A lot of hope is swirling around a Chicago Bears team that finished the season on a franchise-record 10-game losing streak.
But that’s what happens when the Bears head into the offseason with the No. 1 pick in the 2023 draft, a boatload of cash to spend in free agency and a high-profile new president and CEO.
As President Kevin Warren and general manager Ryan Poles get ready for a big year, the Tribune’s team of Bears writers tackles four questions facing the team.
1. The Bears’ hiring of Kevin Warren as president and CEO was ______.
Brad Biggs: Wonderful timing for the organization.
Ted Phillips’ retirement occurred when the franchise was able to attract a seemingly perfect candidate with experience at the highest levels of the NFL and an understanding of the dynamics involved in seeking and building a new stadium. In going outside the organization with at least a few qualified internal candidates, Chairman George McCaskey opted for a new president who no doubt will infuse Halas Hall with fresh ideas and perspectives. Considering where the Bears are off the field — attempting to finalize the purchase of land in Arlington Heights — and on the field — no postseason wins in 12 years — it looks like an ideal move.
Colleen Kane: A move that should give Bears fans hope.
Warren has all the right credentials for the position, not the least of which is his oversight of the Vikings building U.S. Bank Stadium, a gorgeous facility that is a great model for what the Bears could build in Arlington Heights. His tenure as Big Ten commissioner showed his ability to get big things done, from the additions of USC and UCLA to the conference to a massive media-rights deal, even if there’s lingering criticism over his early handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. We don’t know yet if his hiring will help the Bears put a better product on the football field than they have for most of the last decade. But Warren’s track record makes him an obvious choice to lead the charge to build a better organization at Halas Hall — and in Arlington Heights.
Dan Wiederer: Refreshing. And energizing.
With Phillips retiring next month, the Bears had an opportunity to reimagine how they will operate going forward. Pursuing Warren was a swing-for-the-fences approach. And his hiring shows the Bears connected on the sweet spot of the barrel. Warren will instantly energize Halas Hall with his think-big ambition and vision-backed leadership. His presence will be notable. Plus, his past experience as Minnesota Vikings chief operating officer will be invaluable to the organization’s pursuit of a new stadium in Arlington Heights. With Warren providing direction from the very top of the organization, there will be a new and healthy pressure inside Halas Hall that will fuel every department to chase achievement on a weekly basis. “Good enough” will no longer be good enough. Complacency will no longer be acceptable or overlooked. Everyone in the organization will be pushed to elevate their performance. And that includes current general manager Ryan Poles, whose union with Warren should be productive as the Bears look to climb the standings ladder.
2. As Ryan Poles considers what to do with the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, he should ______.
Biggs: Make it business as usual for the time being.
It’s highly unlikely a trade — the most talked-about topic in town — would materialize anytime soon. The last time the No. 1 pick was traded, the St. Louis Rams moved up from No. 15 in a deal with the Tennessee Titans. That happened on April 14, 2016, two weeks before the draft. Three years ago the San Francisco 49ers moved up from No. 12 to No. 3 to be in position to draft a quarterback that turned out to be Trey Lance. That deal with the Miami Dolphins happened on March 26, 2020, four weeks before the draft. If there is a deal to be made — and it’s possible no team believes a quarterback in this class is worth moving up to No. 1 for — it’s more than two months away. So barring something unexpected, Poles has to prepare for free agency with the idea he will stay put at No. 1 and use that pick. That means heavy scouting for free agency, in which the Bears are expected to be active, and a comprehensive review of the draft from top to bottom. Basically, nothing changes unless a team calls with a package Poles believes would be more valuable to the franchise than the player he could take at No. 1. Obviously, that involves having a crystal-clear idea of how the top of the draft board will be stacked.
Kane: Dig into what trade options are available.
While Poles and Bears coaches and players insisted it was difficult to stomach the Week 18 loss to the Vikings to finish the season 3-14, that Sunday couldn’t have played out more perfectly for the organization. Considering the Houston Texans almost certainly are looking at a quarterback at No. 2, the Bears have the chance to trade the No. 1 pick to a quarterback-thirsty team for more draft capital. And depending on their offers, the Bears still could end up with a spot good enough to draft one of the top non-QBs. While Poles certainly could stay at No. 1 to make sure he gets his pick of players, trade scenarios seem like the way to go considering how many holes Poles has to fill on the roster.
Wiederer: Be open minded.
Poles will never again have this kind of luxury and flexibility to make any decision he sees fit for the team’s future. If other teams come calling with trade offers for quarterback Justin Fields, Poles has to listen. If it’s the No. 1 pick that teams want by offering a gift basket worth of premium draft selections, it’s Poles’ responsibility to turn that into an auction. With the number of holes the Bears have on their roster, the more opportunities they get to add potential impact playmakers over the next couple years, the better. Poles has been candid in saying he’s not pressuring himself to make an instant 2023 turnaround after the Bears finished with a franchise record and league-high 14 losses. His hope, instead, is to chart a course that sets the Bears up for sustainable success. And through that lens, in this moment in time, it’s imperative to work through all possibilities.
3. As the Bears head into the offseason, their biggest needs are ____.
Biggs: In the trenches.
