Bears News

Emma’s Tailgater: Analyzing the future of the NFC North

1 year agoChris Emma

LAKE FOREST, Ill. — As he was introduced as the new general manager at Halas Hall in late January, Ryan Poles put forth a goal as he leads the Bears forward. 

“We’re going to take the (NFC) North and never give it back,” Poles said.

And then Poles went to work, tearing down the roster he inherited at Halas Hall and working to rebuild the Bears – what he believed was the best course of action for a team that had fallen off in recent years. In Poles’ mind, Chicago’s best opportunity for that elusive run of sustained success would be a deliberate plan forward and building with his vision.

Poles, now 37, was granted full support by chairman George McCaskey and the Bears’ board of directors as he pressed forward with his rebuilding blueprint. With that would come certain struggles in 2022, and the Bears are (3-12) entering Sunday’s game at Ford Field with the Lions (7-8). 

The Bears are set to face an opponent in Detroit hoping for the same goals for sustained success in Year 2 led by head coach Dan Campbell and general manager Brad Holmes. The Lions were 3-13-1 in 2021 and landed the No. 2 overall pick in this year’s NFL Draft. Now, Campbell has his team in contention for the postseason while Holmes continues to build his roster. It’s an example of potential growth for head coach Matt Eberflus, Poles and the Bears.

But the Bears and Lions are still chasing the current NFC North champion Vikings (12-3) and the Packers (7-8), who have won the division a dozen times since 2002. Minnesota boasts the current team to beat while Green Bay is still the gold standard.

So, which team is truly best positioned to take the North and never give it back?

Chicago Bears

The head coach-general manager partnership

When Poles took over the Bears’ front office, he sought out Eberflus as his head coach. The belief from Poles was that Eberflus would be the ideal candidate to oversee this rebuilding process and create a lasting culture for this team. The partnership between Poles and Eberflus seems to be strong, and both have the faith of Bears ownership to guide their franchise forward.

The quarterback situation

The Bears seem to have the best quarterback situation of any team in the NFC North thanks to 23-year-old Justin Fields, who has ascended in his second season. With the continued rise of Fields, the Bears have a potential franchise quarterback to build around. He represents the cornerstone for Poles’ rebuild.

Where they stand

What could come for the Bears’ future is simply just a hope at this point. Poles has a projected $120 million in available salary cap space this offseason, which will allow him to form a more competitive roster entering 2023. Chicago also owns eight picks in the NFL Draft, including a top selection that could become the No. 1 overall pick in these final two weeks. Now, Poles must be prudent with his resources. The Bears aren’t just one good offseason away, and his careful plan requires several years of work. But there’s a strong argument that Chicago is the best positioned team in the NFC North for long-term success.

Green Bay Packers

The head coach-general manager partnership

Brian Gutekunst has led the Packers as general manager since 2018, and he hired Matt LaFleur as head coach a year later. Green Bay won 13 games in each of the last three seasons led by the tandem but has fallen off in 2022, sitting at 7-8 and fighting for a wild-card seed in the playoffs. Both Gutekunst and LaFleur seem to have stability as they recalibrate their plan for the Packers.

The quarterback situation

Spoiled by elite quarterback play for the last three decades, the Packers are wondering what comes next. Aaron Rodgers, 39, is the two-time reigning NFL MVP but has fallen off in performance this season. Part of Rodgers’ struggles in 2022 have stemmed from instability at wide receiver, where Gutekunst must produce significant upgrades. But with Rodgers in the first season of a three-year, $150-million deal – and 2020 first-round pick Jordan Love waiting for his opportunity – there’s uncertainty at quarterback in Green Bay.

Where they stand

The model of stability in the NFC North, the Packers are suddenly in a precarious position. They have a roster that’s lacking talent at key positions and must figure out the future for Rodgers and the quarterback position. Green Bay has reel off three straight wins and positioned itself well for a potential playoff spot. It has also alleviated fears of a significant fall in the coming years. But Gutekunst and LaFleur have their work cut out to get back on top of the division.

Minnesota Vikings

The head coach-general manager partnership

There was a real possibility that the Vikings would’ve been led by Poles and Eberflus this season. Back in January, Poles was a top candidate to be hired as general manager. That position went to Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, who hired Kevin O’Connell as head coach. The two first-year leaders in Minnesota have done excellent work in 2022. But what comes beyond this season is worth wondering.

The quarterback situation

With O’Connell as head coach, Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins has enjoyed the best season of his 11-year career. But Cousins is 34 years old and the Vikings haven’t identified a successor at quarterback.  Cousins has been the best quarterback in the division this season. How much longer does he have performing at this level? Adofo-Mensah must be proactive in addressing this.

