish inside the team.
"I feel like there are a lot of guys in the locker room who are kind of ready for that role," general manager Ryan Pace said at the NFL scouting combine on Feb. 28. "I think that has to organically happen as we go through this process. But this is a young team, and I think those guys will naturally emerge as we go forward."
Pace declined to name names. It would've been easy for him to single out some obvious candidates — quarterback Mitch Trubisky for one — but, as he said, he prefers to let the dynamic evolve naturally. That's understandable, given the nature of leadership and how respect inside NFL locker rooms must be earned.
Looking at the core of the roster, it's not difficult to identify candidates for the 2018 captaincy. Since Pace took over, he has gone to great lengths to ensure the Bears' best (and best-paid) players are the hardest workers who set a good example on the practice field and in meetings. That philosophy helps explain some of his roster moves since he took over in 2015.
On offense, Trubisky should be a lock if his Year 2 development and maturation go according to plan. Lineman Cody Whitehair has been praised by Pace and others for his potential as a leader — specifically his steadiness, intelligence, calm demeanor and work ethic. Long is an intriguing candidate, given his tenure, resume and passion for the team.
Defensively, the obvious successors to Freeman and Demps are Akiem Hicks and Danny Trevathan. Hicks actually replaced Freeman as a captain before Week 3 last season after Freeman's season-ending pectoral tear in Week 1. Trevathan, meanwhile, has called the defense for the last two seasons and won a Super Bowl with the Broncos.
On special teams, it's possible McManis will return. He has already survived two head coaching changes at Halas Hall and remains a productive and experienced contributor.
Trubisky, more than anyone, gives the Bears direction and will determine their success. Around him are opportunities for players to increase their importance and impact as building blocks.
Pace senses no cause for alarm, but this is a team-building element worth monitoring as the Bears attempt to take the next step under first-time coach Matt Nagy and build on the pains of the last three seasons.