As the Chicago Bears prepare to begin the new season Sunday when they host the San Francisco 49ers at Soldier Field, our team of writers weighs in on five timely topics entering Week 1.
1. The best way to describe Ryan Poles’ first Bears roster is ________.
Brad Biggs: Remarkably young and getting younger.
The Bears had 13 rookies on their initial 53-man roster and after a flurry of waiver moves, that number has risen to 15 (28.3%). Add seven players entering Year 2 and you’re looking at more than 41% of the roster. With coach Matt Eberflus philosophically committed to playing young players, the Bears should learn a lot about what they have. Valuable experience will benefit many while weeding out some.
Rapid turnover from the previous regime is no surprise, especially with a scheme change on defense. While it’s fair to wonder if Poles did enough to protect quarterback Justin Fields and provide him with offensive targets, it’s necessary to remember the GM spoke about addressing the entire roster.
“That was the goal coming in is try and surround (Fields) with the best talent that we can,” Poles said last week. “But at the same time, I’ve never gotten in the way from (the idea that) we have to try and build the entire roster. I’m not going to overreach and do things crazy to get a name.
“Our approach has been consistent from the draft all the way through. We’re going to continue to add talent all around, the best that we can. It might not be the name or a name that everyone wants to hear, but we’re going to develop the players that we have here.”
What Poles never came out and said was that the secondary needed a major overhaul, and that need happened to fit the strength of the draft board in Round 2. That explained the addition of cornerback Kyler Gordon and safety Jaquan Brisker. Fields’ development will be the most significant storyline this season, but close attention will be paid to how the abundance of youth performs.
Colleen Kane: Young, unproven and — hopefully for the Bears — hungry.
Play a game and see how many proven, consistent NFL playmakers you can name on the Bears in 10 seconds. Robert Quinn and Roquan Smith for sure. Eddie Jackson at one point in his career. David Montgomery and Darnell Mooney to a lesser degree. Fields at moments last year. And kicker Cairo Santos.
This isn’t a knock on the rest of the players, just an acknowledgment that the Bears have a bunch of youngsters and players who were underutilized, unproven or injured at their previous stops. As of Saturday, the Bears had 22 first- and second-year players and several third-year pros looking for a breakout season. It could be fun to watch which of those young guys makes strides this season. It also could be hard at times as the roster goes through a lot of growing pains.
Dan Wiederer: In flux.
That much was apparent when the Bears submitted their initial 53-man roster at the deadline Tuesday and subsequently let go seven of those players two days later. That’s the state of these rebuilding Bears, who have severed ties with the miscalculated vision of 2020 and 2021 that this was a team on the cusp of being a championship contender.
Instead, Poles has taken a grounded view of the roster. He has recognized the steep climb the Bears have and tailored his moves accordingly. For now, that means the Bears will be an ultra-young team. Heading into the weekend, they had 15 rookies and seven second-year players on the roster. Poles and his staff also have been scrubbing Ryan Pace’s fingerprints from the depth chart with only 19 players on the 53-man roster as of the weekend who had ties to Pace.
Buckle in, Bears fans. The roster promises to remain in flux throughout the season as the Bears seek building blocks and players who fit both their on-field systems and the culture they’re establishing.
2. One player I expect to make a significant jump this season is ______.
Biggs: Larry Borom.
Fields will generate the most buzz, and he very well may be poised to make the greatest improvement in offensive coordinator Luke Getsy’s system. It would be a grand development for the organization if that’s the case.
But I’ll go with Borom, the fifth-round pick from 2021. He made eight starts at right tackle as a rookie and based on how the coaching staff has tinkered with the offensive line, he’s the young lineman who most consistently has been viewed as a starter.
Borom did a nice job of adjusting to playing on the outside last season after projecting as a guard. He played at 332 pounds as a rookie and is down to 319, a weight he feels comfortable with. Don’t rule out the possibility he winds up on the left side at some point if rookie Braxton Jones struggles.
Kane: Justin Fields.
