Expectations were very low for the Bears last season, starting a rebuild that left them with by far the lowest combined average annual salary of any roster in the league, parting ways with numerous high-paid veterans last off-season, following mediocre finishes in 2019 (8-8), 2020 (8-8), and 2021 (6-11). The Bears surprised a lot of people with a 2-1 start in 2022, but went on to lose their last 11 games in a row after starting 3-3. Losing all those games will likely prove to be a good thing in the long run though, as the Bears earned the #1 pick for finishing with the worst record in the league, a huge asset for their rebuild, along with the league’s most cap space this off-season, after a year of minimal spending.
The #1 pick left the Bears with the choice between drafting one of the top quarterbacks, in a draft in which three quarterbacks ended up going in the first four picks, which would mean trading Justin Fields, the quarterback they selected 11th overall just two years ago, or trading the #1 pick and building around Fields as the quarterback of the future. The Bears chose the latter, sending the #1 pick to the Panthers for the 9th pick, the 61st pick, a 2024 first round pick, a 2025 second round pick, and talented young wide receiver DJ Moore.
Time will tell whether the Bears made the right move and it’s tough to evaluate their decision without knowing what kind of return Justin Fields would have brought in a trade, but the Bears’ decision makes sense as Fields is more of a proven commodity than any of the quarterbacks in this draft and likely still has untapped potential, only heading into his age 24 season. The downside with Fields compared to a rookie is he is two years into his rookie contract, meaning he’ll be due a hefty pay raise on a long-term extension within the next couple years, but the Bears have the cap space to afford that.
Fields might not have the upside as a passer as some of the quarterbacks in this draft class and he has been inconsistent in that aspect of his game thus far in his career, completing 59.7% of his passes for an average of 6.99 YPA, 24 touchdowns, and 21 interceptions, but he is a weapon as a runner, averaging 6.74 YPC with 10 touchdowns on 232 carries, and his inconsistent passing production has in large part been due to his lack of a supporting cast. With the Bears building around Fields this off-season, he has a good chance to take a leap forward as a passer in his third season in the league in 2023.
One area of concern is backup quarterback, with the Bears’ best options as of now being Nathan Peterman and PJ Walker, who have career QB ratings of 39.4 and 63.9 respectively. Fields’ playing style naturally leaves him more prone to injury and the Bears would be in big trouble if that happened without a capable option behind him. The Bears should address this position before training camp.
As I mentioned, a big part of the return from Carolina for the #1 pick was talented young receiver DJ Moore, who gives the Bears another big needed weapon in the receiving corps. The 24th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft by the Panthers, Moore has been one of the best receivers in the league since entering the league, totaling the 11th most receiving yards in the league over the five years since he entered the league, despite regularly having mediocre quarterback play.
Moore’s 63/888/7 slash line and 73.9 PFF rating in 2022 were his lowest since his rookie season, while his 1.74 yards per route run were the worst of his career, but those figures are all still above average, last season was arguably the worst quarterback play he’s ever had and, still only going into his age 26 season with minimal injury history (two games missed in five seasons), there’s no reason why Moore can’t bounce back now on a better offense in Chicago. His presence should be a big boost for this passing game.
Moore’s addition isn’t the only reason to be optimistic about this receiving corps either, as the Bears could also get a bounce back year from Darnell Mooney, who was limited to a 40/493/2 slash line in 12 games in an injury plagued 2022 season, but who also is just a season removed from a 81/1055/4 slash line as the Bears’ #1 receiver in Fields’ rookie season in 2021, and who is still only heading into his age 26 season and theoretically in the prime of his career. Despite a big drop off in receiving yards, Mooney wasn’t actually that much worse in 2022 than he was in 2021, with his PFF rating only dropping from 74.7 to 69.2 and his yards per route run only dropping from 1.72 to 1.58.
Mooney isn’t as proven as Moore, with only one season of 1,000+ yards in three seasons in the league, and he likely won’t see the 140 targets he had in 2021 (11th most in the league), with Moore now in town, so he’s unlikely to be as productive overall as 2021, but he could easily be more efficient than he has been the past two seasons, with another talented receiver to take some of the coverage away from him. Moore will likely be the Bears’ de facto #1 receiver, but Mooney is a good #2 receiver to have as well.