Where they stand

It’s hard to deny the success that comes with a 12-3 record and division championship. But the Vikings have a point differential of plus-five this season, a figure that represents the good fortunes on their side. Minnesota’s defense is declining from its days of strong play led by former head coach Mike Zimmer. The questions there plus the future of Cousins cast doubt upon long-term success for the Vikings.

Detroit Lions

The head coach-general manager partnership

Similar to what the Bears have done since hiring Poles and Eberflus early this year, Campbell and Holmes embarked on a calculated plan towards the future in early 2021. Campbell is not a tactician – he’s a culture-building head coach who has had an impact on his players. Meanwhile, Holmes has helped the Lions reshape their roster. In Year 2, Detroit has seen their work begin to reveal hope.

The quarterback situation

When the Lions traded star quarterback Matthew Stafford in early 2021, they received former top pick Jared Goff as a throw-in from the Rams for the deal. Detroit needed a quarterback, and he could explore what potential was still in place with a change of scenery. The 28-year-old Goff has enjoyed one of the best seasons of his career and inspired hope that he could be the long-term answer for the Lions. But Detroit could still aggressively pursue one of the top quarterbacks in this next draft class.

Where they stand

The Lions seem to be one year ahead of where the Bears are this season, developing the culture of their head coach and a roster with plenty of talent. But Detroit is still lacking an identity on defense and must significantly improve there. Goff’s future is far from secure, and the Lions must make a crucial decision there. Detroit is either on the doorstep of sustained success or simply enjoying a nice run in 2022. 

1. Jenkins’ unimaginable ordeal

Teven Jenkins lied down on a stretcher, his eyes closed and was taken off to an ambulance. He had just been struck backwards towards the head and his neck extended back. The 24-year-old Jenkins was in pain – and felt a great fear.

Jenkins was being taken to the hospital for further evaluation for a neck injury and didn’t know what would come next. Now healthy and cleared to play, Jenkins never envisioned himself being in this position. 

“Never,” Jenkins said. “I never imagined myself to be injured like that and especially getting carted off at all. Anytime I can, I really try to get off the field if I’m hurt or injured. That was one of those where they told me to stay down because as a neck injury, they have to keep it stable and everything.

“I never imagined myself like that.”

On Wednesday, Jenkins returned as a full participant in practice. He missed the Bears’ game against the Bills on Christmas Eve. It was too soon for him get back on the field after this ordeal. But Jenkins hopes to be out there Sunday as the Bears take the field in Detroit. 

A second-round pick to the Bears in 2021, Jenkins has emerged as a potential staple for the offensive line. He was cast aside from plans at tackle during the preseason but found a home at right guard, becoming one of Chicago’s top offensive linemen.

Jenkins missed 12 games as a rookie last season after undergoing back surgery. During training camp, the Bears were exploring potential trade fits for Jenkins. It never materialized and he stepped into the fold this season, playing in a dozen games and starting 10. 

“Resilience,” Bears assistant general manager Ian Cunningham said of Jenkins prior to the season. “He had an up and down early part of his career, just with the back injury, coming from Oklahoma State, getting in here and then early in training camp this year, another injury. And then for him to come in and then play guard, a position that he wasn’t as familiar with, it’s just a testament to the kid and his resilience and his work ethic. Couldn’t be more proud of him.”

Then came this frightening ordeal for Jenkins, who didn’t know for several hours after the injury whether he was OK. He continued to be cleared by doctors and rejoined the Bears two days later at Halas Hall.

When an injury like this occurs, the Bears and Jenkins aren’t wondering about football. They’re just hoping he can come back healthy – just as he has this week.

For Jenkins, there’s no fear in moving forward following this great scare.

“Never,” he said. “Never. I mean, this is part of my job. I love football and this is part of it.

“I’m not scared of it at all. This is who I am and what it’s going to be.”

2. Fields seeks a strong finish

Coach Matt Eberflus was asked whether the Bears have considered shutting down quarterback Justin Fields for these final two games. He didn’t mince words with an answer.

“Absolutely not,” Eberflus said on Monday.

Fields was back to work with the Bears as a full participant in practice on Wednesday, this despite lingering pain in his injured left shoulder and having a foot stepped on during the game last Saturday at Soldier Field. The 23-year-old Fields has taken a beating throughout this season, his toughness continuing to prevail through the pain.

Despite the injury risk for Fields – and the continued progress he has displayed in 2022 – the Bears believe in the value of having him finish out these final two games. Fields will be facing a pair of defenses – the Lions on Sunday and the Vikings in the season finale) that rank 32nd and 31st, respectively, in yards surrendered this season.

Fields will be facing a pair of opponents he has already played this season.

“Every opportunity and every experience we can get him, expose him to, will create a better version of him,” Bears offensive coordinator Luke Getsy said. “Anytime anybody experiences something for the first time, right, you handle it better the next time and the third time and the fourth time and the fifth time.

