Emma’s minicamp notebook: Bears emerge from offseason boasting criticial continuity
LAKE FOREST, Ill. — When the Bears broke their huddle one last time for minicamp late Thursday morning, they left the practice fields at Halas Hall having accomplished what head coach Matt Eberflus hoped for in his second offseason program.
The Bears are an improving football team that’s embracing the stylings of Eberflus, with young players looking towards an important season ahead and key veterans brought in to foster a winning culture. On that morning in late July when the Bears line back up for the start of training camp, they will be boasting a great deal of continuity – a critical characteristic that was solidified this offseason.
Continuity for these Bears comes from Eberflus’ second-year regime preaching the same principles and teaching the same scheme. It’s bolstered by the development of 24-year-old quarterback Justin Fields, who has taken strides with his own game that could allow him that breakthrough season ahead. And it’s enhanced by a depth chart that’s filling up, touting cohesion over senseless competitions.
There’s a common drive as the Bears work to put a 3-14 season behind them and strive for lasting success.
“They want to win,” said veteran tight end Robert Tonyan Jr., signed by the Bears this offseason. “They know that’s not the standard, that that’s not what you come to the NFL for. You don’t just come to coast and get three wins. That’s how people get fired. That’s how players get out of jobs. Obviously, the new guys coming in, we’re here for a reason.
When Fields steps under center for the first snaps in training camp, he will be receiving the football from Cody Whitehair – with Braxton Jones, Teven Jenkins, Nate Davis and Darnell Wright standing in as his offensive line.
Rather than making the No. 10 overall pick Wright battle for his starting role into training camp, the Bears anointed him the starter on Day 1 of OTAs. The veteran Whitehair was named the center over Lucas Patrick, who will serve as a key interior reserve. There was no prolonged position battle to be had. Last season, Eberflus often spoke of the search for the team’s best five offensive linemen. They already knew what the combination was in May, wasting no time to set Fields’ protection unit.
“It’s much better to have continuity on the offensive line,” Eberflus said.
Fields left the offseason program plenty comfortable in his budding connections with wide receivers DJ Moore and Chase Claypool. When Darnell Mooney returns from a fractured fibula (and he’s expected to be cleared by training camp), Fields will have his top three targets in place. The only real competition on offense will be over the timeshare at running back. Khalil Herbert, D’Onta Foreman and Roschon Johnson are competing to carry the load for this backfield.
Before the Bears report to Halas Hall in July, Fields plans to invite members of his offense down to Florida to work with him.
For Fields, continuity has come through working with the same coaching staff and fine-tuning his own game. Bears quarterbacks coach Andrew Janocko has focused with Fields on more careful footwork and syncing that to his internal clock in the pocket.
“You can see it,” Eberflus said. “It’s quicker, it’s faster, it’s more precise, and that comes down to his experience and his work ethic. He’s worked really hard at it.”
On defense, the Bears seem to have their starting group nearly set. The return of veteran safety Eddie Jackson from a Lisfranc injury secured a secondary that also features safety Jaquan Brisker, cornerbacks Jaylon Johnson, Tyrique Stevenson and Kyler Gordon. Linebackers Tremaine Edmunds, T.J. Edwards and Jack Sanborn are building chemistry together. And this defensive line should feature a steady rotation, which will include rookies Gervon Dexter Sr. and Zacch Pickens.
Eberflus’ staff has stated that it will not be shy about playing young players in key roles. There could be as many as six players from this 10-man draft class stepping into significant playing time early in the season. Those rookies have meshed well with the veterans on the roster.
“When you have a team like that, something special is going to happen,” Jackson said.
Towards the end of a lost season in 2022, Bears defensive lineman Justin Jones took note of the atmosphere inside the team’s locker room. He realized that many of the players around him were working on one-year deals, and weren’t likely to be part of the future.
That’s the difficult nature that comes with Year 1 of a rebuilding plan. The Bears were torn down to the studs by general manager Ryan Poles. Now, they are building back up. Roles are being filled for the long-term and this blueprint is now producing cornerstones.
Continuity is in place at Halas Hall and the Bears are confident for what’s in store.
“Winning is awesome,” Tonyan said. “Going to the playoffs is different. Winning the division is a great feeling. Hopefully, I want to bring that feeling here.
“We’re just trending in the right direction.”
King of the North?
When Aaron Rodgers made his move to New York this offseason, the NFC North truly became an open division.
