Can the Bears really take over the NFC North this season? It’s a question we’ve seen a lot from fans who hope the Packers will collapse without Aaron Rodgers, expect a regression from the Vikings after last season’s truly incredible 13-4 campaign, and have learned never to fear the Lions. However fans in Green Bay, Minnesota and Detroit probably look around and think their teams are ready to claim the division crown too. Honestly, there are reasonable arguments to make for each team to finish in first and each team to finish in last. That’s no different for the Bears.
WHY THE BEARS WILL WIN THE NFC NORTH
It all starts with Justin Fields. The young QB looks legitimately improved from what we’ve seen in training camp, both with his accuracy and his processing. The Bears have worked on the short passing game, which was a weakness in 2022, and that looks sharper too.
Fields deserves credit for putting in the work to improve personally, but simple things like having consistency for the first time in his career are important too.
It’s hard to overstate how many obstacles Justin Fields faced over the first two years of his NFL career. Things began on the wrong foot when Matt Nagy opted to give Andy Dalton the majority of the valuable first-team reps in Fields’ rookie year. The plan was for Fields to spend a good portion of 2021 on the bench learning from Dalton, but the Bears had to ditch that plan quickly. Dalton hurt himself in Week 2 and Fields was pressed into duty. Fields looked unprepared and when Fields drew his first start in Week 3, coaches looked unprepared to build an offense around him. The team had a gameplan that appeared to be geared for Dalton’s strengths, not Fields’, and the result was one of the worst offensive performances in Bears history. Fields was sacked an astounding nine times, which led the Bears to finish the game with one net passing yard. One. From there, most of Fields’ rookie season was a struggle.
The 2022 campaign was essentially a big reset for Fields. Almost everything, big and small, was new. Of course, there were the big picture changes that came when offensive coordinator Luke Getsy installed his scheme with the team. The Bears also delved into the minutiae with Fields, making tweaks like changing which foot Fields puts in front when taking snaps out of the shotgun. Once again there were growing pains as Fields not only learned Getsy’s offense, but Getsy learned how to design the offense around Fields’ strengths. Things finally came together for about a month in the middle of the season, but they fell apart again when numerous injuries across the offensive roster took their toll.
This year is the first time Fields doesn’t have to start from scratch, and it’s made a difference. Both Fields and his teammates have noted an uptick in comfortability in the offense.
Of course the supporting cast around Fields is much better this year than it was last year, too. At several points last season it felt like Fields was willing the Bears offense down the field single-handedly. Numerous injuries thinned the already talent-deprived skill positions. Sub par offensive line play had Fields running for his life regularly. And yet, Fields found ways to escape the pressure and either make a big time throw, or rack up huge yards with his feet.
The Bears were the worst team in the NFL last year with a 3-14 record, but seven of those losses came by one score or less. They were competitive in most games and rarely blown out. It’s easy to see how a few of those close losses could’ve been narrow victories if Fields just had a little more help.
Now he has that help. The offensive line should be better with Darnell Wright and Nate Davis joining the starting five. Fields had a legit WR1 in Allen Robinson his rookie season, but the Bears grossly misused Robinson with an uninspiring route tree that year. Now he’s got a legit WR1 again with DJ Moore in the fold. We’ve seen the Moore effect on the offense throughout the summer, culminating with his explosive 62-yard screen pass touchdown in the team’s first preseason game. Moore + Darnell Mooney + Chase Claypool + Cole Kmet + Robert Tonyan = the best top-five pass catchers Fields has had in his young career, by a long shot. Those guys should help Fields unlock a new level in his game.
All in all, a better Fields and a better offense should result in more wins.
WHY THE BEARS WILL FINISH LAST IN THE DIVISION AGAIN
It all starts up front. It’s a football cliché, but it’s a cliché for a reason. If the offensive line doesn’t take a step forward this season, it won’t matter how much Fields has developed, or how explosive Moore is in space, there won’t be time for plays to develop. If the defensive line struggles for a second-straight season, the impressive secondary will be left out to dry. There’s a chance each unit could let the team down.
As noted above, the offensive line looks better on paper. If everything goes right, Fields will have better protection to make more highlight plays. In the NFL it’s rare that everything goes right, however, and there are reasonable questions at each OL spot. 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 is 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. Could one of these players step up and play well if needed? Yes, of course. But it’s fair to be skeptical.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Bears need to make a big leap from last year. They notched an NFL-low 20 sacks, and only 10.5 of those sacks came from defensive linemen. In today’s NFL where quarterbacks and passing attacks reign supreme, that is simply not enough to succeed. Ryan Poles added tons of new players via free agency and the draft, highlighted by new defensive end Yannick Ngakoue and rookies Gervon Dexter and Zacch Pickens, but it might not be enough. Pickens and Dexter each have to develop more before they’re ready to supplant Justin Jones and Andrew Billings at defensive tackle. Ngakoue has the track record to produce no matter what, but the rest of the defense might not be able to put him in a position to maximize his value. The run defense struggled mightily last season, and in an extremely small sample size of one series in the preseason debut the run defense did not look improved at all. The first team allowed Titans backup running back Tyjae Spears to march down the field almost single-handedly, then allowed a rushing touchdown to quarterback Malik Willis. If teams are able to run roughshod on the Bears all season long, then Ngakoue will have fewer opportunities to focus entirely on sacking the quarterback.
If the defense can’t get off the field, that means Fields can’t get on the field. And if Fields can’t get on the field, he’ll have fewer opportunities to put the team ahead.