“The experiences he’s getting are invaluable.”

Though Fields is missing a full complement on offense, he will find opportunities against porous defenses that could allow the type of success in the passing game that hasn’t been clear this season. Fields will have the chance to produce the balanced offense that the Bears hope to produce in 2023.

For Fields, the goal is simply playing clean football in these final two games of the season. 

“Just improvement in the things that we need to work on,” Fields said. “Really, just playing mistake-free ball and finishing in certain situations: two-minute, executing in the gold zone and coach talked today about sudden change when the defense might get a takeaway, the offense has to get on the field and score seven. Just small situations like that.

“I feel like there’s always something to play for – no matter if we’re 0-15 right now or 3-12 or 12-3. My outlook on this game this weekend and today’s practice is just getting better, growing and learning.”

3. Claypool says don’t count him out

This wasn’t the way it was supposed to go for receiver Chase Claypool and the Bears.

When Chicago sent a second-round pick to Pittsburgh on Nov. 1 and completed a bold trade deadline deal, the 24-year-old Claypool was supposed to make an instant impact. The Bears believed he would prove to be a difference-maker for Justin Fields and the offense, a catalyst for the entire unit. Instead, the results have been disappointing.

Claypool has 12 receptions for 111 yards and no touchdowns over parts of five games, then was set back on Dec. 4 with a knee injury. He missed the Bears’ two games since, and Fields was left with a makeshift group at wide receiver.

Meanwhile, the Bears’ draft pick sent to the Steelers looks as if it will be at the top of that round. 

“I hope people haven’t counted me out yet,” Claypool said Thursday after returning to practice. “I got a lot to bring to the table.”

Claypool hopes he’s able to play Sunday’s game at Ford Field, barring a setback with his knee before kickoff. These final two games represent a chance to continue growth with Fields and this offense. But it’s just the start of what he believes will be a productive period ahead.

Claypool intends to work with Fields and some of the Bears’ wide receivers over this offseason, with the goal being to develop a stronger chemistry. That has seemed to be missing during their time together. Claypool is not the caliber of route runner who creates great separation from defenders and Fields has been reluctant to force a pass into a tight window.

Fields and Claypool haven’t built the type of trust that allows for a strong connection. And with Claypool entering a contract year in 2023, there’s plenty to prove. He feels it already as the second-round pick in Pittsburgh becomes a greater asset. 

Claypool knows he must make this a worthwhile deal for the Bears.

“We traded away a top second-round pick; very valuable,” Claypool said. “I smile because I know it was a great trade for the organization. 

“I’m very confident that fans, organization, team will be happy.”

4. Prevailing professionalism

It’s not easy to endure what the Bears have this season. They fell to 3-12 with an eighth straight loss last week, have the offseason in sight and must press forward with their work.

Sure, NFL players and coaches are well compensated for their jobs – but it takes the right people and culture to continue forward during a losing season. These individuals work long days, miss time with their families for the better part of each year and face great scrutiny in their positions.

Veteran linebacker Nicholas Morrow is working his sixth year in the NFL and said the Bears have been able to stay the course in a challenging foundational season because of the people they have as part of this team.

“You can do one of two things: you can put your head down and moan, or you can go out and prepare for the next game,” Morrow said. “I think it’s easier when you have guys next to you that you like. Obviously, a lot harder when you have guys that you don’t like, but I think that for the most part guys in the locker room want to play well for themselves — I think that’s important — and for the guys next to them.”

Quote to note

“To get an award in his name is really special.”

— Bears tight end Cole Kmet, after being named the Jeff Dickerson Good Guy Award winner.

Injury report

QB Justin Fields (foot/left shoulder) – Despite being evaluated for an injury last Saturday at Soldier Field, Fields was a full participant in practice this week and will be fine to play against the Lions.

WR Chase Claypool (knee) — Claypool said he hopes to play Sunday’s game, believing he can continue to foster a stronger connection with Fields before the end of this season.

RG Teven Jenkins (neck) — After missing last Saturday’s game, Jenkins returned as a full participant and is ready to return.

LG Cody Whitehair (knee) — Whitehair returned to practice as a full participant and is in line to return for Sunday’s game.

WR Dante Pettis (ankle) — Pettis suffered the ankle injury during practice Wednesday and could be in jeopardy of missing games.

WR Equanimeous St. Brown (concussion) — As of Thursday, St. Brown has not yet been cleared from the concussion protocol.

TE Trevon Wesco (calf) — Wesco was back as a limited participant in practice this week.

Emma’s Prediction (11-4): Lions 34, Bears 29

Justin Fields will get his chances against the NFL’s last-ranked defense, but the Lions should be able to put up plenty of points on the Bears. It will be a high-scoring game to ring in the New Year in Detroit.

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