Kamil Krzaczynski/Associated Press
This article originally ran at Bleacher Report
If the Chicago Bears went into the offseason with an intent to provide stronger support for Justin Fields, they’ve failed miserably up to this point.
On the first day of April, don’t be the fool to believe this roster looks better than it did three months ago. Regardless of what the Bears’ brass says to the media, it hasn’t done enough for a young quarterback in need of reliable pass protection and more offensive playmakers.
General manager Ryan Poles tried to sell the team’s offseason moves while at the NFL owner’s meetings in Palm Beach, Florida.
“We’re always going to be aggressive to get (Fields) the tools he needs to be successful. It’s just the timing, and the talent level and the cap situation, all of those are going to dictate when we can go and when we can’t go. But I think what we’ve done so far is at least establish a little bit of growth in the roster, plus the scheme, with the coaching, I see him getting better even from what we did right now.”
Let’s be realistic rather than optimistic.
The Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets made convincing efforts to aid their second-year signal-callers in Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson, respectively.
The Jaguars hired a Super Bowl-winning head coach in Doug Pederson and added multiple pass-catchers in Christian Kirk, Zay Jones and tight end Evan Engram. They also inked a deal with All-Pro guard Brandon Scherff. The Jets acquired a pair of pass-catching tight ends, C.J. Uzomah and Tyler Conklin, without breaking the bank along with Pro Bowl guard Laken Tomlinson.
That’s how you help your up-and-coming quarterback.
In fairness to Chicago, Jacksonville and New York went into free agency flushed with cap space. The Bears traded three-time All-Pro edge-rusher Khalil Mack for financial flexibility that will help them in 2023 more than in 2022.
With that said, the Bears could’ve made one decent splash in free agency. They currently have $15.5 million cap space.
The Athletic’s Kevin Fishbain made the case that Chicago didn’t have any high-level wide receivers to target on the open market:
“Let’s look at free agency thus far. The Bears were not going to bring back Allen Robinson (and he wasn’t going to return). They were never going to pay what Christian Kirk got. Would Russell Gage, Zay Jones, JuJu Smith-Schuster or D.J. Chark be deemed “WR1” options? Would any be “the guy”? Each would certainly improve the receiver depth, but we’re not talking about Davante Adams or Tyreek Hill, here. We’re talking about another “WR2” to join (Darnell) Mooney.”
Despite the Bears’ cap situation and a pool of average wideouts, they could’ve spent about $6.8 million per year on Conklin, who’s coming off a career season with 61 catches for 593 yards and three touchdowns. Why not take a look at Austin Hooper for $6 million annually? Both tight ends could’ve paired well with Cole Kmet in two-tight ends sets as a replacement for Jimmy Graham if the front office didn’t want to pay big money for a No. 2 wideout.
Per Fishbain, the Bears will put their eggs in the draft basket to address holes at wide receiver.
“The hope in this draft will be that a second-round receiver can develop into a productive, top-line guy and be a complement to Mooney,” he wrote. “More work needs to be done, as a current group of Mooney, Byron Pringle and Equanimeous St. Brown is a downgrade from the past few seasons.”
While logical, that strategy should frustrate Bears fans. The team doesn’t have a first-round pick because of last year’s draft-day trade with the New York Giants that involved Fields. Moreover, the front office must also consider needs at offensive tackle, guard, cornerback and safety.
If the Bears don’t hit on a receiver with one of their second-round selections, they better have a Day 3 gem who exceeds expectations, or else Mooney and Kmet will have to compensate for the lack of playmaking ability and depth within the pass-catching group.
Other than Mooney, none of the other receivers on the roster have more than 67 receptions in their careers. Last season, Pringle made strides, hauling in 42 passes for 568 yards and five touchdowns, but he posted those numbers with one of the league’s best quarterbacks in Patrick Mahomes. Fields isn’t even close to that level.
Aside from a lackluster group of perimeter weapons, the Bears leave Fields susceptible to an insurmountable amount of punishment in the pocket with a subpar offensive line. Teven Jenkins and Larry Borom, two second-year tackles, currently project as starters. As rookies, the former missed 11 games because of back surgery, and the latter gave up five sacks through 633 snaps, per Pro Football Focus.
As a second-round pick, Jenkins will likely have an opportunity to replace Jason Peters, who started in 15 games on Fields’ blind side. However, Jenkins is an unknown because of his injury-riddled 2021 term. The front office should look to upgrade over Borom, a fifth-rounder out of Missouri. Unless the Bears make a call for free-agent right tackle Daryl Williams, their best chance to bolster the position may not come until the draft.
Though incoming interior lineman Lucas Patrick can slide into the starting center position over Sam Mustipher, which is where he took most of his snaps last season with the Green Bay Packers, Chicago has to replace James Daniels at right guard.
In an offseason preview for the Bears, ESPN’s Jesse Rogers made a strong statement that hits on a hard truth.
“If the offensive line isn’t markedly better in 2022 then the GM hasn’t done his job,” Rogers wrote.
Well, we should pull out the red marker and give Poles a D for his work on that group thus far. A new center doesn’t move the needle.
Fields took 36 sacks (10th-most leaguewide) in 12 games last year. Sure, he needs to get rid of the ball at times to avoid unnecessary hits and sacks, but the club’s offensive line allowed quarterback pressures on 24.1 percent of dropbacks (13th-most) in 2021. With the lack of quality veteran additions to bolster that unit, we could see a replay of those shortcomings in 2022.
Chicago couldn’t control some of the unfavorable turns in free agency. Defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi agreed to a three-year, $40 million contract that tied up the team’s money before the club backed out of the deal because of his failed physical, and the Buffalo Bills matched the Bears’ offer sheet for versatile offensive lineman Ryan Bates.
Nonetheless, we shouldn’t give a pass to the Bears’ decision-makers because, according to Fishbain, they may not have a lot of patience with Fields’ development.
“If the sack numbers remain high, if he’s not doing a good job taking care of the football, and if he’s not leading scoring drives often enough, then the organization might have to consider the possibility that he isn’t the guy. We’ll learn a lot about how much of 2021’s struggles should fall on Fields by how he does in 2022.”
If the front office plans to hold Fields to a certain standard in the upcoming season, it must do a better job to put him in a position to succeed despite the circumstances.
Fields will work with a first-time head coach in Matt Eberflus; Luke Getsy, who will call plays for the first time in his NFL coaching career; and Andrew Janocko, who’s coached quarterbacks for two years in 2014 at Mercyhurst University and last year with the Minnesota Vikings.
With so much inexperience at key positions directly responsible for Fields’ progressions, Chicago cannot simply rely on rookies from the draft and expect to see significant growth in its second-year signal-caller who will adjust to a new system under coaches also learning on the job. That’s a recipe for a lot of growing pains.
Clearly, Poles has a rebuilding project in Chicago, but if he truly wants to find out if Fields can be the guy, the Bears should go bargain-bin shopping before and after the draft to pick up players ready to contribute in 2022.
Team salary cap tracker provided by Spotrac.com.
Maurice Moton covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @MoeMoton