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Bears Mailbag: Week 1 gamesmanship, Cole Kmet breakout, the state of the o-line, and more

The first mailbag of the 2022 regular season is here. We’ll tackle all of your questions from Cole Kmet’s breakout season, to what general manager Ryan Poles could have done differently this off-season.

Chicago Bears v Cleveland Browns Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

The 2022 NFL regular season is upon us as we enter Week 1, and optimism for each fan base is usually at an all-time high at this point in the year. The League’s opener kicks off tomorrow night in Los Angeles with the defending Super Bowl champion Rams facing the Buffalo Bills. Could this be an early preview so this year’s Super Bowl matchup? Only time will tell.

For the Chicago Bears, expectations appear differently. The objective of any sport is always to win. Yet, this team heads into the 17-game slate with (65%) of its roster changed from just one year ago. They also rank third highest in dead cap space, trailing only the Houston Texans and Atlanta Falcons (thanks to Matt Ryan). Usually, when a team combines a high dead cap total with a sizable roster shuffle, the wins are few and far between. Can the Bears break the mold? Again, only time will tell.

Regardless of their outlook on the season, this promises to be a much more intriguing year than we saw in 2021. That alone is worth being excited about.

For the last several months, the talk about the team’s best five offensive linemen has been a popular one. I’m one of many who believed that the Bears would make this a priority this off-season, especially considering that both general manager Ryan Poles and assistant general manager Ian Cunningham were offensive linemen.

Free agency got off to a slow start with just Lucas Patrick signed to play center. Poles did add four more offensive linemen in the draft, but all four came on Day 3 of the draft, and only two remain on the active 53-man roster. Since the draft, Poles also added veteran Riley Reiff to the mix and shuffled around a few of their young names, including Teven Jenkins.

I think the topic of their “best” and “smartest” five are different conversations. Considering Reiff’s track record, you’d almost have to group him into one of your “best” five at the moment, right? Unfortunately, that would push out one of Braxton Jones or Larry Borom.

That’s where I think the “smart” part of this conversation comes in because this season is about zooming out. It’s a long-term approach that will experience plenty of growing pains. If they are lucky, it will also produce quality development, which should help shorten their list of needs for the 2023 off-season. The only way to truly do something like that is to give as many young players as possible the chance to play early and often.

My “best” five would probably be Reiff, Cody Whitehair, Lucas Patrick, Jenkins, and Borom. My “smart” five would be exactly how they have it now. All three younger linemen have shown enough competency and growth, and I believe that it’s well worth the investment to give them their starting opportunities. If things do not go as planned over the first few weeks, maybe they decide to slide someone like Reiff in there. Maybe by then, someone like Alex Leatherwood will be ready to see his second chance. At least for the time being, I think what they’ve done so far has been their best approach.

AFC Wild Card Playoffs - Pittsburgh Steelers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

I think we can all agree when I say, thank God the regular season is finally here. It’s been a busy offseason for the Bears, but I think we’ve all grown tired of the constant projections involved with so many unknowns on this roster.

For Poles, I believe that most of the criticism he has received has been directly tied to not bringing in established help. Many Bears fans have argued that while they are not established, the upside is there, and that is enough to call this offense “improved.” I’m not sure I sit in the same boat, but I’m also not ready to cast a whole lot of judgment until we see it all play out.

Rewinding this offseason and starting from the beginning, here are a couple of things I would have done differently at wide receiver;

1) Trade for Amari Cooper, trade down in the third round & select a receiver like Khalil Shakir in the middle rounds.

They had the cap space and, ultimately, had the draft capital to make it happen. I know Poles did not want to trade away limited draft picks, but this would have given this group a different perception heading into the season.

2) Sign JuJu Smith-Schuster or DJ Chark and draft George Pickens at No. 39.

If the trade for Cooper didn’t work out, my first move would have been to get a little more aggressive in free agency and add on higher in the draft. Both guys got one-year deals, and Smith-Schuster signed for less than $4 million overall. I know the optimism around Byron Pringle is high, but I feel like a better one-year signing could have also helped quite a bit. With Pickens, he was always at the top of my “want” list in the second round. That’s not to discount the picks of Kyler Gordon and Jaquan Brisker, but I truly believe Pickens will be someone they regret passing on.

And at offensive line;

Outside of signing one more veteran on the interior (earlier in the offseason), I’m not sure there was much more that could be done here. Here’s the reality. It’s tough to rebuild an offensive line over one off-season, especially with limited resources as a team and a limited pool of talent in both free agency and the early rounds of the draft.

All in all, I think Poles had some rough moments, but I also think he did close to the best he could with the number of resources he had. Next offseason will be a very different approach for him. Primarily because the majority of the “weeding out” process will be done, and they’ll have close to $100 million in cap space to work with. That’s not even accounting for an entire allotment of draft picks.

For me, it’s the Bears’ defensive front. Of all the changes we saw on the defensive side of the ball (outside of a new scheme and new coaches), the defensive line was the one that took the biggest hit.

They lost Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, and Bilal Nichols. There’s an argument to be made for the health of each player, but from a production standpoint, losing all four guys would be a considerable hit to any team. They did add Justin Jones, Al Quadin-Muhammad, and Arman Watts, but I don’t believe that makes up for the talent they lost up front. That only gets worse if they end up trading Robert Quinn at some point this season.

The good news? I believe that their revamped secondary and group of quality linebackers will help limit the overall blow. That said, this is an area (both defensive tackle and defensive end) where I expect them to hit very hard next off-season. Especially three-technique. **Cough, Cough** Jalen Carter.

Chicago Bears v Cleveland Browns Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

This is a question I’ve thought long and hard about for a while. The only “safe” conclusion I’ve been able to come to is tight end Cole Kmet. As some know, I wasn’t overly high on him coming out of the draft. My biggest issue (remaining) with him is his lack of presence in the red zone/end zone. With all of that being said, the third-year tight end did a lot of work with both quarterback Justin Fields and receiver Darnell Mooney during the offseason.

I think it’s also safe to assume that he’ll play a Robert Tonyan-like role in this offense. That should lead to a lot of safety-value type throws. I’m expecting Cole Kmet to surpass his receiving total from last year and would be surprised if he didn’t have more than 700 yards on the year.

It’s possible that Dante Pettis or Byron Pringle could explode onto the scene and become that second-leading receiver, but I’m feeling a big year in the yardage department coming from Kmet. For that reason, he’s my leading name to be the team’s No. 2 receiving leader this year.

Any time there’s an injury or something that’s unsure for a team heading into a game week, they’ll always try to use that as an advantage. That said, I think we are still a week or two away from seeing Lucas Patrick snap the ball. As of Monday, he still had a brace on his right (snapping hand). He’s about five weeks removed from surgery, but I’d guess the Bears will want to play it safe with him.

It’s certainly possible that they could slide him out to right guard for a game or two. I believe the likely scenario is that he’ll sit until he’s healthy enough to play center. I’m not sure it makes sense to displace Teven Jenkins at right guard, especially if the plan for Sam Mustipher is for him to go to the bench once Patrick is healthy.

Again, it’s my guess, but I think it’s more likely we see Lucas Patrick not play on Sunday than it is for him to start at a position other than center.