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Emma’s Tailgater: The 5 most important building blocks on Bears roster

2 years agoChris Emma

LAKE FOREST, Ill. In the aftermath of their stunning victory over the Patriots on Monday night in New England, the Bears danced away in the visiting locker room and celebrated together. Coach Matt Eberflus entered the room and spoke of their triumph together, then posed a question.

“Now, who’s surprised by this,” Eberflus asked to his Bears.

“Nobody,” they responded in unison.

Monday marked an early milestone for the Bears in their foundational season led by Eberflus and first-year general manager Ryan Poles, a crowning victory over future Hall of Fame coach Bill Belichick and his upstart Patriots that few saw coming.

It was a victory that meant more to the Bears’ future than the win column, proof of progress and the development of Eberflus’ culture. It was a win that featured contributions from key parts of this roster their building blocks for the future.

The Bears’ trade of veteran pass rusher Robert Quinn not even 48 hours later Wednesday afternoon was a sobering reminder of this team’s direction towards the future. Despite earning the win at Gillette Stadium and moving to 3-4 this season, the Bears are still a team with development as its first priority.

What’s encouraging through seven games this season is how the Bears have continued to find growth from their young core.

Poles can now look to his roster and identify the key pieces he sees leading the Bears’ future the players who could help turn this football team to the sustained success he envisions.

Here are the five most important building blocks on the Bears’ roster (age in parentheses):

1. QB Justin Fields (23)

That was how it’s supposed to look for Fields. Monday night marked his most impressive performance with the Bears.

Fields took over that win over the Patriots with his dual-threat abilities, taking advantage of designed runs and finding opportunities in the passing game. He saw more moving pockets with quick hits to his targets and played the best game of his young career.

Fields shined with the structure around him on offense and offered hope for what the Bears’ future can look like with him leading at quarterback. Can this type of performance become commonplace for Fields as he progresses through his second NFL season?

Fields must continue to improve in the passing game as he builds greater chemistry with his targets. Over the past four games, Fields has thrown more than 20 times and displayed a calmer rhythm with his internal clock. He is trusting his protection more, allowing routes to develop and playing with precision, which is perhaps the most important step in his development. But the Bears are still dead last in passing yardage.

The most important factor of this 2022 season for the Bears is determining whether Fields is the quarterback they can build around. If Fields continues to show improvement and promise, Poles can make the necessary investments around his franchise quarterback.

2. LB Roquan Smith (25)

Back in August, Smith concluded a contract hold-in and said his focus was on playing out this season with the Bears. He hoped to command the $100 million of Colts star linebacker Shaquille Leonard and Poles simply wouldn’t budge.

As Poles carefully manages the Bears’ salary cap in this first season, he wasn’t willing to pay an off-ball linebacker like Smith such a premium deal. But to Smith’s credit, he has gone out this season and proven his worth.

Smith is playing like a linebacker who deserves that major investment from the Bears. He is forcing Poles to reconsider his stance as the two sides head towards another offseason of negotiations.

Smith appears to be the type of building block that the Bears need for Eberflus’ defensive identity. He was voted a team captain this season and has lived up to his billing, posting an NFL-leading 78 combined tackles and 48 individual tackles plus 2.5 sacks and 2 interceptions. The Bears have designed opportunities for Smith that play to his strengths and he has rewarded them.

The Bears seem likely to utilize the franchise tag with Smith in March, which would pay him a projected $18.7 million for 2023. It also offers a negotiating window that leads into July for discussing a long-term contract extension.

Smith is playing like he belongs in the Bears’ future.

3. CB Jaylon Johnson (23)

It takes plenty of confidence to be a top cornerback in the NFL. Johnson has no shortage of that. He truly believes that he’s a shutdown corner and the Bears believe he’s continuing to ascend.

Johnson is the Bears’ top player at a premium position and represents hope that they have this key spot filled in their secondary for years to come. He is the strong defense against high-octane passing offenses, never allowing more than 60% completions against him in parts of three seasons. Teams continue to avoid Johnson, who has been targeted just 14 times in his 4 starts for 2022. He has allowed just 8 completions and no touchdowns.

“My whole thing this year is really about dominating,” Johnson said.

As Poles looks to secure the Bears’ future at key positions on the roster — quarterback, pass rusher, wide receiver and cornerback — the continued rise of Johnson is critical.

If Johnson indeed dominates this season, he could be in line for a contract extension this offseason.