The Bears also traded for another young receiver Chase Claypool at last year’s trade deadline. The Bears overpaid, giving up what ended up being the 32nd pick in the draft, for a receiver who did next to nothing in his 7 games with the Bears (14/140/0) and who only has one year left on his cost controlled rookie deal, but Claypool is still a talented receiver who should be able to give the Bears more than he did a year ago, now with a full off-season in the system under his belt.
Claypool has seen his PFF rating (75.5 to 67.2 to 61.8) and yards per route run (1.90 to 1.67 to 1.07) drop off in each of the past two seasons since a promising rookie season in 2020, but he’s still only going into his age 25 season and has the potential to be a useful receiver for the Bears. They still overpaid, giving up a premium pick for a player who will likely be their third receiver this year, but he should be more useful for the Bears than he was a year ago.
With Moore coming in, Mooney likely to be healthier, and Claypool likely to be more productive, the Bears likely won’t need big roles from veteran journeymen Equanimeous St. Brown (555 snaps in 2022) and Dante Pettis (523 snaps), who will now be reserves if they even make the final roster. The Bears also used a 4th round pick on Cincinnati’s Tyler Scott and could get more out of 2022 3rd round pick Velus Jones, who couldn’t crack a weak wide receiver group as a rookie (158 snaps played), but who has the upside to give the Bears more in year two.
The Bears also have a promising young tight end in Cole Kmet, who they selected in the 2nd round in 2020. Kmet had a mediocre rookie season, but has seen his yards per route run average increase to 1.23 in 2021 and 1.27 in 2022, both decent numbers for a tight end, especially when you consider that Kmet has played on a mediocre offense overall over the past few years. He’s also proven to be a solid blocker as well and, only going into his age 24 season, could easily have more untapped upside as a pass catcher and run blocker. He probably won’t be a huge part of the Bears’ offense this season with an improved receiving corps around him, but he still should be a useful player for this offense.
Kmet will likely be backed up by former Packer Robert Tonyan, who the Bears added in free agency this off-season. Undrafted in 2017, Tonyan came out of nowhere to have a 60/668/12 slash line with the Packers in 2020 (1.55 yards per route run), but he benefited significantly from playing with Aaron Rodgers and, even with Rodgers as his quarterback, Tonyan has averaged just 1.22 yards per route run in his career outside of that 2020 campaign. He’s a solid backup who can make some starts if needed, but he’s unlikely to ever come close to repeating what he did in 2020. Overall, this is a much improved receiving corps from a year ago, which should lead to more consistent passing performances from young quarterback Justin Fields.
Along with DJ Moore, the 9th overall pick was a big part of what the Bears received in return for the top pick. The Bears traded down one more time from 9 to 10, but ultimately settled on Tennessee offensive tackle Darnell Wright, who will also fill a big need for the Bears, whose offensive line play has been as big of a problem for their offense as their receiving corps has been. Larry Borom (7 starts) and Riley Reiff (10 starts) were the Bears’ primary right tackles last season, but both were middling at best and, even if he has some rookie struggles, Wright has a much higher upside long-term. Reiff is no longer with the team, while Borom will likely be the primary swing tackle, which is a good role for him, after holding his own in 15 starts over the past two seasons since being selected in the 5th round by the Bears in 2021.
Wright will play the right side because left tackle Braxton Jones was one of the few bright spots on this mediocre offensive line, finishing with a 75.4 PFF grade in 17 starts as a rookie, 20th best among offensive tackles, despite only being a 5th round rookie. Jones is still unproven and the fact that the whole league let him fall to the 5th round a year ago can’t be ignored yet, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if he wasn’t quite as good in his second year in the league, but he also could easily still have further untapped upside and could be as good or even better in his second season in the league. At the very least, he should be a solid starter, with the upside for more.
