With the Chicago Bears sitting at the bottom of the NFC North, readers are looking ahead to next season: Can the team emulate Philadelphia Eagles general manager Howie Roseman’s moves? Is linebacker Jack Sanborn in the conversation to be a 2023 starter? Brad Biggs answers those questions and more in his weekly mailbag.
Should Ryan Poles do what the Eagles did for Year 3 of Jalen Hurts for Justin Fields entering his third season? Trade for a high value wide receiver, build the offensive line that fits the scheme around him, then go for defense in the draft. — @osobear70
There is a fevered pitch for the offseason that lies ahead for the Bears, so much so that I am beginning to wonder if some folks will be disappointed by the results. I believe Poles will be very active and he has the resources to accomplish pretty much anything he wants. But free agency is where you go to fortify — not buy — your roster. There are too many examples of teams that went gangbusters in free agency and wound up with disappointing results and too many veterans on overpriced contracts.
Let’s revisit January when Poles was hired and consider the comments he made before stating his goal to take the NFC North and never give it back.
“We’re going to build through the draft,” he said. “We’re going to acquire young, fast and physical football players. We’re going to be selective in free agency and we’re going to connect evaluation with valuation. We’re going to have a relentless approach to fix our weakness. We’re going to maintain great self-awareness of who we are. We’re going to solve problems with open communication and candor, and we’re going to consistently put players in position to succeed.”
Poles has a plan and has made it clear that he’s not looking for shortcuts. He can make some valuable roster additions without going wild in free agency.
To address some specifics from your question, who is the No. 1 wide receiver that is going to be available in a trade? Not a No. 2-type option like Chase Claypool but a bona fide No. 1? If that player exists it’s worthy of a discussion, but I doubt Poles would want to go consecutive drafts without a first-round pick. You are seeing more teams value proven commodities (high-quality experienced players) over draft capital, but most of these teams are ones that are closer to chasing a championship.
The Eagles didn’t build the offensive line this offseason around Hurts. That line already was elite and why Philadelphia was able to run the ball with so much success during the second half of last season. The Eagles had such a surplus of quality linemen they waived guard Nate Herbig in May after being unable to trade him. He would have been a nice addition for the Bears. Herbig was claimed by the New York Jets and has been a good starter for them.
Yes, the Bears are going to have to make a series of moves to improve the defense and that starts on the line. I could see them investing in a key free agent on the line and then adding a high pick in the draft to begin revamping the front seven.
Can Jack Sanborn be the future at middle linebacker? Kind of reminds me of a Nick Kwiatkowski-type. Solid fundamentals, not flashy but leaves it all out on the field. — @greenaction23
I like what Sanborn has shown the last two weeks with 12 tackles and two sacks against the Detroit Lions and seven tackles (all solos) the week before against the Miami Dolphins. Coach Matt Eberflus has raved about Sanborn’s instincts, and Sanborn has picked up where he left off in preseason, consistently being around the ball. That’s a very good sign.
With seven games remaining, I think he Sanborn has a chance to state a case for himself for next season. There are always going to be reservations about a player like Sanborn because of his speed — he ran a 4.73-second, 40-yard dash at thecombine — but he’s able to play faster, as scouts say, because he can key and diagnose plays, which is impressive for a rookie.
“Had linebackers in my career that guys can really know where the ball is every time,” Eberflus said. “They’re able to see, read the steps of the back but also see the linemen in front of them for the keys and have their eyes move from one spot to another to diagnose plays really fast, and he has that ability.
“He likes to hit. If you’re a linebacker you have to like that part of the game, the physical style of the game. And he also has good ability to pressure. He can get one-on-one with a back and has the ability to get slippery and slide to the side to stay vertical in that rush. And he’s smart. He’s really smart, really understands the defense. He did a nice job. He’s been solid in there for sure.”
There is a lot of football remaining this season and as much as the Bears need to revamp the defense and add some high-priced pieces, they also need to identify some cheaper labor with guys on rookie deals to blend into the mix. This is where Sanborn has an opportunity. The Bears have to put him into one of three groups at the end of the season: 2023 starter, in the mix to compete for a starting job or need to upgrade.
If he keeps playing, he might battle his way into that first grouping and that would be a nice discovery for not only the coaching staff but also the scouting staff that identified him as a priority free agent coming out of Wisconsin. The Bears guaranteed Sanborn $17,500 when they signed him and he has a chance to be in the mix moving forward.
