Emma’s Tailgater: The 10 most important building blocks for the Bears’ future
LAKE FOREST, Ill. — At the onset of this ambitious plan for the Bears’ future, the architect Ryan Poles refused to use the word rebuild in sharing his blueprint.
Indeed, that’s what Poles had in the works at Halas Hall as he set course on overhauling the poor roster he inherited and starting anew. The Bears were a team in rebuilding mode, whether Poles wanted to say it or not, and there have been struggles along the way.
The Bears fell to 3-8 last Sunday as they endured a late collapse to the division-leading Lions at Ford Field, falling 31-26 in heartbreaking fashion. Poles and head coach Matt Eberflus are 6-22 in leading this franchise and their body of work has come into question heading towards a pivotal offseason of decisions.
However, as the Bears have begun to progress in this slow, arduous rebuilding plan, the building blocks for the future have become apparent. Young players on this roster – some inherited from Ryan Pace’s regime, others tabbed by Poles and his brass – have started to ascend. With that, there is budding hope for the future.
Late last October in an Emma’s Tailgater column, I explored the five most important building blocks for the Bears. That list featured Justin Fields (1st), Roquan Smith (2nd), Jaylon Johnson (3rd), Jaquan Brisker (4th) and Teven Jenkins (5th). This year, I have expanded that list to 10 players – largely due to how a year of growth reflects in this roster.
This list is scaled based upon players’ age as well as positional value. The most important building block remains the same, even despite the uncertainty to come.
1. QB Justin Fields (24)
There is no more valuable asset to an NFL team than a young, promising quarterback. It’s the most important position in sports and having this addressed means the opportunity for lasting success.
Why is Fields the Bears’ most important building block as a player who could very well be gone this offseason? Because he still may have the potential to become a franchise quarterback for Chicago, and that represents such significant promise for this entire team.
Fields faces six more games this season to prove his place to the Bears. It’s the opportunity to make a lasting impression before this critical offseason decision for Poles and his brass. Chicago’s front office must decide whether to move forward with a commitment towards Fields or plan to find its next quarterback.
This season, Fields has completed 62.7% of his passes for 1,370 yards, 12 touchdowns and 6 interceptions over parts of seven games, averaging 56.7 rushing yards per contest with a score. He has displayed greater comfort working alongside the Bears’ strengthened supporting cast, including 59 connections for 889 yards and 6 touchdowns to top target DJ Moore.
When Fields has been suited with an offense that caters to his strengths – moving pockets and making plays on the move – he has thrived. During a two-game stretch in early October, he threw for 8 touchdowns and 617 yards. It was Fields at his best, and a reminder of what he can still accomplish.
Once this offseason arrives, Poles must determine whether Fields is on track towards becoming a star quarterback or if it’s wise to select Caleb Williams (USC), Drake Maye (North Carolina) or one of the top arms in this draft class. If that was the route taken by the Bears, Fields would then offer value as a trade asset.
But in these final six games of the season, the Bears must view Fields as a player with great potential and intent to reveal what he may become.
2. WR DJ Moore (26)
In negotiating the trade for the first overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, the Bears would not settle for another draft pick from the Panthers. Poles made his demands for a blue-chip player like Moore rather than a 2025 first-round pick.
Moore is the Bears’ most dynamic talent on the roster and has been everything Poles hoped. He is one score away from matching his best single-season touchdown total and is on pace to shatter his top yardage mark.
Perhaps most importantly, Moore has helped Fields reveal growth as a passer and take the type of step necessary in his third season. He is the type of proven wide receiver that simply doesn’t become available without unique circumstances.
Regardless of whom the Bears have selected as their quarterback for 2024, Moore can help make that player better.
3. DE Montez Sweat (27)
The Bears had been eagerly searching for a disruptive pass rusher to bolster their defense, struggling to find the right solution. With that in mind, Poles made a proactive move ahead of the NFL’s trade deadline when he sent a second-round pick to the Commanders and landed Sweat.
It was a bold move by the Bears that could truly only be deemed as prudent when they signed Sweat to a four-year, $98-million deal days later and secured him for the long-term future.
Sweat has brought the Bears what they were missing for their defense, now with 11 pressures and a sack over parts of three games. The team has referenced his play as “The Tez Factor,” pointing to how his disruption creates opportunities for the rest of the defense.
The Bears’ shrewd move for Sweat is already paying off.