Another bright spot on this offensive line last season was guard Teven Jenkins, who finished with a 80.7 PFF rafting in 11 starts, actually making him PFF’s third highest graded guard. Jenkins was a second round pick by the Bears in 2021, but he missed most of his rookie year with injury and was so horrible in the limited action he did see that some felt he was already a bust and wondered if he would even make the Bears’ team in 2022.
When Jenkins couldn’t earn a starting job at tackle in 2022, the Bears kicked him inside to guard and, from his first full game at guard in week 5, he seemed to be significantly more comfortable at his new position, a full year removed from his major injury. He’s still relatively unproven and his season ended with another injury, so durability is a concern for a player who has made just 13 starts in his first two seasons in the league combined, but he has the upside to develop into one of the better guards in the league long-term if he can stay healthy. The selection of Darnell Wright to bookend Braxton Jones long-term ensures that Jenkins will stay at guard, which is the best case scenario for him.
In addition to the big return they got for the #1 pick, the Bears also used their league leading amount of cap space to address some needs in free agency, including the offensive line, which should get a big boost from free agent acquisition Nate Davis, who comes over from the Titans on a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal. A third round pick in 2019, Davis struggled his rookie season, but has turned into a solid player with PFF grades of 71.1, 69.2, and 70.6 over the past three seasons respectively, with his 2022 grade ranking 16th in the league among guards. He’s not an elite guard, but he’s a solid starter with experience (54 career starts) and is still in the prime of his career in his age 27 season, so his contract should prove to be a good value and he fills a need for the Bears’ upfront.
With Davis coming in and Jenkins staying at guard, the Bears will likely kick veteran Cody Whitehair inside to center, but he has experience at all three interior offensive line positions and he should be an upgrade over mediocre incumbent Sam Mustipher, who is no longer with the team. Whitehair’s age is becoming a concern, heading into his age 31 season, but he has been at least a solid starter in all seven seasons in the league (107 starts) and it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if he continued that into 2023.
Whitehair should still be a better option than Lucas Patrick, who has the versatility to play all three interior positions and who has made 31 starts over the past three seasons, but who has been middling at best in those three seasons (PFF ratings of 64.8, 57.2, and 55.9 respectively) and who would be best as a versatile reserve rather than a starter. With Nate Davis and Darnell Wright being added to the starting lineup, the Bears have a noticeably better group upfront this year than a year ago and, with several players who were forced into starting roles last year now being reserves, their depth is a lot better as well. This is a solid group with the upside to be more, with most of their starters aside from Whitehair being relatively young.
The Bears didn’t retain running back David Montgomery as a free agent this off-season, after he lead the team in carries in each of the past four seasons, but Montgomery was mediocre for most of his time as the starter in Chicago, averaging just 3.94 YPC on 915 carries over the past four seasons, and the Bears feel they have a better option in 2021 6th round pick Khalil Herbert, who has averaged 5.02 YPC on 232 carries as Montgomery’s backup over the past two seasons, including a 5.67 YPC on 129 carries in 2022 that dwarfed Montgomery’s 3.99 YPC on 201 carries.
The gap between Montgomery and Herbert is smaller when you look at carry success rate, with neither back doing a good job of keeping this offense on schedule, as Herbert ranked 34th out of 42 eligible backs with a 47% carry success rate and Montgomery ranking 39th with a 46% carry success rate, but, any way you look at it, Herbert was their most effective running back last season and Montgomery’s departure should open up a bigger role for him. He wasn’t as effective as his impressive YPC average last season would suggest and it’s unclear how he’ll handle a larger workload, but he has a good chance to be an upgrade over what Montgomery was last season.
The Bears also added a couple other backs this off-season to take some of the workload away from Herbert, signing veteran D’Onta Foreman to a 1-year, 2 million dollar deal in free agency and then using a 4th round pick on Texas’ Roschon Johnson. Foreman is a bigger back at 6-0 235 who can take some short yardage carries away from the 5-9 212 pound Herbert and, after an injury plagued start to his career, the 2017 3rd round pick has averaged 4.40 YPC on 336 carries over the past two seasons, with carry success rates of 50% and 52% respectively. He’s a good power complement to the smaller, speedier Herbert.
