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Bears Mailbag: Pass rush help on the way, expectations for Justin Fields, and more

Training Camp 2023 is here! We took your questions and did our best to provide answers into what should be an exciting 2023 Chicago Bears season.

Syndication: The Indianapolis Star Robert Scheer/IndyStar / USA TODAY NETWORK

There’s light at the end of the tunnel, folks. The 2023 NFL regular season is less than 50 days away, and all teams will have fully reported to training camp by midweek. That includes the Chicago Bears, who will officially report to camp on Tuesday and start practice on Wednesday.

It’s been a busy off-season in Chicago, especially for a team that entered the off-season with the most cap space in the league and the No. 1 overall pick. Despite the litany of moves and roster turnover, there are plenty of questions to be answered in the coming weeks. After all, the Bears are entering Year 2 of an extensive tear-down and rebuild. With many questions come even more possibilities. We’ll dive into your questions regarding future additions, contract extensions, and how we see things playing out in the coming weeks—all of this and more in a special edition of our Bears mailbag.

This is a question that I’m surprised hasn’t been a bigger talking point as the off-season has pressed on.

Here’s what I’ll say: With a team like the Bears in the beginning stages of a rebuild, it’s wise not to rule out anything. Don’t get me wrong, Cairo Santos has been largely outstanding in his second stint in Chicago. In three years, Santos is 77-for-85 (91%) in the field goal department. The bigger issue(s)? All eight of his misses have come from beyond 40 yards. He also struggled with extra points in 2022, going just 27-for-32 (84%).

The reality with Santos is quite simple. Most of the time, he’s as reliable as they come. But he doesn’t possess a great leg, which becomes a bigger issue as the weather gets cold. In a perfect world, he stays consistent and remains the Bears’ kicker for years to come. As we’ve learned, kickers can “lose it,” though. Camp will be a big test for Santos to make sure he can maintain consistency, especially inside of 40 yards.

I would give Santos the “leg up” (pun intended), but I absolutely wouldn’t rule out undrafted free agent Andre Szmyt. The local product has quite a productive career at Syracuse, becoming the school’s all-time leader in points (454). He was also the most accurate kicker in program history and has a strong leg. Rookie kickers can be unpredictable, though. We see it every year when guys get drafted and bust. Others don’t work out on their first stop and go on to have productive careers.

So, while I’d say Szmyt has a shot, it’s hard to objectively predict him as the team’s Week 1 starter without seeing how camp plays out for both kickers. Here’s what I will say- It should be one of the more underrated “battles” in camp this year. It’s one that is well worth keeping an eye on.

Corey, as always, I appreciate the questions. I can always count on you for some good/fun ones!

I know these are two separate questions, but in some ways, I think the two impact each other. First, this will be a huge year for Justin Fields. Regardless of what we believe (as fans and/or spectators), this regime planted a firm flag in the Fields camp. Despite not drafting him, they chose to give him a second look and traded away the No. 1 overall pick. I don’t need to tell anybody how uncommon it is to receive the top pick and how unlikely it’ll be that Chicago will have the same chance in the near future. So, while their decisions this off-season might feel like a small note, it’s a significant one. I do believe that Fields will have a big Year 3. The weapons are there, he’s in his second year in the same offense for the first time in a while, and the offensive line should be improved. The onus is all on the quarterback, and I’ll bet on his plus-tools any day of the week. There are a lot of things I’m struggling to predict for this year, but I believe that we’ll come out of 2023 knowing that Fields is the quarterback of the future. Not just Top 15-18 good but Top 10-12 good.

As far as head coach Matt Eberflus and when his “clock” officially starts, you can make a good argument that it should be this year. Yes, Chicago is still rebuilding/re-shaping their roster. But they’ll also be two off-seasons into their vision, and Eberflus kept his coaching staff primarily intact. I don’t think it’s realistic to have “playoff or bust” expectations in 2023, but we should see significant improvement when we zoom out over the season as a whole, right? Look at Dan Campbell in Detroit, for example. If they don’t go on that run in the second half of last year, does he have a job this year? If so, how long is his leash? That’s the type of thought process I’m taking with Eberflus. It doesn’t need to start pretty, but if they are sitting with seven-plus wins at the end of the season, I would have some serious doubts about his ability to be the head coach of a successful NFL team.

