Emma’s Tailgater: Bears’ rebuilding blueprint still lacking cornerstone players
LAKE FOREST, Ill. — Back in 1976, a veteran football mind named Mike Giddings was named the NFL’s first pro player personnel director by the Broncos and in doing so revolutionized the player evaluation process.
Giddings created the tiered color code system that is still utilized by NFL scouting departments today. Players in the top tier are considered blue-chip players, followed by red, gold, orange and gray. Giddings died in late July at the age of 89, but his concept lives on in front offices around the league.
On the second floor of Halas Hall, general manager Ryan Poles and his brass have their boards stacked with a blue tier at the top. In overhauling the Bears’ roster since his hiring in January of 2022, Poles has been in a constant search for those cornerstone players.
The Bears (0-3) are still considerably lacking those blue-chip players it takes to ascend as a contender. Hall of Fame executive Bill Polian, who guided Bears chairman George McCaskey as a consultant in hiring Poles, said that championship teams need “a dozen or so” difference-makers.
How many of those blue-chip players do the Bears? It’s a question that Poles and his scouting team must constantly consider in assessing their track forward.
Top target DJ Moore is unquestionably a blue player for the Bears. Acquired in the blockbuster March deal for the No. 1 overall pick, Moore is the most talented player on this roster – and often the best player on the field against an opposing defense.
The 26-year-old Moore has seemed transcendent at times even despite the Bears’ struggling offense around him. He has 11 receptions for 170 yards and a touchdown this season, though those numbers should improve if the Bears make him a greater priority.
Veteran linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, whom the Bears signed on a four-year, $72-million deal in March, has established himself as a blue player. He was a proven star over five seasons with the Bills, a driving force for Buffalo’s resurgence as a perennial playoff team.
Though Edmunds hasn’t shined for the Bears through his first three games, his track record over five seasons with the Bills gives him credence as a coveted player.
But the Bears’ list of blue-chip players stops there: two.
Justin Fields has failed to make the proper progression towards becoming a franchise quarterback. The No. 11 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, Fields entered Year 3 with such high hopes. He has seemed to regress thus far.
Fields was in position to potentially land a lucrative long-term contract extension this offseason. Instead, it seems as if the Bears will be moving forward seeking their next quarterback.
Rookie tackle Darnell Wright, who was selected 10th overall in April’s NFL Draft, will face the expectations of becoming a blue player. That’s how he was billed by the Bears’ scouting brass in grading for this draft. He was sought as a pivotal piece for Chicago’s future. This first year for Wright will be graded by whether he is on track towards becoming a blue player.
Receiver Chase Claypool looked to be a cornerstone player for the Steelers as a rookie in 2020, hauling in 62 receptions for 9 touchdowns and 873 yards. He hasn’t topped any of those figures since and regressed with each season.
The Steelers were willing to part ways with Claypool last November in a trade with the Bears, who were willing to take a chance on him. The 25-year-old Claypool has just 18 receptions for 191 yards and a touchdown over 10 games for Chicago and his effort has been called into question, even in a contract season.
Cornerback Jaylon Johnson is a red player, a tough matchup for any wide receiver and an important figure for the Bears’ defense. However, he hasn’t proven his place as a blue-chip talent just yet. Poles and the Bears haven’t locked Johnson in for a long-term contract extension and he’s playing out the final year of his rookie deal.
Former All-Pro safety Eddie Jackson was once a clear blue player for the Bears early in his career. He was playing at that level once again last season before suffering a Lisfranc injury in November. Jackson is currently sidelined with an injury to that same left foot and his hopes of getting back on track are on hold.
This is the unfortunate reality for the Bears, who are still searching for a path towards success in their second year in Poles’ plan.
Poles needs at least another year of scouting and player acquisition to bring the Bears more blue players. This roster has not been coached and developed towards with difference-making players emerging.
Year 2 should be producing proof that the Bears are building a sustainable contender. That goal is not feasible without cornerstones in place.
Hopes for the Bears’ future rely on finding those blue-chip players to change the fortunes of this franchise.
Can Fields save his season?
Justin Fields stepped to the riser on Wednesday morning and took a seat before the media with a stern look on his face. If the Bears were 3-0 at this point, his demeanor would be perceived as businesslike and focused. But at 0-3 and along this frustrating losing streak, Fields’ body language is concerning.
Fields appears to be a player frustrated in this precarious position – the quarterback who was expected to make a leap in performance this season, the most important figure for a franchise that believed it was prepared to emerge as a contender.
Last week, Fields called upon his coaches with hopes to play more “free” within the Bears’ offense. His remarks were taken out of context with narratives that he instead called out the coaches. For his part, Fields approached reporters later and attempted to clarify what he had said. By that point, it was too late. National talk shows were dissecting Fields’ remarks.
Those around the league were taken aback by it. The perception was that Fields had thrown his coaches under the bus.
Fields was 11-of-22 for 99 yards, 1 touchdown and 1 interception last Sunday in an ugly 41-10 loss to the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium. He has completed 58% of his passes for 526 yards, 3 touchdowns and 4 interceptions as part of a disappointing start to this season.
Fields has started 28 NFL games and won just 5 of those contests. Now in his third season, Fields’ future as the Bears’ quarterback seems in doubt.
