The NFL is back. Rosters have been trimmed down, players were traded and all the projections of what could happen will finally be put to the test. While the question of who will make the 53-man roster is over, many questions remain for all 32 teams as with week one of the season on the door step.
Of all the teams in the NFL, the Chicago Bears are the team with some of the most burning and exciting questions of any of them. A young team with a potential franchise quarterback is coming off being the worst team in the NFL and is looking to prove to many people (including me) that this team could make the playoffs in a wide-open NFC North. With just a few days until the Bears host the Green Bay Packers at Solider Field, let's look at the five most burning questions for the Bears heading into week one.
1. Will the offensive line be better?
The offensive line was one of the most maligned parts of the Chicago offense last year. Despite Pro Football Focus ranking them as the 14th-best offensive line in the league, the Bears gave up the most sacks at 58. Not all of those sacks were on the o-line, with Fields averaging 2.7 seconds between snap and throw, the longest in the league among starters. However, if you watched the film of the Bears O-Line last year, you could tell it was an evident weakness for Chicago.
So, in the off-season, GM Ryan Poles got to work to improve the line, signing guard Nate Davis from the Tennessee Titans. With the No. 10 pick in the draft, Poles stayed in the Volunteer State by drafting University of Tennessee right tackle Darnell Wright. With those two pickups, Poles has potentially revamped the entire right side of the offensive line while improving the left side by sliding over Teven Jenkins to left guard.
If Justin Fields is going to blossom into the quarterback that Bears fans think he can be, then it will be on the shoulders of an improved offensive line. We probably won't even get to see the starting offensive line combination for a couple of weeks, ," with Jenkins going down with a leg injury that will likely keep him out of the opener against the Packers.
Outside of Fields progressing in the quick to medium passing game, this will be the most important aspect to the Bears having a successful season offensively and overall. I think the Bears have made improvements in that area of the team, but we have to wait until Sept. 10 to get an answer to that question.
2. Will the skill position additions make a difference?
If football fans have learned anything over the past few years, it's that in order for your young and athletic quarterback to succeed; they need a No. 1 wide receiver to break through in their third year in the league. Josh Allen got Stefon Diggs in 2020 and threw for 4,544 yards while finishing second in MVP voting behind Aaron Rodgers. Jalen Hurts got A.J. Brown this past season, led the Eagles to the Super Bowl, and like Allen before him, finished second in MVP voting behind Patrick Mahomes. To a lesser extent, you could say that the Cardinals adding DeAndre Hopkins in 2020 helped Kyler Murray break out in 2020.
The Bears are hoping to replicate the success of those previous quarterbacks (hopefully more Allen and Hurts than Murray) by trading the No. 1 overall pick for a bevy of draft picks and D.J. Moore from the Carolina Panthers. After spending the 2022 season with primarily fifth and sixth-string wide receivers as his starters, Fields now has a No. 1 guy to throw to, along with Darnell Mooney and Chase Claypool filling out the main starting group for 11 personnel formation (three receivers and one tight end). At least in the preseason, the addition of Moore is already paying off.
However, the Bears didn't stop there by stacking this offense with skill-position players. In the backfield, the Bears added three new backs to the mix with D'onta Foreman, Travis Homer, and Roschon Johnson, creating a multi-faceted group to join Khalil Herbert. As for pass catchers, the Bears continued to add in free agency with former Packers tight end Robert Tonyan while adding former Cincinnati Bear Cat wide receiver Tyler Scott in the fourth round of the draft.
While on paper, it looks great that Chicago was able to add this much offensive talent, it won't mean a thing unless they can produce in the regular season. We have seen major additions in the past not work out for certain teams, including the Bears. Outside of the 2018 season, the Allen Robinson signing didn't provide what the Bears were looking for in a wide receiver. I have much more faith in this Bears coaching staff to utilize all these new players effectively, but the question still lingers is whether we will actually see that happen.
3. Can the Bears defense generate a pass rush?
Moving away from the offense, one of the biggest problems for the Bears' defense was their inability to generate any sort of pressure on the quarterback and get sacks. The Bears finished last in the NFL in sacks (20), quarterback knockdowns (20) and pressures (85). The edge rushers were a particular issue for the Bears as they only had 6.5 of the 20 sacks the Bears had last year. Nothing shows the glaring need Chicago had in the sack department than the fact that then rookie safety Jaquan Brisker led the team in sacks with four.
Like the rest of the roster, Poles did some massive overhauling to improve one of the worst units in all of football. In free agency, Poles added Demarcus Walker and Rasheem Green on the edge while also beefing up the interior with Andrew Billings. Then, in the draft, the Bears grabbed two more interior linemen, with Florida's Grevon Dexter Sr. in the second round and South Carolina's Zacch Pickens with the first pick in the third round.
While it seemed at first that would be all the moves the Bears would make in the trenches, Poles pulled one more move by signing former Colts edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue to a one-year $10.5 million contract. The Bears will be Ngakoue's sixth team in four seasons, but that has nothing to do with his ability to rush the passer. In every year of his career, Ngakoue has had at least eight sacks, including 9.5 with Indy in 2022 and 10 in 2021 with the Raiders. While he won't provide much in terms of run defense, the Bears don't need Ngakoue to defend the run. They need him to be ready on third downs to terrorize tackles and quarterbacks.
