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Emma’s Tailgater: How the Bears can build their offense around Justin Fields in 2023

3 months agoChris Emma

LAKE FOREST, Ill. — In the world of sports, the conversation around “tanking” often takes a misguided tone. There’s the flawed belief that a team focused on the future is intentionally seeking to lose rather than using that season to develop.  

 

Consider this for the Bears (3-5) in 2022 as they work towards a future led by first-year general manager Ryan Poles and head coach Matt Eberflus. After dealing star pass rusher Robert Quinn (Eagles) and linebacker Roquan Smith (Ravens) in the last eight days, there have been wonders as to what’s occurring inside Halas Hall. 

 

It’s Poles sticking to his plan that he brought to the Bears when hired as general manager in late January, believing this team needed a teardown from its previous regime. The development process is now well underway and beginning to reveal some of its promise — particularly on offense with second-year quarterback Justin Fields.

 

No, the Bears are not tanking in 2023. They’re building around the growth of the 23-year-old Fields and hoping to find further rewards as this season progresses.  

 

“We want to win games,” Fields said. “We want to win every game. Nobody is waving the white flag. We’re all attacking each day trying to get better, trying to improve every day.” 

 

The Bears stand confident that their defense will ultimately take shape under the watch of Eberflus, and with some key additions next offseason. But the development of this offense for Fields is the most critical task of Poles’ plan. 

 

The Bears have scored 62 points in their last two games and 1,152 yards in their last three contests. Chicago owns the NFL’s top-ranked running offense, part of the identity that has come with first-year offensive coordinator Luke Getsy’s scheme.  

 

Poles is forecasting a future that involves Fields as the Bears’ quarterback potentially for the long term, and he made an investment in that belief Tuesday by trading for wide receiver Chase Claypool. It was a bold move by the Bears that required sending a second-round pick to the Steelers in exchange for Claypool. But with that addition, Poles can begin to imagine what Chicago’s offense will look like for 2023. 

 

There are plenty of key voids that must be addressed, but the Bears can now look at this improving offense with faith for what’s to come — and with a more concise plan in their hands. 

 

Note: Projections include starters only. 

 

Quarterback – Justin Fields 

 

It would be quite premature for even the most bullish optimist to proclaim Fields is the franchise quarterback that the Bears have long been missing. But what Fields has shown recently is that he is on the right track and deserves to be in Chicago’s plans for 2023 and perhaps beyond. 

 

Fields has taken the Bears’ new offensive identity and run with it, playing with greater confidence and comfort. He’s more controlled with his decisions in the pocket and is leading this group with considerable progress.  

 

The most important aspect of this season for the Bears is determining whether they can build with Fields in mind for their future. Through eight games, the answer seems to be yes. 

 

Running back – Khalil Herbert, Trestan Ebner, veteran depth 

 

As the Bears traded a player in Smith who was on an expiring contract, it was possible that running back David Montgomery could’ve also been dealt. A deal never came together and Montgomery is playing out the final year of his rookie deal in Chicago. 

 

But Montgomery does not seem to be in the Bears’ future at running back. He has worked a split backfield with second-year back Khalil Herbert, who has shined with his opportunities this season. The 24-year-old Herbert seems to be Chicago’s lead back entering 2023, with Ebner likely to see an increased role for depth next season. 

 

Herbert has averaged 5.1 yards per rushing attempt in his career and 6.2 yards per carry this season. It’s time to see what he can do with a greater workload. 

 

Wide receiver – Darnell Mooney, Chase Claypool, Velus Jones Jr., Rookie Draft Pick, Veteran Free Agent 

 

Entering this season, the Bears were believed to have the worst wide receiver group in the NFL. The prevailing thought for skeptics was that Fields wasn’t being given a fair chance because of his supporting cast. 

 

The Bears have begun to identify some promise at wide receiver and perhaps the molding of their core for next season. Mooney represents Fields’ most trusted target while Claypool offers a new dynamic and ideally a budding connection as this season progresses. But more is certainly needed. 