4. S Jaquan Brisker (23)

Through 7 games of his rookie season, Brisker has posted 42 tackles, 30 solo tackles, 3 tackles for a loss, 2 sacks and an interception. A second-round pick in April’s NFL Draft, he was a Day 1 starter at safety and has elevated the entire secondary.

The Bears seem to have found a staple for their defense in the 23-year-old Brisker, who has been impressive throughout his rookie campaign. He has proven to be a strong presence in the box and certainly is a game-changing threat in coverage, as Patriots quarterback Mac Jones came to find during Monday night’s game.

Brisker leapt in the air for a Jones pass like he was defending for a rebound in a basketball game, showcasing both instincts and athleticism as he tracked down the football for his first career pick.

The draft pick (No. 48 overall) used to select Brisker came from the Chargers in return for star pass rusher Khalil Mack. In essence, he could prove to be the key exchange for a future Hall of Fame player in Mack.

The Bears could have a dynamic and versatile player in their secondary for years to come with Brisker.

Jaquan Brisker Bears Orange Uniforms

5. RG Teven Jenkins (24)

During the Bears’ offseason program in the spring, the coaching staff moved Jenkins from his previous role as a starting tackle and demoted him to the second-team offensive line.

Jenkins seemed like he was being cast aside by the Bears. NFL teams took notice of this and called about a potential trade, certainly curious by the potential of Chicago’s 2021 second-round pick. Poles didn’t budge and kept Jenkins on his roster. In time, he earned a place in their plans.

Not only has Jenkins played like a capable starter, but he seems to be the Bears’ best offensive lineman and a key figure as they move forward.

Jenkins is an absolute bulldozer as a run blocker, an important part of why the Bears can claim the NFL’s top run offense through seven weeks. He is still seeking greater consistency as a pass blocker, working to improve his technique in that role.

Jenkins ranks ninth with Pro Football Focus out of 58 guards and fifth in run blocking. The Bears have a new fixture on their offensive line, one they had to rediscover.

4-down territory

1. Difficult departure of Quinn

Rookie pass rusher Dominique Robinson had his phone buzz Wednesday afternoon and learned of the news that the Bears had traded Quinn to the Eagles in exchange for a fourth-round pick.

Robinson immediately walked to the Bears’ locker room and found Quinn on his way out of Halas Hall. He wanted to thank Quinn for making a difference in his rookie season — and to stay in touch moving forward.

The 24-year-old Robinson was a quarterback at Miami (OH) before being converted to tight end and ultimately defensive end, drafted by the Bears in the fifth round of the draft with the hopes he could become a disruptive NFL pass rusher. Robinson followed the lead of Quinn.

“He was always calm,” Robinson said. “Calm at all times. But he’s been doing this for so long.

“He always had a plan in his rush game. I try to mimic that of having a plan in my head of what I’m going to do before it happens.”

There was genuine sadness and emotion at Halas Hall when the Bears learned Quinn would be departing for Philadelphia. It was a business decision by Ryan Poles, who landed a fourth-round pick that can help the Bears continue their direction forward. But this wasn’t just any ordinary teammate they were losing.

Quinn was named the Bears’ veteran winner of the Brian Piccolo Award for 2021, the franchise’s highest individual honor. He was named the Jeff Dickerson Good Guy Award winner by the Chicago media. This season, he was voted a captain by his teammates.

Part of why Quinn remains so revered is his remarkable perspective on life. At the age of 17, he was found to have a brain tumor that needed emergency surgery to reduce swelling. He was feared to have just days to live. The procedure was successful, the tumor was benign and Quinn still lives with it today — though with a reshaped perspective.

“I mean, you try being 17 and they tell you you got a week,” Quinn said in April. “But after a couple of days, I kind of came to grips with it: ‘I’m about to leave this world.’ So, I was trying to go out as happy as possible and I guess from there on out, I just tried to live that same way because we all go through bad things. It’s just how you approach it and make the most out of your situation.

“I’ve been blessed to still be here today and keep making positive of my situation.”

Smith broke down during a press conference Wednesday afternoon when discussing what Quinn meant to his team. He walked out of the room after being unable to compose his own thoughts.

Alan Williams, the Bears’ first-year defensive coordinator, found himself simply grateful for having the influence of Quinn as he stepped into this new position.

