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Let’s be real. A few short days ago, the Chicago Bears seemed stuck. Despite their grand ambitions and best efforts, they lacked long-term direction at quarterback and had an unenviable post position — the No. 20 gate — for Round 1 of the NFL draft derby.
Who knew which way things could turn or where the Bears would have their best chance to address the quarterback position? So much was outside their control. So many of their other swings in recent months hadn’t connected.
It’s why so many Bears fans entered Thursday with little optimism, bummed by an offseason that had been defined largely by frustration and disappointment. But then the sliding doors of fate gave the Bears an opening. After quarterbacks Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson and Trey Lance were taken with the top three picks, the next seven selections were players of different positions.
General manager Ryan Pace and his staff remained active on the phones. At No. 11, New York Giants GM Dave Gettleman was listening. A deal was made, and Pace and the Bears were blessed with the opportunity to draft Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields. The adrenaline spike inside the Halas Hall draft room won’t soon be forgotten.
During a 46-hour span in which the Bears assembled a seven-player draft class — five of those prospects play on offense — no move was bigger or will have more significance in the future of the franchise than the selection of Fields. Suddenly, a downtrodden fan base has justifiable reasons to care again.
The Bears still have so much work ahead, particularly in the development of Fields and the improvement of their offense as a whole. But in landing a player as dynamic and accomplished as Fields, Chicago was given its license to dream back.
With free agency and the draft now in the rearview mirror, the Tribune’s Bears writers have taken a magnifying glass to the roster and gone position by position to cast their votes on whether the team has gotten better, worse or stayed the same since it lost in the playoffs in January.
Through that lens, here’s the overview of the Bears offense.
Notable newcomers: Justin Fields and Andy Dalton
Key departures: Mitch Trubisky
Dan Wiederer: BETTER
For as much consternation as there was in Chicago when the Bears couldn’t acquire Russell Wilson from the Seattle Seahawks and instead signed Andy Dalton in free agency, Thursday’s trade up to grab Justin Fields ignited a fireworks show. Excitement popped. Hope was renewed. As the self-designated Chief of Perspective Police on the Bears beat, I’m obligated to remind everyone that the hit rate on quarterbacks drafted in Round 1 remains very low historically and Fields isn’t guaranteed to be the long-awaited savior for the Bears. But, man, fire up some of those YouTube highlight montages and it’s easy to see Fields brings a blend of arm strength, accuracy, athleticism and aptitude that hasn’t been displayed very often — if ever — by a Bears quarterback. The organization itself might not deserve the benefit of the doubt after 101 seasons of significant quarterback struggles, but Fields does. For now. It will be fascinating — and illuminating — to see what Matt Nagy and his coaching staff can do with Fields’ talents. If they can bring the best out of him, Bears fans won’t know what to do with themselves.
Colleen Kane: BETTER
What a wild few months it has been for Bears fans’ emotions. The frustration of a mediocre season that sealed Mitch Trubisky’s exit from Chicago. The excitement when Russell Wilson listed Chicago as a destination he would be willing to go in a trade — and the disappointment when the Seattle Seahawks wouldn’t trade him. The letdown when Andy Dalton came aboard as the Bears’ new starter a few days later. And now the exhilarating hope of the Bears drafting a player whose college coach, Ohio State’s Ryan Day, called him a “generational talent” — a quarterback who has risen to the moment on college football’s big stage. Of course, a lot will depend on whether coach Matt Nagy’s development plan succeeds, but Justin Fields has multiple experienced quarterbacks coaches plus Dalton and Nick Foles at his disposal as he makes the transition to the NFL. Bears quarterback play has been too painful to watch for far too long, including last season with Trubisky and Foles. There’s no guaranteeing it will be immediately better in 2021, but the hope is justified.