“I just know all the adversity I go through is going to make me stronger as a person and as a player,” Fields said. “So, I just got to look at the bright side of things and think of yourself as going through adversity for a reason.”
Getsy and the Bears’ coaches were approached by Fields following that press conference as he attempted to clarify his comments. But getting aligned as one will take more than just meetings.
The Bears and their offense have taken a considerable step back through three games. This is a unit that is missing an identity, a reality that is clear with each game. Fields hasn’t progressed as a pocket passer and has been limited as a rusher. The Bears have scored 20, 17 and 10 points respectively in their first three games.
Fields is fighting for his future with the Bears and there is plenty of reason to be frustrated. But Fields must stay composed because this offense needs him.
“There’s a lot of moving parts when you’re playing on offense,” Getsy said. “It’s 11 as one, and right now we’re not clicking as 11 as one. I know it’s easy to pinpoint it on one person, but it’s not. So, we got to make sure that we go out and we get that synchronized a little bit better, and we’ll go get some points.”
Brisker takes a leading role
In looking ahead to Sunday with hopes of earning that elusive first victory, second-year safety Jaquan Brisker shared a familiar word: Determination.
Brisker was echoing what he had heard from head coach Matt Eberflus, and it’s no coincidence. With the Bears struggling to open this season and searching for solutions within, the 24-year-old Brisker has stepped forward with hopes of being a leader for this team.
“I’m comfortable because I know my guys,” Brisker said. “I’m close with my guys.”
A second-round pick to the Bears in the 2022 NFL Draft, Brisker was selected to be a key player in the secondary. But in time, he has emerged as an instrumental figure in this locker room.
Brisker’s locker stall is next to Jackson, a multi-year captain for the Bears. Jackson took Brisker under his wing as a rookie and has looked after him throughout these first two years in the NFL. Now, it’s Brisker attempting to mold himself as a leader like Jackson.
Brisker has an ascending voice that his Bears teammates hear. But it’s more about how he carries himself each day.
“He didn’t even come in to me as a rookie,” said second-year cornerback Jaylon Jones. “He approaches himself like a vet.
“The way he approaches himself, he’s a true leader. I think he’s forming into that role perfect.”
In the days following the Bears’ season-opening loss to the Packers, Brisker spoke with Fields to get a sense of how they could guide this team forward. Brisker has worked to maintain relationships with each of his teammates – from Jackson and Fields to kicker Cairo Santos.
Brisker understands that if he’s genuine with his team, they will look to him as the leader he hopes to be.
“You know you can’t just come out with people in certain different ways,” Brisker said. “You’ve got to know the person, how he wants to be (approached), what type of person he is, things like that, how he works on the field or you just have to be around him. You’ve got to talk to people. You might not talk to the same person every day, but you have to have that conversation with them because you’re a leader.
“You just have to build that relationship with your teammates, and it’s going to come. And it’s going to payoff later in the end, so I think that’s important.”
The most basic principle of Eberflus’ defensive identity is the ability to rush four and drop seven in coverage. The Bears have simply been unable to execute this.
Last season, the Bears registered a quarterback pressure on just 15.9% of dropbacks. That mark was 31st in the NFL. By comparison, the Cowboys led the league by generating pressure on 25.6% of dropbacks. Chicago is marginally better thus far with pressure forced on 16.7% of dropbacks this season but it hasn’t made a difference.
Quarterbacks have far too much time in the pocket against the Bears, putting stress on a depleted secondary to stand tall. The Bears have just 1 sack recorded this season, coming from veteran pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue in the season opener.
“Just keep scratching and clawing,” Ngakoue said. “Rushing is not about just giving up; it’s about continuing to fight. They come in bunches. We can have a game where we have more than five sacks. It’s all about just keep working.”
Eberflus’ defense requires stronger pressure from its front. Without it, there’s a need to adjust the scheme. The Bears have blitzed on just 14.8% of dropbacks this season, which is dead last in the NFL. The lack of a pass rush has left this secondary without opportunities for game-changing turnovers. Chicago has just 2 takeaways forced this season, both coming against Chiefs backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert late in last Sunday’s loss.
For this Bears defense to take the identity that Eberflus is seeking, it all starts up front.
“We just have to play off each other, feed off each other,” Ngakoue said. “Great defenses, they thrive off the defensive line.”
Quote to note
“The Chicago Bears need to be determined to get this thing done.”
—Coach Matt Eberflus
S Eddie Jackson (left foot) — The Bears were pleased that Jackson didn’t require a stint on injured reserve, but he could miss a second straight game Sunday.
CB Jaylon Johnson (hamstring) — Johnson hopes to take the field on Sunday and give this depleted secondary a boost. However, it’s likely he’s sidelined against the Broncos
CB Josh Blackwell (hamstring) — The Bears were forced to turn to base defense packages when Blackwell suffered his injury last Sunday, unable to operate with three cornerbacks. They’ll need a contingency plan if he’s out against the Broncos.
Emma’s Prediction (2-1): Broncos 27, Bears 20
This is a battle of winless teams, but the Broncos have a roster with more talent than the Bears. Chicago’s losing streak will move on to 14 with another defeat at Soldier Field.