At the moment, most of general manager Ryan Poles’ big dreams for the Bears are merely that: dreams.
The organization is betting big on making savvy selections once it finally has its full slate of draft picks again next year and fruitful free-agent signings with what is projected to be the most salary-cap space in the NFL in March. That’s all just imagination for now.
In the meantime, it could be a rough season on the field. But it’ll be productive for Poles and coach Matt Eberflus as they try to get a grasp of what long-term assets are already in the building. Coming off a 6-11 season that got everybody fired, there are very few sure things.
The two most pivotal players on the roster are 23-year-old quarterback Justin Fields and 25-year-old star inside linebacker Roquan Smith.
There’s no question about Smith, which is why Poles already has said publicly he intends to sign Smith to a contract extension before the season starts.
But there are plenty of questions for Fields to answer. His potential is through the roof, but it was hard to gauge his progress last season amid the dysfunction of Matt Nagy’s offense and limited personnel around him. Poles said in January those issues clouded his evaluation of Fields.
This is a conversation about certainties. Fields falls into the category of hope. Perhaps this season he’ll prove he’s part of the Bears’ foundation.
The list of players who have solidified their standing as part of the Bears’ future is limited to Smith, cornerback Jaylon Johnson and wide receiver Darnell Mooney. Everyone else needs to earn their way into that group.
As Eberflus and defensive coordinator Alan Williams set up the defense, Smith is essential. Few linebackers in the NFL are as versatile, and he has been everything the Bears wanted when they drafted him eighth overall in 2018.
After Colts star Darius Leonard and the 49ers’ Fred Warner signed five-year deals worth $99.2 million and $95.2 million, respectively, the Bears are going to have to pay something close to that to keep Smith from hitting free agency in the spring.
“If he’s the guy that I think he is, that’s something we have to address,” Poles said. “In this defense with Matt and Alan, there’s a good chance he’s going to have a really good year. So … obviously the earlier you get to that [extension], the better.”
The only thing the Bears can’t seem to figure out about Smith is why he keeps getting left out of the Pro Bowl. He has topped 100 tackles every season, even in 2019, when he missed four games. He’s a hard hitter against the run, a quick and rangy defender in pass coverage and a scary threat as a blitzer.
Johnson, 23, isn’t on Smith’s level but has shown enough in his first two seasons for the Bears to know he needs to stick around. At a position where the Bears were alarmingly thin last season, he’s a long-term starter.
The defense is largely full of question marks other than Smith and Johnson.
Defensive end Robert Quinn set the franchise record with 18oe sacks last season, but he’s 32 and remains a trade candidate. Eddie Jackson was an All-Pro in 2018 but has declined since and faces a make-or-break season. The two second-round picks in the secondary — cornerback Kyler Gordon and safety Jaquan Brisker — are unknowns until they get live snaps.
The criticism of Mooney, 24, seems to keep coming, and he welcomes it. He has been good, but there’s prevalent doubt that he can be great. He can deliver, but can he dominate? He’ll always be a No. 2, never a No. 1.
Let’s be clear about something: The Bears have a lot of problems, but Mooney isn’t one of them. In his first two seasons, Mooney put up 142 catches, 1,686 yards and eight touchdowns despite playing in one of the NFL’s worst passing attacks.
From the day he arrived at Halas Hall as a fifth-round pick, Mooney has done everything right. He’ll continue to get better. Maybe he won’t be a game-changing No. 1 receiver like Davante Adams, but the Bears need to assemble at least three strong targets in the passing game — look at what the Rams and Bengals had in the Super Bowl — and Mooney can be one of those pieces.
Aside from Smith, Johnson and Mooney, the Bears hope others emerge — with none being more impactful than Fields. His trajectory will dictate the team’s.
Offensively, they’re also looking for tight end Cole Kmet to show he can do more after averaging 2.7 catches per game in his first two seasons. In a world where it’s hard to justify big paydays for running backs, David Montgomery needs to show more. Same goes for everyone on the Bears’ offensive line, especially when Poles figures to be a hard grader at that position.
Similarly, it’ll make a big difference if Jackson reclaims his standing as one of the NFL’s elite. Young defensive linemen Khyiris Tonga and Trevis Gipson could speed up the rebuild if they’re legitimate starters.
But those are all hopes until they materialize. For now, there aren’t many concrete pieces as Poles tries to clean up the mess Ryan Pace left behind.