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Emma’s Tailgater: Uncertainty looming over Bears’ quarterback future

8 months agoChris Emma

LAKE FOREST, Ill. — As a light drizzle fell onto the back practice field at Halas Hall late Wednesday morning, Justin Fields gripped the football as best he could and threw. He has done this each day now for nearly a week, hoping to lead the Bears once again. 

Fields will have to wait at least another 10 days for the opportunity to play as the Bears (2-7) ruled him out for Thursday night’s game against the Panthers (1-7) at Soldier Field. With every passing day of waiting, each game missed to this point, the Bears move closer towards the quarterback abyss awaiting them this offseason. 

There was nothing more important for the Bears this season than determining if the 24-year-old Fields could become their franchise quarterback. After watching Thursday night’s game from the west sidelines of Soldier Field, Fields will have at best seven more games to make an impression. Ryan Poles has an even smaller sample size for evaluating Fields. 

With the No. 1 overall pick in hand this past offseason, Poles faced the opportunity to move on from Fields and take his own swing at quarterback. Instead, he elected to deal out from the first pick in a blockbuster trade with the Panthers that brought the Bears a haul of draft capital and star wide receiver DJ Moore. Carolina selected quarterback Bryce Young with the top pick in the draft. 

In making this trade, the Bears weren’t committing to Fields as their franchise quarterback. Instead, Poles was putting off this franchise-altering decision until next offseason with hopes that Fields would ascend alongside Moore and a stronger supporting cast. 

Fields has thrown for 1,201 yards, 11 touchdowns and 6 interceptions over 6 starts before suffering the dislocated thumb last month a game against the Vikings. He struggled early in the season before enjoying a two-game stretch in early October in which he threw for 8 touchdowns. Fields has at times looked in command of the offense and often revealed his struggles with processing in the pocket, the most concerning part of his personal progression.

Once again, there is no certainty for the Bears at quarterback. Halfway through this season, they have not found Fields’ true potential and cannot count on landing that franchise arm this offseason.  

The Bears boast their own first-round pick for 2024, which is slotted at third overall, plus the Panthers’ top pick that presently is second overall. USC prized prospect Caleb Williams is projected as the consensus first overall pick while North Carolina standout Drake Maye is seen as the second pick.

Selecting outside of the top two picks in next year’s draft may mean missing on the two top quarterbacks. There will be other intriguing quarterback prospects such as Bo Nix (Oregon) and J.J. McCarthy (Michigan), or even the potential for a trade on Kyler Murray if the Cardinals are selecting Williams first overall. Poles and his scouting brass have been on the road building reports on their options at quarterback.

Fields along with rookie Tyson Bagent – who will make his fourth straight start on Thursday night – could each return to the Bears in 2024 as part of a competition at quarterback alongside a proven veteran. This was the route taken in 2020 as Mitchell Trubisky was challenged by Nick Foles. Ultimately, it’s the least desirable route and only a temporary solution to the problem.

At the very least for the Bears, the rookie Young hasn’t dazzled in leading the Panthers to this point. He has thrown for 1,375 yards, 8 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. But it’s Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud, the No. 2 overall pick, who appears to be that one that got away from Chicago. Stroud has thrown for 2,270 yards, 14 touchdowns and 1 interception while leading Houston to four wins thus far – exceeding their total from last season. He already appears to be the type of franchise quarterback that the Bears have long hoped to find.  

That hasn’t happened with Fields and at this point it may never come to fruition. This pivotal season is becoming increasingly lost for the Bears and their hopes of identifying a future at quarterback. With eight games remaining – and at best just seven games for Fields – it seems likely that another critical offseason is ahead in searching for Chicago’s next quarterback. 

With this opportunity nearly lost, Fields and the Bears are running out of time. 

Dexter & Pickens push for more 

Recognizing the need to bolster their defensive identity, the Bears made a pair of picks for their defensive line on Day 2 of this year’s NFL Draft. With the selections of Gervon Dexter and Zacch Pickens, there was hoping for instant impact. 

But Dexter and Pickens have each struggled to emerge in their rookie seasons with the Bears. Dexter, a second-round pick, has played in just 37% of the Bears’ defensive snaps. Pickens, the top pick of the third round, has rotated for just 24% of those defensive snaps. 

By comparison, veteran Justin Jones has played 69% of defensive snaps while Andrew Billings has worked 49% of snaps. 

Dexter has nine tackles and no sacks while getting acclimated with this different defensive scheme. He played in a two-gap scheme at Florida. With the Bears, he is being asked to fire off the snap and be a disruptive presence. Pickens has 13 tackles and a half sack in a more familiar role to what he played at South Carolina. 

Matt Eberflus is in favor of the Bears playing their rookies in key roles. So, are Dexter and Pickens not earning their place? 

“Really nothing to see there,” Eberflus said. “We would love to get those guys going. I think Dexter’s done a good job of pressuring the quarterback. We just got to get him in there. Not to say that we’re not trying to get him in there; it’s just sometimes, it’s a function of the rotation and what’s going on with third downs and two-minute and those types of things. But we love those two guys. They’re working their tail off and they’re getting better. We really feel that they’re improving in terms of their take-off and their pad level and the things that we want those guys to work on.” 

The Bears selected Dexter and Pickens after their offseason search for a 3-technique came up empty. Poles and his brass evaluated the market for Javon Hargrave (49ers), Dre’Mont Jones (Seahawks) and Zach Allen (Broncos), but the market swelled beyond the team’s desire. 

