LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- The Bears wrapped up OTAs on Thursday when head coach Matt Eberflus canceled the final practice session in favor of team-building activities at the United Center.
While there isn't a lot to learn from unpadded practices in May and June, a few things stuck out during the three media viewing sessions at OTAs. Here's what we learned from OTAs with mandatory veteran minicamp starting Tuesday:
DJ Moore's impact
From the moment the Bears acquired DJ Moore in a trade with the Carolina Panthers this offseason, it was expected that the passing game would be more efficient and lethal in 2023 with him in the fold.
But it was expected to take time for Moore and quarterback Justin Fields to develop the type of connection needed to fully elevate the passing attack.
That process appeared ahead of schedule at OTAs as Fields looked for Moore early and often at each of the three sessions. Even during Wednesday's practice, when the passing attack scuffled, Fields found Moore for a chunk gain over the middle of the field to open up a successful two-minute drill that ended in a field goal.
"It look like they got that chemistry going very fast, earlier than I expected," safety Jaquan Brisker said of Moore and Fields. "They look good, though. They look like they best friends. Justin’s definitely throwing him the ball. Two’s getting the ball, no doubt. Justin looks good, though. He’s going through his progressions. He’s looking very smooth, making good decisions out there, and looking like the best quarterback in the NFL. I thought that last year, but this year it’s different. One look different and him and two… you gonna see. You will see."
The Fields-Moore connection was notable, but Moore, in particular, stood out (we'll get to Fields later). Adding elite-level talent changes the entire feel around an operation. Moore has a different energy about him. He moves seamlessly in and out of breaks, creating separation at will.
Moore is a force multiplier. That was evident during the final two OTA sessions, where Chase Claypool and Darnell Mooney were absent due to rehab/injury management. Last season, the Bears' passing attack would have struggled to move the ball with Equanimeous St. Brown, Dante Pettis, and Velus Jones Jr. out there. Each of those three has a definable skill but is inconsistent in creating separation and doesn't have the surest of hands. Even with Mooney out there, that unit struggled to help Fields move the ball through the air.
But Moore makes everything different. He gives Fields a security blanket to spoon-feed to keep things moving, allowing Fields to rely on St. Brown, Pettis, and Jones sparingly. Swap in Mooney and Claypool for St. Brown and Petts/Jones, and you can see why the Bears are bullish on the passing game.
It all starts with Moore.
Braxton Jones' growth
OTAs aren't the time to examine offensive line play. Most of that group's critical work is done behind the scenes as they work to become experts in the scheme and fine-tune their fundamentals.
So there will be no big takeaway on the play of any of the five linemen the Bears hope will make up their starting five in Week 1.
But left tackle Braxton Jones entered the offseason with a mandate to get stronger so he can better hold up against the bull rush. When he returned to Halas Hall for the offseason program, the Bears saw a difference in the second-year tackle.
"He had a very detailed plan when he left," offensive line coach Chris Morgan said of Jones. "You know, Braxton is a mature kid. He's not even ... I call him kid -- he's not a kid anymore. His maturity really showed. Like, what he said he was going to do, he did. Over the break, he worked hard. We all saw a difference when he came back in the building, whether it was strength or whether it was bend.
"Getting away, taking a deep breath, and going to re-evaluate everything, you know how it is when you're a rookie? Things are kind of spinning. He was here, go play. As a rookie he played every snap. You get time to step away, decompress a little bit. Things slow down. You know what everything is supposed to look like. You know what I mean? You know what you're supposed to do. You know what's expected of you. And he's done a really nice job to this point, man."
Jones played every snap as a rookie at left tackle. He struggled mightily to open the season but showed improvement later in the year. But the Bears need their left tackle to be much better this fall if the offense is going to make the expected leap.
Fields thrived as a runner and playmaker last season, but the passing numbers left much to be desired. Some of that can be placed on the shaky offensive line and lackluster group of weapons. But Fields also held onto the ball too long, was hesitant to pull the trigger on open throws, and often either missed or failed to take the easy wins.
The third-year quarterback spent all offseason perfecting his mechanics to ensure the passing game's rhythm and timing are on point. Fields is also entering his second year in offensive coordinator Luke Getsy's scheme, meaning he has a different understanding of the offense.
"Mentally, obviously, we see that, just a deeper understanding of the nuances of the offense," quarterbacks coach Andrew Janocko said of the biggest difference in Fields. "The timing, the rhythms, the protections, all that stuff. And then that translates on the field. His feet mirror those little nuances. You just see that development and that growth every day.
"I think he’s made a conscious effort to make himself smoother, make himself more fluid, letting his feet lead him, and then everything else mirrors off of that. To me, that’s where we’ve seen some growth. It’s what he’s put a real focus on. Just quantifying that as we get out there, completing more balls and putting ourselves in those situations in a game, then it goes to training camp."
The addition of DJ Moore and a bolstered offensive line should theoretically give Fields what he needs to make the necessary strides as a passer.
The Bears are already seeing a different Fields than the one that electrified on the ground last season but was inconsistent through the air.
"He's much better," offensive guard Teven Jenkins told NBC Sports Chicago. "Everyday he gets better."
Fields' improvement has sparked a rise in passing game efficiency on the backfields at Halas Hall. That's something the Bears are hopeful will translate to Sundays.
"The things I see, I see Justin really … I mean, he’s always had a strong arm to me," wide receivers coach Tyke Tolbert said. "But really, his timing is so much better this year than it has been since last year. His timing is so much better. It looks like he’s more confident in throwing to receivers, with receivers making plays on the ball. Chase, when he was in there, made some plays with Justin. Obviously, DJ. Even Dante and even Tyler has gotten in to make some plays. Velus, you saw some today.
"Everybody’s making plays with him, man. And we don’t have Darnell Mooney yet. He’ll be back. It’ll be fun when all them guys will be back out there and healthy. As of right now, the passing game is, in my opinion, miles ahead of what it was a year ago."
New additions impressing
Ryan Poles' decision to invest in the Bears' linebacking corps this offseason drew some scrutiny, but Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards both have popped during team drills.
Edmunds' size and length will be an incredible asset for the Bears' defense, allowing him to cover up the passing lanes in the middle of the field, deflect balls and generate turnovers.
Exhibit A of the Edmunds impact occurred during the Bears' second OTA practice.
Bears backup quarterback P.J. Walker dropped back and looked over the middle of the field. Edmunds dropped back into Walker's passing lane, but the quarterback tried to thread a pass right over the linebacker's head. That was a fool's errand as Edmunds easily plucked the ball out of the air and took it back for a sizeable return.
Two weeks later, Edwards showcased why the Bears are confident in his ability to man the WILL linebacker spot.
Rookie wide receiver Tyler Scott lined up in the slot on the right and ran a quick in-breaking route. Fields went through his progressions and let one rip to Scott underneath. But Edwards read it all the way and made a perfect play on the ball, deflecting it into the hands of safety Elijah Hicks. Hicks raced back for a pick-six.
The Bears' linebackers were atrocious last season in coverage. That should change in 2023.