The NFL, once built on cliches, platitudes and coach-speak, needs to modernize its morsels of motto.
Winning isn’t everything, it’s having a high draft pick. The sport of Vince Lombardi has become the haven of Stephen Ross. The owner’s Miami Dolphins arrive Sunday at Soldier Field without a first-round pick next year nor a third-rounder in 2024 following an NFL investigation that found him guilty of tampering but fell short of punishing him for encouraging former coach Brian Flores to lose in 2019 to enhance the team’s draft position.
Is that why teams don’t want to admit when they are clearly in the midst of a full-fledged rebuild?
The Chicago Bears are clearly in one of those organizational overhauls in the first season under general manager Ryan Poles and coach Matt Eberflus, a point that was driven home when weak-side linebacker Roquan Smith was traded Monday for draft capital right on the heels of a deal that sent defensive end Robert Quinn packing.
That’s OK, and extra draft ammunition made it easier to turn around and acquire wide receiver Chase Claypool on Tuesday while still having eight picks for the April draft.
We knew this was a rebuild before the season started. The Khalil Mack trade in March and constant roster turnover was a dead giveaway. Poles took an asset that didn’t fit into long-range plans — Quinn — and moved him to the Philadelphia Eagles and another in Smith — whom the Bears couldn’t find common ground with on a contract extension — and sent him to the Baltimore Ravens.
What now with the trade deadline passed and nine games remaining? The Bears already have made some good discoveries. Running back Khalil Herbert is tied for seventh in the league with 563 yards while ranking 21st in carries while sharing the load with David Montgomery. Rookie left tackle Braxton Jones has proved he deserves the look he has been getting. Strong safety Jaquan Brisker is a foundational piece moving forward. Free safety Eddie Jackson has experienced a renaissance after his play had dipped.
Here are three ideas for the Bears to implement with the focus on player development and growth as Poles, Eberflus and their staffs evaluate what pieces will fit for next season and beyond.
1. Start Alex Leatherwood.
The Bears made a long play by claiming Leatherwood off waivers, assuming a contract that included $5.9 million guaranteed. The offensive line no doubt will be a focus in the offseason. With Leatherwood back from a four-week stint on the non-football illness list while he battled mononucleosis, he’s working to regain strength and weight.
It makes sense to plug Leatherwood into the lineup at some point to see if the scouting reports the team had on the 2021 first-round draft pick match the player they have. Whether he’s used at right tackle — Larry Borom is expected to miss his second game with a concussion — or guard, throw Leatherwood into the fire and see how he does. Why wait until the spring when dissecting line play without full pads is an exercise in futility?
This isn’t a move that needs to be made this week or next — there are plenty of games remaining — but there’s no reason to go through the entire season without allowing Leatherwood a chance to show offensive line coach Chris Morgan what kind of player he is and if he should be in position to compete for a starting job. Why not plug him in as soon as there is full confidence he’s as ready as he will be?
“I feel like I am more comfortable,” Leatherwood said. “Just getting used to the play style Coach C-Mo expects of us as players, what we’re trying to do as an offense and in the scheme, I feel I’m getting more comfortable. It’s coming along well.”
2. Open up the passing game.
Claypool gives quarterback Justin Fields the kind of big, explosive target the offense has been lacking, but it’s going to be difficult to see what he can do if coordinator Luke Getsy doesn’t prioritize the passing game.
The Bears are running the ball on 59.9% of offensive plays — most in the league and the highest figure in the NFL since the 2004 Pittsburgh Steelers ran the ball 60.8% of the time during quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s rookie season, according to teamrankings.com. How much does the Bears’ run-pass ratio stand out? The 2020 Ravens (55%) are the only team to finish a season above 54% since 2010.
Fields is averaging 19.9 pass attempts per game, although the figure is 22.8 over the last five games. That’s not a lot of opportunities to spread between Claypool, Darnell Mooney, tight end Cole Kmet and others. Mooney is averaging 5.5 targets per game and Equanimeous St. Brown is next at 2.9.
Claypool comes from a Steelers offense averaging 36.9 passes per game. As the No. 2 target in that system (Diontae Johnson had 76 targets), Claypool had 50 passes thrown his way.
