The Bears expected much of their 2023 rookie class this season.
Spearheaded by right tackle Darnell Wright, the Bears entered the season believing they would get meaningful contributions from most of their rookies.
Wright, along with second-round cornerback Tyrique Stevenson, were penciled in as Day 1 starters, with defensive tackle Gervon Dexter and running back Roschon Johnson expected to contribute heavily in rotational roles.
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With two-thirds of the season gone, the Bears have gotten impressive returns from some members of the class while others haven’t popped as expected.
Here’s the rookie report card as the 4-8 Bears enter December: (Editor's note: These grades factor in preseason expectations, draft slot, etc., so players that more was expected of will be graded harsher. Linebacker Noah Sewell did not meet the snap requirements for the grading rubric.)
DARNELL WRIGHT, OT
Wright has been through a trial by fire during his rookie season.
The Tennessee right tackle has faced several of the best pass rushers in the NFL, including Maxx Crosby, Khalil Mack, Aidan Hutchinson, Danielle Hunter, Rashan Gary, Shaq Barrett, Chris Jones, Chase Young, and now teammate Montez Sweat.
Wright has held his own in those battles but also taken some lumps that will serve him well down the line.
"He's going to take off, man. He's going to keep getting better,” offensive line coach Chris Morgan said. “It's because of the kind of kid he is. He likes to play and compete. He wants to win every rep.
“The more he plays, the better he’ll get.”
Per Pro Football Focus, Wright has given up 38 pressures and six sacks in 454 pass-blocking opportunities this season. That’s the most pressures allowed by any rookie tackle with at least 250 pass-blocking snaps. The six sacks are tied with Arizona Cardinals rookie Paris Johnson Jr. for the most among rookies.
Those 38 pressures allowed are tied for the fifth most among all tackles with at least 300 pass-blocking snaps. The six sacks allowed are tied for fourth most among all tackles.
But Wright has performed well given the quality of rusher he has faced on a weekly basis this season and has improved after a rocky start.
Wright allowed 20 pressures and three sacks in the first five games of the season. He has only allowed 12 pressures and three sacks in the last five.
He has also been a pretty good run-blocker, especially during a midseason stretch when Teven Jenkins was on his immediate left at right guard.
Wright hasn’t been perfect, but he has shown consistent improvement and held his own against several of the top rushers in the league. He’ll only get better.
TYRIQUE STEVENSON, CB
Stevenson is another talented rookie who has taken his lumps so far this season.
Rookie cornerbacks almost always face a steep learning curve when they enter the league. They have to adjust to the speed of the game and the way it’s officiated. They are also constantly targeted, especially when playing opposite a proven cover corner as Stevenson is with Jaylon Johnson.
Per PFF, the Miami product has been targeted 73 times in 11 games. That’s the fifth most among all cornerbacks. Stevenson has allowed 52 catches for 513 yards and seven touchdowns. Those rank third, 14th, and tied for first among corners with at least 275 coverage snaps.
The Bears expected Stevenson to have a lot of learning moments. But he has played his best ball of late, including a stellar game in Week 11 against the Detroit Lions in which he was only targeted once while notching an interception and forcing a fumble on special teams.
The Bears believe the light bulb is on.
"It’s been really good. It’s been solid," head coach Matt Eberflus said of Stevenson's growth. "You play corner in the NFL as a rookie, first of all, they’re going to highlight you and they’re going to come at you the first half of the season. They’re going to test your water and see what it’s like. And I think he’s responded. He’s had some battles. He’s lost some of those battles. He’s won a good portion of those. The biggest thing with him is you have to learn. You have to keep learning and put it in your file so you become a better pro.
"What’s really good about him is he plays one play at a time. He flushes the play and goes to the next one, good, bad, or indifferent. That’s what you have to be as a corner — you have to have a short memory and keep moving. Every single week, it’s a different set. Every single down, it’s a different set of people you’re covering. Everybody puts a different set of circumstances in front of you in terms of their skill level. He’s learned how to adapt his skill to the people he’s covering and what’s effective against that particular receiver."
Stevenson’s grade takes a ding for the expected rookie corner moments, but there’s reason for optimism for his long-term prospects.
GERVON DEXTER, DT
Dexter was always going to be a project for the Bears.
