The 5 most pressing positional needs for the Bears
Year 1 in this rebuild brought the Bears a harsh realization of how steep a climb they face to the top.
Fortunately for second-year general manager Ryan Poles, he has the resources ready to help the Bears (3-14) climb from the bottom of the NFL. Poles boasts more than $119 million in salary cap space, the most of any team in the league, plus eight selections in the NFL Draft — starting with the No. 1 overall pick.
The Bears hope that 2022 proves to be the foundation for better years to come. First, Poles must lead a pivotal offseason and continue to overhaul this roster. That’s the Bears best hope to contending next season.
“More playmakers (are) going to allow us to do that,” Poles said. “So, the expectation is to take that next step. I want to stair-step this thing to the top, and then stay up there as absolutely long as possible. I always go back to making sound decisions.
“We want to make decisions that can last a long time so we can stay at the top; we don’t have to peak and then the drop off after.”
Throughout the course of this last season for the Bears — one in which they lost a franchise-record 10 straight games to close out the campaign — the needs on this roster became clear. Key starters went down with injuries, a lean depth chart was tested and the bottom fell out.
While the Bears lost seven games by just one score, they also lost seven games by multiple scores. Quarterback Justin Fields was forced to work around talent deficiencies on offense and head coach Matt Eberflus struggled to install his defensive identity for a unit that lacked core pieces.
As Poles plans for this offseason ahead, with free agency in March and the Draft in late April, here are the five most pressing positions of need for the Bears.
1. Defensive line
Last season, the Bears were led in sacks by rookie safety Jaquan Brisker’s total of 4. Defensive linemen Justin Jones and Trevis Gipson got home to the quarterback 3 times. Linebacker Roquan Smith, who was traded in late October, was third with 2.5 sacks. Rookie Dominique Robinson had 1.5 sacks in his first career game and then none the following 16 contests.
The Bears were dead last in the NFL with only 20 sacks, second to last in pressure rate at just 15.9% on the season, and also 32nd in team scoring defense. A defense functions as one unit — the defensive front creating opportunities for the secondary and vice versa — and the Bears’ defense proved to be dysfunctional because of its need to improve on the line.
Eberflus’ defensive identity is based around the Cover-2, a scheme that relies heavily on organically creating pressure rather than relying on the blitz. But defensive coordinator Alan Williams, who calls Eberflus’ defense, was often forced to send Brisker on a safety blitz or linebackers like Smith or Jack Sanborn because the defensive line wasn’t disrupting the pocket.
Last offseason, the Bears made significant improvements to their secondary with second-round selections in cornerback Kyler Gordon and Brisker. Now, Poles must focus on improving the defensive line.
This free-agent class is loaded with talented defensive linemen whom the Bears can trust to transform their front. Javon Hargrave (Eagles), Daron Payne (Commanders), Dalvin Tomlinson (Vikings) and Dre’Mont Jones (Broncos) represent the top options for the Bears at the 3-technique position, which Eberflus considers the anchor of his defensive identity.
The Bears can bolster their defensive line with strong play on the edge. Marcus Davenport (Saints), Yannick Ngakoue (Colts), Melvin Ingram (Dolphins) and Justin Houston (Ravens) are among the most enticing options on the open market.
Poles could find the next great defensive player for the Bears in the draft with Georgia defensive lineman prospect Jalen Carter, who is considered one of the top overall players in this class. The 21-year-old Carter would be the type of impact addition who helps transform the Bears’ entire defensive front.
Once the Bears address their defensive line, this entire defense can begin to play as one.
2. Wide receiver
The disconnect in the Bears’ 32nd-ranked passing game is two-fold. Fields doesn’t trust his wide receivers and he doesn’t have wide receivers to trust.
That’s why wide receiver is such a priority for Poles and the Bears to address this offseason. What growth Fields could find in his third NFL season depends on the targets that he has to utilize moving forward.
Last season, the Bears did not have a gifted route runner capable of creating separation that Fields could trust in going through his progressions. That includes Chase Claypool, for whom the Bears dealt the No. 32 overall pick. Claypool is a physical presence at 6-foot-4 and 238 pounds but does not run precise routes in coverage — and Fields didn’t come to believe in him for a perceived 50-50 ball. In fact, he didn’t feel confident in any target on a 50-50 ball.
The next evolution for Fields in the passing game is to find how he can create openings for his wide receivers in space — and for Poles to bring in playmakers who deserve their quarterback’s faith. Fields can throw the football. Now, the Bears must do their part.