It’s easy to wipe away a (3-14) record in the first year of a very extensive rebuild. That’s about where the leash ends, though. The context will always be key but drastic improvements need to be made in 2023. If the Bears don’t finish the season with a prevailing narrative of 2024 being the first year of their contention window, something (or many things) has gone wrong. That could be either Fields, Eberlfus, or both.

The chances of general manager Ryan Poles heading into Week 1 with their current configuration on the defensive line feel extremely slim to me. At this point, it feels like a matter of who they’ll add and not if they’ll add. I’d be somewhat surprised if we saw an impact signing on the interior defensive line, but it’s highly likely that we see another edge rusher added in the coming days/weeks.

For me, the bigger question will be, how big of an impact move will that be? (More on that below)

I have minimal concerns that Poles won’t actively add a few more pieces to this roster before we see them play their first regular season game in September.

I’m sure this first part of the question is on most Bears fans’ minds heading into this week. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t been wondering about the same exact topic. It’s clear Chicago needs a better edge rusher if they plan to drastically improve upon their horrifically low sack numbers from a season ago.

Right now (if I had to guess), I think we’ll see Yannick Nagkoue signed over the next few days. From what I can gather, the price tag seems to be the biggest issue. Ngakoue is a quality pass rusher that regularly gets after the quarterback and stays healthy. The bigger issues is that he is bad against the run and will be 29 by the end of the season. There’s always going to be an added value for true pass rushers, but at some point, his rumored price tag (two years, $20 million) might have to come down in order for him to sign with a team. The other real option I see is Bryce Huff. Huff projects as the fifth defensive end for the New York Jets and is currently playing on a one-year, $4.3 million deal after he was tagged with a second-round restricted free agent tender. The fourth-year player has always been a rotational piece but broke out in 2022 with the league’s highest pressure rate. Much like Ngakoue, he severely lacks against the run. The question with Huff will be compensation. He’ll be a free agent in 2024 and isn’t a complete player. There’s considerable risk involved, which begs the question... What is he actually worth in a trade? My guess would be an early Day 3 pick, but is that enough value for the Jets to part ways with a valuable depth piece? Only time will tell.

At swing tackle, it’s very likely going to be Larry Borom. He’s played on both the right and left side, as well as inside. Borom has proved not to be a great starter but should add plenty of value as a swing offensive lineman that can play four spots along the offensive line. I wouldn’t mind them bringing in a veteran, but my guess is that they’ll want to see how some of their younger tackles develop as the preseason moves forward. One name I’ll be keeping an eye on is Kellen Diesch, who was an undrafted free agent last year out of Arizona State. I had him as an early Day 3 talent, and he should see valuable snaps with the second team throughout camp.

Finally, how the running back room pans out will be one of the more fascinating training camp storylines. I’m higher on Khalil Herbert than most, but even I can admit that his value drops if he can’t be a better pass blocking and receiver out of the backfield. He’s unquestionably their most explosive runner, but as Eberflus has pointed out on multiple occasions, they want running backs who can do the other things right. My guess is that Herbert and D’Onta Foreman will start the season receiving the bulk of the snaps. I do think Roschon Johnson is their long-term answer, but much like Jordan Howard a few years back, it might take time for the rookie to get on the field and prove himself worthy of an important role. Travis Homer is more of a third-down back with plenty of value on special teams. All in all, I think Johnson and Foreman will be interchangeable, with Herbert being the change of pace back. By the end of the year, I think Johnson will be taking the most snaps, but Herbert should always have a role due to his explosiveness.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Atlanta Falcons Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

What’s that you hear? Oh, that’s right. It’s the noise of people shuffling to save this next take for later in the year when I’m dead wrong. Don’t get me wrong, I’m pretty optimistic this season, but I also think questions like this allow us to look at the other side of the season. Sure, there should be plenty of positive developments, but every year, we see the opposite happen. Sometimes with key players. I’m not sure I can narrow this down to one player, so I’ll go ahead and give two names.

  1. WR Chase Claypool

Low-hanging fruit, I know. To be fair, though... I wasn’t a big fan of the acquisition last November. In hindsight, the Bears gave up No. 32 overall (which would normally be a first-round pick) for a guy with 14 catches for 140 yards and no touchdowns. I won’t harp too much on last season; as wide receivers coach Tyke Tolbert pointed out, Claypool had a difficult learning curve, being acquired mid-season. My reason why I think Claypool is going to disappoint is because of his target share. Darnell Mooney appears healthy and ready to go. In a perfect world, he’s a top-notch No. 2 target behind D.J. Moore. His relationship with Fields only helps strengthen that. Factor in Cole Kmet’s presence at tight end, and I’m struggling to see how Claypool’s production as a No. 3 or 4 target in this offense will yield a big return. The motivation should be there, considering he’s in a target share, but sometimes things just break poorly. That’s what I see happening here.