Brad Biggs: BETTER
The selection of Justin Fields after the Bears traded up from 20th to 11th in Round 1 threw many fans into a tizzy. Some have declared it one of the great drafts in team history, and that’s without seeing Fields on the practice field, let alone in an NFL game, after two dominant seasons for Ohio State. Now we have to see if coach Matt Nagy can develop the quarterback the team moved up to select, presumably based in large part on Nagy’s input. In fact, it’s easy to imagine Nagy having the most influential voice in the process. Andy Dalton will be an upgrade over what the Bears got from Nick Foles last season, and Foles might even be improved because the offensive line looks better — probably not where the Bears ultimately want it but better. I’m not convinced Dalton can get back to the level at which he played in Cincinnati when he helped the Bengals to 50 regular-season victories in his first five seasons, but he at least should be steady if the defense is doing its part. We’ll have to wait and see if Fields makes the Bears better, but optimism is running wild in early May.
Notable newcomers: Damien Williams and Khalil Herbert
Key departures: Cordarrelle Patterson
Saturday’s fifth-round dice roll on Virginia Tech running back Khalil Herbert might help more on special teams than on offense. Tarik Cohen’s return from an ACL tear will help. And the signing of Damien Williams in free agency gives Matt Nagy another well-rounded back to use on his chess board. But this remains David Montgomery’s stage. Montgomery was a showstopper down the stretch of last season, rushing for 598 yards and seven touchdowns in the final six games of the regular season. Extrapolate that production over a 17-game season and it projects to 1,694 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns. Montgomery should be running behind an improved offensive line and eventually will benefit from Fields’ playmaking threat.
The Bears will miss Cordarrelle Patterson’s electric kick-return prowess, but he didn’t often provide that excitement on offense — totaling just 215 receiving yards and 335 rushing yards in two seasons in Chicago. Damien Williams had the best season of his career in 2019 with the Kansas City Chiefs, totaling 498 rushing yards and 213 receiving yards and turning in a memorable Super Bowl performance, before he opted out of the 2020 season because of COVID-19 concerns. He will be a nice complement to David Montgomery and Tarik Cohen after signing a one-year deal. Montgomery had a strong second half in 2020 after the Bears figured out their offensive line and could continue to make strides in Year 3. And having Cohen back from a torn ACL provides a major boost. Behind all of them, rookie Khalil Herbert will have time to ease into the NFL.
I don’t see Damien Williams having a significant role on offense unless something happens to David Montgomery or Tarik Cohen. He should be able to pick up the offense relatively quickly, and the coaches won’t be forcing him onto the field as it seemed they did with Cordarrelle Patterson from time to time. The best thing is Montgomery played pretty well last season and got to display his receiving ability, especially after Cohen was sidelined with a torn ACL. If the Bears are going to be better, they need the 2018 Cohen that was electric and found ways to get loose in the open field and not the 2019 one that was consistently bottled up.
Notable newcomers: Dazz Newsome
Key departures: None
Allen Robinson is preparing to play on the franchise tag with his long-term contract desires still unmet. Will that unfortunate reality increase his motivation in 2021? Will it add tension and frustration to his existence at Halas Hall? A little of both? Robinson remains the linchpin of the receiving corps and the most valuable player on this offense. But he needs more help from the receiving group around him, and the Bears didn’t acquire much in the offseason. It’s a stretch to expect sixth-round pick Dazz Newsome will produce a breakthrough similar to what Darnell Mooney experienced as a rookie in 2020. But Newsome eventually might give the Bears another option in the slot. Offseason efforts to trade Anthony Miller have failed to this point. Riley Ridley has caught only 10 passes in two seasons. The Bears will need good health in 2021 to keep their unreliable depth from being tested and exposed.
Dazz Newsome is an intriguing pick for a sixth-rounder, but it’s too soon to tell if he can make an impact as a slot receiver this year. Otherwise, the Bears are largely the same in the wide receivers room, which is both good and bad. The good, of course, is that Allen Robinson is back, even if it’s under the franchise tag. It will be interesting to watch how he handles the upcoming organized team activities now that the Bears drafted Justin Fields. The NFLPA has pushed for all-virtual OTAs, and Robinson didn’t commit last week to attending. But on-field time will be crucial as the Bears get Andy Dalton and Fields up to speed. The Bears also have reason to be excited about the second season for Darnell Mooney, who had 61 catches for 631 yards and four touchdowns in 2020. But they want more from Anthony Miller, who could be at a career crossroads in his fourth season, while Javon Wims and Riley Ridley haven’t contributed much.
