The Chicago Bears are in Week 2 of organized team activities, and as with any team in the early stages of a rebuild, questions abound at many positions. Brad Biggs’ weekly Bears mailbag covers the running backs, secondary and offensive line — and starts by asking where the biggest holes are.
Now that the draft and the first few rounds of free agency are over, where do you think the roster is most deficient? Are there any players currently available that would address those needs or will they need to wait until preseason cuts to fill those holes? — @theengineer_dan
The Bears certainly hope they have players on the roster who can emerge as options beyond 2022 by proving themselves this season. The offensive line has legitimate questions. Is Larry Borom a starting-caliber player, especially at left tackle? Can Teven Jenkins be a good fit for this offense with his first look coming at right tackle? Who will play right guard? As for the rest of the offense, are the wide receivers good enough to be productive? Are the positive early signs from Justin Fields that the coaching staff has outlined proof he will take a significant step forward in his second season?
Without significant investments on the defensive line, with the exception of pass rusher Robert Quinn, can the Bears be solid not only stopping the run, but also rushing the passer? Is there a high-caliber nickel cornerback on the roster? Can free safety Eddie Jackson bounce back from a couple of seasons that weren’t to the level of his contract? The Bears have players in place for all of these positions, and some will step up and provide good answers. How many remains to be seen. Some will fall short and there will be clear needs entering next offseason, when general manager Ryan Poles will have cap space, cash and more draft picks.
I wouldn’t expect a windfall of solutions via preseason cuts. Generally, players whom other teams let go can serve as bridge players and depth. It’s less common that a player who is cut loose can be a real building block for the future. Try to be patient with the process. The roster will evolve over the next 15 to 16 months before the 2023 season starts.
What positions are most deficient? I’d say the offensive line, wide receiver and maybe the defensive line. But we’ve yet to see the Bears in full pads or in the preseason, and real answers will come during the regular season.
Do the Bears get a deal done with David Montgomery after this year or do you think they ultimately let him walk? I’m factoring in the emergence of Khalil Herbert. It was a small sample size but given the position, well, you know. — @runbackdave
It’s difficult to project what Montgomery’s market will look like after this season without knowing how he will perform in the new offense. As a general rule, running backs are largely replaceable. It’s probably the easiest position on the roster to plug in help other than specialists. Look at the variety of backs the San Francisco 49ers have used with great success, and that’s a similar offensive system.
Montgomery has been solid for the Bears, but for him to prove real value in this offense, he has to be more dynamic and productive as a pass catcher. Running backs who get paid now, with the exception of someone like Derrick Henry of the Tennessee Titans, are multidimensional threats. To me, this has less to do with how Herbert performs this season and more with what Montgomery does.
Ryan Poles may have successfully remade the secondary on the cheap. The linebacker and defensive line core seems solid too with some promising players. What do you think the defensive ceiling/floor could be for this roster? — @jmcdavitt
I assume you are talking about the defense in 2022. I agree the Bears made some strong moves in the secondary by drafting cornerback Kyler Gordon and safety Jaquan Brisker in the second round. They will make some rookie mistakes — that’s natural for any first-year players — but the Bears have gotten out of the pattern of seeking veteran bridge players on the back end, at least at those two spots.
The defensive line has legitimate questions. It lacks a signature interior player — someone like Tommie Harris, who was in the same scheme the last time the Bears ran the Tampa-2, or DeForest Buckner, who played for Matt Eberflus with the Indianapolis Colts. This defense requires some special players up front to play at a high level because you’re sacrificing size for athleticism, and that makes it challenging to defend the run.
Are the Bears going to keep Robert Quinn for the season? If they do, will they get the record-setting 2021 version or the 2020 version? Free safety Eddie Jackson is coming off a couple of subpar seasons. There are fair questions about who will man the nickel position, which should be viewed as a starter. The ceiling for this group in 2022 is probably middle of the pack, and that might be attainable because the Bears don’t face the toughest schedule in terms of quarterbacks. The floor is a little below that.
Why is Jaylon Johnson taking second-team reps? — @wustinwields1
The coaches wanted to look at a handful of other players who have been involved in the entire offseason program. Matt Eberflus said not to read too much into who is playing with which unit in May, and that’s good advice in this case. Eberflus said a week ago he hadn’t seen enough of Johnson on the field to say a whole lot about him. When asked about Johnson on Tuesday, he was pretty upbeat.
