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Bears Mailbag: The Start of Training Camp, Allen Robinson’s Future and When Justin Fields Might Actually Start In The Regular Season

Chicago Bears Training Camp Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

The Chicago Bears have officially reported for Training Camp and just like that, the 2021 NFL season is off and running. After an off-season that felt like an eternity, it’s finally time to see if the Bears made enough improvements to show on the field. Despite camp starting and a new season full of hope, there are still plenty of questions to be answered before Week 1 and even beyond.

With plenty of competition in multiple roster battles and a young quarterback to watch develop, these are exciting times ahead for the regular season. It’s also one that fans should enjoy.

So, with that, let’s get into this week’s mailbag.

Due to the Franchise Tag deadline coming and going without new contract, the Bears won’t be able to strike a deal with Allen Robinson until after the 2021 season. More realistically for the team’s outlook, you’re likely looking at a situation where the Bears will be forced to either tag Robinson for a second time around $22 million for 2022 or allow him to hit the open market to see his true value.

As we’ve seen in the past, allowing a previously-tagged player to hit the market, usually leads to them leaving in Free Agency. We saw it a few years ago with Alshon Jeffery and we’ve commonly seen it across the league almost every year. Now, there’s always a chance it goes the way of Lance Briggs and he’ll realize his market isn’t as lucrative as he thought and come back. The assumption right now is that he stands to be the top receiver on the market next year and that’ll likely get him paid more than the Bears have been comfortable shelling out.

It’s a tough situation to watch as a Bears fan, because they still won’t have a ton of cap flexibility next year, so I’m not sure they can afford to give Robinson $22 million of that space in 2022.

NFL: Chicago Bears Minicamp Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

This is absolutely going to be a storyline until it isn’t and justifiably so.

In yesterday’s press conference, head coach Matt Nagy was asked directly if there was anything that Justin Fields could do to convince Nagy that he should start Week 1. Nagy proceeded to dance around the question with his only “answer” worth noting that he really hopes Fields comes out on fire and gives him something to think about. He also said that all three quarterbacks are expected to go into each day like they are competing for the starting job. The key throughout his drawn out non-answer? He said they would take things day-by-day. Which is code for “The best man will win the job”, at least in my opinion.

My take? Nagy no longer has to keep the media and fans at arm’s length because we’ll all see this play out with our own eyes. Whether or not it’s a motivation tactic for Andy Dalton and Fields has yet to be seen, but this was indeed the first time that Nagy didn’t simply give Dalton the starting job before a snap of preseason football was played.

If I had to guess, I still think Dalton will be good enough to start Week 1. It’ll be easy to point to a few rookie mistakes on Fields’ part to justify doing it. As I’ve said all along, the focus (at least for fans) needs to be solely on Fields’ development. What Dalton does is irrelevant. If Fields looks the part, he should start. If Fields doesn’t look ready, don’t rush it because that can only lead to unnecessary damage.

Money. It’s about that simple.

Could they have matched Morgan Moses’ one-year, $4.3 million deal he received from the New York Jets? Sure but it would have likely required a small cap move or two. The reality is, the Bears jumped the market with Germain Ifedi, spent big resources on Teven Jenkins in the draft and needed to save money with the cut of Charles Leno Jr.

It’s very rare to see starting quality offensive linemen late into Free Agency. Moses represented that and in a pinch, Russell Okung could also represent that at left tackle if they feel the need to move Jenkins back to the right side. At this point, I think the Bears have deemed the required resources to make such a move has not been worth the trouble as of now. With that being said, things can change in a hurry. One injury, a player or two underperforming, etc. can all change their perspective in the blink of an eye.

I understand the frustration, but I think it’s worth keeping in mind that any cleared cap space this year will have negative future cap implications. It may be best just to swallow the pill this year and know things start to loosen up next year.

I personally think Desai’s best quality is how he has battled through adversity. Taking a look at his road to getting to this point is a very interesting one. Not only is he the first Indian NFL coordinator, he also worked his way up through the ranks similar to how Nagy did.

I think the best quality he’ll bring to this defense is getting back to the roots of a Vic Fangio defense. The core concepts (with this roster) worked much better than what Chuck Pagano tried to do.

All in all, Desai is going to be a very fun story to watch. My hunch? If he excels, it won’t take long for him to get head coaching consideration.