Johnson, meanwhile, will likely be the #3 back as a rookie, but should still have a role in passing situations, where his upside intrigues the Bears. Neither Foreman (23 catches in 43 career games), nor Herbert (23 catches in 30 career games) are much use in passing situations, so many of those snaps will go to the rookie. Johnson could prove to be overwhelmed in that role in year one, so passing down back could be a position of weakness for the Bears in 2022, but this isn’t a bad backfield overall, with Herbert and Foreman both being solid early down options and Johnson at least possessing upside in passing situations.
As bad as the Bears’ were on offense last season, their defense was even worse. While their offense ranked 25th in DVOA, their defense was dead last and by a pretty wide margin. Fortunately, defensive performance tends to be much less consistent on a year-to-year basis than offensive performance and the Bears also added a significant amount of talent to their defense this off-season, making use of their league leading cap space. At the interior defender position, the Bears didn’t make any splash additions, but they didn’t have a single interior defender earn higher than a 49.2 grade from PFF last season so it won’t take much for the Bears to be better at this position in 2023.
Justin Jones (746 snaps), Armon Watts (531 snaps), Angelo Blackson (393 snaps), and Mike Pennel (363 snaps) were their top-4 interior defenders last season and only Jones remains for 2023. Jones also has a good chance to be better in 2023 than 2022, as his 45.8 PFF grade from 2022 was the worst of his career. Jones’ better years came on much lower snap counts than his 2022 snap count (his 527 snaps he played in 2020 were previously his career high), but the Bears probably won’t need as many snaps from him in a better position group in 2023. He’ll probably remain a mediocre option and he only has a PFF grade higher than 60 in one of his five seasons in the league, but he should be better than last year and he should play a smaller role as well.
To try to improve this position group, the Bears used second and third round picks on Florida’s Gervon Dexter and South Carolina’s Zacch Pickens respectively and added veteran Andrew Billings in free agency. Even as rookies, I would expect Dexter and Pickens to be upgrades over what the Bears had at the position last season, though it would not be a surprise at all to see both players go through growing pains in year one. Both have the upside to be solid starters long-term, but we might not see that from them this season.
Billings, meanwhile, is just a situational run stuffer, managing only a 6.0% pressure rate for his career, but he didn’t break the bank on a 1-year, 2.75 million dollar deal and, even just as a run stuffer, he should be an upgrade over what the Bears had a year ago. His 72.3 run defense grade from PFF in 2022 was a career high, but he also had grades of 68.8 and 68.4 in 2018 and 2019 respectively, which were his last two healthy seasons prior to last year, with most of 2020 and 2021 lost to injury. Durability remains a concern for Billings going forward, but he’s only in his age 28 season and should remain at least a solid run stuffer as long as he can stay on the field.
The Bears also signed DeMarcus Walker and Rasheem Green, who are hybrid players who can play both on the edge and on the interior of the Bears’ defensive line. On the interior, their primary role will likely be as situational pass rushers in sub packages and obvious passing situations. Walker was the bigger signing, coming over on a 3-year, 21 million dollar deal while Green got 2.5 million on a one-year deal, and Walker will likely have the bigger impact as well.
A second round pick in 2017, Walker’s career got off to a slow start, but he has proven to be a late bloomer over the past couple seasons, totaling 9 sacks, 17 hits, and a 11.3% pressure rate as a part-time player for the Texans and Titans and is still relatively young in his age 29 season, so I wouldn’t expect a sudden drop off from him. Walker leaves something to be desired against the run and has never played more than 458 snaps in a season so he’s a projection to a larger role, but he should be a useful situational pass rusher for them and his ability to play both inside and outside will be valuable as well.
Green, meanwhile, has played bigger snap counts in his career, averaging 581 snaps per season over the past four years, but he doesn’t have the same pass rush productivity (8.5% pressure rate over those four seasons) and isn’t much of a run defender either. In fact, his 62.4 PFF grade last season was the highest of his career, finishing below 60 in each of his first four seasons in the league prior to last season. The 2018 3rd round pick is still only in his age 26 season and could theoretically have untapped upside, but he’ll likely have to play a big role again on this defense and I would expect him to continue being middling at best. The Bears’ interior defender group should be better in 2023 than it was in 2022, but that could largely be by default.
