Offseason priorities, NFL draft needs?

It’s Green Bay Packers week, but with five games remaining and the Chicago Bears sitting at an NFC-worst 3-9, many fans’ attention has turned to the offseason. Brad Biggs’ weekly Bears mailbag begins with a pair of questions about the team’s priorities in the draft and free agency.

Have Ryan Poles or Matt Eberflus given any indication what their top priorities are for the draft and free agency? It seems like the focus has been on improving the offense at the expense of the defense. — @huskies714

They have not shared anything of that nature, and you can bet top dollar they will be operating on the ambiguous side of vague when asked after the season about the direction they will go. I disagree with your assertion that they have focused on the offense at the expense of the defense. They used both second-round picks this year on defensive backs, and if defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi’s physicality hadn’t led to a change of mind by the Bears, he would have been far and away their most expensive acquisition.

Poles has used this year to get the salary cap where he wants it, which led to some tough decisions. The Bears are carrying more than $85 million in dead cap space this season as a result. Poles is taking a long view in trying to build the Bears into a consistent contender, and that will require time — more than one season, almost certainly more than two seasons. To get the kind of nucleus in place that a real challenger needs, you’re looking at three draft classes, minimum, with a high hit rate.

Poles will supplement the roster with free agency, but that’s a way to add players here and there, not build a roster. I know everyone seeks quick results and immediate signs of progress. It’s going to take time. If done properly, I’m sure most will look back and say it was all worth it.

Who’s more important for the 4-3 defense, Jalen Carter or Will Anderson? I believe Carter since you need penetration from the inside to help out the edge rushers. — @ellissmith830

This is one of those questions where I don’t believe there’s a right or wrong answer. To build the kind of defense Matt Eberflus needs, the Bears need a dominant interior lineman and at least one stud edge rusher. When Lovie Smith was the coach and the Bears were playing high-level defense using a similar scheme, he told the personnel department they needed a three-technique tackle, a superior edge player (they signed Julius Peppers in free agency), two dominant linebackers , safety and cornerbacks.

The Bears have a long list of needs to get this defense turned around. Carter is a super impressive defensive tackle from Georgia, and Anderson — while it seems some have cooled on him a bit during the college season — is a terrific edge rusher from Alabama. Both would look good in a Bears uniform next season. Personally, if the evaluation was similar, I would go with the tackle because the run defense has been porous.

What’s the latest on Alex Leatherwood? Saw Matt Eberflus saying that he’s been practicing at both guard and tackle. Any chance he works his way into playing time with Larry Borom and Riley Reiff questionable for Green Bay? — @wclanfield

From my vantage point, what the Bears have said about Leatherwood has not matched their actions. They’ve said nothing but good things about him and then haven’t given him a uniform on game days lately. They opted to have Borom, Michael Schofield and Dieter Eiselen active as reserve linemen Sunday against the New York Jets. Borom replaced Reiff when he went out with a shoulder injury in the first quarter, and then Schofield replaced Borom when an ankle injury sent him to the sidelines in the fourth quarter. Eiselen was active as a backup to center Sam Mustipher because the Bears don’t want to move Cody Whitehair to center unless it’s an absolute emergency.

So the question in my mind is why Schofield is active ahead of Leatherwood. I’ve said for a while the Bears should get Leatherwood on the field so he can be evaluated for 2023. Can he play well enough to lock down a starting spot for next season? Can he play to a level where the team feels he could compete for a starting job beginning in the spring? Is he not starting material? With five games remaining, there’s ample time for Leatherwood to bank some reps and for the coaches and front office to dig in on an evaluation. But they really need four or five games to get a decent read on him. Maybe Leatherwood will get a shot at right tackle Sunday against the Packers.

The Bears defense at least looked respectable to start the year. What changed? Yeah, Roquan Smith and Robert Quinn were traded, but they weren’t THAT impactful, were they? — @mosconml

The defense wasn’t very good at the start of the season. The Bears favor a scheme that is susceptible to the run and they lack difference makers on the defensive line. They weren’t rushing the quarterback at the start of the season. It’s not like that fell off after Smith and Quinn were dealt. They’ve gotten up-and-down play from rookie cornerback Kyler Gordon. The Bears were destined to be in the bottom third of the league on defense this season. When you can’t stop the run, can’t rush the passer and can’t get off the field on third down, that’s a recipe for giving up a lot of points.

Do we expect to see continued high turnover in the scouting staff? I recall last spring saw a huge change. Assume staff is still being evaluated. — @hungarianfalcon

I don’t know that there was a huge change after Ryan Poles was hired. He certainly added to high levels of administration, hiring Ian Cunningham as assistant general manager, promoting Jeff King to co-director of player personnel and adding Trey Koziol in the same role. The Bears hired three new area scouts: Tom Bradway (Northeast), Ryan Cavanaugh (Midwest) and Reese Hicks (West Coast). Seven college scouts remain from the Ryan Pace era. If more changes are to come, they wouldn’t happen until after the draft.