The offensive line has challenges in protecting Fields, but the Bears need to start slinging it more — especially if they want to get a good handle on how they value Mooney and Claypool, who both potentially could sign extensions in the offseason. How else can they expect Fields to advance as a passer, especially in the pocket, if the league’s No. 1 rushing offense doesn’t throw more?
Getsy was asked if Fields’ recent improvements and Claypool’s arrival would naturally lead to more throwing. He didn’t seem to be of that mind but probably wouldn’t say if he was.
“We’re going to do whatever it takes to win,” Getsy said. “That’s been my focus and the way we’ve approached everything. If that’s the best way to win, then yes. If that’s not the best way, no. Our matchups are more important to me than a stat for anybody. We make sure we try to put our players in the best position to have success.
“We’re in the process of winning games right now. We’ll evaluate this as it goes. We’re not really necessarily in the process of evaluating over the top of winning games.”
It’s fair to question how committed the organization is to winning after trading Quinn and Smith in less than a week, but Getsy is speaking from the heart when he talks about his desire to win.
3. Reinsert rookie Velus Jones Jr. as the punt returner.
The Bears might be 5-3 or 4-4 if Jones had not muffed punts in the fourth quarter of losses to the New York Giants and Washington Commanders. He has been on the shelf the last two weeks — a wise decision with Jones having five returns, one fair catch and the two miscues.
Jones has been getting work in practice, but most of those come off the Jugs machine as the Bears can’t wear out the leg of punter Trenton Gill. The most valuable reps will come in games. Why not throw Jones back there and see if he’s ready to make better decisions and be more secure with the ball?
Special teams coordinator Richard Hightower could still deploy Dante Pettis when the team wants a fair catch in a critical game moment. Otherwise, let Jones work through his inexperience and show what he can do. He has proved to be mentally strong through struggles. The Bears used a third-round pick on him — it doesn’t make a lot of sense not to involve him fully on special teams, especially with his role limited in the offense.
“I catch a lot of balls after practice,” Jones said. “Reps are important for me to just lock in.”
Jaylen Waddle, Dolphins wide receiver
Information for this report was obtained from NFL scouts.
Waddle, 5-foot-10, 182 pounds, is in his second season in Miami. He was drafted sixth in 2021 after the Dolphins traded up from No. 12 to select him. Waddle is fourth in the league with 727 receiving yards, trailing only teammate Tyreek Hill (961), the Buffalo Bills’ Stefon Diggs (764) and Minnesota Vikings’ Justin Jefferson (752).
Waddle caught 104 passes for 1,015 yards, averaging 9.8 yards per catch as a rookie, but he has become a big-play threat with quarterback Tua Tagovailoa in coach Mike McDaniel’s offense, averaging a league-high 17.3 yards per catch this season. Considering the problems the Bears had with Jefferson in Week 5 at Minnesota, the dual threat of Waddle and Hill creates a problem. Waddle has gone over 100 yards in four games this season. In comparison, Darnell Mooney has reached 100 yards four times in 41 career games.
“It will be interesting to see what the Bears do,” the scout said. “I would expect them to play a lot of Cover-2 and just try to keep the ball in front of them. If they do that, everyone in the back seven has to tackle. If you don’t tackle against Miami, you lose.
“The new scheme and playing with Tyreek has really benefitted Waddle. Tyreek draws the most attention. If you’re going to double or play cloud coverage, it’s going to Tyreek. So Waddle gets more single-man coverage and less attention. He has ridiculous speed and he can shift gears whenever he wants. This isn’t long track speed. This guy can turn it on in a flash. He is electric with the ball in his hands.
“The Dolphins get him loose on screens, unders, quick wheels, back-shoulder fades — whatever you want. His route running is really underrated, and that’s the case with a lot of guys where we just focus on their speed. He’s a good route runner and that’s what you expect with him coming from Alabama. He played in a pro system. He understands how to create separation. They are creating windows for him against zone coverage and situations where he can run away from man coverage and they’re getting him free access off the ball, and that’s why his yards per catch has almost doubled.”