While the Bears did a lot to change the pass rush, outside of Ngakoue and returning starter Justin Jones, Chicago is relying on many unproven guys or guys who are maybe better suited as depth pieces. I like what Poles and Eberflus are doing to revamp the D-line, with cutting Trevis Gipson, trading Robert Quinn at the trade deadline last year, and getting rid of guys who don't fit or aren't that good in the Bears system anymore. Jones and edge Dominique Robinson are the only returning players to this defensive front. This is the year for Poles and Eberflus to make their mark on the team and defense, especially with the guys they want. Whether these new players can perform and turn the worst pass rush in the league into at least a league average is yet to be seen.
4. Will the young players on defense make an immediate impact?
Staying on the defense side of the ball, there are a lot of young players that the Bears will be relying on to produce very quickly. For over 16 players who could see significant playing time (d-line rotation, four corners on the field, etc.), the average age is 25.06 years old. Only four players are age 27 or older, with Eddie Jackson being the oldest at 30. It's hard to get that many young players on the same page and playing at their best in short period of time. Now, there is one caveat to that with Tremaine Edmunds being 25 years old but will already be going into his sixth year in the league.
There is some promise in a lot of the young guys right now. Kyler Gordon showed some good moments last year at nickel corner, Jaylon Johnson has been a solid corner since he set foot onto the field in 2020, and Jaquan Brisker looked like a rookie of the year candidate most of the year in the Bears secondary. That's not to mention that after getting burned early in camp, rookie Tyrique Stevenson has developed rapidly to be listed at CB3 in the Bears depth chart.
The big concern won't be the secondary, though, as the Bears finished tied for 11th in passing touchdowns allowed with 22. The bigger worry will be the interior of the defensive line, with two rookies in Pickens and Dexter. They were both solid run defenders in college, but having to be significant contributors in that department in a unit that allowed the most rushing touchdowns and the second-most rushing yards last year is a tall order. Yes, Justin Jones and Andrew Billings will be in front of them, but as any football fan knows, those guys can't stay on the field for every defense snap, and there will be key downs for those two rookies to step up. I believe they are up to the challenge, but it will be on all the veterans around those two players to make their lives as easy as possible.
This Bears defense is young and talented; there is no denying that. However, it will be on the coaches and the veterans around those guys to get them up to speed to be ready to contribute on the field starting in week one. There will be a lot of interesting players to watch on defense this year, and I cannot wait to see what they do against Green Bay.
5. Is Justin Fields the guy?
Saving the biggest question for last. If the Bears will be a playoff contender in 2023 and beyond, everything hinges on Justin Field breaking out into a star-level quarterback. Fields has had some incredible highlight plays in his NFL career already. From his first NFL touchdown against the Rams on Sunday Night Football in 2021 to his historic performance against the Miami Dolphins this past season. Fields has all the tools necessary in order to become a great dual-threat quarterback, joining the likes of Jalen Hurts and Lamar Jackson. He can hit passes deep, run past and through defenders, and has the arm talent to make almost any throw imaginable.
While that all may be true, there is one inescapable fact Bears fans must face: As you can't know yet, he hasn't been able to hit his layups in the passing game. While being graded quite highly by Pro Football Focus (PFF) in his deep passing ability last season, Fields had a grade below 60 in passes that were between 0-9 yards of the line of scrimmage.
To be a successful quarterback, you have to be able to hit your check-downs and scan the defense. Everyone meme'd Joe Flacco for being a check-down merchant, but Flacco has a Super Bowl ring and Super Bowl MVP by just hitting his short passes. You won't be able to hold onto the ball for long and find receivers deep every play. Now, I will say in Fields' defense, part of the reason he held onto the ball so much last year was that he didn't trust his receivers to make contested catches and get open, even on short passes. I can't really blame him because outside of Darnell Mooney and a couple of weeks of Chase Claypool, Fields was throwing to guys who are good depth but not starting-caliber players. Hopefully, adding D.J. Moore and his route running ability will open up more areas in the 0-19 yard area for Fields to continue to develop.
Fields still has a ways to go to prove he can make the jump like Josh Allen and Jalen Hurts did in their third year in the league. I think it's a little early to expect Fields to be a dark horse MVP candidate this year. However, if he has the Bears in contention for the division or high wild card spot, I could see a few votes being thrown his way for this season. I'm excited to see what he can do with a competent NFL offense around him to prove many of his doubters wrong. I'm personally tired of all running quarterbacks being given the label of running back before they have a chance to really prove themselves as a passer. Jalen Hurts, Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, and Kyler Murray have all proven (to varying degrees) that running quarterbacks can work in this league. Three of the players I mentioned have either won an MVP or came in second place in MVP voting. It's time to throw the old way of how we think about quarterbacks out of the window.
I just hope that Justin Fields can join that list and show the NFL what type of player he can truly become.