Are the Bears shutting down Justin Fields for the year? Or can we expect him back this week or later this season? — @tsenvehayes1997

This was by far the most popular question this week, and I can’t wrap my mind around why so many people think this would potentially be a good thing. If Fields isn’t healthy enough to play, of course they should sit him and have him seek whatever is necessary to be fully healed as soon as possible. But if he can reasonably return, why wouldn’t that be the preferred course for everyone?

The Bears showed real growth offensively in a five-week span beginning with the Oct. 24 games at New England. With five games remaining, there’s a lot of opportunity for Fields to get more experience and improve. Game situations can’t be replicated in the spring or offseason. He needs as much work as possible. Can he potentially play against the Packers this Sunday? I do not know. But I believe three or four starts to close the season would benefit Fields and five would be even better. It’s not an injury to his throwing shoulder. That would be a different story.

What’s the correlation of injuries to weeks without a bye? Are injuries higher on teams that don’t have a week off after 11 consecutive weeks? — Olaf, Memphis, Tenn.

Interesting question and you’re not the only one who brought this up. The Bears were remarkably healthy through 10 weeks and have had injuries pile up the last two weeks. I don’t know how many of them — if any — you can chalk up to not having a bye yet. Defensive backs Jaquan Brisker and Kyler Gordon sat out last week with concussions. Quarterback Justin Fields injured his shoulder when he was tripped up and landed on it. Wide receiver Darnell Mooney had a guy fall on the back of his leg.

Those are freak injuries that I don’t believe, say, a Week 7 bye would have prevented. It’s a stretch to say teams with late byes are susceptible to more injuries. The Denver Broncos (Week 9), Los Angeles Chargers (Week 8) and Tennessee Titans (Week 6) are three of the hardest-hit teams in the league by injuries, and they had bye weeks positioned where coaches often like to have them.

Bears wide receiver Darnell Mooney (11) leaves with an injury in the third quarter Sunday, Nov.  27, 2022, at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ

So much is done by players and coaches about creating a winning culture. Has Ryan Poles done significant harm to the culture of the Bears by turning over the roster so quickly and leaving the team with marginal players at best? Sure, past teams didn’t have much of a winning culture, but certainly they were better than this year’s team. The Bears have a culture where they (if intellectually honest) expect to lose. How does this get turned around, especially as you noted in your 10 thoughts column will the majority of players on the current roster return next year? — Jim A., Plymouth, Minn.

It was Bill Parcells who said, “You are what your record says you are.” You know who fixates on the word “culture,” which is corporate jargon I believe is totally overblown in the NFL? Teams with bad records — because they want to get buy-in from the locker room in an effort to turn things around.

The Bears have a young roster and a bad record, and one thing that has struck me the last few weeks as the losses have mounted is that they still seem pretty loose in the locker room during the week. They’re enjoying the process of coming to work and striving to get better, and that’s important. When you look at the product on the field, it hasn’t been good, but for the vast majority of this season, the effort has been there.

Culture is really more about accountability than anything else. I think Matt Eberflus has set up a system for accountability, but the Bears have to get better on the field. Bad-to-mediocre teams can champion their culture, but what matters is a team’s record.

With the Bears obviously struggling to mount any sustainable offense, why wouldn’t Velus Jones Jr. be given the green light to return any kickoff he could get his hands on? What did they have to lose? He possibly could have broken one for a big return. It was especially frustrating to have him wave off a return late in the first half, only to have Trevor Siemian kneel down on the final play of the half. — Dave K.

You make a fair point, but on some of the kickoffs Jones let go, he really would have had to move to get them. Let’s say he has to go a good distance to his right on a play where the team has called for a left return. Then Jones would have to go all the way across the field to follow his blockers and have a chance. That can be challenging. Ball security is the biggest thing for Jones right now. I’m interested in seeing if they give him another shot on punt returns. Why not put him back there and see if he can be better with decisions and protecting the ball?

The Bears are in worse shape now than they were last year. I take it they have a plan. Is this “plan” part of the new regime or upper management? — @my81babyblue

Say what you want about Chairman George McCaskey, but his track record shows he empowers his football hires to do as they see fit. With GM Ryan Poles reporting directly to McCaskey as opposed to President Ted Phillips (former GM Ryan Pace reported to Phillips), could that shift some? I suppose that’s possible, but I’ve never gotten an indication McCaskey is interested in being overly meddlesome in football operations. This is worth examining in another few years, but I have little doubt the vision the Bears are using to rebuild the organization has been set forth by Poles and his staff.

Leave a Comment