This seems like an easy one given the bumps Fields encountered in his rookie season while throwing for 1,870 yards with seven touchdowns, 10 interceptions and a 73.2 passer rating and being sacked 36 times in 12 games (10 starts). He’s bound to improve with a year of experience, and the pairing with Getsy so far seems like it will set up Fields for better success.
But it’s also hard to know if Poles has surrounded Fields with enough talent to help him make that leap. Poles talked about being excited by what he saw from wide receivers Mooney and Velus Jones Jr. and tight end Cole Kmet, who also could make a jump this year. Poles expressed belief that an uncertain offensive line is getting better. Is that enough to help Fields get to the next level? We’ll see.
Wiederer: Cole Kmet.
Consider this a bullhorn endorsement of where Kmet can take his career in his third season, finally in a system that will value and utilize the tight end’s versatility while pairing him with a quarterback with whom he has built promising chemistry.
In his first two seasons — during the COVID-19-disrupted stretch of 2020 and then a topsy-turvy 2021 — Kmet had difficulty finding proper rhythm with his starting quarterbacks in big part because there was little continuity. The Bears went from Mitch Trubisky to Nick Foles then back to Trubisky in 2020. Last season, it was Andy Dalton starting the first two games, Fields the next eight, Dalton for two more, back to Fields for two, an emergency start for Foles and two more from Dalton. Whoa.
Internally, there’s a lot of eagerness to see what Kmet can do this season, particularly from Getsy, who has plenty of say on how much his top tight end will be featured.
“He has a lot of really cool tools,” Getsy said. “I think he’s starting to learn how to use them. … I think he’s on the brink right now of taking his game to another level.”
3. The player with the most at stake this season is ________.
Biggs: Justin Fields.
He has an opportunity to prove to the new front office and coaching staff that he is the franchise’s quarterback of the future. In the immediate future, linebacker Roquan Smith has the most money at stake after negotiations for a large contract extension broke down. Keep an eye on cornerback Jaylon Johnson too. He has impressed the coaching staff and quickly has become a veteran at the position. Poles will have a ton of salary-cap space after the season, and Johnson and Mooney will be eligible for contract extensions in 2023.
The Bears have gotten young in a hurry in the secondary, but if Johnson plays well, he’s a likely candidate for an extension. Free-agent spending always should be judged first by what teams do to retain their own talent. Fields and Smith can help define their futures this season, but don’t overlook what’s attainable for Johnson and Mooney if they perform at a high level.
Kane: Roquan Smith.
Smith is the obvious answer given his and the Bears’ decision to move forward into the season without a contract extension. By not settling for an offer he viewed as unsatisfactory, Smith is betting he can stay healthy and put together a big enough season to get the Bears or another team to pay him what he thinks he’s owed.
Given the state of Poles’ roster, Smith is far from the only player with a lot at stake. Montgomery is playing for a new contract. Several players are with the Bears on one-year deals, including wide receivers Byron Pringle and Equanimeous St. Brown and linebacker Nicholas Morrow. And second-year offensive linemen Teven Jenkins and Alex Leatherwood are trying to prove they’re not draft busts.
Wiederer: Roquan Smith.
A case could easily be made that Fields has the most to gain or lose in his effort to establish himself as the long-term answer at the most important position. But there’s also a strong chance we get to the end of 2022 and the jury remains hung on whether Fields is a true franchise quarterback or a work-in-progress, middle-tier starter.
Smith, on the other hand, turned down whatever contract offer the Bears made this summer and chose to play out the final year of his rookie deal for $9.735 million. He has four-plus months to show the Bears or the rest of the league that he deserves a record-setting deal and can be a game-changing star.
But without long-term contract security and playing for a team that most experts don’t see as a playoff contender, Smith will have to stay healthy and, at times, consider his individual goals as much as he considers the team’s priorities. It has the potential to become a tricky dynamic.
4. My season record projection for the Bears is now _____.
That’s the same as when the schedule was released. Let’s be honest, had it not been for an impressive first half in Cleveland in the preseason finale — when the Browns were holding out most of their best defensive players — some projections would be lower.
It’s important not to put too much focus on preseason performances, good or bad. Reality is the Bears have a very young roster and lack proven, consistent playmakers on offense. We should have a pretty good idea after the first two games — against the San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers — whether the defense can play efficiently against the run.