2. LG Teven Jenkins

This one might surprise some folks but hear me out. If Jenkins can play a full season without injury, I think he’s in for a big one. We saw his dominance in flashes last year. The talent is there. We know this. The biggest issue I have is his inability to stay on the field through his first two years in the league. Back issues don’t magically get better the older you get. Jenkins missed four games last year and failed to finish two of his 11 starts. All of this is to simply say health is the biggest obstacle standing in the way of a Jenkins’ breakout or a future in doubt heading into 2024.

Man... That’s a tough one. It’s funny that there’s probably a large portion of the fanbase that will look over the roster before camp starts and tries to predict exactly what you’re asking right now. Every year, we have the glorified training camp hero. Rarely do they make the team, and they almost always end up back on the practice squad.

For this year, there are a few good contenders: Roy Mbaeteka, Doug Kramer, and our favorite local kicker, Szmyt.

Mbaeteka is an interesting one because he comes from the International Players Pathway Program (IPP). The Nigerian offensive lineman spent time with the New York Giants in camp last year and refused a futures contract this off-season. He showed some promise, and his size/length is incredible. It’s a really fun story, and even if he doesn’t make the team, he’ll have an exemption to stay on the practice squad all season without counting toward their 16-player limit.

Kramer is another local product that was drafted last year on Day 3 but missed the entire season with a Lisfranc injury. Some are hoping he can show enough to win the starting center job. Only time will tell how it pans out, but after missing a year, the deck will be stacked against him.

I’m going to use my pick for this year’s training camp hero on Szmyt. He’s another local product with a fun story. He went from walk-on at Syracuse to the program’s leading scorer by the time he left. I’ve already highlighted the kicking battle above, but this would be a fun story many will get on board with.

Much like most rookies, expectations should always be kept realistic in Year 1. Last year, we saw Kyler Gordon (also a second-round pick) struggle for the better part of his rookie season. Safety Jaquan Brisker played fairly well and is expected to take the next step this year.

Stevenson is an interesting name for a few reasons. After starting his college career at Georgia, he transferred to Miami. Once he got to Miami, his play was pretty dang impressive. As with any draftee, there are always areas in his game to clean up, but his pure size-to-speed combination is something that should suit him very well in this defense.

It didn’t take him long to win starting reps during the off-season, and the coaching staff has continued to rave about him. Stevenson does not lack confidence, that’s for sure. Ultimately, I think we can expect an up-and-down rookie campaign, but I believe he’ll fare better than Gordon did in Year 1. I think his size-to-speed profile fits better, but most importantly, him staying on the boundary will be a big help to him in Year 1. The Bears’ secondary has a lot of potential due to its high ceiling. Stevenson is a big part of that.

While I love the question, anyone who has followed Windy City Gridiron knows that Robert can do a much better job breaking down the tape on how well Stevenson will fare in Year 1 in his new gig over at Da Bears Blog.

There will be many people in the football world (and Bears Twitter) who are much smarter than me and can articulate this answer much better than I can. That said, I’ll give it a shot and see where it goes.

My theory for why the Bears ranked at the bottom in this category is simple. Offensive coordinator Luke Getsy didn’t have the proper personnel in Year 1 to make his offense truly work. He was working with a young quarterback in his second year (first in that offense), one of the league’s worst offensive lines, and a receiving group where his Top 3 options were Darnell Mooney, Byron Pringle, and Equanimeous St. Brown.

Ideally, you’d have Mooney and Claypool mixing and matching as your X and slot receivers and D.J. Moore as your Z. This allows Moore to constantly be on the move, which is what most of the league’s No. 1’s are allowed to do in successful offenses. Mooney can also sub into this role, as he has quite a bit of value as a motioning receiver. Really, what this will allow the Bears to do is use their Top 3 receivers in a versatile fashion and keep defenses guessing. It really comes down to personnel and having the right fits to be able to run this type of offense. The good news? I think the Bears finally have that.

Overall, this offensive personnel is a much closer match to what Getsy had in Green Bay (minus the offensive line). The Bears’ run game and versatility should also help that out. More versatile pieces, better scheme fits, and a young quarterback who can control the entire offense should lead to more motion, more success, and most importantly, much more points.