While Walker and Green will see some action on the interior in passing situations, they will primarily be counted on for big roles on the edge. That’s because, like the interior defender position, the Bears didn’t have a single edge defender play a snap for them last season and earn even an average grade from PFF, but, unlike the interior defender position, the Bears didn’t add any other players of note this off-season, relying primarily on Walker and Green, as well as holdovers Trevis Gipson and Dominique Robinson, who finished last season 120th and 124th respectively among 129 eligible edge defenders on PFF, across snap counts of 649 and 541 respectively.
Gipson and Robinson are both recent 5th round picks (2020 and 2022 respectively) and both have the upside to be better this season than last season, but both are still underwhelming options and, even if they are better than a year ago, they could still have below average seasons. Gipson probably has the better chance to have a solid season, as he received a PFF grade of 70.4 on 489 snaps in 2021, but that’s his only above average season in three seasons in the league and it came on a much smaller snap count than the one that he handled last year and that he will likely see again in 2023, in once again an underwhelming position group. He’s a decent pass rusher with a career 10.0% pressure rate, but he has struggled mightily against the run throughout his career.
Robinson, meanwhile, could take a step forward in year two, but it also wouldn’t be a surprise if he never developed into even a solid rotation player, given where he was drafted and how much he struggled as a rookie, particularly as a pass rusher, managing just a 5.3% pressure rate. Walker and Green aren’t bad additions and could easily be better than what the Bears had at the edge defender position a year ago and Gipson and Robinson theoretically have untapped upside, but, even if they’re better at this position than a year ago, this still figures to be a position of weakness for the Bears in 2023.
The position on defense where the Bears committed the most resources this off-season is the off ball linebacker position. Tremaine Edmunds and TJ Edwards were signed to contracts worth 72 million over 4 years (4th highest average annual value among off ball linebackers) and 19.5 million over 3 years respectively and both figure to play close to every down for this team. Edmunds is the bigger name and has the most upside as a former first round pick only going into his age 25 who earned a PFF grade of 79.0 in 2022, but Edmunds is a one-year wonder in terms of earning the grade from PFF that he did, struggling mightily in coverage earlier in his career before breaking out with a 88.1 coverage grade in 2022.
Because of Edmunds past struggles and his bigger contract, Edwards is likely to prove to be the better value of the two signings, earning grades of 66.5, 76.3, and 84.8 from PFF over the past three seasons respectively and also still being relatively young like Edmunds, only going into his age 27 season. It’s possible that neither Edmunds nor Edwards is quite as good as a year ago, when they earned the 11th highest and 2nd highest grade respectively among off ball linebackers from PFF, both doing so across 1,000+ snaps each, but both should remain at least above average every down linebackers and both should be significant upgrades over the underwhelming linebacking corps the Bears had a year ago.
The only off ball linebacker of note that the Bears brought back from last year’s team is Jack Sanborn. The Bears won’t have much need for a third linebacker with Edmunds and Edwards playing every down, but they do play a 4-3 defense, which means they’ll use a third linebacker in certain base packages and that role will likely fall to Sanborn, who flashed some potential on 330 snaps last season, despite being an undrafted rookie. He would probably be a big drop off from Edmunds or Edwards if he had to fill in as an every down injury replacement, but he should be able to hold his own in a situational role. His biggest competition for the third linebacker job will be veteran special teamer Dylan Cole and 5th round rookie Noah Sewell, both of whom would be underwhelming options. Led by every down players Edmunds and Edwards, this is a talented linebacking corps and their depth isn’t bad either.
The Bears didn’t make any big additions in the secondary this off-season, but there is still reason to believe they can be better in this unit in 2023. For one, they have a pair of 2022 2nd round picks who could take a step forward in year two. Kyler Gordon improving would be the most impactful of the two, as the Bears are counting on him as a starting cornerback, but he struggled mightily in that role as a rookie, finishing 124th out of 136 eligible cornerbacks on PFF across 14 starts (863 snaps).
