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We’ve been here before. When the Bears lose five straight games, your eyes start to drift to the offseason. And that’s where we’ll head with this edition of the Bears Things Newsletter:
The Lead: Ryan Poles has a blank canvas
If 2022 was a roster evaluation year for first-year general manager Ryan Poles, then the 12-game sample size is starting to give us some answers.
And if we’re being honest, there aren’t many obvious answers on the current roster.
Except the most important one: quarterback.
There will be plenty of time over the next six months to evaluate what Poles can add to his roster with the $100-plus million in cap space and nine draft picks. The question we’re analyzing today is: What does he have right now?
Using my grades from the 2022 season, here’s a look at the possible long-term pieces, broken down into categories:
Highly graded players signed through at least 2024
QB Justin Fields — After a slow start to the season, Fields has answered the most important question of the year: He’s the guy. Continued development in the passing game should eventually lead to a massive contract extension, but that deal is not on the docket for this offseason (although Poles will have to budget for it in the future).
RG Teven Jenkins — One of the more important developments of 2022, Jenkins has found a home at right guard and is playing very well when he’s on the field. Unfortunately, lingering back and hip issues leave some doubt about his longevity. Still, he figures to have a starting role in 2023.
LB Jack Sanborn — A four-game sample size is pretty small, but Sanborn sure looks like a keeper. If he plays the final five games at the same level, I’d imagine he’s your MIKE linebacker in 2023. If there’s a drop-off, competition could be brought in. Still, it would be surprising if Sanborn isn’t at least the starting SAM next year.
Extension candidates (signed through 2023)
K Cairo Santos — You can laugh, but this speaks to the lack of clear-cut longterm pieces on this roster. Santos is in a bit of a slump, but has been nothing but a rock for the Bears over the last three seasons. He has one year left on his current deal.
TE Cole Kmet — Kmet has taken a nice leap and a strong finish to the season should put him in a position to get a nice extension. His blocking ability makes him an important piece in this offseason scheme.
WR Darnell Mooney — Mooney’s season did not go as planned and just ended with a severe ankle injury. Still, he’s an important piece in the culture that head coach Matt Eberflus is building so I’d imagine some extension talks take place in the offseason. As a fifth-round pick, Mooney isn’t making the same amount as higher selections. Does he jump at a long-term extension with a nice signing bonus or does he bet on himself, looking for a big 2023 season and a massive contract that could follow?
CB Jaylon Johnson — Johnson’s situation has some Roquan Smith vibes to it. He’s a good player, but is he a top corner in the league? With how much this coaching staff values takeaways, Johnson’s value is hurt by only having one interception and two forced fumbles in 37 career games.
WR Chase Claypool — The Bears gave up a high second-round pick to acquire Claypool at the trade deadline and getting a good evaluation on him in these final five games has to be near the top of the priority list. He’s entering the final year of his rookie contract.
Highly graded free agents
Well, there’s just one…
RB David Montgomery — While some are assuming the Bears won’t pay Montgomery, I’m not in that camp. For one, the running back market is stacked this offseason, which could suppress his value on the open market. That could work in the Bears’ favor when it comes to keeping a key piece in the locker room. Montgomery stands for everything Eberflus is trying to build — and, by the way, he’s a really good running back too. Khalil Herbert might be more explosive, but Montgomery’s contact balance and ability to pick up the “dirty” yards on money downs is very valuable.
Jury still out
I *think* safety Jaquan Brisker is a building block, but the reality is that his grades haven’t reflected that quite yet. Kyler Gordon almost certainly will be a starting cornerback next year, but he needs to be more consistent and get his hands on the ball more before he can be considered a piece the Bears are building around. In fairness, it’s really hard to evaluate this secondary with a non-existent pass rush, and I would expect both of these players to grade out higher in 2023.
Left tackle Braxton Jones could also be considered a building block, but still has to show more consistency (especially against elite speed rushers). The Bears would be wise to sink more money into the offensive line — specifically the tackle position — so Poles’ long-term evolution of Jones will be crucial.
I would also include rookie punter Trenton Gill as a likely long-term piece who still can be more consistent.
A couple of interesting captains
The Bears have two veterans that are still making significant money through 2024 while also playing like starters: Left guard Cody Whitehair and safety Eddie Jackson. In most years, one or both could be considered possible cap casualties, but that’s not an issue for the Bears this offseason. Both players are also team captains. Will Poles value their place in the locker room or look to upgrade at their positions? (For whatever it’s worth, he did trade captains Roquan Smith and Robert Quinn in just the past month.)
The total number of players mentioned above represents just 28 percent of a 53-man roster. That shows you how much work Ryan Poles has left to do. And he pretty much has a blank canvas to work with.
Grade Report vs New York Jets
Blue Chip Tier: MLB Jack Sanborn
Long Term Starter Tier: RB David Montgomery, WR Byron Pringle, C Sam Mustipher
Bottom Tier: QB Trevor Siemian,LB Joe Thomas, DE Al-Quadin Muhammed, S Elijah Hicks
Next up: Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers wants to play this week, which isn’t surprising considering how much he loves beating up on the Bears — especially at Soldier Field. But at what point should the Packers be playing Jordan Love? Aren’t they at that point?
The reality is that unless Rodgers retires, Green Bay is stuck with him going forward. And the dead money on that massive contract is going to hurt significantly even if he does retire. But the Packers would still be wise to figure out what they have in Love, even if it’s just in an effort to trade him. Considering the current state of the Bears’ defense, this feels like the perfect opportunity to showcase Love to the rest of the league.
Expect the Packers to pass on that opportunity, which shouldn’t be surprising considering how much they’ve botched their quarterback situation over the last 18 months.
See you at this weekend’s tailgate!
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