The Packers (8-9) are no longer the golden standard of this division without Rodgers. The Vikings (13-4) are bound to regress as they move closer to a full-blown rebuild. The Lions (8-9) are an attractive pick to win the NFC North this year but they are far from proven. Then there are the Bears, who hope to make a major leap from worst to first.
“Just wide open,” Tonyan said. “And I love where we’re at. Overlooked, underrated, whatever you want to call it. But they still got to step on the field because they’ve got to see us.”
Parity reigns supreme in the NFL, and that offers hope for the Bears in 2023. During 18 of the last 20 seasons, at least one team has finished in first place of their division following a last-place campaign.
Given the state of the NFC North, the Bears can very well make that rise.
“We’re really focusing on ourselves right now,” Eberflus said. “During this time of year, (it’s about) relationships, execution, building our team.”
The Bears last won the division crown in 2018 during their 12-4 run in Matt Nagy’s first season as head coach. Chicago has fallen off since, which necessitated the rebuild led by Eberflus and Poles.
The Bears are emerging from this rebuild as the NFC North opens up for the taking.
“We still got a good division,” Patrick said. “We still got teams with history. We still got teams with good quarterbacks. I mean, we got an elite quarterback. Like, at the end of the day, that’s a big indicator of your team’s success.
“I think the NFC North is going to be fun football to watch. It’s not going to be anyone blowing anyone out. We’re going to be fighting and scratching and I think that’s what the NFC North is. It’s the only division I really know. But I think it’s super exciting when it’s close.
“You can almost make these games feel like playoff games when you’re fighting in a division that’s this close.”
A year ago in the 2022 offseason, the Bears’ new regime pushed Teven Jenkins from his place as a starting tackle to the second-team unit. Two months later, he was moved over to guard.
Jenkins went from a player in jeopardy of being traded or released by the Bears to a mainstay at guard. He struggled to grasp the transition at first but came to find a bright future shifting from tackle to guard.
Jenkins is now set as the Bears’ starter at left guard – switching over from right guard this offseason – and is focused on improving at this position.
“It lets me actually get good at my craft,” Jenkins said. “It feels good because I can actually work on one thing instead of trying to flip flop sides and make sure I have equal work on both sides.”
A second-round pick to the Bears in 2021, Jenkins has played in 19 games and started 13 over two seasons with the team. He missed the majority of his rookie season after undergoing back surgery, then was sidelined for part of 2022 after dealing with a hip and neck injury.
Jenkins has maintained his body this offseason through Pilates as well as a new focus with the Bears’ performance staff for injury prevention.
Now set with better health and a home at guard, Jenkins is positioned to continue his growth.
“I think he can be an All-Pro player,” Patrick said.
A void still to fill
Over the course of this offseason, the Bears have nearly solidified the makeup of a strong defense. But there remains a clear void with the pass rush.
The Bears are still looking to sharpen their edge rush with one more player and that acquisition could come in this break prior to training camp.
“I think that is one position we are looking at and potentially we could get that done,” Eberflus said.
The top available free agent is Yannick Ngakoue, who has 65 career sacks over 110 games – and no fewer than eight sacks in season over his eight-year career.
Ngakoue signed this week with agent Drew Rosenhaus and is seeking a multi-year deal after playing with four teams over the last three years.
There is mutual interest between the Bears and Ngakoue, multiple sources have said.
The Bears could also turn to veteran free agent Justin Houston, whom general manager Ryan Poles and Eberflus have each worked with in their past roles. But Houston is 34 years old, while Ngakoue is just 28.
The Commanders could present a trade option to the Bears with Chase Young, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. Washington declined the fifth-year option on Young, which makes him an unrestricted free agent after this season. The Bears would likely need to part with a third- or fourth-round pick to acquire Young.
Robert Quinn, who played with the Bears over the last three seasons, is also still an unrestricted free agent. Quinn was dealt last October to the Eagles in exchange for a fourth-round pick. He agreed to a buyout in Philadelphia that cut off the final two years of his five-year deal signed in Chicago back in March of 2020.
After breaking the Bears’ franchise record for sacks in a single season with 18.5 in 2021, Quinn had just one sack over 13 games in 2022.
Put the past away
New Bears pass rusher DeMarcus Walker has already taken a leadership role with his new team. Part of that means guiding Chicago past a season during which it had the worst record in the NFL.
Walker said he wasn’t focused on the Bears’ record from last season when he signed a three-year deal this offseason.
“This is the 2023 Chicago Bears,” Walker said. “We’ve got a whole new identity, a whole new defense, a whole new offense, a whole new group of guys that’s going out there willing to fight and lead.
“Like, last year’s done.”