LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- The past seven months of general manager Ryan Poles' life -- the flurry of moves, the rebuilding of the Bears' roster, the trust in quarterback Justin Fields -- led to this past week when he'd finally get to see if he'd made the correct decisions during an expected transformational offseason. One of many, to be fair.
The 2023 Bears opened training camp this past week at Halas Hall. The first goal for these new Bears was simple: hit the ground running, avoid unnecessary roadblocks, show that hard offseason work has paid off, and add rocket fuel to a hype train that has probably already left the station a bit too early.
Consider that mission accomplished.
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The week got off to an inauspicious start when the Bears placed wide receiver Chase Claypool on the Physically Unable To Perform list before camp. Claypool missed most of the offseason program with minor soft tissue injuries, and the Bears held him out in hopes he'd be 100 percent for camp, where crucial work with Fields and the rest of the offseason would truly begin.
Claypool's ominous visit to the PUP list lasted 24 hours as the Bears cleared him as report day arrived. The trade for Claypool is Poles' most scrutinized decision to date. Those inside Halas Hall maintain steadfast belief that he'll find his 2020-21 form and be a vital part of an improved passing game, but he needs to be on the field to accomplish that feat. Claypool opening camp on the sidelines would have been an unfortunate impediment to the growth of the Bears' aerial attack, something the Bears needed to avoid to keep their plans intact.
Claypool arrived at camp fully healthy and in a better mindset than when he last exited a Bears locker room following the end of last season. The fourth-year wide receiver enters a critical training camp dead set on silencing his doubters and becoming the playmaker the Bears envision.
"It’s the biggest year of my life, and I understand that," Claypool told assembled Chicago media. "If anybody thinks my work ethic isn’t matching that, they’re deeply mistaken. I get motivated and motivated and motivated. It keeps building on top of each other. My work ethic grows from last year, it will grow after this year. I learn from things. I’m always growing, just like everybody in the room should be. They should always grow from their mistakes. The goal is the same. At the end of the day, it’s to win football games. My contract year aside, I want to win football games.
"Just a big-time playmaker," Claypool said later of his goal for 2023. "Being a playmaker on different parts of the field – boundary, field, slot, doing different things. Because I think that makes it easier to not only call plays, but for Justin to actually execute the plays."
On the field, Claypool has shown improved chemistry with Fields early in camp and versatility in where the Bears are lining him up during this installation phase.
With Claypool and Darnell Mooney both given the green light at the start of camp, Poles turned his attention to a critical off-field matter that needed completing: extending tight end Cole Kmet.
The Bears signed Kmet, a 2020 second-round pick, to a four-year, $50 million extension at the start of camp. That was an essential move for Poles as it locked up a player he loves and showed others in the Bears' locker room that they would be rewarded for their buy-in and growth whether Poles drafted them or not -- something Poles understood after trading linebacker Roquan Smith and electing to let running back David Montgomery leave in free agency.
"I do think it energizes the locker room, especially this being my first extension, it sends a good message," Poles said. "I think everyone knows me, what I stand for, what I believe in in terms of taking care of your players. But there is always action that needs to come behind words. So I do think it helps the locker room see that ‘Alright if I continue to do what I’m doing, there’s a chance I can be in that mix.’ I think that’s always positive."
Cornerback Jaylon Johnson, Mooney, and Claypool, all of whom are hoping to sign long-term extensions with the Bears, undoubtedly received that message.
Johnson doesn't see Kmet's extension as a guarantee that a new deal will come his way, but he's entering his contract season understanding that if he does what he needs to do, the money will be there. The idea of holding out never crossed his mind.
"The way I see it, I still got a lot to earn," Johnson said. "I feel like I still have a lot to prove. It's not like I'm just this person who has been first-team All-Pro three years in a row and don't have a contract. I've definitely got some more things to prove. I definitely gotta do my part better, and I'm coming out here each and every day and work and whatever comes from that comes from that."
The Bears are healthy, and Kmet's deal has energized the locker room. Poor play from Fields would be the only thing that could derail the early camp vibes. While there's little to take from a week of ramp-up practices without pads, Fields and the passing game clicked early under the July heat in Lake Forest.
Fields continued to hook up with star wide receiver DJ Moore for big plays, showed improved chemistry with new tight end Robert Tonyan, and orchestrated a brilliant two-minute drill to cap off the first week of practice.
Fields wasn't perfect. There were some poor decisions, but that's expected early in camp. If you look back at the first week of camp in 2022, the offense was a clunky disaster that struggled to move the ball even in half-speed drills.
That hasn't been the case so far this year. Fields has been relatively sharp, showcasing improved timing and footwork. On Saturday, he showed off his legs in the red zone when he rolled right, froze the defense with a pump fake, and sprinted to the pylon for an easy score. Later, he threaded in a laser to Moore at the front pylon just out of the reach of cornerback Kyler Gordon.
Fields finished the day with chunk plays to Moore and Kmet before hitting Equanimeous St. Brown for a touchdown in the end-of-half, two-minute drill.
There was an interception on a forced throw to Kmet and a couple of other questionable decisions, but for the most part, Fields has been dialed in to start camp. It's no surprise that the Bears' passing attack has been one of the big conversations around the NFL this past week, with many expecting an improved Fields to launch into the stratosphere this fall.
"It’s not one particular thing," offensive coordinator Luke Getsy said when asked where Fields has improved. "I think it's on a whole when you see the guy who’s comfortable with the footwork, with the progressions, with the communication in the huddle. You guys see him using a lot more cadence in the first two days, so all that stuff, I think has been fun.”
The Bears will ramp things up when they return to work Monday, with their first padded practice slated for Wednesday.
There is a lot more for Fields and the new-look Bears to show before full belief in their ascent is warranted. But as far as weeks in late July go, the Bears couldn't have asked for a much better start to a critical season for Fields, Poles, and this full-scale rebuild.
Next comes the hard part.