At least in my opinion, there’s going to be a multitude of very interesting roster battles to monitor as camp opens up. Here are my top three:

1) Cornerback

There were a few positions that saw heavy overhauls, but cornerback was the one spot that saw a lot leave and not a whole lot of new. After releasing Kyle Fuller and Buster Skrine, they’ll go into this with two brand new starters at a very important position. Jaylon Johnson (barring health) will be the only guaranteed starter. After that, it’ll be Desmond Trufant, Kindle Vildor and Artie Burns battling it out on the boundary for that final starting spot. In the nickel, Duke Shelley, Thomas Graham Jr. and Tre Roberson all expect to factor in for that spot. There’s plenty of interesting names but not many proven talents. Even with a guy like Trufant, he has to show he can not only stay healthy but also produce closer to his prime years in Atlanta.

2) Wide Receiver

There’s not a ton of mystery in terms of who is going to be starting, at least out of the Top 2. Behind Allen Robinson and Darnell Mooney, there’s plenty to watch for. Things start with the two veteran additions in Marquise Goodwin and Demiere Byrd. Both guys are speedy but will play different roles in this offense. Goodwin will stretch the field and Byrd’s best strength is beating guys in the middle of the field. Then there’s rookie Dazz Newsome who is a prototypical slot guy with some ceiling to him. I wouldn’t expect a Mooney-like rookie season, but he should have a role. Finally, the question comes with guys like Javon Wims, Riley Ridley and even newly signed Justin Hardy. Ideally, you’d want at least one of those guys to have special teams value. I’m curious to see if they end up keeping five or six guys heading into Week 1.

3. Offensive Line

The Bears made a slew of changes at both tackle positions with their eyes toward the future. Jenkins should be starting at one of the two tackle positions, but it looks like they’ll start him out at left tackle. Time will tell how that’ll pay off but I, personally, had him graded out on the right side. Continuity on the interior is also going to be important. With Cody Whitehair, Sam Mustipher and James Daniels, that should provide more than enough of a starting point. It’s also a very important factor to any zone rushing scheme. The depth will also be interesting with fifth-round pick Larry Borom, swing lineman Elijiah Wilkinson and Alex Bars, among others.

NFL: Chicago Bears Minicamp Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Of the 13 original undrafted free agents the Bears have signed, there are two names that stick out to me as names that could either make the final 53-man roster or stick on the practice squad.

Edge rusher Charles Snowden (Virginia) is the top name on this list. Yes, he was a projected mid-round selection this past draft, but he also has the physical profile in terms of length, speed, etc. As far as the clearest path to the roster, he also has that as well. The broken ankle he suffered mid-season was a big reason why he went undrafted.

The next player is running back C.J. Marable (Coastal Carolina). While his path to the roster isn’t as clear because of a deep spot on the depth chart, Marable’s a shifty runner with quality speed and some pass catching ability. For his size, he’s also surprisingly physical at times. I do think that Khalil Herbert profiles better as the team’s fourth running back due to his special teams value as a returner but one injury or an impressive camp could open up a spot on the final roster quickly.

There’s always that player or two a year who surprise during camp in the preseason, so anything is possible. But for me, those are two names I’ll have a close eye on over the next month and a half, or so.

Just for those out there who think I tweeted this to myself... This was probably @TJStarman. But it’s a good question and why the heck not at this point?

As far as practice squad “locks” go, I think Snowden (if he doesn’t make the final 53), CJ Marable, Arlington Hambright, LaChavious Simmons, Roberson (if he doesn’t make the final 53) and likely one of Ryan Nall or Artavis Pierce.

The good news for the Bears? They can have up to 16 players on the practice squad again this year, which means a lot more options to have stick around.

NFL: Denver Broncos at Chicago Bears Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Man... That’s a tough one for me. I was pretty vocal is saying that I do not believe Ryan Pace should have kept his job and a new general manager should have been able to decide Nagy’s fate.

My issue with Pace is how reckless his spending has been over the past few years. I won’t dive deep into that because I have on multiple occasions, but his cap management gives me some serious concerns over his ability to sustain long-term success. We’ve seen that he can build a contender. Now we need to see if he can find his quarterback and do a better job of keeping depth spots cheap and maintain enough flexibility to make his team better in those windows.

I think both of their futures 100% ride on Fields. I feel that it would be foolish and shortsighted to cut bait with either after this year unless things go horrifically wrong. Ownership was willing to give them another year and allowed them to take another big swing at the quarterback position. Now it’s time for them to make the smart investment and that investment is time. Give this two years (minimum) with Fields to see what he can become.

Long story short, I’m undecided, but I do think Fields could easily turn into their “get out of jail free” card pretty easily.