If the free-agent wide receiver class is bleak and the WR draft class doesn’t seem to be on par with this past year, how do the Bears upgrade the position significantly in 2023? — @beardownchicag0
I don’t know that the class of wide receivers is down this season. A few of the elite prospects have been banged up in college this year but it seems as if there are some terrific prospects annually.
Jakobi Meyers of the New England Patriots is one guy that stands out as a potential free-agent target. If New England doesn’t lock him up, he should do pretty well for himself on the open market. He’s a good route-runner with excellent hands and does a nice job making contested catches. Meyers doesn’t have top-end speed and I wouldn’t classify him as a true No. 1, but there’s a good chance someone wants to pay him a lot of money in free agency.
Other than that, I don’t see a lot in free agency that is exciting but the Bears can certainly find a playmaker if they want to go with a wide receiver in the first round. It looks like they will have a top-10 pick.
Count me among those buying stock in Ryan Poles coming loaded in 2023 with the enviable cap flexibility and improved draft capital. However, the performance of Poles’ guys this season has me leery of the GM’s aptitude for talent evaluation. The rookies have been understandably up and down but his free-agent acquisitions have been lackluster at best. There’s still time, but the trades for N’Keal Harry and Chase Claypool haven’t borne much fruit either. If Poles doesn’t hit it out of the park personnel-wise this offseason should Bears fans start sweating? — David D., Arlington Heights
You’re right that the Bears haven’t gotten a whole lot out of their free-agent additions, but we’re talking about mostly stop-gap measures on one- or two-year deals. You get what you pay for, right? When you spend $4 million per year on Lucas Patrick and $4 million per year on Byron Pringle, you’re not expecting a whole lot — or at least you shouldn’t be. Those guys have suffered multiple injuries and now the Bears have gotten even less from them. Justin Jones has been OK on the defensive line, certainly more productive than Al-Quadin Muhammad.
I wouldn’t judge Poles’ ability to add key pieces via free agency based on what he did last March and April. As far as the draft, let’s see where the current class is in another two years or so. A lot of folks want an instant success/failure indicator and it doesn’t work that way. Let’s have some patience and see what unfolds in the offseason.
Any QBs in the draft next April that have a similar skill set to Justin Fields (a duel threat vs. a pocket passer) that Bears could consider targeting in the fourth to seventh rounds? That would emulate the Baltimore Ravens’ approach with mobile backup Tyler Huntley backing up Lamar Jackson. — @jboba
Interesting question and something to keep in mind moving forward. My first reaction is the hit rate on quarterbacks in Round 1 is very bad, as everyone knows. The hit rate on quarterbacks in later rounds — even as backups — only gets worse. Typically, No. 2 quarterbacks tend to be guys that have circulated around the league and proven themselves with a little bit of playing time. That’s what the Bears have right now in Trevor Siemian, who signed a two-year contract in the spring. He was a seventh-round pick out of Northwestern and made 24 starts with the Denver Broncos in his second and third seasons to build a resume that will keep him employed for a while.
Huntley signed with the Ravens as an undrafted free agent in 2020 and was pressed into action with four starts last season, the first of which was at Soldier Field in a 16-13 Baltimore victory. Huntley’s skills give the Ravens a similar player to Jackson, as you note.
I am intrigued by the idea but wonder if it’s too soon to make this a priority. The Bears obviously value Siemian for what he brings to their quarterback room and they have so many needs across both sides of the ball that I think using a draft pick on a quarterback would be a wish list item in 2023.
I’m a fan that found some work abroad but still wake up at 7 a.m. local time Monday mornings to watch the Bears play. Everyone should be excited about Justin Fields’ development but at what point do we recognize this is basically Ryan Pace’s offense and George McCaskey’s coach. I think McCaskey basically tabbed Matt Eberflus as the next coach before Ryan Poles was hired. The current starting offensive line, wide receivers (minus Chase Claypool), tight ends, running backs and Fields are all from Pace except Braxton Jones. I like Poles’ approach, but anyone crediting him for this offense is doing so a bit prematurely, I believe. — Daniel, Gisborne, New Zealand
That’s great that you can still follow the team across the globe and takes a real commitment to be into games first thing Monday morning. I don’t think anyone says Poles has had a major imprint on what the team has been accomplishing offensively other than his role in the hierarchy that traces down to offensive coordinator Luke Getsy. Certainly, there was a lot about Eberflus that McCaskey liked before Poles was hired, but the GM wouldn’t have agreed to the coach if he wasn’t onboard with the idea.