“Now I’ve seen him for a week and I like what I see,” Eberflus said. “He’s moving around really good. His change of direction is nice. He’s got really good hands. As you know, he’s got good size. So now just really looking at his coverage ability and it’s in a good spot. We’re just working with him and trying to assess his skills and we’ll coach him as we go.”
Barring something unexpected, Johnson will be a starter with second-round pick Kyler Gordon. I wouldn’t be surprised if Johnson is running with the ones at mandatory minicamp in mid-June, if not sooner. It doesn’t hurt for the coaches to send a message that those who consistently show up for voluntary work will get the first chance to be evaluated. That’s probably a motivator on some level.
Is there any hope Kindle Vildor can sustain CB1? I know it’s OTAs. — @just_acy
That seems unlikely with Jaylon Johnson entering his third season and second-round pick Kyler Gordon getting consistent work with the starters already. A realistic best-case scenario for Vildor, who struggled at points last season, is to have a competitive training camp and preseason and put himself in position to be a top backup on the outside.
Likelihood one of the rookie offensive linemen starts Week 1? — @dwcprodz
That seems like a long shot. It looks like the Bears are rolling with Larry Borom at left tackle and Teven Jenkins at right tackle — or at least it’s headed in that direction for the start of training camp. I highly doubt the Bears have a rookie offensive tackle who will prove he’s ready to start in Week 1. The best chance — and again, I don’t think it’s a high probability — is one of the rookies getting in the mix for the right guard job, where Sam Mustipher and Dakota Dozier have spent most of the time with the ones.
There’s still a chance a newcomer will arrive with a shot at the right guard job, and remember, sometimes those things play out late. The Bears sort of fell into adding guard Josh Sitton to the starting lineup back in 2016 after the Green Bay Packers released him on Labor Day weekend. When GM Ryan Poles used four Day 3 picks on offensive linemen, it was with the idea that one or two of them could push for a spot in 2023. You can’t rule it out, but speculating now is incredibly difficult because they haven’t put pads on.
Any chatter about how Charles Snowden is doing? He would seem to be the fast, lengthy, smart, try-hard kind of defensive end that Matt Eberflus’ system calls for. Pre-draft some even saw him as a Day 2 pick. Obviously his broken ankle turned teams off. He definitely has the measurables. — John R., Vietnam
I have not heard coaches single out Snowden, but with veterans Robert Quinn and Al-Quadin Muhammad not participating in the voluntary portion of the offseason program to this point — at least from what media have been allowed to view — that has given a handful of other players more reps, more exposure and in some cases more time with the first team. Training camp and preseason will be big for players such as Snowden, who is a holdover from the previous regime. The spring is critical for Snowden to show he can pick up the techniques the coaching staff is highlighting and can understand the defense. When it comes to turning the corner and really getting after the quarterback, he’ll have to wait until pads go on in training camp.
“It’s hard to me to assess a couple things this time of year,” Matt Eberflus said. “Pass rush is hard to assess because it’s a little bit easier for the rushers to get around because there’s no pads on, but once you put the pads on and those tackles can really block ‘em, I think that’s when you really assess what it is. Same thing in the running game. How do you really assess the running game as well?”
How do you think they are gonna work with Khyiris Tonga? Will they still line him up at nose tackle or try to move him to three technique? — @chicagostatmuse
Tonga, a seventh-round pick in 2021, was a nice surprise for the Bears as a rookie, appearing in 15 games and logging 216 defensive snaps (23%). He was an ideal fit as a nose tackle in the 3-4 scheme, so there’s a little bit of projection for him in the new front. The Bears listed him at 6-foot-4, 338 pounds last season, and they have yet to adjust the measurements for returning players.
When I asked defensive line coach Travis Smith what the target weight is for Tonga this season, he said that’s a decision that involves the strength staff and powers above him. For comparison, the Colts didn’t have a defensive lineman above 314 pounds (veteran tackle Grover Stewart) at the start of last season. Tonga definitely is not a three technique, but he has a chance to play the nose in this defense, even though it’s different from manning that spot in a 3-4.
“Our big thing in our front is to make sure that we’re effort first,” Smith said. “We can correct everything else. And so as long as our guys — whatever their weight is — (are) able to run and play consistently at a high level, I’m good with it.
“He’s moving good. For a big man, he’s got really great feet. Recall the (term) dancing bear. We have some big men that can move, stay on their feet. We want our big men to play sideline to sideline. We’re a penetrating, vertical, edge-setting defense, but we run. All four of us. We want all four guys running. As long as they can do that, their weight is good to me.”