That’s definitely not a good start to his career and even if he is better in 2023 it could largely be by default, but a bad rookie year also doesn’t mean that Gordon can’t develop into an above average starter long-term, even if he doesn’t become that in his second season in the league. Safety JaQuan Brisker was the other rookie second round pick who started for the Bears in the secondary last season and he held up much better in year one than Gordon did, finishing with a solid 67.0 grade in 15 starts (954 snaps). He should at least be a solid starter again and has the upside for more in his second year in the league.
The Bears also could get a healthier year out of fellow starting safety Eddie Jackson, who was limited to 697 snaps in 12 games last season. Jackson was PFF’s 15th ranked safety last season before he got hurt and is one of their best players when healthy, so his return will be a welcome one, but he also has a history of inconsistency and might not be as good in 2023 as he was in 2022 before getting hurt. Jackson was also PFF’s #1 ranked safety in 2018, but, aside from that season and last season, he hasn’t had another season with 70 grade or higher from PFF and he’s finished below 60 twice in six seasons in the league. He’s still relatively young in his age 29 season, but his inconsistent history makes it tough to count on him being a high level starter again, even if he ends up playing more games than he did a year ago.
Jaylon Johnson is another starter who missed time in the Bears’ secondary last season, limited to 656 snaps in 11 games. A second round pick in 2020, Johnson was middling at best before going down last season (62.9 PFF rating) and his career best PFF rating in three seasons in the league is just 64.2 in 2021, but he could still have untapped upside, still only going into his age 24 season and, even if he doesn’t take a step forward this season, he should still be a welcome return given how much the Bears’ cornerbacks struggled in his absence last season, with Johnson being the only one who played significant snaps who even earned a middling grade from PFF.
The one addition the Bears did make to this group this off-season was using another second round pick on the unit, selecting Miami’s Tyrique Stevenson, which is another reason to expect better play out of the Bears’ secondary in 2023. Stevenson will likely have growing pains in year one, but it wouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade over Jaylon Jones (48.4 PFF rating across 466 snaps) or Kindle Vildor (59.4 PFF rating across 531 snaps), who will likely be reserves at best in 2023 with Stevenson being added and Johnson returning from injury.
Stevenson figures to be the third cornerback, behind Johnson and Gordon, and the Bears added another cornerback in the 5th round (Minnesota’s Terell Smith) to give them additional depth at the position. Depth is still a concern at the cornerback position if one of their top-3 cornerbacks gets hurt, as it is at the safety position, where 2022 7th round pick Elijah Hicks (just 168 defensive snaps played as a rookie) and 2023 7th round pick Kendall Williamson are penciled in as the primary reserves, but, even with depth concerns and an overall young, inexperienced unit, it wouldn’t be hard for this group to be better than they were a year ago.
The Bears finished with the worst record in the league last season, but that was largely by design, as the Bears’ primary goal last season was to accumulate cap space and draft capital that they could use to rebuild their team in 2023 and beyond. The Bears also probably weren’t the worst team in the league last season, despite their record, as 8 of their 14 losses came by one score or less and both the Texans and Colts finished with a lower DVOA than they did.
The Bears did a good job using their cap space and draft capital to rebuild this roster and are a much more talented team now than they were a year ago, with key additions that include wide receiver DJ Moore, first round offensive tackle Darnell Wright, guard Nate Davis, and off ball linebackers TJ Edwards and Tremaine Edmunds, all of whom should give them above average play at positions where they did not get that a year ago.
The Bears might not be a playoff team in 2023, but considering how many of their losses were close a year ago, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if the Bears turned a significant amount of those losses into wins this season and, in a division that will likely see both the Packers and Vikings decline from a year ago, the Bears have a shot to go from worst to first and earn a surprise division title. I don’t know if I would predict that happening, but it’s definitely a possibility and, even if they don’t win the division, the Bears should still be able to compete for a wild card spot in an overall weak NFC. I will have a final prediction at the end of the off-season when all previews are completed.
Prediction: XX-XX, XX in NFC North