I think what excites people right now is the idea of what Poles can do for the offseason ahead. For the Bears to have success sooner rather than later, Poles and Eberflus need to identify players they inherited that can be part of the team’s future — players that can improve and figure prominently in the team’s plans. Fields, obviously, is the biggest part of that. Let’s see how the GM goes about shaping the offense in the offseason ahead.
While I acknowledge there is still a lot of football left to enjoy this year, I can’t help but look forward to next season. What amount of defensive improvement would be reasonable to expect after one offseason? Could the Bears defense ascend from what appears to be a bottom third finish to maybe into the top half of the league next year? — Tom M., New Lenox
I thought, at best, the Bears might be middle of the pack in defense this season and obviously they are trending worse than that, especially after trading away defensive end Robert Quinn and linebacker Roquan Smith. It’s hard to say how good the Bears can or will be on defense in 2023 without knowing what the personnel will look like. They lack difference makers at all three levels. They badly need to upgrade the defensive line, edge rushers and cornerback, and need a weak-side linebacker. With enough moves, it’s certainly possible the defense is in the top half of the league in key categories in 2023. But to really overhaul this unit, you’re looking at two offseason cycles to add the type of players that are needed to have a high-quality defense. Who knows? Maybe I am wrong and in one offseason they can secure the talent required to be rocking ‘n’ rolling on defense.
Teams tend to take the best player on their board at a given time during the draft. If the Bears stay at No. 6 in Round 1, do you think they’d deviate from that to fill a need? Or do they have so many needs they wouldn’t? — @hickeymj
Interesting question and it’s hard to say without knowing what moves will first be made in free agency. I always remind folks that it’s really difficult to project what positions will be a focus in the first round of the draft without knowing what is going to shake out in free agency.
The Bears would be picking at No. 6 if the draft order was set with the current standings. I’ve always maintained that the idea that teams take the best player available is overblown. It’s more accurate to say teams try to take the best player available at a select few positions of need. Are there examples of teams remaining true to their draft board? Sure. The Bears might have done that in Round 2 when they selected safety Jaquan Brisker this year. I think GM Ryan Poles’ list of needs will be such that he will be able to take a player and say it is the highest-graded player on his board.
With all the attention paid to problems with defensive execution, why is there not more attention paid to Matt Eberflus’ defensive scheme? Where is the creativity? Blitzes, disguised coverages, simulated pressure, etc.? The defense looks like 2006 Lovie Smith without the transcendental talent. — @ld1306
The Bears brought pressure — more than four rushers — on 46.7% of Jared Goff’s dropbacks Sunday. That was the fourth-highest blitz percentage in the entire league for Week 10 and easily the highest of the season for the Bears. So the crowd asking for more blitzes (and I am figuring you in this bunch) got exactly what you were seeking. Middle linebacker Jack Sanborn had two sacks but the Bears also had instances in which the pressure didn’t get home. They sent six rushers on the pivotal third-and-8 snap at the end of the game. Linebacker Nicholas Morrow and dime back DeAndre Houston-Carson both rushed. Wide receiver Tom Kennedy shook free in coverage from Jaylon Johnson and it was a 44-yard gain.
Defensive coordinator Alan Williams is pushing different buttons. He’s trying ways to generate pressure. I will give the Bears credit for being better against the run against Detroit. But it’s hard to win in the NFL when you allow 31 points.
We’ll see what the defensive plan looks like Sunday at Atlanta, but you need to know that the Bears are dialing up pressure. The results might not be what you want but it’s not a static game plan.
Over the last four games, the Bears are averaging 31 points and 402 yards on offense. In regards to offense, have the Bears ever had a better four-game stretch in their history? — @hoplegion
The Bears have scored 29 points or more in four consecutive games for the seventh time. The last time the team accomplished that feat was in 2020 when they averaged 35 points in a four-game stretch. Prior to that, the last time the Bears did this was before the Super Bowl era in 1965. The Bears scored 29 or more points in seven consecutive games in 1956. The offense is averaging 384.3 yards over the last four games — not 402. The Bears have topped 400 yards once this season, reaching 408 in the loss to Detroit last Sunday.