4. CB Jaylon Johnson (24)
The relationship between Johnson and the Bears has come to a pivotal point this offseason in assessing his long-term future with the team. Contract negotiations have stalled and the breakdown led to a trade request from Johnson’s party.
The Bears were not able to deal Johnson, for whom they coveted a first- or early second-round pick in return. Poles explained that he would only agree to a deal for Johnson if it meant draft capital that would offer a fair chance to land a comparable replacement.
Johnson remains with the Bears for the rest of this season and is a leading candidate to play 2024 under the franchise tag, a looming possibility he has acknowledged. But there is more time for Johnson and the Bears to work towards a long-term contract extension.
Johnson has two interceptions this season – and has admitted that he must improve in that category – but has proven himself as one of the NFL’s top cover cornerbacks. He ranks eighth out of all players at his position, according to Pro Football Focus grades.
5. RT Darnell Wright (22)
The Bears’ offensive line has taken form for the future because of key investments under Poles’ watch. There has been no more important addition than Wright, the 10th overall pick in last year’s draft.
Wright has experienced good moments and learning experiences during his rookie campaign, including a missed block during Sunday’s loss at Ford Field that resulted in a game-sealing safety for the Lions. He was run through by star pass rusher Aidan Hutchinson. But leading up to that moment, Wright held his own against a prolific player.
Wright has revealed his potential as a cornerstone player for the Bears and should be a staple of this offensive line for many years to come.
6. LB Tremaine Edmunds (25)
By parting ways with star Roquan Smith last year, the Bears were acknowledging that the off-ball linebacker position is not a premium place in the modern game. But the opportunity to sign Edmunds as Smith’s replacement was one Poles couldn’t pass up in free agency.
Edmunds signed a four-year, $72-million deal with the Bears in March that at the time was the largest contract awarded by Poles’ regime. He has logged 71 combined tackles and a pair of interceptions over nine games this season.
While Edmunds has endured some challenging moments this season, his reputation over five years with the Bills should be trusted. He’s an impactful linebacker and an important part of the Bears’ future.
7. LT Braxton Jones (24)
For a team to become great, it requires not just hitting on those top picks but also finding a diamond in the rough. The Bears may have identified their franchise left tackle in the fifth round and Southern Utah.
Jones has improved in his second NFL season and rewarded the Bears’ belief in his development. He ranks 13th in pass blocking grades, according to Pro Football Focus, and is responsible for just one sack allowed over five games this season.
8. S Jaquan Brisker (24)
During a scouting trip this fall, Poles wore a shirt with Brisker’s likeness. This is a player for whom the Bears are proud.
Brisker has continued to ascend as a key player on the Bears’ defense while also working towards a leadership role with this team. He is one of the best safeties in the NFL against the run and has strengthened the identity of this defense.
9. LG Teven Jenkins (25)
Back in training camp of 2022, the Bears were seeking to deal away Jenkins and cut their losses on a player who simply wasn’t working out. Since then, he has emerged as a key player on the offensive line.
Jenkins ranks 16th out of 79 NFL guards, according to Pro Football Focus grades. He has not allowed a sack in seven games this season, even despite switching the guard positions.
Once a potential castoff from the Bears, Jenkins has flipped the script on his career.
10. TE Cole Kmet (24)
Kmet seems to be exceeding the value of his four-year, $50-million contract extension signed back in July. He is the Bears’ second-leading receiver with 49 receptions for 439 yards and 5 touchdowns – on pace to shatter career-best marks across the board.
Just as Moore has added an important element to the Bears’ offense, the continued development of Kmet has helped bring growth and production for Fields and the passing game.
Eberflus under pressure to prove progress
Matt Eberflus seems to understand the cruel reality that could be coming. His tenure thus far as the Bears’ head coach has been filled with losing and turmoil.
Eberflus was brought in by the Bears to create a winning culture and lead a turnaround. He currently stands with the worst winning percentage of any Chicago head coach, and this is a results-based business.
There is pressure for Eberflus to save his job.
“Really, that’s the NFL,” Eberflus said. “It’s about executing. It’s a week-to-week league, and the story of the world is written every single week. So that’s the way it goes. That’s where you’re at. That’s the life we live, and I’ve been living it for a long time.”
This week, Eberflus’ focus is on keeping the Bears’ attention and belief following a gut-wrenching loss to the Lions at Ford Field.
The Bears held a 26-14 lead with 4:15 remaining in regulation and had their sights set on a galvanizing victory. What ensued after that was the type of miserable collapse that can emotionally crush even the most confident group of men.
