For months we’ve predicted and prognosticated. We’ve discussed, debated and deliberated. We’ve talked and talked and talked about what the Bears may be this season, and what they may not be. And we’re almost ready to see the team take some more meaningful reps.
The Bears will report to training camp at Halas next week, and when they do they’ll begin the long grind to prepare for the regular season. Depth charts will come into focus. We’ll get a look at how Justin Fields progresses in Year Two of Luke Getsy’s offense. We’ll see if the defense looks any better in some preseason action.
But before any of that happens we’re going to take a bit of time to speculate just a little bit more. This is one half of a two part series that will explore some reasons why fans should be optimistic about the Bears in 2023, and some reasons why this year may not be much of an improvement from last year.
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I’m a guy who always wants to hear the bad news before the good news, so we’re starting with three big reasons to be pessimistic about the Bears this season.
NO. 1 - BEARS DIDN’T DO ENOUGH TO ADDRESS THEIR DEFENSIVE LINE
In Matt Eberflus’ and Alan Williams’ defense there are several important positions, like the weakside linebacker and nickel corner. But everything starts up front. Last year the Bears notched an NFL-low 20 sacks. Of those 20 sacks, only 10.5 came from defensive linemen. In today’s NFL where quarterbacks and passing attacks reign supreme, that is simply not enough to succeed.
The Bears want to affect the quarterback from the interior of the line, especially with the three-technique tackle. That’s the tackle who lines up on the outside shoulder of the offensive guard. The team addressed defensive tackle in the draft with Gervon Dexter, Zacch Pickens and Travis Bell, but so far it looks like all of those players have work to do to crack the starting lineup.
On the edges, the Bears replaced Robert Quinn with DeMarcus Walker, Rasheem Green, Terrell Lewis and UDFA D’Anthony Jones. They’re all solid rotational players, but none has proven himself to be a consistent force rushing the passer. Green, Walker and Lewis have played between three and six years in the NFL. None of them have hit 20 career sacks. Walker’s seven-sack campaign in 2022 leads the group of incoming players.
Is there a chance that one of those players, or a younger guy like Trevis Gipson or Dominique Robinson, takes a big step forward to bolster the pass rushing numbers? Yes, of course. If they don’t, it won’t matter how good the Bears secondary plays this season. Give QBs enough time and they’ll tear apart any defense in the NFL.
NO. 2 - BEARS STILL HAVE TOO MANY QUESTION MARKS ON OFFENSIVE LINE
Ryan Poles made it a mission to give Justin Fields more help this year, not only to give Fields a better chance to succeed but also to give the team a chance to fully evaluate him as a franchise QB. A lot of that work came up front, since Fields was sacked an NFL-high 55 times last season. It started when Poles signed Nate Davis in free agency to take over at right guard and ended when he drafted Darnell Wright to start at right tackle. In between, the team moved Teven Jenkins to left guard and Cody Whitehair to center.
On paper, the 2023 starting offensive line should protect Fields better than the 2022 unit. But there are legit questions at every position. Can Braxton Jones take a step forward in year two at left tackle and improve against the bull rush? Can Teven Jenkins stay healthy for the majority of the year? Will Whitehair be able to perform at a high level in the middle of the line considering he hasn’t played center since 2020? Can Davis make a positive impact as a free agent, or will he be this year’s version of Lucas Patrick? Will Wright be able to hold things down, or will he go through rookie growing pains? That’s a lot of unknown heading into the year.
Even if the Bears get positive results from all those positions, their depth is a cause for concern. Injuries on the offensive line happen every year. It’s part of the nature of the position. If and when they do, the Bears don’t have a reliable option on their roster right now. On the edges, Larry Borom seems like the first man off the bench and he fell out of favor with the coaches last year. On the interior we’ve seen Patrick, Ja’Tyre Carter and Alex Leatherwood split meaningful backup reps. Last year was a disaster for Patrick at guard, Carter is about as inexperienced as they come as a second-year player with 31 snaps on offense to his name and Leatherwood has bounced around the line pretty much since he arrived in the NFL as he looks for a sticking spot. Again, could one of these players step up and play well if needed? Yes, of course. But there are real reasons to be skeptical.
NO. 3: BIG INVESTMENTS AT LINEBACKER MAY NOT PAY OFF
Modern NFL thinking says the way to build a championship football team is not through off-ball linebackers who don’t take the ball away. Everything is about stopping the playmakers in the passing game, so pass rushers and cornerbacks have become premium positions. The Bears said as much when they explained why they didn’t re-sign Roquan Smith. And yet, the team shelled out big bucks to bring in Tremaine Edmunds– a guy not known as a ballhawk– to take over in the middle of the defense.
It’s easy to see why the Bears want Edmunds in the middle. He’s big and fast and entering the prime of his career. Last year was a revelation for Edmunds in pass coverage in particular, and if he can continue that level of play it will be a noticeable upgrade from Smith’s pass coverage last season. But as mentioned before, if the Bears defensive line can’t get home, it may not matter. In the Bears’ one-gap defense, if a defensive lineman is displaced in the run game, that puts an additional burden on linebackers in the second level. The same is true if the d-line can’t get home against the pass. No matter how good Edmunds plays, QBs will find holes if given enough time.
With legit pass rushers available both at defensive tackle and defensive end in free agency, many thought the Bears would make a splash there. Instead they put their chips behind the line.