 

The Bears need to draft a reliable receiver for Fields next year, ideally in the first three rounds. Ohio State standout Jaxon Smith-Njigba would represent a potential No. 1 receiver while this draft class will have many other intriguing names. The Bears must also find growth from rookie Velus Jones Jr. and hope for the emergence of N’Keal Harry, who’s playing the final season of his rookie contract.  

 

Poles must also identify the right fit for Fields in free agency. While this class is weak at receiver, there will be avenues to add a reliable target. 

 

Tight end – Cole Kmet, Veteran Free Agent or Rookie Draft Pick 

 

The Bears seem to have found what they have in third-year tight end Cole Kmet, a second-round pick to the team in 2020. He’s a strong in-line blocker who simply may never be the impact player the previous regime anticipated at tight end. There’s a place in Chicago’s future for Kmet, even if it wasn’t what was initially hoped. 

 

With that in mind, Poles must find the right complement to Kmet at tight end this offseason. There will likely be a pair of enticing options on the open market in Dalton Schultz (Cowboys) or Mike Gesicki (Dolphins). Either would represent the type of pass-catching option to upgrade the Bears’ offense. 

 

Poles can also look towards the draft for a greater long-term fit at tight end. Kmet brings the Bears security but they need a player who can transform the tight end position for this passing game. 

 

Offensive line – Veteran Free Agent or Rookie Draft Pick (left tackle), Cody Whitehair (left guard), Lucas Patrick (center), Teven Jenkins (right guard), Veteran Free Agent or Rookie Draft Pick (right tackle) 

 

A former offensive lineman himself, Poles seems to have prioritized the Bears’ interior line first this season. It’s why Patrick was the prioritized free-agent pickup.  

 

The Bears’ plan has been for Patrick to play center, and it makes sense for him to take on that role for 2023. Whitehair remains under contract for two more years after this and has brought stability to that position. Jenkins was once a wild card for this regime but has earned his place as the starter at right guard. 

 

The Bears must make critical investments at the tackle positions, filling both this offseason with both a prized free-agent addition and high draft pick. Rookie Braxton Jones will get the greater chance at sticking as the starter compared to Larry Borom, but Jones must show continued improvements to earn his place on the starting offensive line for next season. 

Justin Fields Celebrates 1st Down

 

4-down territory 

 

1. The Chase begins 

 

New Bears wide receiver Chase Claypool chooses to see the positive from his departure in Pittsburgh. He watched as the Steelers landed a second-round pick for his services and knows this team in Chicago believes in him. 

 

The 24-year-old Claypool is the type of impact player who can boost the Bears’ offense for Fields’ second season and provide the production that’s been lacking at wide receiver. He recognizes an opportunity with his new team. 

 

“I was grateful for the opportunity,” Claypool said Wednesday after arriving to the Bears at Halas Hall. “I don’t have any bad blood with anyone (in Pittsburgh). It was hard to take offense because I know it was just the nature of the business. 

 

“I’m a playmaker and I’m excited to make plays.” 

 

A second-round pick to the Steelers in the 2020 NFL Draft, Claypool had 153 receptions for 2,044 yards and 12 touchdowns over 39 games in Pittsburgh. But he had seen a diminished role this season, in part due to the instability with the Steelers’ offense. Claypool had just 32 catches for 311 yards and 1 touchdown over 8 games this season. 

 

The Steelers have the NFL’s 24th-ranked passing attack, with the Bears ranked last entering Week 9. But the difference is how Chicago has seen continued progress from Fields as he has progressed in Getsy’s scheme. 

 

It’s part of why Poles was willing to make this move for Claypool. He had forecasted a weak wide receiver group in free agency next March and wanted to provide an instant answer for Fields. By paying a second-round pick, the Bears were able to out-bid the rival Packers, who reportedly also were prepared to offer their second-round selection for Claypool. 