The Bears have just 10 sacks on the season, which marks the lowest of any team in the NFL, and have struggled to even generate pressure on the quarterback. It puts more on the shoulders of Dexter and Pickens to meet expectations in their rookie seasons. 

“It’s tough for a rookie,” Billings said. “But you know we have a thing called the rookie wall. So, I think they’ve got to keep pushing. Just keep pushing. It’s a long season that they might not be used to but as long as they’re working, I think it’ll be OK. 

“I think they’re getting better and they’ve just got to realize sometimes it takes time.” 

Money for Mooney? 

Egos are only natural at the position of wide receiver, one in which insanely talented individuals constantly covet the chance to make a play.  

Darnell Mooney is not that type of diva. Despite an inconsistent role with the Bears’ offense and his own internal motivations, he has never once complained. 

“Anything negative is not going to bring back positive to me or the team,” Mooney said. “So, me being chilled and waiting for when my time comes, it will be better for me and the team-wise to just chill, and then whenever that ball or opportunity comes to make the most of it.” 

The 26-year-old Mooney is also waiting for his time to come at the negotiating table. He is set to become an unrestricted free agent after this season. 

A fifth-round pick to the Bears in the 2020 NFL Draft, Mooney has 202 receptions for 2,486 yards and 11 touchdowns over 54 career games. He broke onto the scene with 142 receptions for 1,676 yards and 8 touchdowns over 33 games his first two seasons in the NFL, including a career-best 81 catches in 2021. He has just 60 receptions in the two years since. 

Mooney missed the final five games of last season due to an ankle injury, which complicated the desires to reach a multi-year contract extension. Ryan Poles has expressed his interest in Mooney multiple times since he inherited him. 

“I love him more than I did when I first walked in the door,” Poles said back in January. “I think he’s a special human being, first and foremost, and a really good football player.” 

While the Bears signed Cole Kmet to a four-year, $50-million extension in late July and continue to negotiate a deal with Jaylon Johnson, their draft classmate Mooney has been left to wait. 

There is no ego for Mooney to put aside and he’s willing to be patient through this contract season. 

“You can’t look for something tomorrow,” Mooney said. “Whenever it comes, it comes. You just have to take care of your job. Extensions are a good thing. Obviously, I would love to be here. I love Chicago. I love the fans. I love just being here. I mean, we’ve got everything in here.  

“I would definitely love to be here. But like I said, you just can’t worry about it. Somebody is going to pay eventually.” 

Jenkins proving his place 

During training camp back in August of 2022, Teven Jenkins seemed to be a player whose future with the Bears was in doubt.  

Jenkins was dealing with yet another injury setback and hadn’t earned faith from the Bears’ new regime. He was being shopped for trades and faced the possibility of being released as an initial 53-man roster was formed. 

Since then, Jenkins has earned his place as a key player in the Bears’ plans for their offensive line. He has been forced to shift from tackle to right guard, then over to left guard this offseason, and now once again back to right guard after Nate Davis suffered a high ankle sprain.  

Through that all, Jenkins has thrived. He was the highest-graded offensive lineman by Pro Football Focus last week and admits there’s growing comfort in his third season. 

“I would say I do feel like I’m in a groove,” Jenkins said. “I’m starting to get more comfortable where I’m at and starting to play next to Darnell (Wright), so understanding what he wants and what he needs and playing off each other. 

“I feel like I’m getting my steps down right, hand placement’s good, rolling people off the ball. I’m just moving people A to B.” 

Once Davis is cleared to return, the Bears will face a decision for their offensive line. Will they shift Jenkins back to left guard and vacate the right guard position for Davis, or will Davis be forced over to left guard for the first time in his career? Either way, Cody Whitehair is likely the odd man out of this starting group. 

Jenkins has driven his way into the Bears’ plans by proving himself as a mauler for their offensive line. 

“Just being able to push somebody around and put all your weight on top of him and impose your will on him,” Jenkins said. “That’s the best words you can get close to it. You can only do it and have that feeling when you do it.” 

Injury report 

QB Justin Fields (right thumb) — Fields is officially listed as doubtful to play for Thursday night, which effectively means he will not play. Tyson Bagent will start again for the Bears. 

LB Tremaine Edmunds (knee) — The Bears say Edmunds is day-to-day but will bode well from another week of rest. 

RG Nate Davis (high ankle sprain) — It will be four games sidelined for Davis, whose return will leave the Bears with some interesting decisions in reshuffling their line. 

FB Khari Blasingame (concussion) — The veteran Blasingame was ruled out of Thursday night’s game early in the week. 

RB Khalil Herbert (high ankle sprain) — Herbert was designated for a return from injured reserve, but he must be officially activated in order to play Thursday. 

WR Equanimeous St. Brown (hamstring) — Once St. Brown is activated from injured reserve, will that spell the end for Velus Jones Jr. with the Bears? 

CB Josh Blackwell (hamstring) — Like Herbert and St. Brown, Blackwell is unlikely to be activated prior to Thursday. 

CB Terell Smith (mono) — It’s another week lost for the rookie Smith. 

Quote to note 

“He’s had no setbacks. He’s progressing in the right direction.” 

—Matt Eberflus, on the status of Justin Fields 

Emma’s Prediction (6-3): Bears 24, Panthers 20 

The Bears boast the NFL’s fourth-ranked rushing offense, this matching up with the Panthers’ 28th-ranked run defense. Chicago’s ground game will be the difference in a victory on Thursday night. 

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