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Five Bears to watch in the second half of the 2021 season

November and December football are their own animals to tackle. These Bears have something to prove.

Cleveland Browns vs Chicago Bears X163812 TK1

The Bears haven’t won a game in over a month. They’re on a four-game losing streak (and counting?). To reasonable observers, sitting at 3-6, with nothing but ground to makeup and no margin for error, the 2021 season is over. They are written off altogether—something to think about and reflect on, but later, when you’re in a calmer headspace.

In this day and age, you have to play all 17 games (money). Every week is an opportunity, cliches notwithstanding, for someone to develop, improve, grow (it’s still the money). The Bears tried to compete this year. Don’t let anyone try and tell you otherwise. Their early modus operandi with Andy Dalton and Justin Fields says as much on its own. But with Fields taking the starting quarterback reins full-time and head-on, Chicago’s entire organizational picture took a precautionary step back, whether they’ll admit it or not.

It’s a step that should center around development.

The Bears may well salvage some portions of the 2021 season. I find it hard to believe, right now, that they won’t be pushing for the No. 7 seed in the NFC postseason picture for a couple of weeks in December. (One might say that besides money, that was the purpose of the creation of the No. 7 seed.)

But what will define the next era of Bears football is how some of their hopeful foundational players come to flourish. Some people’s jobs might be on the line (cough). What these specific Bears — most of whom are not in danger of losing their jobs — accomplish over the next eight games matters more.

If their respective rises manage to play into that job-saving, so be it.

Justin Fields

San Francisco 49ers v Chicago Bears Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

Look, by now, I don’t have to tell you that 2021 Bears football carries as much significance as Justin Fields can manage with his right arm and legs. The Bears, as it stands, are nothing without him. They have no hope or future. They’re probably angling for a quarterback trade up in this May’s draft; crossing their fingers and toes that they nab a prospect who’s even somewhat close to Fields’ spectacular mold without him. Without Fields in the picture, Andy Dalton would be slinging short passes around on a miserable team with a lame-duck coach, as everyone waits for the glorious day until they can migrate somewhere South for the winter and stop thinking about football.

I know what you’re thinking: That pretty much describes just about every season of Bears football over the last approximate 40 years, but it’s still quite bleak!

Every good throw. Every quality read. Every jaw-dropping play made to seem effortless. Every solid performance. Everything Fields does from here on out means everything to who the Bears might be in 2022 and 2023 (and more, if they’re lucky). He doesn’t have to break any Bears rookie quarterback records in the process. Though, it would be nice if he could make one Charlie O’Rourke sweat a little.

Keep the Bears afloat in the playoff picture. Go toe-to-toe with more established franchise quarterbacks like Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray, and Russell Wilson, and don’t blink. Don’t make the same mistakes twice. If Fields can do the inverse and make an up-and-coming coaching candidate lose sleep over excitement about working with him, this year is an unmitigated success. Full stop. I’ll forget every dumpster and tire fire around if bright head coaching candidates flock to try and help Fields blossom.

Anything else Fields puts forward for the Bears over the remainder of the 2021 calendar year is gravy. Something tells me I might be setting the bar too low.

Cole Kmet

SPORTS-FBN-BIGGS-COLUMN-TB John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

I do not consider myself a member of the ever-passionate Cole Kmet Fan Club.

But, I will admit that his performance against the Steelers and some terrific individual defenders started to sway me. Six receptions for 87 yards, where Kmet not only showed excellent speed on vertical stems down the seam and made his usual tight window catches, cannot be overlooked. There was (gasp) separation, savvy route running, oft-created by Kmet’s tenacity as a blocker (i.e., selling the edge defender and covering linebacker on the run fake before getting a free release), and a toughness to hang in while sandwiched by multiple defenders. He looked like a legitimate No. 1 tight end, by my estimation, for the first time in his career, and against some great competition to boot.

We can say Kmet is a plus-blocker 1.5 years into his career. The Bears would not be fifth in the NFL in rushing if their No. 1 tight end could A. Not set the edge, and B. Not block in space. David Montgomery and Khalil Herbert are fine young players in their rights. We would not be discussing them as glowingly if Kmet wasn’t often in front creating space.

The contention with Kmet has always been about whether he could develop into a dynamic-enough receiver. The question was whether he would be the kind of tight end that demands extra attention and who could occasionally control the middle of the field through his presence. The traditional “Y” tight end does have value in today’s NFL. But every general manager and scout around will take the player that is more of a threat in the passing game rather than someone who can simply throw their weight around with balance.

Dominant receiver versus dominant but plodding blocker has a different ring to it, doesn’t it?

A few more outings like what he enjoyed at Heinz Field, with perhaps his first 100-yard day sprinkled in, shouldn’t be too much ask of Kmet. No Bears player has caught more passes in the last month (17). And with Fields clearly showing more of a rapport and comfort with his second-year tight end, I’d expect loftier figures for Kmet down the stretch.