The free-agent market is lacking with premier talent at wide receiver, though Jakobi Meyers (Patriots) or JuJu Smith-Schuster (Chiefs) would represent an immediate upgrade for the Bears.
As for finding a star at wide receiver, Poles will be left to monitor what should be a fluid market at that position. Tee Higgins (Bengals) is set to enter a contract year and Cincinnati could be forced to seek a trade. DeAndre Hopkins (Cardinals), Mike Evans (Buccaneers) and Brandin Cooks (Texans) also might be moved in a deal this offseason.
In the draft, the Bears could find a natural connection with a trade down from the top pick. Ohio State star Jaxon Smith-Njigba is the top wide receiver in this class and could reunite with his former Buckeyes teammate Fields in Chicago.
3. Offensive line
In an unusual case of Jekyll and Hyde, the Bears’ offense generated a league-leading ground game that produced the fifth-most rushing yards in a single season (3,014 yards) — but also a passing game that was dead last. Similarly, Chicago’s offensive line was very strong in run blocking and quite poor in pass protection.
Poles must consider this as he re-evaluates the Bears’ offensive line in the offseason. The unit itself must make great improvements for 2023, but how does Poles assess each individual and their strengths for the Bears’ new offensive identity?
Change is certainly needed for the Bears and their offensive line, but at which positions is the question. Rookie Braxton Jones asserted himself well at left tackle, playing every single snap on offense. A fifth-round pick, Jones showcased promise while also inspiring hope that he can continue to ascend. But Poles will be tempted with the opportunity to find a natural upgrade at this premium position.
The Bears’ right tackle position will almost certainly find a replacement. The open market offers an intriguing option in Mike McGlinchey (49ers), while Orlando Brown Jr. (Chiefs) has primarily played left tackle.
Bears left guard Cody Whitehair, one of the team’s longest-tenured players, has two more years remaining on his contract. While he has brought stability over seven seasons in Chicago, Whitehair could potentially be a salary cap casualty as Poles seeks an upgrade at that spot. Teven Jenkins seems to have found a home at right guard, where he played admirably in 2022. But injury concerns have lingered throughout Jenkins’ young career.
The draft includes a fascinating possibility in the first round with Northwestern prospect Peter Skoronski, a Park Ridge native who is considered the top offensive lineman available. While Skoronski was a two-time All-Big Ten tackle, scouts believe he projects as a guard in the NFL due to arm length. Should Chicago trade down from the top pick, Skoronski’s availability will be worth noting.
At center, the Bears must decide whether to offer Lucas Patrick another chance after playing in just seven games during an injury-ravaged 2022 season.
The Bears could come into 2023 with three new starters on the offensive line.
In 2022, the Bears began with conversations on whether Roquan Smith could be a long-term star in Chicago and concluded the year clinging to the promise of undrafted rookie Jack Sanborn.
Ultimately, Poles did not believe it was wise to pay Smith the five-year, $100-million he coveted to join the NFL’s top-paid linebackers. A breakdown in tense contract negotiations led the Bears to dealing Smith away to the Ravens in exchange for a second-round pick. That selection will be the No. 53 overall slot this spring.
Smith got that $100-million contract he sought all along and a new future now in Baltimore. Meanwhile, Chicago is taking inventory at a position that must improve for 2023.
Sanborn appears set as the Bears’ middle linebacker moving into next season after making a strong impression as a starter following the trade of Smith. But Chicago must find the true replacement for Smith at the weakside linebacker position, a key piece to Eberflus’ defensive plans.
Lavonte David (Buccaneers) and David Long (Titans) are set to hit the open market as the top off-ball linebackers available, and would make this position suddenly a great strength.
The draft includes a prolific and versatile linebacker in Alabama’s Will Anderson, who is viewed along with Carter as a top player available. Anderson’s NFL comparison is Cowboys star Micah Parsons.
5. Running back
At the end of this season, Poles made it clear that he values free-agent running back David Montgomery and would hope to see him back with the Bears. But that possibility isn’t so clear — nor is this running back position.
While the Bears have built a strength with the rushing attack, they must make key decisions at running back this offseason. Montgomery is set to hit the open market and could command more than Poles’ perceived value.
The Bears believe in third-year back Khalil Herbert but will be in the market for a proven back, whether that’s re-signing Montgomery on a second contract or seeking options like Saquon Barkley (Giants) or Tony Pollard (Cowboys) on the open market.
If the Bears do view Herbert as their new lead back, they must find the right complement in free agency or the draft.