Chicago drafted the Florida defensive tackle in the second round with an eye toward the future. The Bears knew they needed to rework his stance and improve his get-off. The tools are there with Dexter but the Bears were careful to preach patience.
Dexter has shown some flashes during his rookie season, but he hasn’t been able to make a consistent impact as a pass rusher or run-stopper.
On the season, Dexter has just 17 pressures and has not recorded a sack, per PFF. Ten of those 17 pressures came in two games, with Dexter finding “his fastball” against the Washington Commanders and Detroit Lions.
The Florida product does have the second-best pass-rush win percentage among qualified rookie defensive tackles at 11.7 percent, per PFF. That number trails only Philadelphia Eagles rookie Jalen Carter.
Dexter is only averaging 24 snaps per game while rotating in behind Justin Jones and nose tackle Andrew Billings so there’s reason to believe more production will come with more snaps next season.
The Bears “graded the flashes” when they drafted Dexter. The flashes have been impressive, but they need to become the norm.
ZACCH PICKENS, DT
The other half of the Bears’ defensive tackle draft haul, Pickens has played sparingly this season.
Through 12 games, he is averaging just under 15 snaps per game. He has notched just four pressures and one sack this season, per PFF.
Pickens has also been a subpar run defender.
The belief was that Pickens’ quick get-off would allow him to make a more immediate impact than Dexter.
That hasn’t happened, and it appears there’s a lot more work to be done.
Roschon Johnson, RB
The Bears set the bar high for Johnson right out of the gate, with talk of him being a foundational pillar taking place minutes after they selected the Texas running back.
Johnson quickly overtook D’Onta Foreman in the running back pecking order but has yet to have a breakout performance.
Johnson has rushed 54 times for 232 yards and one touchdown on the season. He is averaging 4.30 yards per attempt on just over five carries per game. Johnson has also caught 24 passes for 131 yards and done a solid job in pass protection.
Johnson is a tough runner who will be a staple of the Bears backfield. The production will come with more opportunities.
Tyler Scott, WR
Scott’s role increased when the Bears jettisoned Chase Claypool in Week 5.
The speedy receiver has 10 catches for 81 yards on just 19 targets this season. Scott has only one drop but quarterback have a passer rating of just 41.8 when targeting him, per PFF. That probably says more about the Bears’ disjointed passing offense than it does Scott’s ability.
A former running back, Scott still is very early in his wide receiver education.
As such, there have been good moments and bad.
One week after making a critical catch on fourth down against the Carolina Panthers, Scott “misjudged” a deep pass from quarterback Justin Fields that would have sealed a win over the Lions. Detroit came back to win the game in the final minute.
Scott will get better with more reps. He’s a hard worker who wants to be great and has the full confidence of the locker room.
Terell Smith, CB
The Bears and specifically head coach Matt Eberflus have gushed about Smith since he arrived for rookie minicamp.
Despite missing most of the offseason program with an injury, Smith entered training camp in a battle with Stevenson to be the No. 2 outside corner. Another injury allowed Stevenson to claim the spot, but Smith has gotten a decent amount of time this season both before and after a bout with mono.
In six games this season, Smith has played 228 snaps (157 coverage), per PFF.
On the season, Smith has given up 16 catches on 25 targets for 160 yards. Opposing quarterbacks have a rating of 82.1 when targeting him.
Smith has been sticky in coverage and a sure tackler in the run game.
He could very well wind up being a draft steal.
Tyson Bagent, QB
Bagent stole the show in the preseason and proved he belonged during a four-week stretch where he stepped in for an injured Fields.
The undrafted rookie out of Division II Shepherd completed 65.7 percent of his passes for 862 yards, three touchdowns, and six interceptions in those four-plus games.
Bagent operated the offense efficiently and went 2-2 as a starter. He played his best ball during the first three quarters in New Orleans before turning the ball over three times in the final stanza.
The turnovers obviously need to be cleaned up. That goes without saying.
But Bagent made quick decisions, was accurate, and showed tremendous poise.
At the very least, the Bears found a competent backup who they can trust to handle things should his number be called.
“We never put ceiling on players, but we certainly like where his floor is because the sky’s the limit for everybody,” Eberflus said of Bagent. “You never want to do that. Guys can grow into certain spaces that they didn’t even think they could. So, you have to give them that opportunity, but we certainly like where he is right now.”