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Bears mailbag: Camp roster questions, Roquan Smith’s contract situation, and more

The Chicago Bears have reported for training camp and the preseason is just weeks away. You’ve got questions and we’ll do our best to answer in this week’s jam-packed mailbag.

NFL: JUN 15 Chicago Bears Minicamp Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Chicago Bears and the rest of the NFL have fully reported for training camp as the 2022 NFL season is just over a month away from kicking off. It has been a busy off-season for the league’s charter franchise. One that brought plenty of changes and maybe even more intrigue.

With fans able to attend practices starting Thursday, what can we expect from the Bears as they ramp up to the regular season? Will that include a contract extension for blue-chip linebacker Roquan Smith? We’ll answer all those questions and more in this week’s installment of the Windy City Gridiron mailbag —2022 training camp edition.

One of the bigger questions for this team heading into training camp and the preseason is how they’ll configure their offensive line. At least that was the case until Tuesday morning when the Bears signed veteran Riley Reiff to a one-year deal. The Bears appear to have a three-way battle for the final tackle spot.

At the start of off-season activities, it was a former second-round pick, Teven Jenkins, at right tackle, and 2021 fifth-round pick Larry Borom at left tackle. After six practices, the team rotated this year’s fifth-round pick, Braxton Jones, to left tackle and slid Borom over to the right side. That left Jenkins out of the starting mix and raised many questions.

Since then, they have brought in a pair of veterans, including Reiff, who will almost undoubtedly start at one of the two tackle spots. Where that leaves the trio of Borom, Jenkins and Jones remains to be seen. My best guess? The battle comes down between Jenkins and Borom. I’d give Jenkins the first shot to win the job, but ultimately as long as one of the three young guys proves to be a quality long-term option — fans should consider it a win.

NFL: Chicago Bears OTA Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

On Monday afternoon, the NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported that Smith would not be participating at the start of training camp practices. Rapoport’s wording was interesting because the difference between reporting and participating is money. He has since been placed on the PUP (Physically Unable to Perform) list for the time being. This could be a good-faith gesture from the Bears, or there could be something minor that will hold him out of practice for the time being.

No contract negotiation is easy. Some are easier than others, but there are almost always different viewpoints of the player’s overall value. What makes this situation a little more difficult is that, as of right now, Smith does not have an agent. That means that he’s not only negotiating his contract, but he’s also dealing with the ugly side of negotiations as each side tries to create a fair contract.

I’ve been open about my views of general manager Ryan Poles’ first year on the job. I was excited about the hire and still think he can be the right man for this job. With that being said, it has been a difficult off-season and would be hard to outdo in terms of difficulty over the next few years. Some of that has been Poles’ own doing, and some of that has been the luck of the draw.

That said, I believe they’ll eventually reach an agreement on a new contract before the start of the regular season. Smith has been one of the team’s best defensive players. He’s also been very involved off the field and is one of the faces of the current team.

The blueprint for Smith’s deal was established over the past year with both Shaquille (formerly Darius) Leonard (five years, $98.5 million with $33 million guaranteed), and Fred Warner’s (five years, $95.225 million with $27.5 million guaranteed) deals getting done. The Bears also have plenty of money to not only get this deal done but still have plenty of wiggle room over the coming years to add more talent.

Taking the emotions out of it for both sides (and fans), the only logical conclusion is them getting a deal done. I believe time will be the biggest obstacle, but with a blueprint in front of them and his value understood — I think it’ll get done by Week 1.

Eddie Jackson’s future essentially ties into how successful he can be in yet another new defense this year. This will be the first time since the departure of Adrian Amos that Jackson will be able to play more of a true free safety role, which should help him.

If there’s one thing head coach Matt Eberflus’ defenses have done well since he took over in Indianapolis, it has been developing defensive back talent. Jackson is one of the few veterans in this secondary, but this also feels like the best situation he will have to return to his 2018 form.