In the visiting locker room of Ford Field on Sunday, Eberflus told the Bears of the positives he saw in that game. Back at Halas Hall this week, he showed examples of that on film.
Eberflus is working to keep the Bears bought in on his plan.
“That’s our coach,” said Brisker. “I’m listening to what he’s telling us. Obviously, we got to buy in. The season is not over at all. We can’t just fall right now.”
New Bears president Kevin Warren is expected to lead the decision on Eberflus’ future after the regular season, which concludes with a Jan. 7 finale at Lambeau Field.
Eberflus was given a tough hand in guiding the Bears through this challenging rebuild. The roster he was tasked with developing is simply not up to par with legitimate contenders in this league.
After a 3-14 campaign in 2022, the Bears have been more competitive in games this season. However, they don’t have the victories to show for it.
Eberflus stands confident that the Bears are improving under his watch.
“I can see progress,” Eberflus said. “I told the players in the meeting, and we can show them that. We can show them real tangible progress. It’s our charge to take that next step.”
Eberflus knows what that next step looks like. It’s converting words into wins.
Should Sweat see greater role?
The Bears believed Montez Sweat could be a consistently disruptive pass rusher who could impact their defense. It times thus far, they haven’t given him that opportunity.
Sweat has played in just 67% of the Bears’ defensive snaps through three games with the team. During Sunday’s loss to the Lions – one in which the defense was on the field for under 20 minutes of action – Sweat was limited to just 63% of snaps.
Eberflus and the Bears have leaned on their sports science department to form players’ roles for each game. But Eberflus conceded that a player of Sweat’s caliber needs a larger opportunity.
“We want all guys to be healthy and then just play the best guys all the time and that’s the way it goes,” Eberflus said. “Well, it doesn’t work that way. We’re dealing with human beings.
“You have to have that balance.”
But Lions pass rusher Aidan Hutchinson – who sealed the Detroit victory with a strip-sack of Fields – played 69 snaps on defense. That marked 92% of his unit’s work in that game.
Hutchinson has played on 89% of the Lions’ defensive snaps. Maxx Crosby, the superstar pass rusher for the Raiders, has played 98% of his team’s defensive snaps. Last season, Crosby stepped on for 96% of those plays.
For his part, Sweat said he’s OK with working on a snap count if that’s what the Bears believe is best.
“Generally, I want to be there every play, but the body and the heart doesn’t really work like that,” Sweat said. “As much fresh as I can be out there, that’s what I want to do.”
Sweat has 7.5 sacks over 11 games this season, including his first sack with the Bears during Sunday’s game.
No. 1 pick watch
In trading up to select Bryce Young, the Panthers believed they were making a move for their next franchise quarterback. He has struggled as a rookie and so too has Carolina, which stands at 1-9 on the season.
The Panthers’ place at the bottom of the NFL means the Bears’ potential to once again own the first overall pick, which is due to Chicago as part of the blockbuster deal for the No. 1 pick in 2023.
The Bears have a 61% chance of landing the top selection in the 2024 NFL Draft, according to ESPN’s FPI projections. That figure includes both the Panthers’ slot in the first round plus the Bears’ top pick, which has a 3.9% chance of being the top pick.
The Bears’ pick in the first round is currently slated fourth overall. The Cardinals (2-9) would select second while the Patriots (2-8) are slotted third.
The Panthers take on the Titans (3-7) on Sunday in Nashville.
RB D’Onta Foreman (ankle) — Foreman was able to play during Sunday’s game, but was still hobbled by his injury. He could see a more limited role on Monday night, this as Khalil Herbert settles back in.
RB Khalil Herbert (ankle) — The Bears were pleased that Herbert came out healthy in his return. However, he seemed to be lacking explosiveness following a five-game absence for a high ankle sprain.
LB Tremaine Edmunds (knee) — Edmunds was forced into a snap count for his return Sunday in Detroit. He should be able to operate in a full workload against the Vikings.
C Lucas Patrick (back) — A late hit on Patrick during Sunday’s game knocked him out of action. The Bears turned to Dan Feeney as their center rather than Cody Whitehair.
Quote to note
“We want to change the culture here. We want to win games and change a lot of things around here. We just got to keep digging and work.”
—Bears second-year safety Jaquan Brisker
Emma’s Prediction (8-3): Vikings 24, Bears 21
The pressuring Vikings defensive front will pose a difficult challenge for Fields and this offense to keep pace. The Bears’ divisional losing streak will drag on for another loss.