The schedule isn’t as daunting as it was in 2021, so if the offense can make gains and the line can protect Fields, there’s reason to believe seven or eight victories are attainable. But so much has to go right for this team to approach the eight-win range.
That’s the same record I predicted when the schedule came out. Seven or eight wins is probably on the higher end of many predictions, but I’m more confident the Bears can reach that mark than I was at the beginning of the preseason.
Poles’ roster still has a lot of holes. The receivers after Mooney are either injured or unproven — or both. I have no idea if the offensive line can protect Fields in actual games against actual starting defenses. And the defense will rely on several young players in the secondary.
But during preseason games the Bears looked a bit more disciplined with fewer penalties. Players seem to have bought into the coaching staff’s high standards. And Getsy seems to have a solid plan to get Fields on the right track. Those things should help the Bears scratch out some wins.
It’s never a good thing to be entering Week 1 with more than 10% of your 53-man roster consisting of players who were recently cut by other teams. But that’s where this team stands.
The Bears figure to be outmanned from a talent and depth standpoint most weeks. But they can make up for such deficiencies by playing the high-effort, disciplined brand of football Eberflus demands.
To that end, the returns from preseason practices and games were promising. And this season’s success should be judged less by the final record and more by how competitive and resilient the team proves to be over 17 games. Even in a season that features double-digit losses, the Bears can make important strides and establish an upward trajectory. This year’s version of 6-11 wouldn’t feel nearly as dispiriting as last year’s.
5. Ted Phillips’ tenure as Bears president and CEO can be described as _____.
Biggs: Very fulfilling from a business standpoint but unfulfilling on the field.
Phillips accomplished what the McCaskey family was unable to do in getting a desperately needed remodeling of Soldier Field completed before the 2003 season. Hailed as a success at the time, it proved to be only a temporary fix with the organization realizing the lease and stadium amenities were undesirable after a little more than a decade in the new building.
Phillips presided over a major expansion of staff — both on the football and non-football sides. Halas Hall underwent two build-outs that have made it one of the most complete and advanced headquarters in the league. Ultimately, the NFL is about making money for owners and winning championships is second. And in that second regard, the Bears have struggled with seven winning seasons, six playoff appearances and only three postseason victories since Phillips became president/CEO.
In that span, the Bears have had consecutive winning seasons only once — in 2005 and 2006 — and that has been the most frustrating aspect. It’s not the job of someone in Phillips’ chair to pick the quarterback, but it is his job to help choose those who can procure talent — and the Bears have failed time and again there.
Phillips is the organization’s point man for the exploration of a new stadium project in Arlington Heights, and if that proves successful, it would be a positive final chapter.
Kane: One of growth on a business level — but not in wins.
It’s odd because you almost have to talk about Phillips as if he held two different jobs. And I’m not the first or last to note that maybe the position should have been split in two.
On the business side, Phillips will claim the continued growth in value of the franchise, the Soldier Field renovation, the Halas Hall expansion and the potential purchase of the Arlington International Racecourse property — if it goes through — as wins.
But with 12 losing seasons and just six playoff berths since 1999, the Bears did not win nearly enough during his tenure for it to be marked as a success. Part of the blame has to fall on Phillips, who helped hire and advised general managers — i.e., an inexperienced Ryan Pace — when his expertise is not in football.
And part of it falls on the McCaskey family, who didn’t put the right football people in place at the GM level or above and stayed married to their current structure for more than two decades. Will that change in the months ahead? We will see.
Phillips has expressed disappointment that the Bears never won consistently under his watch, and the numbers bear that out. They had a .480 winning percentage in his first 23 seasons as president with only six playoff appearances and three playoff victories. They have changed general managers four times and head coaches five times. That’s not exactly a sparkling record of consistency or stability.
And while some may want to give Phillips, a business-minded executive, a reprieve for the team’s playing woes, that’s far too forgiving given his role in hiring and supervising the last four GMs plus the two seasons he served as the boss for vice president of player personnel Mark Hatley.