Maybe this young man is a dominant receiver and dominant blocker: the best of both worlds. Let’s see it happen in the Soldier Field muck.

Teven Jenkins and Larry Borom

NFL: Chicago Bears Minicamp Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Fun fact: The picture above is the only picture I could find where Jenkins and Borom were together, in some capacity. It’s a strange situation when, thanks to injury, two young players who may well prove to be two of the most critical cogs on the entire Bears’ roster mainly were not seen in the spotlight for months.

As news of Jenkins’ imminent return trickles in, that is about to change.

Dear Reader, fair warning, this next part might be scary. To be clear, not scary as in “serial-killer-in-a-ski-mask-chasing-you-around-a-summer-camp” or “ancient-evil-demon-possessing-a-friend-or-loved-one” scary. I’m talking exciting-scary, butterflies-gnawing-on-your-stomach-lining, scary, hairs-standing-up-on-your-arms, scary.

In Teven Jenkins and Larry Borom, those who follow the Bears with fervor might be looking at the first legitimate franchise tackle duo this organization has had since Walter Payton roamed the sidelines. If the Bears construct a top-flight offense with a top-flight quarterback at the helm, this is an integral, beyond massive development. The Bears are in an incredibly advantageous position if both Jenkins and Borom turn out to be players they can lean on. That’s because you win on offense in pro football by mainly doing two things: Having a great quarterback and keeping him upright.

Through two starts, Borom has certainly looked the part. Borom has primarily matched up against Nick Bosa and T.J. Watt in his first two games back from injury: two edge rushers with All-Pro ability. He allowed a total of two pressures and one sack, according to Pro Football Focus. Our Lester Wiltfong Jr. has also glowed about Borom’s early positive signs in his trademark Sackwatch column.

If that is who Borom is while being thrown into the fire — a plus-pass blocker against superstars — I don’t think it’s a stretch to say the sky is the limit for his potential. Aside from Arizona’s Chandler Jones, there are no matchups in the remainder of the Bears’ schedule that should challenge Borom as much. In other words, this would be a perfect time for the rookie to refine his technique as a run-blocker (his feet, how he maintains his balance, front recognition) while continuing to add to his pass-blocking toolbelt. It’s here where Borom is likely, and ironically, facing more of an adjustment due to off-season weight loss. Getting his feet wet and dirty can only help.

Jenkins’ predicament is where this prognostication gets murkier. For one, I don't know what Jenkins will look like after months where he didn’t participate in any meaningful football activity. The Bears will ease him in, but there will still be a trial by fire, as there was with Borom. For the other, no one knows when exactly Jenkins will play. If Chicago is activating Jenkins and giving him a three-week window to return from injured reserve, it’s a safe bet they plan on featuring him in some capacity this season. How much remains to be seen.

If the Bears are fortunate enough to get an extended starting look at Jenkins, they should play him in the position where he’s more comfortable. At the moment, that looks like left tackle. Jason Peters, your rebellion and road-grading were appreciated, but it seems like you’ll be taking a seat soon, my good man. For the good of the team.

Chicago could be in a position where their long-term starting tackles and long-term starting quarterback are finally sharing a field through most of December and early January. Keep him clean, let him learn your sets and tendencies, and the rest will come naturally. They would be fools to waste this opportunity.

Kindle Vildor

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Chicago Bears Jon Durr-USA TODAY Sports

Vildor is one of the more interesting active Bears. A punching bag for many, I don’t think he’s been that terrible or that big of a chasm as CB2 opposite Jaylon Johnson. There have been a lot of moments that have induced an exasperated facepalm, mainly when he’s been tasked with covering a more sizable and physical receiver one-on-one. Predictably, most of these pass targets, from Chase Claypool and Pat Freiermuth to Ja’Marr Chase, have “dunked” (for the kids) on the smaller Vildor or “Mossed” him (for the adults).

But, still, for the most part, he’s been fine. Don’t let a receiver with five inches take him one-on-one, and you’re probably okay. I think most of Vildor’s issues stem from him being out of position. The second-year cornerback mainly played outside in college, and the Bears even tried him out at nickel last season before defaulting back. For now, the Bears don’t have many other options because of a shorthanded roster.

In my opinion, it would be a mistake not to see what Vildor could do in the slot once they acquire a more legitimate second cornerback. He’s got the profile: shifty, quick, physical, and sticky coverage. All he’s missing is the opportunity.

Because of salary cap constraints, it does not pay to overly invest in either side of the ball with massive contracts. But only having one plus-cornerback is a self-prescribed death sentence in league with better passing games and better quarterbacks year after year.

As long as he can keep from drowning over the last few months somewhere he doesn’t belong; I wouldn’t be writing Vildor out of any part of the Bears’ future yet. The Bears could undoubtedly help and at least keep him away from the D.K. Metcalf’s and DeAndre Hopkins’s of the world (coming soon!).