 

“I’ve really liked the way that our offense is starting to come together and move,” Poles said. “I thought it was important to add another impact player to our offense to go along with the guys that we currently have in the receiver room right now. I like the way Justin is trending, and I think adding another big body who’s physical, explosive, great leaping ability, can stretch the field but also is violent with the ball in his hand as well as a blocker, I think it enhances everyone around him. 

 

“You can never have enough weapons and guys that help your quarterback gain confidence.” 

 

For Claypool, there’s personal motivation in arriving with the Bears. He’s set to become an unrestricted free agent after the 2023 season. Though Poles paid a premium to acquire Claypool, he isn’t ready to commit on a contract extension. 

 

Claypool must earn his future in Chicago and he sees that as an opportunity. 

 

“I’m going to go play ball and do what I do,” Claypool said. 

 

2. The hurt of Roquan’s exit 

 

At the end of the day, the NFL is a business — and so often a cruel one at that. Ultimately, that’s what led the Bears to trading away Smith to the Ravens. 

 

Smith was representing himself — declining to work with an agent — in hopes of landing the type of lucrative contract of star linebackers like Shaquille Leonard (Colts) and Fred Warner (49ers). The Bears weren’t willing to pay him that type of money. He wasn’t going to get $100 million in Chicago. It led Poles to this decision for a trade. 

 

“There’s a part of me that’s bummed because this was a guy that I thought was going to be here for a long time,” Poles said Tuesday after the trade deadline passed. “I thought we put a lot of effort forward to get that done, and we came up short. We couldn’t find common ground. That’s just a part of this business, which I think we all understand.  

 

“The reality of it is you have to ask yourself a question. Are we ever going to find that middle ground? From our previous conversations together, I felt it was highly unlikely. So, are you able to then take the opportunity to enhance your roster now? Or are you OK with the chance that he walks away and we can’t use some of that to enhance our roster? That’s what it came down to, and I felt like we had to move forward at that time.” 

 

Poles made mention of his disappointment in trading Smith during his opening statement in Tuesday’s media session, carefully selected words that pushed the blame away from the team and towards the player. Eberflus also reminded of how Smith’s unwillingness to budge at the negotiating table forced this trade into fruition. 

 

“It was really the contract negotiations,” Eberflus said. “Did we want him back? Sure. Yeah, we did. We made an offer to him. It was just a common-ground thing that the Bears and Ryan and Roquan couldn’t come to.  

 

“We did want him back.” 

 

But the trade of Smith hit hard for the Bears’ locker room. Members of the defense had just finished their film review from the 49-29 loss to the Cowboys and studied the ugliness of a performance that included Smith. They were left to wonder how it would all appear without him. 

 

More than just an All-Pro linebacker, Smith had become a respected player with the Bears during his four-plus seasons in Chicago. Despite handling a public contract battle and electing to conduct a hold-in during training camp, Smith was still voted a team captain by his teammates. 

 

“I’ve seen Roquan go through a lot since I’ve been here personally,” Bears veteran defensive lineman Justin Jones said. “Starting the season with the contract situation and everything and the way he’s handled himself and everything, a true pro. A true pro. And you’ll never know that anything is wrong with him. You’ll never know he was going through anything. You’ll never know if he’s upset. You’ll never know because he’s the same guy every day. He comes in with a smile on his face. He’s saying what’s up to everybody. He’s making sure everybody is OK. That’s the type of guy Ro is.  

 

“It hurts that he’s gone, man.” 

 

3. Lake Zurich’s own  

 

Opportunity is knocking for Bears rookie linebacker Jack Sanborn. 

 

Following the trade of Smith to the Ravens, the Bears have a huge void to fill at linebacker. They’re prepared to offer a larger opportunity to the 22-year-old Sanborn, the pride of Lake Zurich and an undrafted free-agent pickup out of Wisconsin. 