The other factor he has working for him is that his running mate Jaquan Brisker is in the first year of a four-year rookie contract. That means keeping Jackson on the books for a combined $50 million over the next three years is financially feasible if he can live up to his current contract. There’s no way around it, though. This is a make-or-break year for Jackson, in my opinion. He has a clean slate, but he also doesn’t have the old regime that drafted him and extended him to back him up if things don’t go as planned this year.

When looking at the Bears roster, it’s pretty clear they are in the midst of a rebuild. Because of that, it can be easy to look at multiple position groups and weigh which one might be their weakest link. Three spots on the depth chart stick out as vulnerable areas.

  • Offensive Line (yes, I still don’t think this will be a stellar group)
  • Wide Reciever
  • Defensive Line

An argument can be made for the defensive line being the weakest group, especially when looking at who has walked out the door this off-season and what remains. Ultimately, much of this conversation will come down to how recent free agent signing, Justin Jones, plays. The Bears have been stacked with talent and overall depth on the defensive line for a while. Now they are left with more questions than answers. It’s also worth noting that this defense relies on having a stud three-technique, which is why Jones is so important. It will take some time to build depth, but this seems like more of an exploratory year than it does a building exercise on the defensive line.

I guess the Bears will be doing plenty of work next year to rebuild the defensive front, including their edge rushers. That’s factoring in Robert Quinn not being expected to be around much longer. The good news is that even if the defensive line is a little weaker than what fans are used to, their secondary should be vastly improved this year, which will ultimately help the entire defense.

NFL: New York Jets at New England Patriots Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

I wouldn’t rule out a veteran addition at some point down the line, but I also believe the Bears will give this current group some time to show what they have. When you look at the current depth chart, they have three players locked in. Darnell Mooney, Byron Pringle, and third-round pick Velus Jones Jr. After that, there’s a mix of upside but unproven players with players like N’Keal Harry, Dante Pettis, Tajae Sharpe, David Moore, Equanimeous St. Brown, and Dazz Newsome.

While it’s not a stellar group, I believe that with guys like Harry and Pettis, it’s worth seeing what they have to offer before they go out and sign a veteran over 30. Think of someone like Cole Beasley, who, while still productive, is a slot-only type of player and his best days are likely behind him.

Also, remember that if the Bears keep six receivers, at least one of those guys will need some quality special teams experience. This means that could leave only two spots for those names above. That’s not a lot, and frankly, they can probably find productive enough players to justify not signing someone like Beasley.

I think this goes without saying, but it’s too early for anyone to have an informed opinion. Not only has Matt Eberflus not coached a game yet, but they are in the beginning stages of a pretty extensive rebuild.

If you’re asking me if I believe that Eberflus will get a second contract, I would say we should revisit this conversation after the end of the year. Yes, it’ll still be very early in the process, but hey, this team is about the future, right?

NFL: Chicago Bears OTA Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

That’s a good question that I think will be answered with a combination of overall numbers and the eye test. Even with the veteran addition along the offensive line over the past few days, there are still several questions about the support staff Justin Fields will have to work with. Does that mean it won’t be good enough? Not necessarily, but from an injury standpoint, there’s still a lot to be seen.

I believe that by the end of the year, the worst thing that can happen for the Bears in the 2022 season is to still not know if Fields is the guy. If Fields is bad, there’s a good chance the Bears will have a top-three pick next spring. If Fields is good, there’s still a chance the Bears could end up with a top-7-10 pick. If Fields falls somewhere in the middle, the Bears will be in a high enough draft slot to take a quarterback but may not know if they need to. That’s what I’m most interested in this coming season because answers are needed. While I believe he will take a big step this year, he still has to prove it to become a reality.

Ultimately, I believe it should be considered a win if Fields can put up similar numbers to what Josh Allen did in his second year back in 2019. Better and quicker decision-making is critical. His overall development should be easy to spot. It also helps that all five 2021 first-round quarterbacks are expected to start this season. That means they’ll also have the comparisons to use with the other quarterbacks from this class (fair or not).

As long as the offensive line holds up and the new offensive coaching staff is as big of an upgrade as most believe they will be, Fields will have enough around him to make a fair and objective evaluation of him after Year 2.