2022 NFL Previews: Chicago Bears

The Chicago Bears have pivoted toward being a young team, which makes sense. If you aren’t going to be able to beat Aaron Rodgers you might as well try to outlive him. The youth movement is now in full effect with linebacker Khalil Mack, wide receiver Allen Robinson, defensive tackle Akiem Hicks, tight end Jimmy Graham, tackle Jason Peters, and linebacker Alex Ogletree all gone after playing significant roles last year.

The one veteran who did stick around is defensive end Robert Quinn, who is the oldest non-specialist on the team at 32 years old. Despite his status as the old man on the team, he is still playing incredible football.

He finished second in the NFL in sacks last year with 18.5. Not only was that total nearly 40 percent of all Chicago’s sacks last year, but it also set a franchise record for sacks in a season. Quinn is going to have a tough time repeating that feat without all the other talent surrounding him but he will still be the most valuable member of the Bears’ defense.

The rest of the defense is pretty young with a spattering of veteran presence. Linebacker Roquan Smith is the other exciting player on that side of the ball. He had always been regarded as a freakish athlete at the linebacker position but 2021 was when he finally put it all together on the field.

Smith had an incredible season, one that put him in the conversation for best linebackers in the game. His combination of strength and power in the run game and speed and agility in the passing game might be the best in the entire league. He still has one more step to go to reach the top tier of NFL linebackers but it is a step that he has a very good shot of taking this year.

The secondary also has a proven member, safety Eddie Jackson, but the rest of the unit is quite unproven. Jackson is a great option to lead the band of young corners and safeties because he has been in Chicago for a while. He knows what the fans and franchise expect from a young defensive back so hopefully, he will be able to help the next wave stand out as he did.

He has a good group of young guys to teach because the Bears took plyers in the secondary with their first two picks in this year’s draft. It was an approach that was a little confusing to some, especially with other, much more glaring, needs. It is very helpful to have a good secondary but not if positions like the offensive line, defensive line, and wide receiver are struggling to produce.

But the two players Chicago did draft have a chance to be difference makers. Safety JaQuan Brisker and cornerback Kyler Gordon are both incredibly gifted athletes that should translate to the NFL level.

Brisker could end up being the perfect running mate for Jackson on the back half of the defense. Jackson would be able to focus more on the over-the-top coverage while the rookie takes on more responsibility in the flats and the run game.

Gordon could play at any corner spot but his most probable landing place will be the slot. It would allow for him to use his quickness and length to make plays while not having to bear the responsibility of matchup up with any star receivers on the outside.

It also helps that the Bears have cornerbacks Jaylon Johnson and Tavon Young to man the outside positions, along with some other young, potential breakout, players. Johnson is a testament to the development of defensive backs in the Bears’ system. He was taken in the second round in the 2020 draft and has quietly emerged as a number one corner.

The rest of the Chicago defense will be filled out by quality veterans. Players such as cornerback DeAndre Houston-Carson, linebacker Nicholas Morrow, and defensive linemen Mario Edwards, Al-Quadin Muhammad, and Angelo Blackson will be perfect complements to the established talent and young players.

The 2022 version of the Chicago Bears clearly does not have a defense befitting of the legendary franchise but you can see that the pieces are in place. They certainly won’t field the worst defense in the league and there are a handful of players that could be key pieces of the unit going forward.

The offense also has some of the potential franchise players, just with a little more uncertainty. Quarterback Justin Fields is obviously the most intriguing of the bunch, and 2022 will be a very important year for him.

Fields’s struggles from last year can be chalked up to being a rookie on an underwhelming team but he won’t have that excuse this season. Although the team around him is about the same in terms of competency, Fields will have to show improvement in year two in order to prevent Chicago fans from turning souring on him.

He doesn’t have to do anything crazy like lead the team to the playoffs or make a Pro-Bowl but something that suggests he could be the quarterback of the future would go a long way. Upping his completion percentage from last season’s 58.9 percent or throwing more touchdowns than interceptions would both be very welcome signs for Bears fans.

The offensive line in front of Fields is an area that will also need improvement if the young quarterback is to take the next step. Chicago’s 2021 offensive line gave up a league-leading 58 sacks which is an absolutely horrendous situation for a developing quarterback.

The Bears brought back two 17-game starters, guard Cody Whitehair and center Sam Mustipher, but the other three spots are still up in the air. Tackle Teven Jenkins should be in line for one of the tackle spots after starting just two games as a rookie last year. The other spots will likely go to guard Lucas Patrick, who was signed in free agency from the Packers, and either young tackle Larry Borom or veteran tackle Shon Coleman.

Unfortunately for Fields, the weapons around him also arguably got worse. Losing number one receiver Allen Robinson is a huge blow for a player in Fields’s situation because he takes with him a certain kind of reliability and consistency.

That departure places a ton of pressure on wide receiver Darnell Mooney’s shoulders. Luckily, Mooney is talented enough for people to have confidence in him, both inside and outside of the Bears franchise. He is a trendy pick to have a huge season this year, which is saying a lot considering he had over 1,000 yards last season.

While I do believe in the hype surrounding Mooney, I think there is another pass-catcher on the Bears that is set to vault into superstardom. Tight end Cole Kmet will have the starting position all to himself this season after being behind/sharing the position with Jimmy Graham the last years.

Kmet is still the talented and athletic player that made him the first tight end drafted in 2020, and the only one taken before the third round. He is a complete player at the tight end position and can undoubtedly be a top tight end in the league. If he develops a good connection with Fields then he is not only set up for a great season but a great career.

The options behind those two players are a little slim, but someone will have to emerge as the third target for Fields. The best bet to do so is wide receiver Byron Pringle, who was signed in free agency from the Chiefs. Pringle obviously has playoff experience, although he was not needed in a significant role. He was the biggest signing of the offseason for the Bears (which says something itself) so he will most likely be placed in a big role, accordingly.

The wide receiver candidates after Pringle to catch passes from Fields are David Moore, Dazz Newsome, rookie Velus Jones, and N’Keal Harry (who was acquired via trade from the Patriots). Those players will likely each make plays from time to time but it is possible one of them separates from the pack and earns a more substantial role.

The last player that warrants mention on the Bears’ offense is running back David Montgomery. He may have been a bit underappreciated lately due to the fact that he was a part of the Chicago offense, but Montgomery has been effective.

He has been the lone bright spot on that side of the ball at times, especially when Fields was injured. Montgomery has strung together three quality seasons to start his career and is still young enough to improve. At this point, he is likely just waiting for the offensive line to get better in front of him before he can truly break out as a star back.

Much of what improvements Chicago makes this year will be up to the play from Fields but they are probably capped out at around a .500 team at best. I don’t think they get quite there though, as I view this squad as a 7-10 team.

They are helped out by playing in a division with the uninspiring Lions, meh Vikings, and receding Packers (although I still don’t see Green Bay losing to Chicago anytime soon). There are a couple of very winnable games for the Bears, they just have to be good enough to take advantage of those.

If Fields takes a step forward in year two and the defense gets some solid contributions from its non-star players then this team could be a bit better than expected. I still think the lack of overall talent keeps them from a winning record but seven wins would be an improvement over last year (six wins) so that should be enough progress to keep Bears fans happy for a little bit.