 

“What’s there not to like about Sanborn? He just needs a chance to get on the field and perform,” Bears defensive coordinator Alan Williams said. 

 

A key contributor on special teams this season, Sanborn had seen just one snap on defense prior to Sunday’s game at AT&T Stadium. He stepped in for the lion’s share of snaps at the ‘Sam’ linebacker position. Williams indicated that Sanborn is in consideration to start at Smith’s former place at the ‘Will’ linebacker spot, though veteran Nick Morrow is more likely to move into that role. 

 

After going undrafted in April, Sanborn became a priority pickup for the Bears. He was an All-Big Ten linebacker who recorded 230 total tackles, 29.0 tackles for a loss and 11.5 sacks over 45 games at Wisconsin. Sanborn grew up a Bears fan landed with the team he grew up watching. 

 

Now, Sanborn has earned his way into a role and is taking pride in proving what he can do. 

 

“A lot goes into it, but it’s definitely an honor right now,” Sanborn said. “But that being said, you got to do more. You got to keep improving each day, keep getting better each day.” 

 

4. No white flags 

 

Inside an NFL locker room, players simply aren’t focused on the long-term direction of their team. There are countless tasks to accomplish within the course of each day, week and season.  

 

Poles made the moves he believed were necessary to foster growth in the Bears’ future, dealing away beloved teammates and captains in order to add assets for 2023. But with that comes the realization to the locker room that this team is not intended to win the Lombardi Trophy this season. Still, the Bears won’t allow that to factor into the mentality of their work. 

 

“First of all, I don’t think anybody is waving a white flag on the season,” Justin Jones said. “I think the changes that were made were to better the team. Obviously, those two guys were great leaders and great players and even better men, and I’m glad I had a chance to play with both of those guys. And the impact they had in this locker room, words can’t even explain it.  

 

“It hurt that we lost him. But at the end of the day, we all have a job to do. And a lot of guys on this team have families. So, when you say waving the white flag on the season, that’s almost like saying waving the white flag on your families. You can’t do that man. These guys are my family. I’m their family. And nobody is waving the white flag on anybody.  

 

“We’re going to play just as hard as if they were with us. We’re going to play just as hard when they’re without us. We have a job to do, and it’s our job to play at a high level and make the plays we’re supposed to make, regardless of who is on the field with us.” 

 

The Bears selected Jones to replace Smith as one of their four team captains. Safety Eddie Jackson was also selected as a replacement captain for Quinn. Eberflus said the decisions were made off the previous runners-up in voting from prior to the regular season. Fields and Whitehair are also team captains, with Jaylon Johnson serving as the honorary captain for Sunday’s game. 

 

[WATCH: Bear Down with the ultimate tailgate vehicle: The Fanbulance!]

 

Quote to note 

 

“We’re going to do whatever it takes to win. That’s been my focus and the way we’ve approached everything. If that’s the best way to win, then yes. If that’s not the best way, then no. Our matchups are more important to me than a stat for anybody. We make sure we try to put our players in the best position to have success.” 

 

―Bears offensive coordinator Luke Getsy, on catering his offensive philosophy for each game 

 

Injury report 

 

RT Larry Borom (concussion) The Bears would turn to veteran Riley Reiff once again at right tackle if Borom remains in the concussion protocol for Sunday. 

 

RG Teven Jenkins (back) Jenkins has dealt with back injuries throughout the course of his two years in the NFL, so it was alarming to see him pop up on the injury report once again. 

 

S Eddie Jackson (hip) This seems to be more a matter of maintenance for Jackson, who was limited in practice.  

 

CB Kyler Gordon (hip) The rookie Gordon is also dealing with a hip issue but was only limited. 

 

Emma’s Prediction (6-2): Dolphins 28, Bears 24 

 

The Dolphins have their offense clicking with Tua Tagovailoa, Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle and it’s a tough matchup for this Bears defense. Fields and Chicago’s offense will continue their recent progress but it won’t be enough to keep pace. 

 

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