“I’d like to thank Robert Quinn for all that he meant to our defense, all that he meant to the Chicago Bears and really specifically all that he meant to me,” Williams said. “Whenever you come in as a new coach, new coordinator, to have one of the older guys be on board and to echo your messages and to echo it in the locker room and on the practice field, that’s a big deal.

“So, I wish him well. I hope he continues to have a ton of success. If more people were like Robert, it would be a much better place — professionally and personally.”

2. Mentor vs. Protégé

Bears offensive coordinator Luke Getsy got his first chance in the NFL back in 2014 because then-Packers coach Mike McCarthy saw something in a young man from Pittsburgh.

At the time, Getsy was Western Michigan’s wide receivers coach on staff with P.J. Fleck and was hoping for his break into the NFL. It came as McCarthy brought him on as an offensive quality control coach and later as a wide receivers coach on his staff.

The 38-year-old is now facing his latest step on this coaching ladder as Eberflus hired him on as the Bears’ offensive coordinator, a pivotal hire for a defensive-minded head coach. Getsy will face off on Sunday with his mentor McCarthy, now in his third year as the Cowboys’ head coach.

“He’s one of the most influential people in my life, there’s no question,” Getsy said of McCarthy. “I never had really a desire to be a head coach in my life until I got to sit in his team meetings and look at the way that he approached the team, talked to the team, the way that he was able to be himself, be humble, be confident, lead men. I mean, he’s one of the most impressive men that I’ve been able to be around. He’s a huge part of who I am, for sure.”

The Bears have certainly felt Getsy’s influence to this point, finding continued improvements offensively as this new identity is built to his vision. Getsy has proven to be adaptable in his scheme while prioritizing the fit around Fields.

Getsy has also struck the Bears by his confident and calm disposition, which is what stood out to McCarthy back in 2014.

McCarthy still believes in Getsy and sees greater opportunity ahead in his career.

“No doubt about it,” McCarthy said. “I think Luke is definitely on the path of being a head coach in this league.”

3. ‘Amazing’ Micah Parsons

As a rookie in 2021, Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons racked up 84 tackles, 13 sacks and 3 forced fumbles. He’s on pace to surpass all of those marks in his second season.

Parsons is a game-breaking presence at inside linebacker who moves all over the Cowboys’ defense, lining up as a pass rusher on one play and creating constant pressure, then dropping into coverage and finding the football. He’s a dynamic player who represents a problem on every play.

The Bears know they must account for Parsons.

“I mean, the guy literally lines up all over the place,” Getsy said. “There are not many interior linebackers in the history of the game that can rush the passer like this guy can.

“He’s amazing. The challenge of knowing where he’s at is definitely one of the biggest tasks to have success against these guys.”

4. Ball security

The H.I.T.S. Principle isn’t simply a defensive mantra. It applies to the offense, too. Just as Eberflus places an emphasis on forcing turnovers, there’s a priority to better protect the football.

The Bears fumbled 5 times during their game Monday night in New England, including 4 fumbles from Fields. They have put the football on the ground 19 times this season, which is tied with the Colts for most in the NFL.

Eberflus said weather is not an excuse for fumbles, even though the Bears have played in poor conditions for multiple games this season.

“I’ll just make a generalized statement that ball security is No. 1,” Eberflus said. “It’s important that everybody who handles the ball does a good job with the ball. It’s been brought to everybody’s attention that we did have those — I think it was maybe 4 or 5 of them in the game. And we’ve just got to work to improve that.

“The ball is the ball and it’s the most important thing.”

The Cowboys are fifth in the NFL in takeaways this season with 12, tied with the Seahawks and Bears.

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

Quote to note

“It’s one step in the right direction but we got Dallas in front of us now. Our eyes are forward to that game.”

—Bears coach Matt Eberflus, on getting back to work following the win over the Patriots

Injury report

C Lucas Patrick (toe) Patrick is heading to injured reserve after suffering the right toe injury during Monday night’s game. He will be required to miss a minimum of 4 games.

RT Larry Borom (concussion) Borom finished Monday night’s game but entered the concussion protocol. It’s not clear what happened but his status for Sunday at Dallas is now in doubt. Veteran Riley Reiff would assume his place at right tackle.

Emma’s Prediction (5-2): Cowboys 24, Bears 20

Can the Bears make it back-to-back road upsets? Sure, but a close game will go to the Cowboys as Dak Prescott leads his team to victory in Arlington.

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