In two weeks, Justin Fields and the Bears will open training camp in preparation for what is a massive season for the quarterback’s development and the direction of the Ryan Poles-Matt Eberflus rebuild.
After surviving his first two NFL seasons with the deck stacked against him, Fields now enters a critical third season in which all of the necessary pieces appear to be in place. This isn’t a make-or-break season for the young signal-caller, but it’s one in which the failure to take the desired step forward as a passer could result in his Bears tenure being put on the clock.
But make the leap the Bears believe is possible, and the possibilities are endless for a Poles-Eberflus vision with a franchise quarterback already in place.
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Fields undoubtedly faces the most pressure of anyone on the Bears’ 53-man roster this season. The 24-year-old quarterback won’t shudder at the expectations placed on him – they pale compared to what he believes he can accomplish.
But Fields won’t be the only one under the microscope at Soldier Field in 2023.
Here are five other Bears who will be closely scrutinized this fall:
Let’s take the layup first.
The Bears traded what turned out to be the No. 32 overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft for Claypool last November. There were no expectations of instant impact. The acquisition was made with an eye on 2023.
But Claypool’s struggles during his first two months in Chicago were at least a minor red flag. They can be chalked up to unfamiliarity with the system, a quarterback-wide receiver chemistry in its infancy, and injuries to both he and Fields. The sideline blowup during the Bears’ Week 17 blowout loss to the Detroit Lions didn’t help.
But Poles remains confident Claypool will prove him right in the end.
The Bears gushed about the fourth-year wide receiver’s work ethic and attitude this offseason, but Claypool missed most of the offseason program due to soft-tissue injury management.
Claypool is entering a contract season, and the Bears are the only team that will give him the lucrative deal he wants. If the Claypool from his first two seasons in Pittsburgh shows up this fall, the Bears will likely provide him with the contract he covets. But if he doesn’t gel with Fields and the offense stumbles potential because of the void he leaves, he’ll enter free agency searching for a one-year deal to prove his worth to another team.
An optimized Claypool is vital for the Bears’ passing attack to reach its ceiling. The Bears need his size and vertical field-stretching ability to help open up the intermediate area of the field.
They believe the Claypool they traded for can rediscover the magic of his first and second seasons. But if he can’t, it will go down as an L for Poles. One that could stick with him for some time.
We don’t need to hover on Johnson too long.
The Bears’ top cornerback hopes to earn a long-term contract extension to stay in Chicago. Those extension talks haven’t picked up as he hoped post-draft, but he understands that a productive season in Eberflus’ defense will likely lead to money that matches his talent.
Johnson told NBC Sports Chicago that he knows the coaching staff covets ball production and hopes the ball finds him more in 2023 than it did in 2022.
Poles has rebuilt the Bears’ secondary in 12 months, thanks to the selections of Kyler Gordon, Tyrique Stevenson, and Jaquan Brisker.
Not extending Johnson would create a big hole in a unit the Bears feel is settled.
Johnson was really good when healthy last season. His play dipped in November and December as an oblique injury hampered his movement ability.
If Johnson continues to play at a Tier 1B/2A level and remains healthy, he should land the contract and extend his stay in Chicago.
Jones played as well as could be expected during his rookie season.
Drafted in the fifth round out of Southern Utah, Jones quickly went from developmental prospect to first-string left tackle during the offseason program. He ended up playing every snap for the Bears, and his play improved as the season progressed.
Jones struggled to open the season, giving up 20 pressures and four sacks in his first six games, per Pro Football Focus. But he only gave up 10 pressures and two sacks in his final six games.
Jones entered the offseason with a detailed plan to get stronger to better anchor against the bull rush. He knows that an OK rookie season doesn’t automatically pencil him in as a long-term piece of the rebuild.
The work he does on the field this fall will likely determine if the Bears have found their starting left tackle or must go looking for one next offseason.
The Bears are pleased with Jones's work this offseason, but 17 games this fall will determine if it paid off.
The first draft pick of the Poles era knows he didn’t play up to his standard in 2022. You can attribute some of that to standard rookie corner growing pains, and some can be placed on the mental load the Bears put on him.
The Bears asked Gordon to play inside and out during his rookie season. They wanted the Washington product to be a proficient nickelback – a key role in Eberflus’ defense – and be able to bounce outside in the base defense.
Gordon admits things moved fast for him during his rookie season. Quarterbacks picked on him relentlessly, and things didn’t appear to slow down until the tail end of the campaign.
With rookie cornerback Tyrique Stevenson likely taking over the No. 2 outside corner spot opposite Johnson, Gordon should be free to focus his time and energy on the nickel.
The Bears need Gordon to be a lot better in 2023. It’s one of the three critical defensive positions in Eberflus’ scheme, and his success in that role is vital to the Bears’ hopes of having an improved defense in 2023.
If Gordon once against struggles at nickel, the Bears might have to look into moving him to outside full-time and trying to find a veteran nickel in the offseason. That would destroy their belief that the secondary is fully rebuilt.
It’s too early for a second-round pick to have a make-or-break season, but the Bears need to see more production from Gordon this season to feel good about that spot moving forward.