The Bears have issues at nearly every position, but as a former offensive lineman, Ryan Poles has to understand his work must begin up front. This isn’t minimizing the need for a dynamic wide receiver or overlooking holes at weak-side linebacker and cornerback. Those are legitimate issues that require conversations and consideration. But the defensive line was woeful in 2022. The Bears couldn’t rush the quarterback or stop the run. Wholesale changes are required there via free agency and the draft. Poles drafted four offensive linemen on Day 3 last year and signed three stopgap veterans in Riley Reiff, Lucas Patrick and Michael Schofield. It’s possible the Bears hit on a long-term option at left tackle in Braxton Jones. However, they have to commit significantly greater resources to the line. They won’t be consistently competitive until they no longer are overmatched up front.
Kane: Pass rushers, offensive linemen and a wide receiver.
And those are just the start. The Bears have needs at a ton of positions, as would be expected of a 3-14 team. I listed pass rushers first because after Poles dealt Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn, the Bears finished with a league-worst 20 sacks in 2022 — safety Jaquan Brisker led the team with four. Bears defensive linemen didn’t register often as playmakers this season, and that’s a problem. I listed offensive linemen next because Justin Fields was sacked 55 times, tied for the most in the NFL with Russell Wilson. While Bears offensive linemen helped pave the way for a league-best rushing attack, pass protection was not where it needed to be and Poles should be in the market for an offensive tackle first. The Bears’ leading wide receiver was Darnell Mooney with 40 catches for 493 yards in 12 games, followed by Equanimeous St. Brown with 21 catches for 323 yards. Those are not the numbers of a healthy passing attack. Mooney, St. Brown and Chase Claypool will be back next season, and Poles downplayed the need to add a No. 1 receiver. I think the Bears need one.
Wiederer: Everywhere. Truly.
The 2022 Bears were terrible at stopping the run, unproductive rushing the passer, disappointing with their pass protection and historically bad throwing the football. So you choose where to start. Replenish and rebuild the front seven? Go for it. That’s a must. Find offensive linemen who can better protect Fields? That would certainly help the bid for offensive balance after the Bears led the NFL in rushing and finished last in passing. Playmakers and pass catchers to make Fields’ job easier? Yep, that too. Poles has a golden opportunity to use his free agency and draft resources to revitalize the depth chart. He also has the luxury of being right with whatever area of the team he chooses to prioritize.
4. Justin Fields’ 2022 season was ___.
Biggs: A thrill ride.
The Bears offense at times was a big-play machine. They led the NFL with eight runs of 40 or more yards and were tied for second with 20 carries of 20 or more yards. Many of those were designed runs for Fields or plays he created.
Here are the Bears totals of explosive runs and passes over the last four seasons, with their league ranking in parentheses:
- 2022: 8 (1)
- 2021: 1 (T-15)
- 2020: 3 (T-7)
- 2019: 2 (T-14)
- 2022: 20 (T-2)
- 2021: 13 (T-7)
- 2020: 8 (T-22)
- 2019: 5 (30)
- 2022: 7 (T-17)
- 2021: 7 (T-21)
- 2020: 3 (T-31)
- 2019: 2 (32)
- 2022: 37 (30)
- 2021: 40 (29)
- 2020: 42 (25)
- 2019: 39 (29)
Fields was involved in eight touchdowns of 25 or more yards, something the Bears as a team had only 11 of over the previous three seasons combined. The big-play element Fields adds to the offense is real and likely a key reason the team is expected to try to improve around him next season. The passing offense as a whole, however, remains a mess. There were 315 instances of a team having at least 200 net passing yards in the 2022 season. The Bears accounted for two. With six losses by 16 or more points, it’s concerning that Fields and the rest of the offense couldn’t produce better passing numbers when trying to play catch-up in the second half. The Bears have to give Fields a better chance to succeed, and he has to be considerably better at managing the position next season.
Kane: At times exhilarating and at times frustrating.
It was also fun. Who knew we would be able to say that about a season in which the Bears finished with a team-record 14 losses? Fields made it fun by wowing with his running ability in many games and showing flashes of brilliance with his arm. But the passing game’s struggles also made it frustrating, and, yes, those struggles fall in part on the offensive linemen and wide receivers but also on the quarterback. As everyone around the Bears acknowledged, Fields needs to improve in the passing game. It’s OK to be realistic about that while acknowledging that Fields’ playmaking ability has sparked a real hope among Bears fans that he is on track to be the star quarterback for which they’ve been waiting.
Wiederer: A step in the right direction.
Bears coaches challenged their second-year quarterback to demonstrate energizing leadership, show growth with his pocket presence and flash playmaking potential on a consistent basis. Check, check and check. If you didn’t feel the energy Fields brought in 2022, you were stubbornly trying not to. The Bears have never had a quarterback with this kind of electricity or this much long-term potential. And that is to be embraced and built upon. Still, the final summary of Fields’ second season can also be summarized like this: “He has come a long way and he still has a long, long way to go.” Becoming a quality playmaking starter is one thing. Solidifying yourself as a top-tier franchise quarterback is quite another. And to that latter point, Fields’ flaws and deficiencies in the passing game need to be addressed. Fields has to become quicker and more decisive with his reads. He has to improve his efficiency and productivity as a passer. He has to gain greater timing and rhythm in the pocket. And he has to complement his game-changing running explosion with a proven ability to win games as a passer, too. That also means becoming a coldblooded assassin in those game-on-the-line fourth quarter moments that separate the best teams and quarterbacks in the NFL from the average ones.