There’s a chance the Bears can take a big step forward if Darnell Mooney can make a big jump from his rookie season to Year 2. But in terms of roster moves, there hasn’t been a lot of turnover and it’s not surprising the team has yet to find a taker for Anthony Miller. The Bears noted Dazz Newsome can be effective in the slot, and that position is there for the taking. This might be an area where the team keeps an eye out for a veteran who gets cut loose by another team. The long-term plan will be interesting. If Mooney takes off, that would be a favorable development. The Bears don’t figure to tag Allen Robinson for a second straight year. In the big picture, if the team was going to get a quarterback and address the offensive line in the draft, something was going to have to wait and receiver was one of those positions.
Notable newcomers: None
Key departures: Demetrius Harris
The Bears are banking on a developmental breakthrough in Year 2 from Cole Kmet, last year’s top draft pick who impressed the coaching staff with his intelligence and versatility. Still, it remains a mystery why Kmet wasn’t afforded more opportunities to show off his talents on game days, finishing his rookie season with only 28 catches, 243 yards and two touchdowns. Coach Matt Nagy should be thinking double that for Kmet in 2021, adding another dangerous dimension to an evolving offense. Many wondered whether Jimmy Graham would be released to free up salary-cap space. But the Bears believe in the 34-year-old Graham’s tone-setting leadership and appreciated his red-zone prowess in 2020 as Graham led the team with eight receiving touchdowns.
The hope for improvement here is that Cole Kmet will continue to make strides in his second season after he had 20 catches for 149 yards and a touchdown in the final five games of the regular season. Jimmy Graham, who will be 35 in November, is expensive for a player who is past his prime, but he served two key roles for the Bears in 2020: as an end-zone threat, with eight touchdowns, and as a mentor for Kmet. Demetrius Harris’ playing time greatly decreased toward the end of the season as Kmet’s increased, so his departure will affect only the depth in the tight ends room and special teams.
Same. Not a lot to see here. The Bears probably will be on the lookout for a reserve tight end who can help out on special teams because that’s where Demetrius Harris made his biggest impact. Before him, Ben Braunecker was good on special teams for a few seasons. They need a third tight end.
Notable newcomers: Teven Jenkins and Larry Borom
Key departures: Bobby Massie
Dan Wiederer: BETTER
Many draft analysts pegged Jenkins as a potential target for the Bears if they stayed at No. 20 in the first round. When he was still available in the late 30s in Round 2, the Bears pounced, trading up 13 spots and landing a nasty and driven rookie who could become a long-term starter on either side of the line. That was a nice twist. While the line was in disarray for a long stretch in the middle of last season, the Bears found encouraging steadiness over the final month and a half. Sam Mustipher’s ascent as a reliable center was a big deal. That allowed Cody Whitehair to return to his comfort zone at guard. James Daniels’ growth was impressive before he suffered a season-ending pectoral injury. The Bears still can’t claim to have a top-tier line, but they now have a commendable level of talent and depth. Veteran left tackle Charles Leno’s future is in doubt, and the Bears must seek long-term answers at both tackle positions.
The Bears had enough conviction that Oklahoma State’s Teven Jenkins can be a long-term starter at tackle that they moved up from No. 52 to No. 39 to grab him Friday night. General manager Ryan Pace wouldn’t say whether Jenkins fits in the Bears’ current vision at right tackle to fill the void left by Bobby Massie’s departure or at left tackle, where Charles Leno has started the last six seasons. But clearly they believe in Jenkins’ potential. James Daniels’ return from a season-ending pectoral injury, likely at right guard, provides reason for optimism, as does the stability Sam Mustipher brought at center in the final stretch of 2020. With left guard Cody Whitehair and guard/tackle Germain Ifedi back, as well as the addition of veteran Elijah Wilkinson and rookie Larry Borom for depth, the Bears are hoping they have fewer issues than they did with the line in 2020.
It will be interesting to see what happens with second-round pick Teven Jenkins, who figures to get on the field quickly and likely start Week 1. The Bears have conviction he can play both tackle positions, but he was primarily a right tackle at Oklahoma State, so throwing him in on the blind side right away would come with some risk. This group got better during the second half of last season, and with James Daniels returning from a torn pectoral muscle, likely at right guard, there should be some growth.